Last week, we relished on Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of screen legend Joan Crawford as more or less a complete psycho. Our good friend Nathaniel, who gracefully serves as host of the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series week after week, decided that Dunaway could not possibly have the last word on this subject, and so, Crawford herself becomes the subject of this week’s episode, in which we take a look at Johnny Guitar.
Before I write any further, I must make the shameful admission that this is my first time watching a Joan Crawford movie. Going further, I must also confess that I wouldn’t have guessed “trucolor” western Johnny Guitar to be the one to break the streak (or lack thereof). Poorly received upon its original release, the movie was later championed by Jean-Luc Godard and his Cahiers du cinema pals, and ended up becoming somewhat of classic, culminating with Roger Ebert writing about it as one of the “Great Movies” (a pretty solid indicator of what is considered part of the popular canon, if you ask me).
The movie was directed by Nicholas Ray, who -based on the two movies of his that I’ve seen- is very interested in introducing homoerotic undertones to mainstream American entertainments. In Johnny Guitar, I’m talking about the relationship between saloonkeeper Vienna (Joan Crawford), and towns-agitator Emma (Mercedes McCambridge). Because despite being named after Vienna’s returning old flame, the movie’s plot is set in motion, complicated, and resolved based on the hatred that these women seem to feel for each other. The alternative celluloid-closet-style read of the movie is simple: Emma wants to destroy Vienna because she can’t have her.
That reading is clearly not what the movie is about if you look solely at the most explicit text, but it makes for a much interesting movie. I must say it, I wasn’t completely sold on Johnny Guitar as a movie. I am sold, however, on Joan Crawford as a movie star. Characters like Vienna -calm individualists who don’t want anything but peace and quiet after having seen all kinds of shit in their struggle to end on top- are irresistible, and Crawford knows how to milk this metaphorical cow. Johnny Guitar is all about Joan dressing up in androgynous cowboy gear and calmly contemplating what to do next. During the best moments, she also has a gun in her hand.
Which brings me to my pick for Best Shot. I think the following image encapsulates the essence of what Johnny Guitar was all about for me. You have Joan looking at the horizon, thinking about her next move, and you have Johnny talking into her ear. There are lots of men in this movie, and they do a lot of talking, but the only two female characters, are also the only ones that matter. It’s a battle of wills between the malicious Emma, and the serene Vienna, a woman that is more man than you’ve ever seen. And, of course, you have that acidly stark “trucolor” landscape looming in the back. Listen, I might not have loved Johnny Guitar, but I’m also glad it exists. This movie wasn’t made for me, it was made for that person who, back in 1954, was desperate to see a strong female character on the big screen.