“Joan Crawford. The most dramatic role of her life WAS her life.”
It’s a little funny to be writing a tribute piece to Mommie Dearest on my mother’s birthday, but nevertheless here we are. By sheer coincidence, my mother (who incidentally is nothing like the Joan Crawford depicted in the film) and one of the titles that helped define the modern camp classic just so happen to share the same birthday month. What was meant to be a searing chronicle of legendary actress Joan Crawford’s tumultuous life and her “complicated” relationship with her daughter Christina turned out to be a camp-filled movie extravaganza that has resulted in a bevy of iconic lines, Halloween costumes and (after Rocky Horror) the pioneering of movie audience participation. Now, as the film hits its 40th birthday, it’s been honored with a new remastered edition and joins the collection of past films now ripe for reappraisal with people wondering if the film remains enjoyably bad or a secret masterpiece.
On paper, everything about Mommie Dearest all but ensured a successful and acclaimed piece of cinema. The production had rebounded from the departure of lead actress Anne Bancroft by scoring Oscar winner Faye Dunaway (then one of Hollywood’s top stars), respected producer Frank Yablans was calling the shots, and Oscar-nominated director Frank Perry was at the helm. Paramount had given the production a carte blanche blessing which ensured the most top production values would be utilized in telling the story of Joan (Dunaway) as she tries to balance the double life of movie star and abusive mother to her daughter Christina (played by Mara Hobel in the first half and Diana Scarwid in the second).
The biggest ace up Mommie Dearest’s sleeve was the book on which it was based. The tell-all autobiography of Christina Crawford published shortly after her famous mother’s death was an all out sensation that captivated waves of readers with its tales of abuse and the overall larger-than-life persona of one of the most famous women in the world. Naturally, such a groundbreaking book would lend itself seamlessly to the screen. Yet despite so many elements in place, Mommie Dearest was destined to be anything other than what its makers intended.
Separating the movie from its infamous campy sequences (which takes some mental doing), its problems remain obvious. Mommie Dearest is too bloated of a story to do anyone any good. It’s aim is more concerned with set pieces for the sake of set pieces rather than creating any kind of emotional through line. The bulk of the film can’t help but feel like the greatest hits from the younger Crawford’s book rather than a consistent tracing of Joan’s life. Whether or not the screenplay’s four writers knew they were sensationalizing Ms. Crawford’s life, or genuinely believed they were simply focusing on the side of herself she had spent years fighting is up for endless debate. The editing certainly doesn’t help in answering this question as scenes are either too brief or quickly overstay their welcome depending on their level of outrageousness or perceived dramatic weight.
The one certainty is that no one had a firm grasp on the movie they were actually making. I suppose most of the blame can be chalked up to Perry. By nature, it always falls to the director to ensure that their vision of the film is a clear one and that said vision is successfully imparted to all the participants. Whether or not Perry was intimidated by the largeness of Crawford, the largeness of Dunaway or the overall scope of the film (not to mention the hopes the studio must have had for it), the director was just not successful at honing in on a consistent method of storytelling, leading to audiences to being left bored when Joan tells Christina she must go on a work scholarship and delirious when they see the former throttling the latter during a decidedly heated conversation.
Ironically, the sole element of Mommie Dearest which does work, despite being the one which many insist is its biggest misstep, is Dunaway herself. It’s hard to articulate just how much Dunaway brought to the class of 1970s Hollywood. The way she pioneered a new screen heroine with roles in Bonnie & Clyde, Network, The Thomas Crown Affair and Eyes of Laura Mars ensured that the decade was hers. Her precision was famous, her commitment was legendary and her beauty was unmatched. It makes perfect sense then that Dunaway would be offered the role of Joan Crawford (the first time one Oscar-winning actress would be portraying another) and that despite (or perhaps because of) all the challenges that would come with the role, she’d accept. She famously trained the muscles in her face to move the way Crawford’s did in order to achieve that famous look and suffered nightmares due to the highly-charged emotional levels she took her performance to. While Perry should have known when to tell Dunaway to pull it back a bit, his reluctance to do so results in one of the most experimental performances ever captured on film In Mommie Dearest, Dunaway isn’t necessarily channeling Joan Crawford. Instead, she’s being carried by an almost otherworldly force to whom she has willingly surrendered herself and is transported to a place few performers ever enter.
Mommie Dearest wasted almost no time in becoming “the biggest mother of them all,” according to the some. Reaction was so swift that it resulted in one of the quickest studio rebounds in history with Paramount rebranding the film as an intentional comedy of sorts in its second week of release. While no one’s career prospered as a result, it was Dunaway who suffered the most. Mommie Dearest’s most visible figure spent the following decade abroad, only occasionally returning to make films stateside, officially reclaiming her stature as an acclaimed actress with her Oscar-worthy turn as an alcoholic lowlife opposite Mickey Rourke in 1987’s Barfly. In the four decades since, the movie remains a shrine of cinematic campiness. But in the midst of all the fun, a story about abuse, mental illness and damaged souls has emerged as the film is starting to be seen with a kind of earnestness its producers were originally hoping for. As one of the last remnants of the risk-taking decade which came before it and a signal of the kind of grandiose filmmaking the 80s would usher in, Mommie Dearest remains a shapeshifting watchable artifact that continues to fascinate.
Mommie Dearest is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD as part of the Paramount Presents collection.