Tuesday, December 27, 2011


“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 in the interest of instilling "discipline." Back then, kids knew the likely consequence of disobedience or backtalk 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 failing to warrant physical punishment were met with verbal reprimands ("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 know to be 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 the administering of strict parental discipline was widely held at the time to be the single ingredient marking the difference between the raising of a worthless juvenile delinquent, or a contributing member of society.
This hurts me more than it does you

This is 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 to be 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 though she were Hollywood’s unofficial  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 it was 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 feel compelled to publicly air their abuses, addictions, and mental-illnesses; but in 1978, it was a rare thing indeed to publish 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 readers 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 hard-fought-for 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 got off to a very promising start with a dramatically evocative, cinematically economical montage detailing the pre-dawn preparations going into the creation of Joan Crawford, the movie star.

It’s a marvelous sequence of compulsive self-discipline and dues-paying professionalism 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 to rein her in when she went 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.
For starters, the film can't really decide whose story it is. Are we seeing Joan as Christina sees her (in which case Christina's psychological perspective gets incredibly short shrift), or is this a "behind the facade" look at a famous actress (which leaves us wondering, what's the point?).

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

I’m guilty of whatever human frailty it is which 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 by 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 many hours of enjoyment I've had at Faye Dunaway’s expense (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 completely to her performance/impersonation. 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 herself.

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. 

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 inherently 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

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. 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. Perhaps 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


  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.

    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!

  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!

    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.

  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.

    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!)

  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

    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)!

  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.

    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!

    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!

    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!

    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!

    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.

  6. I only saw this for the first time last year. Incredibly entertaining; as you say, if only Dunaway could have been reined in a bit...if that would have been the case, I think it would have been perfect. I'm surprised nobody has mentioned what I consider to be the film's saving grace, the utterly believable and shatteringly realistic performance by severely underrated Diana Scarwid as the older Christina.

    1. So sorry for the late reply, but I'm glad you brought up Diana Scarwid. Her performance is a little somnambulistic for my taste, but I don't the film could really sustain a more energetic performance. It would have been like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf Goes to Hollywood."
      But a great many people feel as you do, that Scarwid's performance provides the oftimes cartoonish film with its sole trace of realism and humanity.
      Thank you for highlighting her performance and for visiting this blog!

  7. What a well-written, persuasive review. I don't think I can sit through the movie again, but your intelligent piece almost makes it tempting! Good job!

    1. Ha! I know what you mean...some films are definitely "Once is Plenty" affairs. I thank you so much for the very kind words and for taking the time to read this post and comment!

  8. What people who have not been victims of a certain type of abuse that involves uncontrolled rage fail to realize is that Faye Dunaway is not over the top. A child (or even an adult) confronted with such rage (which is depicted accurately in the film) knows what I'm talking about. I never understand what people mean when they say Dunaway should have been more subtle and reigned it in. This is a form of mental or emotional illness where the person is completely, irrationally overtaken with rage. You can't depict explosive rage in a more subtle or a less dramatic way. It is overdramatic and in fact, weirdly theatrical. There are indeed people who act like this, it's accurate. And yes, they still function and do not act like this in other situations. They do lose control and become monstrous, temporarily, usually in private.

    1. I agree. I think the frustration even Christina Crawford had with the film is that its screenplay and direction, in failing to successfully establish Joan Crawford's character in a more authentically (recognizably) human way, created a situation in which those outbursts seemed to isolate themselves from the narrative.
      The kind of dangerously erratic behavior Crawford/Dunaway evinces in "Mommie Dearest" is not very different from the kind of explosive abuse of a character like Jake LaMotta in "Raging Bull" or Laurence Fishburne's Ike Turner in "What's Love Got To Do With It"; but in constructing "Mommie Dearest" no one involved sought to address our culture's comfortableness with women being abusive (we characterize it as hysterical) or how to dramatically modulate the light-switch nature of bipolar rage; I think people were left with series of outburst scenes dramatically and psychologically disconnected from anything the film was successfully able to portray about Crawford.
      So in watching "Mommie Dearest" I don't know that people aren't willing to "believe" that such behavior is possible, my sense is that detractors feel that the film failed to "convince" them of it in this context.

    2. I read Mommie Dearest before seeing the movie, and I've always disliked the people who say this was a vitriolic hit job by that bitch Christina on poor blameless Saint Joan, unable to defend herself from the grave. Reading these comments made me remember that my mom was one of those people! She said the exact same thing about celebrities who were outed post-mortem, too (me asking why being gay was something to be refuted met with little response, of course). In a larger sense, I can now see that my mom's insistence on maintaining "a Republican world"-- as Edmund White calls the 1950's--was inextricably linked to her denial-based existence, esp. re: her own mental illness. Others asserting this view seem similarly invested in maintaining the illusion of Hollywood as the immaculate realm of gods and goddesses, no flaws allowed!

      My disdain for Joan apologists also stems from my empathy for Christina. I too had a mother who was charming and glamorous in public, but at home was physically and emotionally abusive (though thankfully not to the extent that Joan was. Mom had no preferences re: hangers!). Thus when these people are indicting Christina as vengeful hellspawn, it feels like they're denying the truth of what she and I both experienced. Even though mental illness was poorly understood in my mom and Joan's era (and still is ridiculously stigmatized and not always treatable today), I can't quite give them a mulligan on this one. No matter how deluded and ill they were, no justification exists for abusing kids. EVER. (The reason all my chilluns are four-legged is my refusal to inflict our family's fucked-up genetics on any progeny. Bipolar hubby 125% on board with this.)

      But I love this movie for its Sirkian campy grandeur and plethora of immortal lines, along with the way Dunaway's OTT is itself OTT! (Or like the kids today say, she's extra af.) I'm also looking forward to seeing Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon as Joan and Bette in Feud, though it's impossible to ignore the scuttlebutt I once read--likely in Hollywood Babylon--that their enmity was in fact the end result of an affair gone bad. How much fun would it be if Lange and Sarandon added that dimension into their performances?!

    3. Hi Lila
      I couldn't agree with you more on the topic of Joan-apologists. I've always found Christina's memoirs too credible to discount out of hand. Since, as we've seen with famous people like Polanski and Cosby accused of sexual assault (major cases of denial and delusion), I've never understood why someone being around to "defend themselves" is considered a guarantee of truth telling. In fact, years of old Hollywood gossip that has crawled out of various closets after a the death of a celebrity seems to make a case for one ONLY being able to get anywhere near the truth after a star has died.
      You express, far more eloquently and persuasively than I, why what face a parent shows to the public is no indication at all of what goes on behind closed doors.
      There's a psychological accuracy to Christina's description of her mother that lends credence to her assertions. People nitpick over whether or not she she embellished them for publication, but I've always been of a mind that when it comes to listening to how abuse feels to the victim, you are not going to get clinical objectivity from them.

      When I watch TCM or Biography (is that still on?) or go to any classic Hollywood event, my personal pet peeve is how everyone seems to want to keep their rose-colored glasses on, behaving like a little reality about a certain beloved star is going to tarnish their reputation.
      As you point out, this is especially maddening when it comes to sexuality. If you ever want to receive a chatroom death threat, just mention that some esteemed star of the Golden age is gay. You might as well say they were a draft-dodging, trust fund, traitorous puppet of Russia.
      I hope one day an outed star will ceased to be regarded as someone who's had their name dragged through the mud.

      And I am right on board with mental illness being no excuse for child abuse. in fact, I'm forever baffled why so many career-driven narcissists opt for having children anyway. The henry Fondas and loretta Youngs have kids and are never there. What's the point? Get a dog or a cat if you don't have the time to spend with a child.

      It's always interesting to ponder what kinds of discussions about child abuse the movie "Mommie Dearest" might have sparked had it somehow managed to be less exploitation film and more melodrama. Dunaway's Joan was so over the top, it allowed many the luxury of not dwelling on the frightening and sad story that lies between the lines of the sensationalism of Christina Crawford's book.

      And I'm looking forward to that "Feud" TV movie too (is that what it is? maybe a limited series...). And with the casting of Lange and Sarandon, I think that subtextural dimension you reference might come built-in. They're both so sexy.
      Thanks, Lila, for your very open and thoughtful take on the public's habitual resistance to looking at the flaws of their idols.

  9. I'm rescreening the film on a rerun channel. Grew up in the Midwest. Don't remember people laughing at the Loew's Cineplex in '81. I was still in highschool. Dunaway's makeup is both spot on and overdo. But you cannot deny that she poured herself into the role. Comments are pointed. It is one thing to watch a reenactment of abuse; quite another to be the child upon whom such rage is focused.

    1. Yes, Dunaway is clearly going for it here. I see her in other films like "Network" where she is big and broad, yet remains reined in; and I always come away certain that the problem with "Mommie Dearest" is of not having a stronger director, more watchful and sensitive to when her performance was going off the rails. She seems very much to be playing without a railing or safety net.
      As for the child abuse aspects, I think by making the film so much Joan's story, we aren't really invited to share Christina's point of view. I think that undercuts the drama a bit, making Joan's erratic behavior a spectator sport, rather than our relating to and/or feeling empathy for Christina.
      Thanks for sharing your insights and memories of seeing it during its original release.

  10. I grew uo watching this movie on HBO and I have to say to this day I never get sick of it. Its hilarious and gripping at the same time. I look forward to it every mother's day

  11. There's something haunting about this film. Most likely because no one really knows what happened between Christina and Joan. I tend to think that Joan was abusive, but that Christina embellished or at least took a unilateral avenue in writing her book. What I will say is that even though friends of Joan came out to say what Christina wrote was false, they also admitted that Joan was a strict disciplinarian with a major drinking problem. When you combine those 2 things, bad things are on their way for those (her children) who are getting disciplined. Some parents don't know when to stop spanking or when to end a time-out, and go to extreme measures to ensure whatever the child did wrong won't happen again. It's not a learning curve for the child so much as it is the fear of God being put into them and then some.

    I digress on that subject.

    Faye Dunaway was disliked by Otto Preminger and she was disliked by the makeup and costuming crew of "The Thomas Crown Affair," in which her character has 27 costume changes. She was disliked by Roman Polanski and by William Holden. These are the incidences that made the press - one might wonder who else disliked Faye but didn't speak out?

    Seeing as Christina was no longer in show business, Hollywood couldn't punish her for writing the book. But when the rights were sold to Paramount, Hollywood sure could punish the actress willing to take this role on.

    I think it was the perfect storm. Much of Hollywood disliked Faye for her unprofessionalism and diva antics, and Hollywood didn't want the perfect illusion of their Golden Era exposed, no matter if the events in the script were true or not.

    The film, while enjoyable, is mediocre and at best average. I think Faye Dunaway overall did a great job with the part. She went over the top but in many peoples opinion Joan herself was over the top. Ironically enough Joan's screen performances have aged well as she wasn't as stagey as let's say Joan Leslie or Miriam Hopkins. If you watch interviews with Joan, she's soft spoken and has depth. Faye went with the more camp, stick-with-it-ness side of Joan.

    Aside from the first glance of seeing Joan in cold cream with a wire hanger, the scene isn't amusing in the least. The scene where she chops her daughters hair off was terrifying, but the wire hanger scene takes the cake. I don't think I've ever seen something like this on screen: Faye wasn't Faye, Faye wasn't Joan. There was almost a demonic possession that overtook Faye and came through her on screen. I feel the demons that may have tormented Joan, managed to torment Faye for the duration of the scene that's apart of the movie. That scene in itself was oscar worthy.

    I wasn't born when this movie came out, but it's as if Faye's days of being an A-lister were over in an instant. By October of 1981, she was finished and through. And I can't blame that on all the critics that disliked the film, it's as if the public dumped Faye and left her in the dust. I feel the critics may have been influenced or bought by the studios in this case. The film received unfair criticism that I can only attribute to a punishing of the actress willing to earn a dollar and possibly an Oscar by playing this part.

    I look forward to your thoughts.

    1. Such interesting and well-taken points about MOMMIE DEAREST!
      So much has changed in the world since this film came out that many of the things you make reference to have the clarity that could only come with time.
      For one, I like that you start off with the whole back-and-forth regarding Christina's book. So much has been learned about child abuse, alcoholism, victim-blaming, and personality disorders that...true or not...nothing about the picture Christina painted about the behavior and occurrences in her book sound psychological false.
      Abuse in never on display, so it amazes me now to think back on how many people thought that just because no one else "saw" Joan wailing the tar out of her daughter, that it couldn't have happened.
      You also point out that we as a culture do a lot of "white knighting" when it comes to celebrities...in order to keep the images of our idols untarnished, a lot of denial goes on.
      It's difficult to separate the misogynic implications of Faye Dunaway's notorious reputation for being difficult, so you're on point in noting that the film version of MOMMIE DEAREST presented a kind of perfect storm for a lot of mixed reactions to the film that in some instances had no relation to the film at all.
      When I think back to that night at the Chinese Theater and hearing people people howl at the dialog and performances, I have no doubt the film's authentic and obvious shortcomings are what they were responding to. But the whole cultural response to MOMMIE DEAREST...the way it seems to live on its own as a VALLEY OF THE DOLLS kind of camp exercise to some, while being a recognized good (albeit, untethered) performance from Dunaway...you do a marvelous job of theoretically crystalizing.
      Such fascinating fodder for discussion. Hollywood has a long history of punishing women for being what they deem to be "difficult."
      In 1975 Karen Black garnered a lot of bad publicity during the making of THE DAY OF THE LMOCUST, almost all of it centered on her so-called diva antics. When the film flopped hers was the career (arguably John Schlesinger's too) that was hit the hardest. She never appeared in A-list movies again.
      Similar to what you cite about Dunaway. She did herself no favors appearing in camp-fests like THE WICKED LADY and SUPERGIRL right after MOMMIE DEAREST (if folks hadn't labeled her the queen of histrionic camp after that, two more roles mining the same over-the-top aesthetic sealed her doom), but I, too, think Dunaway was unilaterally dumped (by public and industry) after MOMMIE DEAREST, and for reasons not wholly owed to giving a widely derided performance.
      In some ways it's odd that few people can tell you who the director of MOMMIE DEAREST is and why it is more of the blame hasn't been laid at his feet or those of the screenwriters.
      Thank you for sharing your theories and points of discussion about this movie. It's always enlightening to hear a person's take on popular, controversial films, so I'm sure your comments will be of interest to other fans/critics of MOMMIE DEAREST.
      Thanks for reading this post and for taking time to compose such a thought-provoking contribution to the piece!

  12. Hi, Ken!

    My recollections of the reception this movie got is that the LA columnists like Marilyn Beck murdered it and it was snubbed by the Golden Globes (when an A-lister like Dunaway gets snubbed by the Globes you know she's in trouble) but her performance was widely praised in New York, and not just by Pauline Kael, whose review was really an out-and-out rave. She was first runner-up for best actress at both the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle Awards (losing to Glenda Jackson in STEVIE) back when those awards meant something. The movie was instantly dismissed as camp, but the performance was highly regarded by a lot of serious critics then and now. Just my two cents.

    1. Hello, Kip! - It goes well to be reminded that opinions about MOMMIE DEAREST weren't as pat upon release as they have grown over the years. I remember finding some of the praise reviews for Dunaway somewhat circumspect, taking into account a certain ambivalence about the film as a whole. That public opinion ultimately erased the memory of the few champion critical responses she received, but, like you, I think there always has been a strong but small camp (I shouldn't use that word) that felt her performance was strong in a weak movie). Time seems to be shifting it more in that vein. Like the way people have grown so forgiving of Patty Duke's excesses in VALLEY OF THE DOLLS.
      Time can prove to be very kind to overacting. I like Dunaway so much, I hope the tide shifts for Mommie Dearest a bit, too.
      And your two cents is worth a great deal more than that on this blog, Kip. It always has. Thank you for your continued contributions.

  13. Hi, Ken.

    Thanks for posting my comment. Not sure if it added anything to the discussion, maybe not. But one other thing I'd like to add. I started reading the "Anne Bancroft draft" and couldn't get more than a couple of pages into it. I've taken a couple of screenwriting classes over the years, and I'm sure you took several in film school. The one thing they always stressed: if you want someone to buy your script, don't direct the movie in your screenplay. Don't describe the sets, the costumes, the camera angles, the hidden motivations of the characters. The writer's only job is to structure the scenes and write the dialogue. Let the producer and director make the rest of the decisions.

    1. Hi Kip - Yes, I know what you mean about those scripts that do too much. Every director who encounters that style always say they ignore the script "directions" completely, so you wonder why screenwriters bother. My favorite kind of screenplay are the ones that read like books. They're not as blank and skeletal as a traditional screenplays and make for a vividly persuasive read. (The screen plays for "PASSING" and "Macbeth" were/are online and I think they are in that style. I have a novelist friend who's developing one of her books into a screenplay. She's expressing being thrilled with the economy imposed by the format.
      Very nice that you sought to give that Bancroft screenplay a try. So much time has passed since I read it, but I think the tone is less melodramatic to the point of being rather flat. Thank you for commenting.

  14. Just seen this yesterday and I did love Dunaways overwrought performance.. and Mara aka the kid from Michael Caines The Hand did try, but it's hard to take it seriously when everyones eyebrows upstaged them.

    1. Ha! Hello Gill - What you describe illuminates the eternal challenge of "Mommie Dearest"...depending on the viewer, the film's glamorous production values (from casting to costumes to makeup) can come across as undermining its serious themes.
      However, I'm also certain this dueling dichotomy is also one of the major reasons the film fascinates and why no two viewers come away with the same impressions of what they've just seen.
      So nice to hear from you, and hope all is well!