Underground cult director John Waters is the perfect commentator on this high-camp biopic of legendary star Joan Crawford and on Faye Dunaway's ferociously brilliant impersonation.
Deviating substantially from Christina Crawfords best-selling memoir of the same title, Mommie Dearest is a peculiar hybrid: a high-camp Hollywood flick about child abuse. If this sounds as contradiction in terms, it is. Vastly entertaining, and replete with lines that have since entered movie loreChristina bring me the axe, or No wire hanger.ever!its a guilty pleasure par excellence, a cult classic in the gay milieu, shown at midnight screenings and supplying materials for countless impersonators and drag queens.
Constantly veering from the more serious and melodramatic aspects of Crawfords role as a glamorous star and adoptive mother to the campier elements of those facets, the movie lacks focus but its episodic structure enables Faye Dunaway to dominate every scene she is in. In this respect, Mommie Dearest is the cinematic equivalent of a theatrical one-woman show, with all the male roles remaining in the periphery.
In the divas role, Faye Dunaway gives such a ferociously committed performance that one suspects she embodies not only Joan Crawford in her heyday, but also part of her own experience as a movie star, who has had her day and is just about to go into decline herself; its Dunaways last grand role.
Though most of the events are seen from Christinas perspective, director Frank Perry and his screenwriters (Frank Yablans, Frank Perry, Tracy Hotchner, and Robert Getchell) make no attempt to balance the story by presenting the POV of the abused and severely damaged daughter (played by different actresses at different ages)
The film exposes Crawfords emotionally barren life and her need and desire to be a loving mother yet totally unaware of and unprepared for what real motherhood means or entails. Mistreating Christina, and later Christopher, her younger adopted son, though to a much lesser extent, Crawford becomes a monstrously wicked witch out of a Hollywood fairy tale.
According to the movie, Crawford and Christina engaged in a battle of wills from the latters early childhood. Crawford took all of her personal and professional frustrations on her daughter (played as a child by Mara Hobel). Christina must remain at her mothers side, ready at anytime to impress her mothers fans and to fulfill her public duties, such as at a radio show during the Christmas holiday.
Over the years, Christina is subjected to a pattern of humiliation and punishment that get increasingly more excessive. The abuse culminates in Christinas almost being strangled by her mother to death for contradicting her in front of a reporter.
The screenwriters dont even try to present a more sympathetic portrait of Crawford. Even at her weak moments, after being fired by MGMs Louis B. after 18 years of service to the studio, or getting drunk when a lover unexpectedly leaves, Crawford is first and foremost the fabricated star persona, then the flesh-and-blood woman.
Surely, no one could justify such monstrously callous treatment of children, as difficult and defiant as they are. It may be a function of the casting and acting that Christina as a child comes across as a stubborn, borderline obnoxious brat. She gets softer and more sensitive at older age, when played by Diana Scarwid.
Dunaway's brilliant but scorching impersonation overwhelms any sense of character credibility or narrative flow, even by standards of that debased genre, the shlocky Hollywood biopic.
Joan Crawford once said, Of all the actresses today, Faye Dunaway has the talent, the class, and the courage it takes to make a real star, showing that she had a good eye for detecting talent, though I doubt if she would have approved of Dunaways interpretation of her persona.
Gossip columnists followed closely the high-profile production of the film version of the book that sold over 4 million copies in the US alone. Wrote Liz Smith: They say her Fayeness is ruling the roost in a manner unheard of since Crawfords heyday.
Director Frank Perry confirmed this report in an interview with Rex Reed: Faye went bananas. She became Joan Crawford. She was possessed, she was obsessed, and she didnt make life easy for anybody. Dunaway herself concurred that she had been taken over by Crawford: It took two months before I was able to regain my own personality.
Most critics praised Dunaway, who almost won the N.Y. Film critics Circle Actress award. Hence, Janet Maslin represented many critics when she wrote in the New York Times: Dunaways work here amounts to a small miracle, as one movie queen transforms herself passionately and wholeheartedly into another. Even those who though it was a severe case of overacting, chewing the scenery, gave credit to Dunaway for immersing herself completely in the role.
When Paramount realized that the movie was not taken seriously by viewers, the studio changed its promotional campaign and came up with a an ad that referred to the scene where Crawford beats Christina with a wire hanger. The ad showed a hanger, a line from the script, No wire hangers.ever! And the tag line, The biggest mother of them all. Producer-writer Frank Yablans was upset enough to sue Paramount, calling the ad obscene, vulgar, offensive, salacious and embodies a racial slur of the poorest taste.
As for author Christina, upon seeing Mommie Dearest, she complained that, they turned my story into a Joan Crawford movie! Significantly, despite the venomous book and Dunaways ferociously campy interpretation, the legend of Joan Crawford as a movie star lives on, and her movies continue to be shown with great success on TV, attesting to the lasting power of her mythic screen image, orchestrated by her as well the studios publicity machines.