Pauline Kael The New Yorker Oct.1981
I grew up during a time when it was common practice to apply hairbrushes, belts, or sturdy switches (a thin branch from a tree or a stalk from a root or plant) to the backsides of children for the purpose of discipline. Back then, kids knew the likely consequence of disobedience was to get “a whipping” (spanked) or, if in public, a pluck to the ears or smack to the back of the head (seriously!). Misdeeds that failed to warrant physical punishment were met with shouts (“Shut up back there!”), threats (“Mouth off to me again and I’ll slap you clear into next week!”), or other colorful forms of what we now call verbal/psychological abuse (“What are you, stupid?”).
Welcome to Parenting 101: The Pre Dr. Spock years. Whether it be corporal punishment, verbal abuse, or psychological intimidation (“Wait ‘til your father gets home!”); our parents did it to us because their parents did it to them. No one bothered to question such behavior for it was widely held to have been the single ingredient marking the difference between the raising of a juvenile delinquent or a contributing member of society.
|This hurts me more than it does you|
If ever there was an individual who epitomized the words “movie star,” it was Joan Crawford. Everything about her finely burnished image fed the public perception of her as a hardworking, glamorous star of ladylike hauteur and refinement. While other stars were battling studio heads, suffering public meltdowns (would Mommie Dearest have caused such a sensation had its subject been one of Hollywood’s more famously unstable stars like Judy Garland?), and living flashy lives of decadent excess, Joan always conducted herself as if she were Hollywood’s goodwill ambassador.
Published in 1978 (only one year after Crawford’s death), Mommie Dearest caused quite a sensation. Not only was it one of the earliest examples of the tell-all celebrity memoir but one of the first popular books to shed light on the problem of child abuse. These days, I would welcome any public figure who didn’t seize on every opportunity to publicly air their abuses, addictions, and mental-illnesses; but in 1978, it was rare indeed to read such an incendiary airing of dirty-laundry about a movie star. Especially one with an image as scrupulously manicured as that of Joan Crawford.
I saw the film Mommie Dearest the day it opened at
Mann's Chinese Theater in 1981. By this time the bestseller had become
something of a cause célèbre, galvanizing public opinion into three distinct camps:
1) Those who accepted the portrayal of Joan Crawford as a child-abusing,
alcoholic, germaphobe; 2) Those who believed Christina’s allegations to have
been greatly exaggerated and motivated by greed and vindictiveness; and, 3) Those
who reveled in the memoir’s voyeuristic sensationalism and camp-tastic portrayal
of a headstrong diva thoroughly out of control. Hollywood
To this latter group, the events of Mommie Dearest somehow bypassed sympathetic analysis and barreled headlong into being a book enjoyed as a Jacqueline Susann- esque hybrid of old Joan Crawford movies (specifically Queen Bee, Harriet Craig, and Mildred Pierce) crossed with The Bad Seed. I don’t know whether it was Crawford’s grand diva posturing or society’s deep-seated resentment of the rich and famous, but there was just something about Mommie Dearest that many found irresistibly satirical.
Being screamed at by your mother:Traumatic
Being screamed at by your mother who's decked out in a sleep mask, chin strap, and night gloves: Priceless
|Faye Dunaway IS Joan Crawford|
|Diana Scarwid as Christina (adult)|
|Mara Hobel as Christina (child)|
|Steve Forrest as Greg Savitt|
Much in the manner that the incredibly stylish cubist/art deco title sequence for Lucille Ball’s Mame (1974) proffered hopes (quickly dashed) of a classy entertainment that never materialized, Mommie Dearest gets off to a very promising start with a dramatically evocative, cinematically economical montage detailing the pre-dawn preparations that go into the creation of Joan Crawford, the movie star.
It’s a marvelous sequence of compulsive self-discipline and dues-paying that turns a morning bath into a near-religious purging ritual built upon the duty and sacrifice of stardom. (I particularly like how Crawford, autographing photos in the back seat of her limo as she’s driven to the studio, never allows for a moment of idleness. It calls to mind my perception of what Oprah Winfrey must be like in her private moments…I seriously don’t know when that woman finds time to sleep.)
|Joan Crawford, world-class multi-tasker|
Which is really too bad, because Dunaway, who works her ass off, is really rather good (at least in that dicey, Al Pacino in Scarface / Jack Nicholson in The Shining way: where a ridiculous performance can be made to work under the right circumstances). She deserved a better script, a surer production, and a director protective enough of her to rein her in when she goes over top. Which, alas, is pretty often.
Perhaps it was misguided to even attempt to make a serious motion picture about an actress whose extreme sense of glamour (padded shoulders, mannish eyebrows, smeary lipstick, and mannered acting style) had long ago made her a camp gay icon and favorite among drag queens, impressionists, and parodists (Carol Burnett’s Mildred Fierce comes to mind). But director Frank Perry (Diary of a Mad Housewife, Last Summer) and a battery of screenwriters only compounded the risk by failing to find a dramatically viable means of adapting the material.
was years away from seriously addressing the issues of parental abuse,
alcoholism, and possible bipolar disorder (the success of 1981's Arthur still pivoted
on how hilarious alcoholics were). Which may explain why the mother-daughter
conflicts in Mommie Dearest…scenes of familial dysfunction worthy of
William Inge…consistently fall short of tapping into the pain at their source. America
Mommie Dearest, like its titular subject, gets bogged down with the superficial. Lacking in depth, the dialog, costuming, and performances work in concert to turn each of its setpiece scenes into high-style, $#*! My Mother Says.
|The illusion of perfection|
I’m guilty of whatever human frailty it is that causes people to rejoice when cracks are found in the façade of public figures who insist on portraying themselves and their lives as perfect. I was one of those so shocked at Mommie Dearest’s unmasking of little-miss-perfect Joan Crawford as a bit of a nutjob, that I failed to pay much attention to the not-so-funny issue of child abuse, which should have been my focus from the start. Viewing Mommie Dearest today, so many years after its release, I wonder if the film is not guilty of the same thing. The focus should have been on the character of Christina, not Joan. It’s her story after all. Since even the most world-famous parent is likely to be just plain old “mom” or “dad” to a child, the resultant shift in focus might have offered a less traditional view of Crawford and saved Mommie Dearest from becoming what it frequently feels like: the world’s longest drag act.
|Joan Crawford's palatial Bel-Air home (top) first appeared as the mansion of gangster J. Sinister Hulk (Jesse White, bottom photo, left) in the 1964 Annette Funicello musical, Pajama Party|
In spite of the hours of enjoyment I've had at Faye Dunaway’s expense (countless hours of tears running down my cheeks, cramped stomach muscles, desperate gasps for air between full-throated howls of joyous laughter), as I've stated, I really think she does an amazing job in Mommie Dearest. It’s not so much that she’s good, although she does have her moments; so much as she’s incredibly brave and frighteningly committed. She throws herself into the role so wholeheartedly that I don’t know that she can be completely faulted for failing to land right on the mark.
Dunaway makes some odd choices (the cross-eyed bit during the wire hangers scene is just asking for it, and who exactly thought the whole “Don’t fuck with me, fellas!” line was going to work?), but within the confines of a rather choppy script, there is an attempt on Dunaway’s part to add some dimension to the at-times cartoonish monster Mommie Dearest would have us believe is Joan Crawford.
Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that Mommie Dearest isn’t a bad film so much as a series of gross miscalculations all around. Here are just a few things the makers of Mommie Dearest failed to take into account:
a) 40s era Joan Crawford looks disconcertingly like Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
b) Power plays between curly haired brats and mannish glamour stars are funny.
c) Extreme wealth undercuts tragedy.
e) Casting a legendarily temperamental actress in the role of a legendarily temperamental actress encourages the audience to wonder if they're watching Dunaway being Dunaway, or Dunaway being Crawford.
|Madonna & Child|
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
There was a time when I really couldn’t get sufficiently past Joan Crawford’s extreme look and affected style of acting to see her as anything other than a comically camp timepiece. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate her skill and talent, and today she’s one of my favorite actresses of all time. Mommie Dearest is too flawed a film for even nostalgic revisionism to one day convert into a misunderstood classic; but I think there stands a good chance that time will be kinder to Faye Dunaway’s performance. Like many of the under-appreciated performances of Marlon Brando that have come to light to be among his best (Reflections in a Golden Eye), Dunaway’s Joan Crawford may be a bit “out there” at times, but it is a fascinating, almost athletic performance, far more layered and intelligent than the film deserves.
|Understatement of the Year Dept:|
"Today Faye sees herself 'as starting on a second phase of my professional life, just as Joan Crawford did...'"
People Magazine Oct. 1981
Copyright © Ken Anderson