As she neared fifty, determined to keep going, she became almost grotesque, answering her own needs and the wiles of directors eager to exploit her. In Nicholas Ray’s odd, beautiful, impassioned Western “Johnny Guitar” (1954), she’s Vienna, a tough businesswoman who runs a saloon and constantly faces down groups of armed men. Vienna is both an icon of self-reliance and a woman who’s uncontrollably in love with a handsome young gunslinger (Sterling Hayden). The performance, lodged somewhere between the dignified and the absurd, is so peculiarly willed that it stunned the young François Truffaut. “She is beyond considerations of beauty,” he wrote. “She has become unreal, a fantasy of herself. Whiteness has invaded her eyes, muscles have taken over her face, a will of iron behind a face of steel. She is a phenomenon. She is becoming more manly as she grows older. Her clipped, tense acting, pushed almost to paroxysm by Ray, is in itself a strange and fascinating spectacle.”
—From “Escape Artist,” David Denby’s 2011 New Yorker profile of Joan Crawford.