The Story of Esther Costello
Nicholas Monsarrat's novel originally was developed for the screen for director Sam Fuller. But when none of his choices to play the deaf girl -- including Susan Strasberg, Joan Collins and Natalie Wood -- were available, he passed on the project. Crawford, meanwhile, needed a third film to complete her contract for Columbia Pictures when the studio suggested The Story of Esther Costello. At first her agents hesitated to mention it to her. They didn't know if she would be willing to shoot in England or take a reduced fee against a percentage of the box office. But the biggest question was whether she would take the chance of being overshadowed by a younger actress. Quite clearly, the film's showcase role was Esther. Not only was she the title character, but she also had a good deal of screen time and was in several demanding scenes, including a rape. And the actress would have to play all this silently, as the character was mute.
Crawford surprised everybody by agreeing to the role. She was already working for a percentage at Columbia, and had been a pioneer among Hollywood stars in deferring salary for a share in the film's success. The European shoot would give her the chance to do publicity for her husband's company, Pepsi Cola, which had become an important part of her life since their 1956 marriage. And at this point in her career, she was finding suitable roles hard to come by. It also helped that the film's director-producer, David Miller, had directed her in Sudden Fear, the thriller that had revitalized her career in 1952. As an added bonus, her ex-husband would be played by Brazzi, an Italian actor who had become one of the screen's biggest heartthrobs after romancing Katharine Hepburn in Summertime (1955). He was so handsome, in fact, that he once stated, "Sometimes my face is more beautiful than the leading lady's."
The Crawford glamour was prominently displayed when she arrived in London with 37 pieces of matched, monogrammed luggage. Her husband Alfred Steele provided a white Pepsi-Cola van to transport it to their hotel and a limousine for Crawford and the stuffed dog she carried to remind her of the real thing, left behind in the U.S. because of British quarantine laws. She also had arranged for Columbia's Jean Louis to design her costumes, including a sequined dress with fur trim -- just in case anybody had forgotten the star's Hollywood pedigree. But on the set, she was all business. As was her custom, she spent many a night sleeping in her dressing room so she could keep totally focused on her role. In addition, she and co-star Sears learned sign language so their communications would be totally realistic.
As many had predicted, however, the film was practically stolen by the younger girl, played by Sears. One of the generation of British actors to rise to fame in the late '50s "Angry Young Man" dramas, she had made her London stage debut in the key work of that movement, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. The Story of Esther Costello was her big break, bringing her a British Academy Award (BAFTA) for Best Actress and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She followed it with Room at the Top (1959), where her fine performance as Laurence Harvey's wealthy fiancée was overshadowed by Simone Signoret's Oscar®-winning work as his mistress, and Sons and Lovers (1960). She would finish her career with television work and a one-woman show in which she played Virginia Woolf.
But it wasn't Sears's triumph that put Crawford's career on hold. Despite the inevitable jokes about her long-suffering screen characters (New York Herald Tribune: "It wouldn't be a Joan Crawford picture without plenty of anguish"), she got mostly positive reviews for her work, and her fans continued to be delighted by her on-screen exploits. But with a dearth of roles for women in their fifties and the demands of her involvement with Pepsi-Cola, a break from filmmaking was in order. She didn't return until The Best of Everything (1959), in which she played a glorified cameo. It would take another reinvention, as a scream queen in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), to put her career back on track.
Producer: Jack Clayton, David Miller
Director: David Miller
Screenplay: Charles Kaufman
Based on the novel by Nicholas Monsarrat
Cinematography: Robert Krasker
Art Direction: George Provis, Tony Masters
Music: Georges Auric
Cast: Joan Crawford (Margaret Landi), Rossano Brazzi (Carlo Landi), Heather Sears (Esther Costello), Lee Patterson (Harry Grant), Ron Randell (Frank Wenzel), Fay Compton (Mother Superior), John Loder (Paul Marchant), Denis O'Dea (Father Devlin), Bessie Love (Matron at Art Gallery).
by Frank Miller