Johnny Guitar

Dir: Nicholas Ray, 1954. Starring: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge. Western.
Johnny Guitar

A lot of directors who worked with Joan Crawford probably thought they had tapped into whatever unique strain of neurosis made her “La Joan” in order to get the best performance out of her in their films. She had always played a version of herself throughout her career, whether as a jazz crazy flapper in her silent films, a shop girl looking to marry up in her 1930s films, and in the double-crossed dame roles she took on in the hardboiled noirs of the 1940s. By the fifties, the Joker-esque lipstick started to appear, looking all the more frightening in Technicolor, and her eyebrows reached new levels of ferocity. I think of this as her middle-aged gender bending period. It seems to me that a lot of middle-aged American women start to look kind of androgynous after awhile out of what I always assumed was a weary resignation to having to keep up the scopophilic charade but Joan’s particular version of androgyny seemed more trenchant than that. It was kind of accidentally subversive. Or what the hell do I know? She may have been totally onboard as a proto-transgender performance artist. Maybe she was the first Ziggy Stardust and we weren’t hip enough to catch on. Well, whatever was going on no director found the resolute queerness of Joan’s 1950s persona quite like Nicholas Ray did with his weird western Johnny Guitar.

Joan had plenty of experience playing ball busters and vamps, but she had never played a character quite like Vienna, the saloon owner whom everyone in town seems to want gone. Vienna wears high-waisted black pants and boots, a bolo tie, and a holstered gun. She employs a staff of men who seem weary of having such a powerful female boss. All day they spin the roulette wheel in her club, even though there are no gamblers, and they serve drinks at her bar even though there are no drinkers. A former flame of Vienna’s named Johnny Guitar (played by Sterling Hayden) is ostensibly hired to strum some tunes for her clientele. But there's never anyone there, except for the nefarious bank-robbing gang that hangs out at Vienna’s including members with names like The Dancin’ Kid and a guy named Turkey. So yes we have Vienna, Johnny Guitar, the Dancin’ Kid, and Turkey--just for starters.

Mercedes McCambridge plays a woman named Emma so repressed she is always shaking with indignation and barely supressed lust. Emma hates Vienna and carries a secret flame for the Dancin’ Kid. Emma is also the ringleader of a vicious mob of townies determined to make sure that Vienna’s saloon closes and that she clears out of town before she stands to make a fortune from a forthcoming railway line through town.

This is the kind of movie where lines of dialogue seem almost free-associated, where the sexual politics are steeped in multiple layers of juicy queerness. It’s a movie where Sterling Hayden of all people, one of the most "man’s man" actors who ever lived, is essentially a passive figure in Joan’s boot black orbit. It’s a frustrating, beguiling, utterly fabulous modern western. And while Nicholas Ray obviously deserves the accolades for making explicit what was ever only implicit in Joan’s performances it’s Joan who rises to the occasion becoming, probably for the first and only time, a lesbian icon of cool.

Posted by:
Jed Leland
Apr 10, 2014 11:52am
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