Beginning her career as a dancer in traveling theatrical companies, before debuting as a chorus girl on Broadway, Crawford signed a motion picture contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1925. In the 1930s, Crawford's fame rivaled, and later outlasted, MGM colleagues Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo. Crawford often played hard-working young women who find romance and success. These stories were well received by Depression-era audiences and were popular with women. Crawford became one of Hollywood's most prominent movie stars and one of the highest-paid women in the United States, but her films began losing money and, by the end of the 1930s, she was labelled "box office poison". But her career gradually improved in the early 1940s, and she made a major comeback in 1945 by starring in Mildred Pierce, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. She would go on to receive Best Actress nominations for Possessed (1947) and Sudden Fear (1952). She continued to act in film and television throughout the 1950s and 1960s; she achieved box office success with the highly successful horror film Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962), in which she starred alongside Bette Davis, her long-time rival.
In 1955, Crawford became involved with the Pepsi-Cola Company through her marriage to company Chairman Alfred Steele. After his death in 1959, Crawford was elected to fill his vacancy on the board of directors but she was forcibly retired in 1973. After the release of the British horror film Trog in 1970, Crawford retired from the screen. Following a public appearance in 1974, after which unflattering photographs were published, Crawford withdrew from public life and became increasingly reclusive until her death in 1977.
Crawford married four times. Her first three marriages ended in divorce; the last ended with the death of husband Alfred Steele. She adopted five children, one of whom was reclaimed by his birth mother. Crawford's relationships with her two elder children, Christina and Christopher, were acrimonious. Crawford disinherited the two, and, after Crawford's death, Christina wrote a well-known "tell-all" memoir titled Mommie Dearest (1978).
Born Lucille Fay LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas, on March 23, Crawford's birth year is disputed, with 1904, 1905, and 1906 being the most likely estimates. She was the youngest and third child of father Thomas E. LeSueur, a laundry laborer, and mother Anna Bell Johnson. Johnson was of English, French Huguenot, Swedish, and Irish ancestry. Crawford's elder siblings were sister Daisy LeSueur, who died before Lucille's birth, and brother Hal LeSueur.
Crawford's father abandoned the family a few months before her birth, reappearing later in 1930 in Abilene, Texas, reportedly working as a construction laborer. Following LeSueur's departure from the family home, Crawford's mother married Henry J. Cassin. The marriage is listed in the census as Crawford's mother's first marriage. Crawford lived with her mother, stepfather, and siblings in Lawton, Oklahoma. There, Cassin, a minor impresario, ran the Ramsey Opera House; he managed to book diverse and noted performers such as Anna Pavlova and Eva Tanguay. At that time, Crawford was reportedly unaware that Cassin, whom she called "daddy", was not her biological father until her brother Hal told her the truth. Cassin began sexually abusing Crawford when she was eleven; the abuse continued until she went away to Catholic school. Crawford preferred the nickname "Billie" as a child and enjoyed watching vaudeville acts perform on the stage of her stepfather's theatre. Because the family's instability negatively affected Crawford's childhood, her schooling never formally progressed beyond elementary school.
Beginning in childhood, Crawford's ambition was to be a dancer. One day, however, in an attempt to escape piano lessons so she could play with friends, she leapt from the front porch of her home and cut her foot severely on a broken milk bottle. As a result, she experienced three surgeries to repair the damage. She was unable to attend elementary school or continue with dancing lessons for 18 months.
While still residing in Lawton, Crawford's stepfather was accused of embezzlement. Although he was acquitted in court, he was blacklisted in Lawton, and the family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, around 1916. Following their relocation, Cassin, a Catholic, placed Crawford at St. Agnes Academy in Kansas City. When her mother and stepfather separated, she remained at St. Agnes as a work student, where she spent far more time working, primarily cooking and cleaning, than studying.
She later attended Rockingham Academy, also as a working student. While attending there, she began dating and had her first serious relationship, with a trumpet player named Ray Sterling. Sterling reportedly inspired her to begin challenging herself academically.
In 1922, she registered at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, giving her year of birth as 1906. She attended Stephens for only a few months before withdrawing after she realized she was not prepared for college.
Under the name Lucille LeSueur, Crawford began dancing in the choruses of traveling revues and was spotted dancing in Detroit by producer Jacob J. Shubert. Shubert put her in the chorus line for his 1924 show, Innocent Eyes, at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway in New York City. While appearing in Innocent Eyes Crawford met a saxophone player named James Welton. The two were allegedly married in 1924 and lived together for several months, although this supposed marriage was never mentioned in later life by Crawford.
Crawford wanted additional work, and approached Loews Theaters publicist Nils Granlund. Granlund secured a position for her with singer Harry Richman's act and arranged for her to do a screen test which he sent to producer Harry Rapf in Hollywood. Stories have persisted that Crawford further supplemented her income by appearing in one or more stag, or soft-core pornographic, films, although this has been disputed.
Rapf notified Granlund on December 24, 1924, that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) had offered Crawford a contract at $75 a week. Granlund immediately wired LeSueur, who had returned to her mother's home in Kansas City, with the news; she borrowed $400 for travel expenses. She departed Kansas City on December 26 and arrived in Culver City, California on January 1, 1925.
Credited as Lucille LeSueur, her first film was Lady of the Night in 1925, as the body double for MGM's most popular female star, Norma Shearer. She also appeared in The Circle and Pretty Ladies (both 1925), starring comedian ZaSu Pitts. This was soon followed by equally small and unbilled roles in two other 1925 successes, The Only Thing and The Merry Widow.
MGM publicity head Pete Smith recognized her ability to become a major star, but felt her name sounded fake; he told studio head Louis B. Mayer that her last name—LeSueur—reminded him of a sewer. Smith organized a contest called "Name the Star" in Movie Weekly to allow readers to select her new stage name. The initial choice was "Joan Arden" but, after another actress was found to have prior claim to that name, the alternate surname "Crawford" became the choice. Crawford later said that she wanted her first name to be pronounced "Jo-Anne", and that she hated the name Crawford because it sounded like "craw fish", but also admitted she "liked the security" that went with the name.
Growing increasingly frustrated over the size and quality of the parts she was given, Crawford embarked on a campaign of self-promotion. As MGM screenwriter Frederica Sagor Maas recalled, "No one decided to make Joan Crawford a star. Joan Crawford became a star because Joan Crawford decided to become a star." She began attending dances in the afternoons and evenings at hotels around Hollywood, where she often won dance competitions with her performances of the Charleston and the Black Bottom.
Her strategy worked, and MGM cast her in the film where she first made an impression on audiences, Edmund Goulding's Sally, Irene and Mary (1925). From the beginning of her career, Crawford considered Norma Shearer—the studio's most-popular actress—her professional nemesis. Shearer was married to MGM Head of Production Irving Thalberg; hence, she had the first choice of scripts and had more control than other stars in what films she would and would not make. Crawford was quoted to have said: "How can I compete with Norma? She sleeps with the boss!"
In 1926, Crawford was named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars along with Mary Astor, Dolores del Río, Janet Gaynor, and Fay Wray among others. That same year, she starred in Paris, co-starring Charles Ray. Within a few years, she became the romantic female lead to many of MGM's top male stars, including Ramón Novarro, John Gilbert, William Haines, and Tim McCoy.
Crawford appeared in The Unknown (1927), starring Lon Chaney, Sr. who played a carnival knife thrower with no arms. Crawford played his skimpily-clad young carnival assistant whom he hopes to marry. She stated that she learned more about acting from watching Chaney work than from anyone else in her career. "It was then," she said, "I became aware for the first time of the difference between standing in front of a camera, and acting." Also in 1927, she appeared alongside her close friend, William Haines, in Spring Fever, which was the first of three movies the duo made together.
In 1928, Crawford starred opposite Ramón Novarro in Across to Singapore, but it was her role as Diana Medford in Our Dancing Daughters (1928) that catapulted her to stardom. The role established her as a symbol of modern 1920s-style femininity which rivaled Clara Bow, the original It girl, then Hollywood's foremost flapper. A stream of hits followed Our Dancing Daughters, including two more flapper-themed movies, in which Crawford embodied for her legion of fans (many of whom were women) an idealized vision of the free-spirited, all-American girl.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of Crawford:
Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.
On June 3, 1929, Crawford married Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. at Saint Malachy's Roman Catholic Church (known as "The Actors' Chapel" owing to its proximity to Broadway theatres) in Manhattan, although neither was Catholic. Fairbanks was the son of Douglas Fairbanks and the stepson of Mary Pickford, who were considered Hollywood royalty. Fairbanks Sr. and Pickford were opposed to the marriage and did not invite the couple to their home, Pickfair, for eight months after the marriage.
The relationship between Crawford and Fairbanks, Sr. eventually warmed; she called him "Uncle Doug" and he called her "Billie", her old childhood nickname. She and Pickford, however, continued to despise each other. Following that first invitation, Crawford and Fairbanks, Jr. became more frequent guests. While the Fairbanks men played golf together, however, Crawford was left either with Pickford, who would retire to her quarters, or simply left alone.
To rid herself of her Southwestern accent, Crawford tirelessly practiced diction and elocution. She said:
If I were to speak lines, it would be a good idea, I thought, to read aloud to myself, listen carefully to my voice quality and enunciation, and try to learn in that manner. I would lock myself in my room and read newspapers, magazines and books aloud. At my elbow I kept a dictionary. When I came to a word I did not know how to pronounce, I looked it up and repeated it correctly fifteen times.
After the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927—the first feature-length film with some audible dialog—sound films, or talkies as they became nicknamed, were all the rage. The transition from silent to sound panicked many—if not all—involved with the film industry; many silent film stars found themselves unemployable because of their undesirable voices and hard-to-understand accents or simply because of their refusal to make the transition to talkies. Many studios and stars avoided making the transition as long as possible, especially MGM, which was the last studio to switch over to sound. The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929) was one of the studio's first all-talking films, and their first attempt to showcase their stars' ability to make the transition from silent to sound. Crawford was among the dozen or more MGM stars included in the movie; she sang the song "Got a Feeling for You" during the film's first act.
Crawford made a successful transition to talkies. Her first starring role in an all-talking feature-length film was in Untamed in 1929, co-starring Robert Montgomery. Despite the success of the film at the box office, it received mixed reviews from critics, who noted that while Crawford seemed nervous at making the transition to sound, also noted that she had become one of the most popular actresses in the world.
Montana Moon (1930), an uneasy mix of Western clichés and music, teamed her with John Mack Brown and Ricardo Cortez. Although the film had problems with censors, it was a major success at the time of its release. Our Blushing Brides (1930), co-starring Robert Montgomery and Anita Page, was the final installment in the so-called Our Dancing Daughters franchise. It was a greater success–both critically and financially–than her previous talkies, and became one of her personal favorites.
Her next movie, Paid (1930), paired her with Robert Armstrong and was another success. During the early sound era, MGM began to place Crawford in more sophisticated roles, rather than continuing to promote her flapper-inspired persona of the silent era.
In 1931, MGM cast Crawford in five films. Three of them teamed her opposite the studio's biggest male star and King of Hollywood, Clark Gable. Dance, Fools, Dance, released in February 1931, was the first pairing of Crawford and Gable. Their second movie together, Laughing Sinners, released in May 1931, was directed by Harry Beaumont and also co-starred Neil Hamilton. Possessed, their third film together, released in October, was directed by Clarence Brown.
These films were immensely popular with audiences, and were generally well received by critics, stapling Crawford's position as one of MGM's top female stars of the decade, along with Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, and Jean Harlow. Her only other notable film of 1931, This Modern Age, was released in August, and despite unfavorable reviews, was a moderate success.
MGM next cast her in the film Grand Hotel, directed by Edmund Goulding. As the studio's first all-star production, Crawford co-starred opposite Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery among others. Receiving third billing, she played the middle-class stenographer to Beery's controlling general director. Crawford later admitted to being nervous during the filming of the movie because she was working with "very big stars", and that she was disappointed that she had no scenes with the "divine Garbo". Grand Hotel was released in April 1932 to critical and commercial success. It was one of the highest-grossing movies of the year, and won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Crawford achieved continued success in Letty Lynton (1932). Soon after this movie's release, a plagiarism suit forced MGM to withdraw it. For many years it was never shown on television nor made available on home video and is therefore considered the "lost" Crawford film. The gown with large ruffled sleeves, designed by Adrian, which Crawford wore in the movie, became a popular style that same year, and was even copied by Macy's.
On a loan out to United Artists, she played prostitute Sadie Thompson in Rain (1932), a film version of John Colton's 1923 play. Actress Jeanne Eagels played the role on stage and Gloria Swanson had originated the part on screen in the 1928 film version. Crawford's performance was panned and the film was not a success.
Despite the failure of Rain, in 1932 the publishing of the first "Top Ten Money Making Stars Poll" placed Crawford third in popularity at the box office, behind only Marie Dressler and Janet Gaynor. She remained on the list for the next several years, last appearing on it in 1936. In May 1933, Crawford divorced Fairbanks. Crawford cited "grievous mental cruelty", claiming Fairbanks had "a jealous and suspicious attitude" toward her friends and that they had "loud arguments about the most trivial subjects" lasting "far into the night".
Following her divorce, she was again teamed with Clark Gable, along with Franchot Tone and Fred Astaire, in the hit Dancing Lady (1933), in which she received top billing. She next played the title role in Sadie McKee (1934) opposite Tone and Gene Raymond. She was paired with Gable for the fifth time in Chained (1934) and for the sixth time in Forsaking All Others (1934). Crawford's films of this era were some of the most-popular and highest-grossing films of the mid-1930s.
In 1935, Crawford married Franchot Tone, a stage actor from New York who planned to use his film earnings to finance his theatre group. The couple built a small theatre at Crawford's Brentwood home and put on productions of classic plays for select groups of friends. Tone and Crawford had first appeared together in Today We Live (1933) but Crawford was hesitant about entering into another romance so soon after her split from Fairbanks.
Before and during their marriage, Crawford worked to promote Tone's Hollywood career, but Tone was ultimately not interested in being a movie star and Crawford eventually wearied of the effort. After Tone reportedly began drinking and becoming physically abusive, she filed for divorce, which was granted in 1939. Crawford and Tone much later rekindled their friendship and Tone even proposed in 1964 that they remarry. When he died in 1968, Crawford arranged for him to be cremated and his ashes scattered at Muskoka Lakes, Canada.
Crawford continued her reign as a popular movie actress well into the mid-1930s. No More Ladies (1935) co-starred Robert Montgomery and then-husband Franchot Tone, and was a success. Crawford had long pleaded with MGM's head Louis B. Mayer to cast her in more dramatic roles, and although he was reluctant, he cast her in the sophisticated comedy-drama I Live My Life (1935), directed by W.S. Van Dyke. It was well received by critics and made a larger profit than the studio had expected.
She next starred in The Gorgeous Hussy (1936), opposite Robert Taylor and Lionel Barrymore as well as Tone, a critical and box office success, become one of Crawford's biggest hits of the decade. Love on the Run (1936), a romantic comedy directed by W.S. Van Dyke, was her seventh film co-starring Clark Gable. It was, at the time of its release, called "a lot of happy nonsense" by critics, but a financial success nonetheless.
Even though Crawford remained a respected MGM actress and her films still earned profits, her popularity declined in the late 1930s. In 1937, Crawford was proclaimed the first "Queen of the Movies" by Life magazine. She unexpectedly slipped from seventh to sixteenth place at the box office that year, and her public popularity also began to wane. Richard Boleslawski's comedy-drama The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937) teamed her opposite William Powell in their sole screen pairing. The film was also Crawford's last box-office success before the onset of her "Box-Office Poison" period.
She co-starred opposite Franchot Tone for the seventh and final time in The Bride Wore Red (1937). The film was generally unfavorably reviewed by the majority of critics, with one critic calling it the "same ole rags-to-riches story" Crawford had been making for years. It also ran a financial loss, becoming one of MGM's biggest failures of the year. Mannequin did, as the New York Times stated, "restore Crawford to her throne as queen of the working girls". Most other reviews were positive, and the film managed to generate a minor profit, but it did not resurrect Crawford's popularity.
On May 3, 1938, Crawford — along with Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Luise Rainer, and John Barrymore, Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Dolores del Río and others — was dubbed "Box Office Poison" in an open letter in the Independent Film Journal. The list was submitted by Harry Brandt, president of the Independent Theatre Owners Association of America. Brandt stated that while these stars had "unquestioned" dramatic abilities, their high salaries did not reflect in their ticket sales, thus hurting the movie exhibitors involved. Her follow-up movie, The Shining Hour (1938), co-starring Margaret Sullavan and Melvyn Douglas, was well received by critics, but it was a box office flop.
She made a comeback in 1939 with her role as home-wrecker Crystal Allen in The Women opposite her professional nemesis, Norma Shearer. A year later, she played against type, playing the unglamorous role of Julie in Strange Cargo (1940), her eighth and final film with Clark Gable. She later starred as a facially disfigured blackmailer in A Woman's Face (1941), a remake of the Swedish film En kvinnas ansikte which had starred Ingrid Bergman in the lead role three years earlier. While the film was only a moderate box office success, her performance was hailed by many critics.
Crawford adopted her first child, a daughter, in 1940. Because she was single, California law prevented her from adopting within the state so she arranged the adoption through an agency in Las Vegas. The child was temporarily called Joan until Crawford changed her name to Christina. Crawford married actor Phillip Terry on July 21, 1942 after a six-month courtship. Together the couple adopted a son whom they named Christopher, but his birth mother reclaimed the child. The couple adopted another boy, whom they named Phillip Terry, Jr. After the marriage ended in 1946, Crawford changed the child's name to Christopher Crawford.
After eighteen years, Crawford's contract with MGM was terminated by mutual consent on June 29, 1943. In lieu of the last film remaining under her contract, MGM bought her out for $100,000. During World War II she was a member of American Women's Voluntary Services.
For $500,000, Crawford signed with Warner Brothers for a three-movie deal and was placed on the payroll on July 1, 1943. Her first film for the studio was Hollywood Canteen (1944), an all-star morale-booster film that teamed her with several other top movie stars at the time. Crawford said one of the main reasons she signed with Warner Brothers was because she wanted to play the character "Mattie" in a proposed 1944 film version of Edith Wharton's novel Ethan Frome (1911).
She wanted to play the title role in Mildred Pierce (1945), but Bette Davis was the studio's first choice. However, Davis turned the role down. Director Michael Curtiz did not want Crawford to play the part, and he instead lobbied for the casting of Barbara Stanwyck. Warner Bros went against Curtiz and cast Crawford in the film. Throughout the entire production of the movie, Curtiz criticized Crawford. He has been quoted as having told Jack L. Warner, "She comes over here with her high-hat airs and her goddamn shoulder pads... why should I waste my time directing a has-been?" Curtiz demanded Crawford prove her suitability by taking a screen test. She agreed. After the test, Curtiz agreed to Crawford's casting. Mildred Pierce was a resounding critical and commercial success. It epitomized the lush visual style and the hard-boiled film noir sensibility that defined Warner Bros. movies of the late forties, earning Crawford the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
The success of Mildred Pierce revived Crawford's movie career. For several years, she starred in what were called "a series of first-rate melodramas". Her next film was Humoresque (1946), co-starring John Garfield, a romantic drama about a love affair between an older woman and a younger man. She starred alongside Van Heflin in Possessed (1947), for which she received a second Academy Award nomination, although she did not win. In Daisy Kenyon (1947), she appeared opposite Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda, and in Flamingo Road (1949) her character has an ultimately deadly feud with a corrupt southern Sheriff played by Sydney Greenstreet. She made a cameo appearance in It's a Great Feeling (1949), poking fun at her own screen image. In 1950, she starred in the film noir, The Damned Don't Cry!, and starred in Harriet Craig.
After the completion of This Woman Is Dangerous (1952), a film Crawford called her "worst", she asked to be released from her Warner Brothers contract. By this time she felt Warners was losing interest in her and she decided it was time to move on. Later that same year, she received her third and final Academy Award nomination for Sudden Fear for RKO Radio Pictures. In 1953, she appeared in her final film for MGM, Torch Song. The movie received favorable reviews and moderate success at the box office.
Crawford adopted two more children in 1947, two girls she named Cindy and Cathy.
Crawford worked in the radio series The Screen Guild Theater on January 8, 1939; Good News; Baby, broadcast March 2, 1940 on Arch Oboler's Lights Out; The Word on Everyman's Theater (1941); Chained on the Lux Radio Theater and Norman Corwin's Document A/777 (1948). She appeared in episodes of anthology television series in the 1950s and, in 1959, made a pilot for her series, The Joan Crawford Show.
Crawford married her fourth and final husband, Alfred Steele, at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas on May 10, 1955. Crawford and Steele met at a party in 1950 when Steele was an executive at PepsiCo. They renewed their acquaintance at a New Year's Eve party in 1954. Steele by that time had become President of Pepsi Cola. Alfred Steele would later be named Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Pepsi Cola. She traveled extensively on behalf of Pepsi following the marriage. She estimated that she traveled over 100,000 miles for the company.
Steele died of a heart attack in April 1959. Crawford was initially advised that her services were no longer required. After she told the story to Louella Parsons, Pepsi reversed its position and Crawford was elected to fill the vacant seat on the board of directors.
Crawford received the sixth annual "Pally Award", which was in the shape of a bronze Pepsi bottle. It was awarded to the employee making the most significant contribution to company sales. In 1973, Crawford was forced to retire from the company at the behest of company executive Don Kendall, whom Crawford had referred to for years as "Fang".
After her Academy Award nominated performance in 1952's Sudden Fear, Crawford continued to work steadily throughout the rest of the decade. In 1954, she starred in the cult camp western film classic Johnny Guitar, co-starring Sterling Hayden and Mercedes McCambridge. She also starred in Female on the Beach (1955) with Jeff Chandler, and in Queen Bee (1955) alongside John Ireland.
The following year, she starred opposite a young Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves (1956) and filmed a leading role in The Story of Esther Costello (1957), co-starring Rossano Brazzi. Crawford, who had been left near-penniless following Alfred Steele's death accepted a small role in The Best of Everything (1959). Although she was not the star of the film, she received positive reviews. Crawford would later name the role as being one of her personal favorites. However, by the early 1960s, Crawford's status in motion pictures had declined considerably.
Crawford starred as Blanche Hudson, an old, wheelchair-bound former A-list movie star who lives in fear of her psychotic sister Jane, in the highly successful psychological thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Despite the actresses' earlier tensions, Crawford reportedly suggested Bette Davis for the role of Jane. The two stars maintained publicly that there was no feud between them. The director, Robert Aldrich, explained that Davis and Crawford were each aware of how important the film was to their respective careers and commented, "It's proper to say that they really detested each other, but they behaved absolutely perfectly."
After filming was completed, their public comments against each other propelled their animosity into a lifelong feud. The film was a huge success, recouping its costs within 11 days of its nationwide release, and temporarily revived Crawford's career. Davis was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Jane Hudson. Crawford secretly contacted each of the other Oscar nominees in the category (Katharine Hepburn, Lee Remick, Geraldine Page and Anne Bancroft, all East Coast-based actresses), to let them know that if they could not attend the ceremony, she would be happy to accept the Oscar on their behalf; all agreed. Both Davis and Crawford were backstage when the absent Anne Bancroft was announced as the winner, and Crawford accepted the award on her behalf. Davis claimed for the rest of her life that Crawford had campaigned against her, a charge Crawford denied.
That same year, Crawford starred as Lucy Harbin in William Castle's horror mystery Strait-Jacket (1964). Robert Aldrich cast Crawford and Davis in Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). After a purported campaign of harassment by Davis on location in Louisiana, Crawford returned to Hollywood and entered a hospital. After a prolonged absence, during which Crawford was accused of feigning illness, Aldrich was forced to replace her with Olivia de Havilland. Crawford claimed to be devastated, saying "I heard the news of my replacement over the radio, lying in my hospital bed ... I cried for nine hours." Crawford nursed grudges against Davis and Aldrich for the rest of her life, saying of Aldrich, "He is a man who loves evil, horrendous, vile things", to which Aldrich replied, "If the shoe fits, wear it, and I am very fond of Miss Crawford." Despite being replaced, brief footage of Crawford made it into the film, when she is seen sitting in a taxi in a wide shot.
In 1965 she played Amy Nelson in I Saw What You Did (1965), another William Castle vehicle. She starred as Monica Rivers in Herman Cohen's horror thriller film Berserk! (1967). After the film's release, Crawford guest-starred as herself on The Lucy Show. The episode, "Lucy and the Lost Star", first aired on February 26, 1968. Crawford struggled during rehearsals and drank heavily on-set, leading series star Lucille Ball to suggest replacing her with Gloria Swanson. However, Crawford was letter-perfect the day of the show, which included dancing the Charleston, and received two standing ovations from the studio audience.
In October 1968, Crawford's 29-year-old daughter, Christina (who was then acting in New York on the CBS soap opera The Secret Storm), needed immediate medical attention for a ruptured ovarian tumor. Despite the fact that Christina's character was a 28-year-old and Crawford was in her sixties, Crawford offered to play her role until Christina was well enough to return, to which producer Gloria Monty readily agreed. Although Crawford did well in rehearsal, she lost her composure while taping and the director and producer were left to struggle to piece together the necessary footage.
Crawford's appearance in the 1969 television film Night Gallery (which served as pilot to the series that followed), marked one of Steven Spielberg's earliest directing jobs. She made a cameo appearance as herself in the first episode of the situation comedy The Tim Conway Show, which aired on January 30, 1970. She starred on the big screen one final time, playing Dr. Brockton in Herman Cohen's science fiction horror film Trog (1970), rounding out a career spanning 45 years and more than eighty motion pictures. Crawford made three more television appearances, as Stephanie White in a 1970 episode ("The Nightmare") of The Virginian and as Joan Fairchild (her final performance) in a 1972 episode ("Dear Joan: We're Going to Scare You to Death") of The Sixth Sense.
In 1970, Crawford was presented with the Cecil B. DeMille Award by John Wayne at the Golden Globes, which was telecast from the Coconut Grove at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. She also spoke at Stephens College, where she had been a student for two months in 1922.
Crawford published her autobiography, A Portrait of Joan, co-written with Jane Kesner Ardmore, in 1962 through Doubleday. Crawford's next book, My Way of Life, was published in 1971 by Simon & Schuster. Those expecting a racy tell-all were disappointed, although Crawford's meticulous ways were revealed in her advice on grooming, wardrobe, exercise, and even food storage. Upon her death there were found in her apartment photographs of John F. Kennedy, for whom she had reportedly voted in the 1960 presidential election.
In September 1973, Crawford moved from apartment 22-G to a smaller apartment next door (22-H) at the Imperial House, 150 East 69th Street. Her last public appearance was made on September 23, 1974, at a party honoring her old friend Rosalind Russell at New York's Rainbow Room. Russell was suffering from breast cancer and arthritis at the time. When Crawford saw the unflattering photos that appeared in the papers the next day, she said, "If that's how I look, then they won't see me anymore." Crawford cancelled all public appearances, began declining interviews and left her apartment less and less. Dental-related issues, including surgery which left her needing round-the-clock nursing care, plagued her from 1972 until mid-1975. While on antibiotics for this problem in October 1974, her drinking caused her to pass out, slip and strike her face. The incident scared her enough to give up drinking, although she insisted that it was because of her return to Christian Science. The incident is recorded in a series of letters sent to her insurance company held in the stack files on the 3rd floor of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; it is also documented by Carl Johnnes in his biography of the actress, Joan Crawford: The Last Years.
When it came to personal politics, Crawford aligned herself as a Democrat who greatly supported, and admired, the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She was once noted as saying: The Democratic party is one that I've always observed. I have struggled greatly in life from the day I was born and I am honored to be a part of something that focuses on working class citizens and molds them into a proud specimen. Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Kennedy have done so much in that regard for the two generations they've won over during their career course.
On May 8, 1977, Crawford gave away her beloved Shih Tzu, "Princess Lotus Blossom," being too weak to care for her. She died two days later at her New York apartment from a heart attack. A funeral was held at Campbell Funeral Home, New York, on May 13, 1977. In her will, which was signed on October 28, 1976, Crawford bequeathed to her two youngest children, Cindy and Cathy, $77,500 each from her $2,000,000 estate.
She explicitly disinherited the two eldest, Christina and Christopher: "It is my intention to make no provision herein for my son, Christopher, or my daughter, Christina, for reasons which are well known to them". She also bequeathed nothing to her niece, Joan Lowe (1933-1999; born Joan Crawford LeSueur, the only child of her estranged brother, Hal). Crawford left money to her favorite charities: the U.S.O. of New York, the Motion Picture Home, the American Cancer Society, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the American Heart Association, and the Wiltwyck School for Boys.
A memorial service was held for Crawford at All Souls' Unitarian Church on Lexington Avenue in New York on May 16, 1977, and was attended by, among others, her old Hollywood friend Myrna Loy. Another memorial service, organized by George Cukor, was held on June 24 in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills. Crawford was cremated and her ashes were placed in a crypt with her fourth and final husband, Alfred Steele, in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York.
Joan Crawford's handprints and footprints are immortalized in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1752 Vine Street for her contributions to the motion picture industry. Playboy listed Crawford as #84 of the "100 Sexiest Women of the 20th century". Crawford was also voted the tenth greatest female star of the classic American cinema by the American Film Institute.
In November 1978, Christina Crawford published Mommie Dearest, which contained allegations that her late adoptive mother was emotionally and physically abusive to Christina and her brother Christopher because she was more interested in her career than in being a mother. Many of Crawford's friends and co-workers, including Van Johnson, Ann Blyth, Marlene Dietrich, Myrna Loy, Katharine Hepburn, Cesar Romero, Gary Gray, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Crawford's first husband), and Crawford's two other younger daughters—Cathy and Cindy—denounced the book, categorically denying any abuse. But others, including Betty Hutton, Helen Hayes, James MacArthur (Hayes' son), June Allyson, Liz Smith, Rex Reed, and Vincent Sherman stated they had witnessed some form of abusive behavior. Crawford's secretary, Jeri Binder Smith, confirmed Christina's account. Mommie Dearest became a bestseller and was made into the 1981 biographical film Mommie Dearest, starring Faye Dunaway as Crawford.
The feud between Crawford and Bette Davis is depicted in Shaun Considine's 1989 book Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud. It was fueled by competition over film roles, Academy Awards, and Franchot Tone, Davis’ co-star in 1935's Dangerous.
The Crawford–Davis rivalry is the subject of the 2017 first season of the FX anthology television series Feud, subtitled Bette and Joan. Crawford is played by Jessica Lange; Davis by Susan Sarandon.— (1962). A Portrait of Joan: The Autobiography of Joan Crawford. Doubleday. ISBN 978-1-258-17238-1.
— (1971). My Way of Life. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-78568-0.