Joan Crawford, aka John Epperson, interviewed live, offers child-rearing tips
If Joan Crawford had made no movie other than “A Woman’s Face” (1941, opposite Conrad Veidt and Melvyn Douglas), she would be in cinema’s all-stars book forever, but in fact she made 97 movies from “Proud Flesh” (1925) to “We’re Coming to Scare You to Death” (1975).
That’s 50 years, folks—and John Epperson appears to have seen all of them.
Epperson is an actor who in some strange and magical way has been able to put before us the essence, the core, of each of a small galaxy of Hollywood’s great leading ladies by dressing like them and silently synchronizing his lips—and gestures, motions, stance, gait, aura, nuances, facial expressions, everything—to precision-match their very own words and voices as culled and played back from recordings and sound tracks.
He exercises this black art under the perfectly logical name Lypsinka.
Earlier shows flitted—also magically—from one celluloid diva to another. Now the camera—well, the stage at The Zipper, a cavern on West 37th Street—irises in through June 5 on perhaps the most prototypical of all those immortals. Or to fall back on what my mother would have called “a vile word,” the most iconic. Crawford.
I think I also know what my mother would have made of the exploitative, dragged-in-by-the-roots title of the performance, “The Passion of the Crawford.” Maybe that wasn’t Epperson’s fault. God does get mentioned by Crawford here and there in the proceedings, but the Christ, never.
Rather more in verbal terms than through all those other key elements—gesture, motion and the like—and particularly in regard to the endless over-moralizing of this lifelong cinematic embodiment of naughtiness, not to mention female power, Epperson does have her down-cold, this dancing daughter who swore in her teens that she was going to be a star, and clawed her way up the casting couch to get there.
Moralizing: “The dignity and beauty of the Academy Awards have been lost… This year I was shocked and appalled at the behavior of everyone including Marlon Brando… I’m shocked at today’s permissiveness and pornography… I think sex is beautiful, but you have to be alone, not in a theater.”
But that’s in words, taken from one interview or another as re-enacted—mimed—by Epperson as Crawford and Steve Cuiffo as one or another print or radio or TV-type. Director Kevin Malony has placed Crawford and her interlocutor stage right—our left—in two chairs side by side, and mostly kept them there, nailed down.
There are two other physical problems. Epperson’s unaided shoulders are not as wide as Crawford’s padded ones that loomed over a whole generation. And for some reason his makeup is, nasally speaking, off. Crawford’s straight, strong, sensual nose (see “A Woman’s Face”) was not as beaky and slightly humped as at The Zipper—not on screen, anyway.
The result is that all those nuances and subtle dynamics of past Lypsinkas are pretty much reduced to Epperson/Crawford from time to time pulling out and waving around a bright red hanky. Then, at the close of the evening, when Crawford in clips zooms back into bits and pieces of violent melodrama from some of the films of this extraordinary career, it’s as if Lypsinka himself leapt from the chair and went into screaming, screeching overkill.
By then, however, overkill or not, we’ve had a most nourishing memory meal.
On answering each and every fan-mail letter she almost ever received: “You don’t find time, you make time.”
On Bette Davis, who had cinematically served up a rat to her in 1962’s “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”—and once said of Crawford: “She’s slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie”—“Bette has a different temperament than I. She yells. I just knitted.”
On Richard Aldredge, director of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”: “Richard Aldredge loves evil things, horrendous things, vile things.”
On what someone whom Crawford admired, the Broadway actress Eileen Heckart (“Butterflies Are Free”), said to a kid who had asked: “Whaddya think about pot?” “She looked at him and said: ‘That’s your problem. Scotch is mine.’” (And vodka was Crawford’s.)
On not being in “Gone With the Wind”: “I wasn’t asked.”
On rumors that she, the moralist, was once herself a centerfold girl: “I was not that lucky.”
On having to wear eyeglasses during the making of “Humoresque” (1946): “I had to squint all through the film at John Garfield. But, boy, you didn’t have to squint at him.”
On F. Scott Fitzgerald: “He came to my house once. All he did was stand where the liquor was.”
On motherhood: “I left Stevens College at age 13 and adopted five kids and four of them are dropouts.”
On a personal pleasure: “I love playing bitches, and I was a bitch in that picture [‘Humoresque’]. I think there’s a lot of bitch in every woman … [studied pause] … and in every man too.”
On her whole raison d’etre: “I was born in front of a camera.”
Not born in front of a camera was The Amazing Russello, a mock-accented, mock-Italian in a top hat who, as a lead-in, for some reason, to Lypsinka at The Zipper, digs into his fly, saying: “Thees-a zipper was uze-ed by Miss-a Joan Crawford,” then brings out his hand holding a playing card. His charm escapes me. God only knows what Crawford would have said.
What did not escape me was something that evokes memories of a “Girl Talk” television show I once monitored on which Joan Crawford, making her entrance and taking her seat under the hot lights in a big mink coat, carefully removed from a shopping bag two king-sized bottles of Pepsi-Cola, placed them on the floor, and turned them so the labels faced the camera.
“I sold Pepsi-Cola for so long,” Crawford/Lypsinka declares on this other stage. “All I have to do now is sell Joan Crawford.”
Not long later, goody-goody Crawford is asked if she recalls what phrase was popularly applied over the years to those famous ankle-strap shoes of hers. “I think I know the first letter,” she sweetly replies. “It starts with F and ends with me. But if you don’t remember,” she somewhat less obliquely continues, “they held me up a goddamn long time.”
The show could well have ended there and I’d have been happy. Or happy enough. Just get out of that chair now and again, Lypsinka, to make everybody really happy.