23 March 2009

Free Associations, Ep. 9: Special Birthday Edition

Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin and Joan Tomasovna Crawford are famous for vastly different things--one ruled the Soviet Union with an iron first while the other was the quintessential movie star of Hollywood's Golden Age. To most, that is where the similarities end. That, however, is not quite the case.

In their younger and more vulnerable days. Actually, I think they make quite a cute couple.

To begin with, Stalin and Crawford were both noted for their willfulness, argumentativeness and assertiveness. In fact, give the tireless way they clawed their way up the ranks of their respective professions, it wouldn't be stretching the truth too far to say that Stalin and Crawford both possessed a particular forms of megalomania. Although the difference between dictatorship and movie stardom necessitates that Uncle Joe and Mommie Dearest manifested their megalomania in different ways, there is little doubt in my mind that their eccentricities both sprang from the same intrinsic need to be great.

The remorseless way in which Stalin and Crawford pursued their respective forms of greatness meant that they both made their fair share of rivals and opponents. Stalin had many nemeses (real or otherwise) in the early days of the Soviet Union, most notably Sergei Kirov and Leon Trotsky, while Crawford viewed Norma Shearer as a hated rival, and later feuded quite famously with Bette Davis. Stalin's enemies usually wound with a bullet (or the occasional ice axe) through the brain, but Joan never quite had the luxury of being able to arrange for her enemies to meet with unpleasant ends (this is probably for the best--Norma Shearer's bullet-riddled corpse, no doubt, would have been the source of quite a scandal for the gossip rags of the day).

Stalin and Crawford were both highly conscious of how the public perceived them, though their dealings with the little people were not necessarily the same. Joan was keen to the fact that her greatness was dependent upon the approval and adulation of her fans, and sought to always stay in their good graces. Ever less nuanced in his ways, Stalin dealt with the problem by ensuring that the people of the Soviet Union knew of no alternative but to adore him. Stalin's cult of personality will remain the envy of dictators and generalissimos for centuries to come (In a way, a cult of personality for Joan has survived to this day, but it seems that most members of this particular cult are drag queens).

Nor are the personal lives of Joseph Stalin and Joan Crawford without their similarities. It should come as little surprise that they each had rough childhoods. Beyond that, however, their relationships with their families were, shall we say, a bit strained. Joan's dominion paled in comparison to Stalin's--the Crawford household was hardly the size of the Soviet Union--but what she did control she ruled with an iron fist. Indeed, Christina Crawford's Mommie Dearest is a retelling of Joan's totalitarianism. It's not quite The Gulag Archipelago, but I suppose that it springs from a similar (albeit much less bloody) sort of victimization.

After their rise to power.

No one can say for sure what Josef Stalin would have been like in Hollywood, nor can anyone be sure what Joan Crawford would have done at the helm of a totalitarian dictatorship. I suspect, however, that the end results wouldn't be all that different.

And if you didn't know, it's Joan Crawford's birthday. Merry Joansmas to all!

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