Tuesday, December 27, 2011

MOMMIE DEAREST 1981

“After Michael Redgrave played the insane ventriloquist in Dead of Night, bits of the character’s paranoia kept turning up in his other performances; it would be hair-raising if Faye Dunaway were to have trouble shaking off the gorgon Joan.”
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
That’s one reason why when I first read Mommie Dearest—Christina Crawford’s bestselling memoir detailing the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her adoptive mother, screen legend Joan Crawford— I was among those who had no problem believing the allegations made against Crawford were true. For those of us who grew up in the "spare the rod, spoil the child” era, the behavior described in Mommie Dearest was considerably less shocking than who was engaging in it: Mildred Pierce herself, Joan Crawford.
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 Hollywood's 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.  

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.
Pathos Undermined
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
However the memoir was received, the one thing everybody agreed upon was that Mommie Dearest had wreaked irreparable damage to Joan Crawford’s image. Virtually overnight the name of Joan Crawford had become an instant punch line (no pun intended, but see how easy that was?).
Faye Dunaway IS Joan Crawford
Diana Scarwid as Christina (adult)
Mara Hobel as Christina (child)
Steve Forrest as Greg Savitt
The audience that crowded The Chinese Theater that opening day in 1981 was abuzz with that rare kind of anticipation born of knowing you were about to see a film that promised a rollicking good time whether it was a triumph or a travesty. A win-win situation!

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
For about five minutes Mommie Dearest really looks like it’s going to work...and then the audience gets its first look at Faye Dunaway in her Joan Crawford makeup. Although the transformation is impressive, the effect is startling in all the wrong ways. Gasps are followed by giggles, giggles erupt into guffaws, and Mommie Dearest never really regains its footing. 

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. America 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.
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
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
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
PERFORMANCES:
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.
I’m of the opinion that much of what is accepted as funny about her portrayal of Joan Crawford is only partially her fault. No insult intended to the Joan Crawford fans out there, but the real Joan Crawford in full “Joan-mode” is pretty hilarious. Dunaway’s impersonation is so spot-on that the laughs she gets can’t really be attributed to her completely. I mean those are Joan’s eyebrows and pinched-constipated smile; that is Crawford’s butch, bitch-queen bossiness; and anyone who’s ever seen the level of overwrought emotionalism she’s capable of bringing to even the most easy-going scenes (check out Trog, sometime), knows that even a lot of Faye's overacting belongs to Crawford.

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.
Joan Crawford (center) flanked by the contenders to the throne. Oscar winner Anne Bancroft (r.) was Christina Crawford's personal choice for the role of Joan. When Bancroft declined, Faye Dunaway (who, ironically enough was a favorite of Joan Crawford's) took over the reins. 
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
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

14 comments:

  1. Hi Ken,

    I love this picture, and I think modern audiences who view MOMMIE DEAREST mostly don't remember what a palace of artifice the studio system was in the 1940's. What I'm saying is, the artifice and the "camp" that audiences perceive is not a device of the 1981 filmmakers; rather, it is a camp and artifice that sincerely existed during the reign of the studio system. Audiences of 1981 and beyond are too young perhaps to fully register just what a theater of illusion Hollywood was... Today, we like our stars to have a certain "naturalness".. a certain "approachability"... but not so in Hollywood's Golden Age: George Hurrell's portraits are studies in Gods and Goddesses.

    In other words, I feel MOMMIE DEAREST is misunderstood. I think the passage of time will reveal it to be a strange masterpiece... the same way Douglas Sirk's films have been rediscovered and re-appreciated.

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    1. Hi rasputin1963
      You make a good point about the stylized, pre-Method kind of acting that was common in older films. From those odd mid-Atlantic accents everybody seemed to adopt, to the sometimes archly theatrical way in which common behavior was conveyed. In the 80's, that kind of acting wasn't really seen in motion pictures, and only later, when "Dynasty" became popular, would it be sort of welcomed back (unable to shed the camp effect, however). I think "Mommie Dearest" is a flawed film, but I do agree it is a great deal better than its reputation suggests. This week I read that Lincoln center was screening "Myra Breckinridge" in a Raquel Welch film retrospective. If that can happen, I'm convinced that with the passage of a little more time, "Mommie Dearest" has a good chance of being re-discovered and re-appreciated. Thanks so much for reading the blog and taking the time to comment!

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  2. MOMMIE DEAREST was never really taken seriously as a film after audiences during it's first run literally laughed it off the screen.

    Paramount went along with the joke and quickly re-did it's publicity campaign with the tag lines: "The Biggest Mother of them All" and the now in-famous: "No More Wire Hangers Ever!!!" complete with a picture of a wire hanger!

    Needless to say Dunaway was infuriated by all this after all the hard work she put into it hoping for Oscar gold in the process. She consequently disowned the film and to this day refuses to even discuss it.

    MOMMIE DEAREST works great on a double bill with VALLEY OF THE DOLLS!

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    1. Hi again PTF! I totally remember the ad campaign you speak of. Somewhere around here I have a copy of the newspaper ad...it had the Mommie Dearest script logo with a wire hanger hanging from the "o" or something. I even recall the "I never touched the bitch!" T-shirts they sold at the time.
      No...the movie never had a chance once word of mouth spread. As much as I love the laughs in the film and wish Dunaway would lighten up (Like Patty Duke eventually did about "VOTD"), I know it must have been awful to have your career totally on the ascendant and then with one movie your public perception is changed overnight; you become a laughingstock and never get offered the same caliber of roles you had before.

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  3. Wow, Ken, this is the best essay on Mommie that I have ever read. You have totally nailed it in all its complexity. It's a failure in every respect, but Dunaway's total commitment to the role is unquestionable. (Little did she suspect she had committed to playing the creature in a monster movie.) I strongly suspect Frank Perry and the producers saw the rushes and made a decision to give Dunaway enough rope to hang herself with, and to reposition this as a cult-type midnight movie, LONG before the release date. The fact that they didn't let Faye in on it could be the reason she still seethes at any interview questions related to this BIG and EPIC career-killer...

    That said, I can't help but love it. It's a perfect guilty pleasure. Not only Faye but images like the elaborately swathed nun, Tina's slimy boyfriend reaching into her big-girl panties, and Rutanya Alda in an old-lady Halloween mask at the end make indelible impressions on a young and already-twisted mind...it's a psychedelic funhouse parody of a classic Hollywood film.

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    1. What a very kind compliment, Angelman! I greatly appreciate it. I thought there were enough posts out there laying into what is so awful about the movie, but I am always intrigued by why some bad films die and disappear while others endure and become more popular than many good films. This essay was my way of detailing for myself why I keep coming back to "Mommie Dearest."

      As you say, there is perhaps something careless in how Dunaway was handled by Perry and the films producers.
      All true fans of this film can catalog their favorite images and scenes. I like yours a lot because they are not the points usually brought up (Oh...that old lady makeup on Rutanya Alda...so distractingly bad!)

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  4. Terrific essay! It's easy to overlook the issue of child abuse (at one point, it's even a bit funny from a slapstick viewpoint) for the rest of the movie's excesses. I agree that Dunaway is 120% committed to the role and I hope that one day she does embrace the movie for what it is. I am curious about Christina's screenplay. I don't think that it would be a masterpiece of screenwriting, but it might hint at what MD told from Christina's point of view might have been. I look forward to reading your other essays. Take care - Scott

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    1. Hi Scott
      Thank you very much! Glad you liked the post. Like you, I would love to read what kind of screenplay Christina Crawford submitted that would be vetoed for THIS one! If nothing else, it would be fascinating to know how she would have preferred to see her mother and herself portrayed.
      Thanks a heap, and hope you return to perhaps you're inspired to share your impressions of other films you like (or don't)!

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  5. A bit late with this comment, but having just recently discovered your blog and having a wonderful time reading through your past reviews, I hope I'll be forgiven. Amazingly, you and I saw Mommie Dearest at the same place and the same time. I lived in L.A. at the time and my roommate and I were really looking forward to the movie--we were already talking about Faye's Oscar chances. When the movie ended we were simultaneously crestfallen and giggling with a sort of shocked glee. I clearly remember seeing those "No wire hangers" ads just a few days later. I think with a tougher director, someone willing to rein her in, Faye could have given a much richer performance. Also, while I'm not doubting Christina Crawford's memory of events, it's worth remembering that Joan's youngest two children denied their older sister's book categorically and refused to sign releases to allow themselves to be portrayed in the movie. In fact, if you only knew Joan through Mommy Dearest (scary thought!), you wouldn't know that she had four children.

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    1. Hello 3D!
      Nice to see you again. No need to apologize for commenting on older posts. It's kind of fun for me!
      That's something about your seeing this film at the same time and place. What's great is that you remember that brief moment in time (before it was released) where there was the kind of anticipation for Oscar-winner Dunaway appearing in this film as there is for a Meryl Streep movie today. It wasn't until "Showgirls" came out that I could recall a major motion picture flopping so completely upon release. As you note, the damage-control ad campaign changed virtually overnight.

      And yes, in the ensuing years, more has come to light about things Christina left out of her book (Christopher in particular sounds like he should have been in reform school). I daresay there was probably a lot of acting out and dysfunction in that house, and no home with alcoholics or abusers is without their silent souls who deny anything bad ever happened. i always think there is a really compelling, perhaps tragic drama somewhere within what really happened in that house, but our fame culture (see: Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Michael Jackson) makes it so hard to want to believe our artists can also be monsters, and their fame makes them so vulnerable if they are innocent.
      It pleases me no end that you are enjoying looking around the blog. Feel free to comment on anything, old or new. It may take some time, but I always catch up. Thanks!

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    2. Well, what I find even more interesting is that in another review you mentioned living near Santa Monica and Vine in the early 1980s--me too! From 1982 until 1987, I lived on Lodi Place which was off Santa Monica between Gower and Vine. Small world--we probably saw each other at the laudramat, grocery store, or the Cinerama Dome!

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    3. Ha! I lived at the nostalgia-inducing Villa Elaine apartments on Vine at least until 1982 (or whenever it was the Hollywood library burned down).
      I loved that little neighborhood. At least you were around during the time Hollywood Blv had all those movie theaters to go to like the Pic, The Vogue, The Pacific, and the Hollywood. Seems we spun in the same orbit for a time!

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    4. It's a Faye Dunaway vehicle, the rest of the production is of lesser importance. Perhaps she should have been reigned in a bit. But if she had been more subtle, it wouldn't have been such great entertainment. No female impersonator ever reached this height, not even Divine!
      Do we really doubt that Crawford was a monster? I always found her a caricature of a woman and a creepy one too, So was Bette Davis, but she also managed to be adorable, no matter what venom she produced.
      I've seen a lot of interviews with Joan and she was heavily in the acting mode all the time, Never a spontaneous answer or reaction, never a spur of sincerity in those wide open eyes. That woman had a screw lose somewhere. She didn't have my sympathies in Baby Jane, no way. It was Bette Davis' character I felt for. Sort of.
      But what Joan (and the Academy) did to Bette Davis at the Oscar ceremony was absolutely evil, Delicious!

      I don't feel sorry for Dunaway either. For Chinatown, Polanski needed a neurotic actress, and Faye had plenty of that in her bag. She made life hell for him on the set, it was all about her, she was constantly asking 'Am I looking good?', everything had to be perfect & flawless. Familiar with the story how a hair in Fay's hairdo kept springing up, distractively catching light? The stylist couldn't get it right, Roman got fed up, said in that soft voice of his 'Scuse me', and yanked the hair out. Faye went berserker.
      Okay, even she didn't deserve what happened around Mommy Dearest. But don't forget that actors don't write the scripts. They screwed her allright.
      The movie looks ravishing, that's for sure. They were so wise not to give the Christina character the Shirley Temple makeover (she was an unappealing child and so was the actress). Faye looks stunning, I watched it three times and I enjoyed myself hugely. This is SHOWTIME, baby!

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    5. Hi Willem
      Yes, it's a Faye Dunaway vehicle from start to finish. And now that "Mommie Dearest" has firmly blurred the line between fact and fiction / Dunaway and Crawford, I guess there's no turning back.
      What has always been fascinating about watching any program which featured Christina Crawford speaking about her life is to see the violent response to her "memories."
      There are many who believe Crawford a monster, but I sometimes wonder if there isn't even a larger group who prefers to think otherwise. Why, I'm not sure, since, as you say, Joan's "oddness" is quite obvious in even her best performances.
      Our fame culture, I guess.
      I read Dunaway's memoirs in which she recounted the Polanski episode, and Polanski's memoirs which relates it pretty much the same, just a different perspective of who was "right". He: she was impossibly self-centered; She: he was impossibly self-centered.

      Whether she likes it or not, "Mommie Dearest" is one of Dunaway's most entertaining films. Like Patty Duke made peace with Valley of the Dolls, I wish Dunaway would make peace with this.

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