This is the outrageous and controversial story of legendary movie star Joan Crawford (Dunaway) and her struggle with the deal roles of fading actress and tormented mother. The public Crawford was strong-willed, glamorous and admirable, but Mommie Dearest reveals the private Crawford, the woman desperate to be a mother, adopting her children when she was single and trying to survive in the devastating movie industry. The rage, the debilitating strain, and the terrifying descent into alcoholism and child abuse are graphically – and unforgettably – depicted in this film.
Mommie Dearest 7.25
eyelights: Faye Dunaway’s insane performance. its shocking story of Hollywood royalty. Henry Mancini’s lush score.
eyesores: Faye Dunaway’s insane performance. its trashy TV movie-caliber script. its poor editing. the wrap-up.
“Adopted children are the luckiest because they were chosen.”
Take the story of a Hollywood legend. Write an insider’s look at his/her life, revealing to the public for the first time the cracks behind the façade. Sell a gajillion copies of the book. Get a major studio to produce a movie adaptation of the book. Hire a recognizable star to play the lead. Land a hit.
Sounds conventional, doesn’t it?
And yet the fact is that ‘Mommie Dearest’, Christina Crawford’s exposé on her relationship with mother, Joan Crawford, was one of the first. It was a sensation at the time and is one of the biggest-selling memoirs in the U.S., having moved over 4 million copies of the hardcover alone.
The movie is another first: a camp classic that made a fortune at the box office despite dismal reviews, it is the first motion picture to sweep all of the major categories at the Razzie Awards. It has even been disowned by the original author and its star, who refuses to discuss the film in interviews.
Interestingly, the role of Joan is played by Dunaway, whom in the early ’70s Crawford felt was the only actress in Hollywood who “has the talent and the class and the courage it takes to make a real star”. She was hardly the first choice, however, as many other stars passed on it first.
Ironically, her performance in the lead role has elicited much controversy and, especially, derision. Even Christina Crawford, who obviously had a love-hate relationship with her mother, felt that she didn’t deserve the treatment that she received here, that Dunaway’s turn was “ludicrous”.
Within a month of release, ‘Mommie Dearest’ had already gained a cult following and people were flocking to the cinema to watch it armed with wire hangers and Ajax in hand, transforming the experience into a riotously interactive one much in the vein of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show‘.
It was this cult and camp classic reputation that drew me to ‘Mommie Dearest’. There was very little else to pull me in: I know very little about Joan Crawford, having only seen ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ (and many moons ago) and little clips in ‘That’s Entertainment!‘.
As for Faye Dunaway, she’s a terrific actress, but there’s something about her that I find off-putting. Is it her reputation for being a diva? Is it her grotesque later-period plastic surgery? Is it her brown teeth? I’m not sure, but something overwhelms her many, many achievements.
In any event, for all its flaws, I wasn’t one bit disappointed with ‘Mommie Dearest’ (named after the title that Crawford asked her daughter to address her with). Granted, it’s melodramatic and it portrays its subject as one twisted, sick person – but it’s pretty entertaining to watch.
It’s particularly notable for the astoundingly demented behaviour on display: Crawford’s obsessive-compulsive behaviour and temper tantrums, which led her to mentally and physically abuse her adopted daughter (her son seemed to have been mostly spared, in this account).
At first it seems harsh but innocuous enough: she shows concerns about the attention that Christina gets from the press, then she makes her redo some diving exercises beyond exhaustion, and even forces her to her birthday gifts to charity (under the pretense of keeping her unspoiled).
But soon it gets completely out of hand: Thinking that her daughter is mocking her, she chops her hair off. She also has frequent late-night meltdowns, forcing Christina to scrub her bathroom clean, or going out to chop down the bushes and trees in their yard – and having the kids pick up.
Then there is the infamous wire hanger scene, which is both grotesque and ridiculous at once for two reason: 1) the beating, which is horrible in real life, but so ineptly staged it’s risible, and 2) due to Dunaway’s performance, looking like a demented clown stalking the room and screeching.
This last scene is the one everyone still talks about; pictures of Dunaway’s distorted face can even sometimes be found as an internet meme. At the time, the studio realized they had a camp classic on their hands and started marketing it with the tagline “Meet the biggest MOTHER of them all!”.
From a purely objective standpoint, ‘Mommie Dearest’ is a serviceable docu-drama, covering its subject adequately and serving up decent enough performances – at least, more so than its reputation would suggest. It also does a fine job of aging Crawford over many decades.
However it fails in situating its characters in time. So, although Crawford ages appropriately in tandem with her daughter’s age, the passage of time isn’t properly established – for example, she appears to have been on the board of Pepsi Cola for only a short while, not a full 14 years!!!
The picture is also marred by a few serious editing issues, with different angle that simply don’t match, and various ill-fitting takes that are cut together – the worst of it coming in what should be some of the most shocking scenes, basically neutering them by distracting the audience.
‘Mommie Dearest’ is a tragic end to a Hollywood royalty’s tragic life. Although the victim of the piece is Christina, one can’t help but wonder what demons Joan was dueling with her whole life. What led to her erratic behaviour and alcoholism? Could she have been helped and redeemed?
One will always wonder, but the unfortunate reality is that she tumbled from grace and never recovered. And now the world will only remember her for the hysterical portrayal of her in this picture. Is it karmic retribution? Well, given all that she subjected Christina to, one might be inclined to think so.
Clearly, this mother didn’t always know best.
Date of viewing: April 12, 2015