Mommie Dearest: Cult Classic and Gay Icon

How ‘Mommie Dearest’ Became Cult Classic and Gay Icon

“It’s like Greek tragedy,” says actor Xander Berkeley of Faye Dunaway’s over-the-top performance as the celebrity mom from hell.

In the December 31, 1947, issue of THR, Joan Crawford penned a page-long paean to the wonders of motherhood that began, “I’ve been reading in the newspapers and magazines about how noble it is of Joan Crawford to adopt four children.”

Three paragraphs later, the star of Mildred Pierce writes of her kids, “They’ve taught me the value of molding firmness with love. They get spanked the same as any youngsters when they’re naughty, which isn’t very often, and I don’t delegate the spankings to others. I administer them myself — and then feel badly the rest of the day until I see them and they kiss me and make up, and everything’s fine once again with the world.”

However, everything was far from fine in Crawford’s home.

In 1978, the year after her death, the eldest of her children, Christina Crawford, published Mommie Dearest, a sensational account of life under Crawford, which alleged that the star had adopted her kids only as a publicity stunt.

Among the more shocking claims made about her mother, Christina wrote that she was beaten for using wire hangers in her closet instead of crocheted ones; starved for several days for refusing to finish a rare piece of roast beef; and pounded over the head with a can of Bon Ami Powder Cleanser until it “burst open.”

All those monstrous allegations — and many more — made it into the 1981 movie adaptation of Mommie Dearest, which features Faye Dunaway in one of cinema’s most over-the-top performances as the celebrity mom from hell. “It’s almost expressionistic,” Xander Berkeley, 65 — who in the film played Christina’s younger brother, Christopher, as an adult — says of Dunaway’s creative choices. “It’s like Greek tragedy or something.”

Mommie Dearest was a minor hit for Paramount, grossing only $19 million ($56 million today), but it was trashed by critics and even shunned by Dunaway.

Nonetheless, the movie found a second life among lovers of camp, gay men in particular, when the movie got repeated screenings in gay bars and on VCR.