Alfred Steele, who would become Joan's fourth husband, was the person most responsible for turning Pepsi-Cola from a small soda company into Coca-Cola's chief competition. This was partly because he had worked for Coca-Cola for so many years and absorbed a number of trade secrets before jumping ship to Pepsi with another executive and friend named Mitchell Cox. Steele was stimulated by the challenge of taking the rival cola company and turning it into a genuine challenge to Coca-Cola's supremacy. Within a year he was made chairman of the board at Pepsi-Cola, whose profits had increased about 300 percent since his original appointment. Alfred Steele was a man who took no prisoners in his determination to take himself - and Pepsi-Cola - to the top.
Joan had known Alfred and his second wife Lillian socially for several years when she heard that the two were getting divorced. The first time she encountered him newly single was at a dinner party at the home of Joseph Cotten. According to Cotten, "[Joan and I] felt more cozy than we actually were" because of this, although Cotten was under the misapprehension that Joan and Alfred were meeting for the first time. Actually, this was the first time that Alfred began to wonder whether the still-attractive movie star might not be as unattainable as supposed, and the first time that Joan began to see the possibilities in a relationship with Alfred.
Although he was a little overweight and not handsome, Alfred Steele was an attractive, outgoing man with a build that recalled his college football career. Unlike Joan's three previous husbands, Alfred Steele was very solid - both physically and emotionally. Furthermore, there was something about him that reminded Joan of herself. Alfred had no patience with dithering, unambitious people who didn't know what they wanted out of life and didn't have the strength or determination to go after anything. Joan responded to Alfred's inner drive and intensity. She kind of liked it when he announced to her after a couple of dates that one of these days she was going to marry him and that was that. By that time the thought of becoming Mrs. Alfred Steele had become rather appealing to her.
Alfred Steele was not a vain, self-centered, hypersensitive actor, as her first three husbands were. Sheltered from life's vicissitudes by money and privilege and his famous father's connections, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had been too weak and insubstantial. Franchot Tone had more substance, but ultimately proved another weakling when he allowed his career and marital disappointments to lead him to drink and abusive behavior. Phillip Terry had been much too mild-mannered. Alfred Steele was, on the other hand, a real man to Joan, not just a pretty face who would resent her fame and feel emotionally impotent and physically emasculated because of it. As Jerry Asher put it: "Al Steele was another strong bull like Joan, and the two butted horns, but privately enjoyed it. I think she was really in love with Al, and felt for the first time like she was sharing someone's life, going through life with someone, which is what she'd always wanted. That's why she threw herself into her activities with Pepsi-Cola. She wanted to be at Al's side, his partner in life and business."
There were other reasons for the marriage as well. Joan had no intention of retiring from the screen, but she knew that her career at this point was in a slump from which it might never recover. Working with Alfred for Pepsi gave her a new purpose; she also figured that the exposure it gave her in the media would not only keep her in the public eye, but also convince movie executives that she still had a large, appreciative fan base. If movie roles didn't materialize, Joan would still have a "public," in the form of millions of Pepsi-Cola drinkers.
Joan also figured that Alfred would be a strong influence on her two "problem" children, Christina and Christopher, especially the latter. Christopher at this time had taken to running away on a regular basis. Joan felt that a strong father figure might be able to do what she could not: reach the unhappy and difficult young man. There are those who feel that Christopher, then in his early teens, resented going to boarding schools and the like, but it was his surly attitude and antisocial behavior that made such banishment unavoidable. A different kind of parent, with a less demanding career and less determined nature, might have found the way into Christopher's heart and soul, but there is reason to believe that few people could have broken through the rebellious, destructive, defensive shell the boy had erected around himself. To Joan's credit, she understood that bonding with Christopher was quite beyond her, so she made appointments for him with a child psychiatrist. To her way of thinking, Joan had given the boy everything - a loving parent, a beautiful home, every advantage - but he behaved more like her brother Hal than a child of privilege. Joan tried to maintain a happy medium of love and sensible discipline that would neither spoil nor provoke her children, but in this she only succeeded with the twins, Cathy and Cindy, who would enjoy a warm relationship with Alfred Steele. As Christopher and Christina got older, both would mock their mother's movies and make fun of her performances, just because she wouldn't give in to their every demand. Jerry Asher always defended Joan when it came to her relationship with her children. "With all the distractions, pressures and emotional problems Joan was and is undergoing all the time," he said, "I think she's done the best she could for those kids." Asher did not live to see the publication of Mommie Dearest, which would have appalled and saddened him greatly, but he did witness the behavior of Christina and Christopher toward their mother on some occasions. "I hate to say this, but I think those two are just not very nice people. Cindy and Cathy are lovely, they have their heads on straight, but the other two - let's just say Joan didn't get the pick of the litter with those two."
Joan and Alfred picked out a wedding date in late May of 1955, but as the guest list expanded (Joan had half of Hollywood to invite, and Alfred had his many business associates) and the plans for the reception became more and more elaborate, Alfred suddenly suggested that they elope to Las Vegas. He was already wary about what this marriage - and Joan - might wind up costing him. He was already paying plenty in alimony and child support, and he knew movie stars had expensive tastes, and that Joan was no longer earning what she had in her heyday.
In her memoirs, Joan made it seem as if the elopement were perfectly all right with her, but privately she admitted that it was like a punch in the stomach. "I can't tell you how much time I spent figuring out who to invite and where to seat everyone and exactly where it would be and how we'd handle everything, and then all out of the blue he pulls this. I almost canceled the engagement right then and there." What prevented her from doing so was that she really did want to marry Alfred, and she didn't want to give him a chance to change his mind. "I thought he was getting cold feet. I wouldn't have blamed him. He'd had two unsuccessful marriages already and I'd had three. But I honestly had fun with Al and I was so lonely. I told myself: 'Have the big party afterwards but land him now while you can.' So we flew to Las Vegas."
At two o'clock in the morning on May 10, 1955, Joan married Alfred Steele in a suite at the Flamingo Hotel before a municipal judge. It was over two weeks before they could sail to Capri on their honeymoon, as those plans had already been made and could not be altered. During the voyage, Joan noticed another side of Alfred's personality that she had never glimpsed while he was courting her. She discovered that Alfred could be as stubborn and intractable as she was, by-products of the drive and determination that Joan had found so attractive in him, and so similar to her own temperament. Determined not to make this marriage another failure, both for her own sake and for the sake of her children, Joan may have given in more than she normally would have. Yet she was still strong-willed Joan Crawford and she would not roll over for anyone. They were in their fifties and both had become set in their ways, but as they argued they realized that there would have to be some sort of give and take, compromises both could live with, if their marriage was to work. They both wanted it to work - both had fantasies to fulfill. Joan had at last found a middle-aged Mr. Right, and Alfred had found a queen to rule by his side. But were either of them truly capable of such an adjustment? Enjoying their honeymoon to the fullest, they returned to civilization rested and ready to tackle the world as Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Steele. Joan reported to Columbia for work on Autumn Leaves. Despite her happy outlook and her public statements, she was nagged by doubts about the marriage and the tenacious Mr. Steele. As always, she found consolation in her work.
One of her favorite movies, Autumn Leaves (1956) was Joan's first movie with director Robert Aldrich. In this she played Millie, a middle-aged and unmarried freelance typist who meets a younger man, Burt (Cliff Robertson), in a restaurant after a concert. Reluctantly, Millie begins dating Burt, but when the relationship becomes more serious she worries about the age difference. He overrides her objections, and the two are married. She then learns that Burt has serious emotional problems, which have been exacerbated by his seeing his former wife Virginia (Vera Miles) and his father (Lorne Greene) in bed together. After becoming violent toward Millie, Burt is institutionalized. The doctor warns Millie that when Burt recovers he may no longer need her as he did before, that his attitude toward her may change altogether. Happily, after Burt is released, he realizes how much he still loves and needs Millie, and the two are reunited.
Joan's performance in Autumn Leaves is generally very good. She used her apprehension about her age and fading looks, as well as those about her marriage to Alfred Steele, to bolster the shy unease of her character, which is apparent in her early scenes with Robertson. Her wonderful expressiveness comes into play when, in close up, Millie silently thinks about what she's learned about her husband and what it means for their future together. There are a few times, however, when she is somewhat mannered and masculine in her approach, and seems too strong to be effectively vulnerable. That forcefulness is very appropriate in the scene in which Millie tells off Burt's sleazy ex-wife and even sleazier father. On the other hand, when she is attacked by Burt (he throws a typewriter at her as she cowers on the floor), she has no trouble conveying her character's abject fear and pathos. In some ways, the movie plays like a rehearsal for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Robert Aldrich was able to get Joan to shed some of that steely outer shell and show the frightened, insecure woman underneath. This is certainly true in the final scene, Joan's finest moment in Autumn Leaves and one of the finest in her career, in which Millie stands looking helplessly at Burt, convinced that he no longer wants her but determined to set him free if necessary, talking rapidly to keep from bursting into tears, so vulnerable and desperate and needy that it's almost uncomfortable to watch. It is a very moving conclusion.
As Burt, Cliff Robertson gave one of his best performances. Having played an emotionally disturbed woman herself (in the second Possessed), Joan gave Robertson pointers on how to approach the part. Even in the early scenes Robertson communicates Burt's mental instability and immaturity without overdoing it. There are rumors that Joan wanted Marlon Brando to be her leading man in Autumn Leaves (and a number of other pictures), but Joan was no great admirer of Brando's acting style - or of his looks. "There's something flat and dead about his eyes," Joan once remarked. "Brando doesn't really have the handsomeness of a Clark Gable or a Cary Grant. They were well-groomed and intelligent looking. Brando looks like he changes his underwear about every two weeks." Vera Miles is very good and looks delectable as Virginia, and Lorne Greene is quite credible in a role far removed from the loving father of Bonanza.
Although never considered a "cinematic" director along the lines of Hitchcock, Aldrich adds some nice touches to the proceedings. As Millie sits in the concert hall listening to Chopin, a flashback shows the lover who left her because she was devoted to her sick father. Aldrich dims the lights all around Millie, isolating her in a sea of darkness and loneliness - a simple move, but effective. Later, after Millie has decided not to see Burt anymore, she sits on a rock at the shore, the off-kilter angle suggesting how difficult a decision it was, and suggesting her indecision about the whole situation. Sometimes Autumn Leaves has a detached and unreal quality to it, but at other times it is very stark and believable.
Autumn Leaves is a film favorite for those who love not wisely but too well, who enter into neurotic, dependent relationships that sometimes work out in spite of the psychological complications and melodramatic angst. For some people, life is just like the movies. Joan, of course, loved Autumn Leaves, terming it the "best older woman/younger man movie ever made." She admired Cliff Robertson and Vera Miles, and liked working with them. "Everything clicked on Autumn Leaves. The cast was perfect, the script was good, and I think Bob [Aldrich] handled everything well. I really think Cliff did a stupendous job; another actor might have been spitting out his lines and chewing the scenery, but he avoided that trap. I think the movie on a whole was a lot better than some of the romantic movies I did in the past. It did all right at the box office, but somehow it just never became better known. It was eclipsed by the picture I did with Bette Davis."
Joan and Alfred decided to settle down in New York, but in order to do so they had to find a worthy domicile for the Pepsi King and his Queen. Alfred's bachelor pad on Sutton Place was out of the question because it wasn't big enough. So Alfred bought the top two floors at 70th Street and Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park and converted them into a duplex penthouse with several spacious rooms. After several weeks of noisy renovations while the couple stayed in a hotel - the top two floors were virtually gutted - a neighbor downstairs felt her nerves coming unglued and filed a three-hundred-thousand-dollar lawsuit against the Steeles. She was later made to understand how necessary the renovations were to the Steeles' plans and dropped the lawsuit. "If that bitch thinks I'm inviting her up here for tea, she's got another think coming," said Joan. All visitors to the penthouse had to take their shoes off before they entered. This was seen by some as another example of Joan's need for control, but it was a perfectly sensible precaution to protect the beautiful and expensive white rugs. Joan frequently joked about it: "These things get dirty so easily. I hope you put on clean socks today." William Haines, of course, decorated the apartment from top to bottom.
Alfred charged the reconstruction costs to Pepsi-Cola on the rationale that the exquisite apartment would be used to entertain business associates and hence would enhance both Pepsi's image and its coffers. So he was a bit stunned when the board of directors made it clear that they considered the money to be a loan - at six percent interest. Given his other expenses, Alfred had to take out loans from the bank as well as from Joan to pay back the money. He managed to return every penny - to Pepsi, if not to Joan. It galled him, however, especially as Pepsi had never done as well as it did during his tenure, and was then doing better than ever, with its new inroads into foreign markets often outstripping the efforts of its rival Coke. Some board members blamed Alfred's movie-star wife for his preoccupation with his new apartment, a perception that did not sit well with Joan. As soon as Alfred realized that they would have to pay for everything in the duplex, he cursed himself for having done everything on such a grand scale. Crawford mythology has it that it was Joan's idea to create such a sensational apartment and fill it with expensive rugs and furniture, but Alfred had his own image to cultivate, and he wanted - and loved - the place every bit as much as Joan did.
Joan won over several Pepsi executives and board members with her tireless efforts for their company. She attended conventions, learned everything she could about the business, entertained business associates on little notice, played hostess at conferences, and in general played up Pepsi-Cola wherever she went. Her high profile, however, would eventually earn her the enmity of at least one executive in the Pepsi-Cola Company.
It was around this time that Lawrence Quirk did his first piece on Joan, for the December 1956 issue of Films in Review. Quirk knew that, like Bosley Crowther, Films in Review editor Henry Hart was no fan of Joan's. Hart had once said that "Bette Davis is an artist; Joan Crawford is a trouper," which Quirk felt ignored Joan's work in pictures like Mildred Pierce and the 1947 Possessed. He knew that Hart wouldn't spare Joan in his editing of Quirk's piece on her. Quirk wanted to say something respectful yet accurate about Joan in the subhead, but Hart wasn't having any of it. While he was right that Quirk needed to be objective, apparently that didn't apply to the subhead Hart imposed on the article: "For 32 years she has made people want to see her in films rarely worth looking at." Although it qualified as a backhanded compliment, it was hardly accurate, as by 1956 Joan had made Mildred Pierce, Possessed, Grand Hotel, Rain, The Women, A Woman's Face, Johnny Guitar, all of which had become classics. Hart said, "Crawford may get angry with the evaluations of her work that Bos Crowther and I give her, but she respects us for our independence."
Hart insisted that Quirk recast the article, interjecting observations on Joan's "ruthlessness." Louella Parsons was quoted to the effect that Joan had done kind things for people down on her luck, but that she, Louella, always thought that Joan's greatest achievement was "Joan Crawford." And so forth. The article concluded on the note that if Joan, after years of upward climbing and conflict ever found herself without something to struggle over, she might not know what to do with herself. Since Quirk was friendly with Joan and found her very cooperative in answering questions for the article, he wondered what her reaction might be. "To hell with what she thinks," Hart snapped. "She's getting a big publicity break with this story and she should be damned grateful." He added that her career was on the downslide and any publicity she got would be good for her.
Quirk sent the issue of Films in Review to Joan, explaining as tactfully as possible that Hart wanted his articles to be objective and "distanced." Joan responded that she had been up against many commentators and critics like Hart over the years and always took their comments in stride; she told Quirk not to give it a second thought. Quirk was pretty sure that Joan still didn't like Hart's approach, and wouldn't have blamed her if she threw the magazine clear across the room.
In 1957, Joan flew into London with Alfred to make The Story of Esther Costello. Their arrival made the papers - Joan was still considered a major Hollywood star and was still news - and there were photos of the big limousine carrying Joan and Alfred, followed by three white vans from the Pepsi-Cola Company. The couple checked into the Dorchester hotel, where they were ensconced in the Oliver Messel suite. A welcome party was held in Joan's honor at the ritzy Les Ambassadeurs restaurant. Among the attendees were Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, and Rita Hayworth. Joan was seated in a throne-like chair in one of the restaurant's banquet rooms. Throughout the evening distinguished guests came by to say hello.
The Story of Esther Costello was being produced by Romulus Films, which was run by two brothers, John and James Woolf. James Woolf was a good friend with another Joan - Joan Collins, who was named after Crawford - whom he invited to the party. Collins also knew Esther Costello's director, David Miller, as she had recently worked for him on The Opposite Sex, an inferior musical remake of The Women. A theatrical agent named Gordon White was Collins's date. At one point, James Woolf took Collins over to meet the older star. Collins remembered Joan as "a middle-aged, regal, but not terribly attractive, woman in a sea-green silk dress embroidered with sequins in the fashionable 'short in front and long in back' style. With eyebrows as thick and dark as Groucho's, lipstick and matching nail varnish obviously 'Jungle Red,' and black hair done in a curiously old fashioned '40s style, which was echoed in her ankle-strapped, platform-soled stilettos, she was a formidable sight." When Collins offered her hand, Joan gave Collins the once-over and ignored her, speaking only to Woolf. Joan always felt that just because a woman was highly sexed didn't mean that she had to dress the part. Her disdain for sex symbols like Collins, Marilyn Monroe and others had less to do with jealousy than with her distaste, especially as she grew older, for vulgarity. She simply found Collins`s low-cut dress offensive. "I get so sick of these young actresses who think they have to let their boobs hang out all over the place to get attention," she said on more than one occasion. Joan was furious that Collins had used a party for her as a place to "exhibit her goods." She was probably also aware that Collins had played her role, Crystal Allen, in The Opposite Sex (1956). Perhaps in the back of her mind Joan wanted Miller on Esther Costello to remind him what a real star was. Collins was a good enough actress on her own terms, but no one thought she would be anything like the next Joan Crawford. The Opposite Sex was promptly forgotten, and although Collins has been a showbiz survivor for many years, her career was never on the level of that of her namesake. Joan's opinion of The Opposite Sex, a box-office flop, was as follows: "It's ridiculous. Norma [Shearer] and I might not ever have been bosom buddies, but we towered compared to those pygmies in the remake!"
In The Story of Esther Costello, Joan played the wealthy Margaret Landi, who reluctantly becomes ward to a teenage girl named Esther Costello (Heather Sears), who has been psychosomatically deaf, dumb and blind since she was caught in the explosion that killed her mother, traumatizing her. Under the care of understanding doctors, Esther makes great progress, thanks in part to Margaret's constant help and support. Margaret is reunited with her estranged husband Carlo (Rossano Brazzi), who convinces her to start an Esther Costello foundation to help disabled children. (For some reason, the Esther Costello doll shown in the movie resembles Barbara Stanwyck more than Sears.) Unfortunately, Carlo and sleazy promoter Frank Wenzel (Ron Randall) skim most of the profits. Carlo finally goes too far when he rapes Esther, the shock of which undoes the earlier trauma and "cures" her. Margaret kills Carlo and herself, and Esther is left to carry on with a reporter named Harry (Lee Patterson), who has fallen in love with her.
Joan Collins's opinion notwithstanding, Joan had become quite a handsome mature woman by the time of Esther Costello; wearing gowns by Jean Louis, she looks wonderful in the picture. Her performance as Margaret Landi is, for the most part, excellent. Unfortunately, when the film becomes artificial at the end, she does as well. When Margaret dispassionately decides to kill her husband and herself late in the movie, the tone shifts from drama to melodrama, and Joan's performance makes the same shift. She has a superb reaction when Margaret finds Carlo's cufflink in Esther's bed and realizes what has happened, but she is too perfunctory in the scenes that follow, acting like an imperturbable femme fatale deciding to ice her faithless lover when she should be enraged and heartbroken over his actions. Instead, Margaret Landi suddenly becomes Mildred Pierce.
As Joan had long since proven that she could portray anger and heartbreak with aplomb, one might surmise that Miller, who had also directed Sudden Fear, had suggested an approach that smacked more of that film than Esther Costello. But it was really the other way around: Joan actually chose to ignore her director's advice, in spite of the fact that Miller had once guided her to an Oscar nomination. She told one interviewer that she played the role "in my own pitch, the way I thought it should be played, and I was right." Joan and Miller ultimately had violent confrontations over her interpretation. It wasn't just that Joan wanted to come off the way she did in her younger, more glamorous days - although that was certainly part of it - she also wanted to recreate the effects of triumphs like Mildred Pierce, while Miller kept reminding her that Esther Costello was an altogether different kind of picture, and Margaret a different kind of role. Joan felt that a melodramatic scene should be played like melodrama (even if the movie was a drama), which explained her approach to roles in movies like The Damned Don't Cry and This Woman is Dangerous. She didn't see this as artificial acting, as Bosley Crowther and others did; she saw it as part of a grand and larger-than-life tradition of movie acting, one that in certain kinds of sequences her fans expected from her. She saw nothing wrong about her performance, and was highly disappointed that she wasn't nominated for an Oscar. She regarded Esther Costello as her last worthwhile movie.
The Story of Esther Costello does come close to being a fine picture. The early scenes in Ireland depicting Esther's grim daily existence are photographed in a naturalistic, gritty, low-budget manner that becomes incrementally glamorous as Esther becomes more famous. The picture's look at charitable foundations and their casual exploitation of the disabled is surprisingly unsentimental. There is also an outstanding sequence in which Esther is "presented" to a huge throng of sycophants in a gargantuan art deco amphitheater (that might have been designed to Cecil B. Demille's specifications). There are also sequences that are quite touching, such as one in which a nervous girl receives a diploma from Esther and collapses into her arms in tears. Esther's recovery of her vision and hearing is marvelously demonstrated, as images emerge from an out-of-focus cloud and odd sounds like a passing airplane suddenly intrude. The script exhibits an intelligent cynicism, in that Margaret actually becomes jealous of Esther's emerging sensuality and its effect on Carlo (a bizarre variation on Mildred Pierce). Esther Costello is one of those movies that is so good in parts you can't help but wish it was better overall.
Whatever its good points, the movie is ultimately done in by its ludicrous finale. Esther has already been traumatized by the violent death of her own mother; is it really wise for Margaret to kill herself and Carlo in a car crash when Esther has come to see Margaret as a surrogate mother? One senses that Harry is not going to find it easy to deal with Esther and her emotional instability. The deaths of Carlo and Margaret were not filmed, perhaps because the sequence is too similar to the end of Queen Bee. Then there is the rather tasteless suggestion that the trauma of rape cures Esther, when in reality it probably would have undone whatever progress had been achieved.
The publication of Mommie Dearest ensured that immature viewers of the film would never take Esther Costello seriously. Some contemporary audiences see scenes of Margaret genuinely bonding with Esther as perversely hypocritical, and the moment when Margaret slaps Esther during a temper tantrum often elicits howls of laughter. The expressive face of Heather Sears as Esther makes an impression without a single word of dialogue; later, when she speaks, she is less effective. In one scene, Sears radiates some of Joan's imperiousness as she tries to find out how Harry feels about her.
Joan later wrote, "What made [the film] a delight... was working with Heather Sears. This twenty-one-year-old girl gave a memorable performance.... It was a reward to work with one so young who knew so much about character and acting." On the set, Joan was also gracious to former silent film star Bessie Love, who had one brief scene as a customer at Carlo's art gallery. Joan was always kind to Hollywood survivors like Love and Fay Wray, whose careers didn't share Joan's durability.
Joan still had an eye for good-looking men and she surrounded herself with handsome fellows in Esther Costello. Joan was crazy about leading man Rossano Brazzi and, under the influence of vodka, would later talk about him in very lascivious tones. "Absolutely one of the most gorgeous creatures God put on this earth," she raved, "I wanted to strip him down the minute I set eyes on him" - but she would never admit that she'd had an intimate relationship with the man. "Yes, there were a lot of good-looking guys on that set," Joan recalled. "Lee Patterson was a doll and I thought Ron Randall had a certain mulish charm about him. Did you notice he talked just like Humphrey Bogart? Look, you never know how the hell a picture is going to turn out, so you might as well have a lot of attractive actors around to make it more bearable. I think that picture had more than most."
Many critics have seen The Story of Esther Costello as a partial rip-off of The Miracle Worker. In fact, the two films have entirely different storylines and themes, and The Miracle Worker was not filmed until five years later, after a successful Broadway run. While The Miracle Worker was originally presented on television as part of the "Playhouse 90" series the same year Esther Costello was released, the latter film was based on a novel entitled The Golden Virgin by Nicholas Monsarrat and was not influenced by the Helen Keller story.
Joan and Alfred were vacationing in Bermuda when they learned that Joan's mother, Anna, had passed away after a series of strokes at the age of 74. Joan and her husband flew home for the funeral, where Joan found herself more affected by her mother's death than she would ever have thought possible. Joan had tried on several occasions to cultivate a warmer relationship with Anna, but whenever the two got together Anna would castigate Joan for how "little" she did for her mother - of course, by this time Joan was completely supporting her mother and paying for her medical care. Still, Joan cried at her grave site. "I think I cried more for the utter waste, for what might have been between us, than anything else," Joan recalled. "My mother wanted what I could do for her, but I don't think she ever really wanted to be pan of my life. I know everyone thought it was the other way around, but I honestly tried." Soon another death would devastate Joan far more than the death of her mother had.
Alfred had been feeling tired and out of sons for some time when he died April 19, 1959, from a heart attack. The general consensus was that he ate, drank, and smoked too much and had too little regard for his health. Joan's fourth marriage had not even lasted four years. Some said that Joan did not grieve for Alfred, but nothing could be further from the truth. "It was the most solid of my four marriages," she said, and she meant it. True, Alfred may not have brought out the wild, passionate, sensual side of her nature as Clark Gable had, perhaps he was not in that sense her one great love, but she would have happily spent the rest of her life with him. Joan was not being cold when she made funeral arrangements and went on with her life in the weeks after Alfred's death, she was simply dealing with her pain in a way that was natural to her - many people find relief from grief in constant activity. She did her crying at home alone, or with the twins, who had also been close to Alfred. Realizing that she could be a continued asset to the company and recognizing her efforts on their behalf, Pepsi-Cola put her on its board of directors and eventually made her their worldwide ambassador.
In part to help her get over her grief over Alfred's death, and also because she needed the money, Joan took a small role in the adaptation of Rona Jaffe's The Rest of Everything (1959). It also helped that old friend Jerry Wald would again be her producer. And Jean Negulesco of Humoresque would direct! The novel, which is about secretaries and lady editors and their relationships with assorted males, was sort of the Valley of the Dolls of its time, only not as sexy and far less entertaining. Today, the movie version feels very dated in its attitude toward career women. Perhaps because of her mental state, Joan gives perhaps the most uneven performance of her career, as Amanda Farrow, a tough editor.
On the one hand, Joan generally plays (sometimes overplays) with real style and panache, forcefully occupying the movie, even when she's not on-screen. When Amanda learns that Caroline Bender (Hope Lange) has been reading manuscripts and tells her, "You young secretaries think you can breeze in here and become editors overnight, " it's almost as if it's Joan directing her words to the young contract players in the cast. Perhaps Joan's best moment comes when Amanda confronts Gregg Adams (Suzy Parker), warning her that her lover, David (Louis Jourdan), will not marry her. "Those who can love, do," responds Gregg. "Those who can't, preach."
On the other hand, when Amanda has a conversation with her married lover on the telephone, there's no sense that anyone is actually on the other end of the line. There is virtually no other instance in her career in which Joan is as transparent as in this scene. In Joan's earlier days, when she was the star, Negulesco would never have let her get away with this, insisting on multiple rakes until it was just right. In a later scene, when she returns to work after a failed marriage, she is much too theatrical and completely out of sync with Lange and the other performers. This was what Bosley Crowther had always been harping about, that affectedness that he saw even when it wasn't there. Joan's acting is perfectly fine in the rest of the movie, and she herself always thought that she had shown "all those young bitches" in the cast a thing or two about acting.
Joan often got impatient with the hesitant and apprehensive approach of some of the young women who were starring in the movie. Joan got into a spat with Hope Lange (who, in spite of her inexperience, is quite good in the lead role), and she expected the director to side with The Great Crawford. Negulesco bitterly disappointed her by siding with Lange. Joan realized that her days of being deferred to were probably over, at least on big productions like this, in which she had only a small part. Some of her scenes were dropped from the final cut, including one that she felt would have explained and humanized her character. If a certain script hadn't come her way, The Best of Everything might well have been Joan's last picture.
It would be an understatement to say that Pepsi-Cola got annoyed with Joan when Louella Parsons' interview with her around the time of filming was published, with the headline "Joan Crawford Flat Broke." Joan had told Parsons that Alfred had expected the company to reimburse them for the money they spent on their apartment in New York, and that when it hadn't, she'd been left in greatly reduced circumstances. She complained that everything her husband had left her went to pay off back taxes and other debts. The powers-that-be at Pepsi informed her that the story not only made the company look bad, but could also have a negative effect on Pepsi stock. Joan issued a press release recanting much of the interview and putting her financial situation in a much better light. Parsons was not amused.
Joan's financial problems would be over when she found herself in one of the biggest hits of her career. But she would have preferred her money woes to a massive headache named Bette Davis.