|Mommie Dearest (1981)
Starring: Faye Dunaway, Diana Scarwid, Steve Forrest, Howard Da Silva, Mara Hobel, Rutanya Alda, Harry Goz
Director: Frank Perry
“Don’t fuck with me, fellas! This ain’t my first time at the rodeo…!”
- Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway), in Mommie Dearest
I know, you thought I’d open with the “no wire hangers” quote…but, y’know, maybe it’s just because this one’s a little less quoted, but it actually makes me laugh harder.
“Mommie Dearest” is the story of Christina Crawford, a little girl adopted by actress Joan Crawford. Did Joan adopt Christina because she wanted children but couldn’t have any of her own, or was it more because it would help her image in the press if she could be looked upon as a loving mother? Whatever the case, any part of her “loving mother” reputation was shot to hell when Christina published her tell-all autobiography, “Mommie Dearest,” about the horrors that clean-freak and obsessive-compulsive Joan put her daughter through. (She also adopted a son, but he pretty much got off scot-free.)
Joan Crawford was, if her adopted daughter’s story is to be believed, a manipulative bitch that would do anything to maintain her career in show business and her wealthy stature; every move she made was coldly calculated for maximum impact. We see Christina grow up and suffer her mother’s wrath throughout her life…and even when Christina reaches adulthood and it seems she’s finally out from under her mother’s thumb, she discovers that, no, it’s going to require Joan’s death for Christina to truly be free.
Faye Dunaway wanted the role of Joan Crawford so badly that she showed up for dinner at the producer’s house in character…and got the part on the spot. Her performance is a tour de force – both good and bad – but the resemblance between Dunaway and Crawford is downright disconcerting; her transformation into Crawford is so incredible that director Frank Perry pointedly avoids showing her face for the first few minutes of the film, so as to build excitement with the viewer. But let’s get back to the performance for a moment, shall we?
It’s hard to know if the blame for the I-can-your-house-from-where-I’m-emoting moments, like “Tina, bring me the axe” or the infamous wire-hangers speech, lie with Dunaway or Perry, but, whatever the case, they result in taking the viewer completely out of what has the potential to be a truly fascinating drama. Here’s the story of an excellent actress and powerful businesswoman (she spent time on the board of directors of Pepsi-Cola) who had some really serious mental problems, including a serious battle with alcoholism, but all that’s remembered is how she wore face cream and beat her adopted daughter with a wire hanger. If more subtlety had been utilized for those utterly crazed scenes, perhaps Dunaway might not be so embarrassed by the movie. (She absolutely refuses to discuss it and had no part in this reissue.) To be fair, there is one quiet moment that stands out in the film…and perhaps it’s not so much subtle as it is simply more understated than what’s come immediately before it. Whatever the case, after the hanger beating, Joan demands that Christina scrub the floor and sends cleanser spewing across the bathroom, leaving a helpless Christina to simply utter the words, “Jesus Christ.” The next scene…? Joan and her two adopted children being interviewed for a radio show about how wonderful and picturesque their Christmas Eve is going to be. It’s legitimately chilling.
“Mommie Dearest” is a film that’s constantly bouncing back and forth between extremely well-performed moments of legitimate drama and insanely over-the-top performances, resulting in an odd sort of recommendation. The part of me that’s your pal says you should see it because, when Dunaway takes it over the top, you’ll laugh your ass off; the part of me that’s a critic says you should see it because, even as crazy as Dunaway gets, when you look at her, you’ll truly believe she is Joan Crawford. It’s the performance of a lifetime. On more than one level.
Since “Mommie Dearest” has been a cult classic of the highest order since its initial release (not as if it had a chance to be appreciated on any other level), Paramount decided to gussy it up for its 25th anniversary and release it as a “Hollywood Royalty Edition.” This means they’ve added three featurettes – “The Revival of Joan,” about bringing the book to the screen, “Life with Joan,” about the making of the film itself,” and “Joan Lives On,” about its cult following – as well as an audio commentary from the king of kitsch himself, filmmaker John Waters. The most surprising thing about Waters’ discussion of the film is that, while he certainly acknowledges the over-the-top scenes that have made it such a camp favorite amongst the drag queen community, he really thinks it’s a great film and provides clarification as to why. You might not agree with him, but his enthusiasm makes for a highly enjoyable commentary.