Love her or hate her, one thing that has to be said about Joan Crawford. She's a survivor. During her lengthy career, she fought to get to the top and stay at the top and when she was at the bottom, she fought her way up again.
Signed by Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1925, Crawford carved her niche at the end of the Silent era as the eternal flapper in films like Our Dancing Daughters (1928). In the early and mid-1930's she became the working girl who makes good in Sadie McKee (1934) and other similar roles. By 1937, Life magazine named her "Queen of the Movies" but her films began losing money and the quality of the parts she was offered began to decline. By the end of the decade, Crawford, along with other veteran performers garnered the moniker "box office poison" in lieu of younger, newer stars like Lana Turner and Greer Garson. That's not to say that she didn't appear in some high profile films during this period. Her Crystal Allen spat verbal venom with her big name co-stars in The Women (1939) and her performance as a disfigured criminal in A Woman's Face (1941) reaped much praise from critics. But after A Woman's Face, the prestigious scripts dried up. When Carole Lombard was killed in a plane crash in 1942, Crawford replaced her in They All Kissed the Bride. After a couple more less than stellar pictures, she and Metro mutually decided to part ways. In June 1943 Joan Crawford's contract with MGM was terminated after 18 years.
Two days later she signed with rival studio Warner Brothers. Her Warners contract would pay her $500,000 to make three pictures. The beginning of her career at her new studio wasn't any better than the one she had left at MGM. She turned down several scripts she deemed inferior, appearing only in a cameo role in Hollywood Canteen (1944) her first 18 months there.
In late 1944, Warners bought the film rights to James M. Cain's noir novel Mildred Pierce. Studio heads wanted the reigning queen of the lot Bette Davis for the lead but Davis refused, not wanting to play the mother of a teen-aged daughter. Crawford wanted the part badly. But according to Crawford biographer Bob Thomas, Pierce director Michael Curtiz wanted no part of the former MGM flapper saying, "...why should I waste my time directing a has-been". Curtiz wanted Barbara Stanwyck in the role of Mildred. Crawford humbly offered to take a screen test for the part, a measure unheard of for an actress of her stature. After viewing the test Curtiz agreed to cast Joan. In Crawfords case, it was a fight worth taking on. For her role in Mildred Pierce, she was nominated for an Academy Award, a distinction she had never been honored with during her many years at MGM. Although facing stiff competition with the likes of younger actresses Jennifer Jones, Greer Garson, Ingrid Bergman and Gene Tierney, at the end of the night it was Joan Crawford who was named Best Actress of 1945. The role and her newly acquired Oscar bounced Crawford back to her former glory, gave her renewed confidence and let her retain her title as star.