The “nothing but warts” portrayal of Joan Crawford turns 40, & remains an eye-popping display of pathos, kitsch & unintended hilarity.
She is both majestic, and terrifying. She looms over everything around her, all sharp lines and crisply ironed edges. Her hair is styled to within an inch of its life, an impenetrable helmet surrounding her head. It frames a face so carefully made it appears immobile at times, except for her crimson lips, which are too often set in a thin line of displeasure, when they’re not curled into a sneer. She does smile, sometimes, but it rarely reaches her eyes, which only truly light up when she’s in a rage.
She’s Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, portraying her as a glamorous ice princess, a gorgon, a drag queen, and an unstoppable killing machine, Jason Voorhees in Christian Dior.
So effective was Dunaway in this performance that her acting career subsequently suffered for it in years to come, and younger audiences who didn’t know Crawford in life accepted that that’s how she really was. As for Mommie Dearest itself, though it hadn’t intended to originally, it ushered in a new genre of celebrity biopics, future camp classics destined for the midnight movie circuit, and pop culture reverence. Sure, Coal Miner’s Daughter won Academy Awards, but when’s the last time you’ve heard anyone quote from it?
Before we get any further into the movie, we need to talk for a few minutes about Mommie Dearest the book. It was published in 1978, barely a year and a half after Crawford died, pointedly leaving her two oldest children, Christina and Christopher, out of her will. Christina would later claim that she didn’t want Joan to get the last word, and boy, she sure didn’t. Mommie Dearest is an appalling story of an aging movie star who, solely to improve her public image, adopted four children she didn’t actually care about, foisting them on her household staff and only bringing them out when she needed just the right staged photo op.
Joan’s parenting was, let’s say, unorthodox, as she forced the children to eat blood rare meat for lunch, strapped young Christopher into bed at night with a harness so he wouldn’t get up and walk around, and recruited school-age Christina to play bartender when Joan had gentlemen callers. That would have been bad enough on its own, but Joan, obsessed with her fading film career, struggling with alcoholism, and with a pathological hatred of dirt and disorder, took out her near-constant anger on Christina, beating her for infractions as minor as failing to clean a bathroom to her impossible standards, getting caught kissing a boy, and, of course, having the audacity to hang a dress on a wire hanger.
There’s an almost Pavlovian response that happens when someone mentions the phrase “Mommie Dearest,” and that is the desire to shriek “No…wire…hangers…EVERRRRRRR!” That’s thanks to Faye Dunaway, who, when cast in Frank Perry’s lavish film adaptation of Christina’s book, didn’t play Joan Crawford so much as let herself be possessed by her — or at least, the version of her that Christina created. Though Dunaway would later claim that Perry forced her to play up Joan’s most reprehensible qualities, co-star Rutanya Alda, in a 2015 memoir, pointed the finger directly at Dunaway herself, claiming not only was it her own decision to act so hard she almost burst a blood vessel in her eye, but that she took a Method approach to it, coming onto the set like the Tasmanian Devil and terrorizing everyone around her.
It may seem in poor taste to describe a movie about child abuse as “funny,” but it has to be said: Mommie Dearest is very funny. Not the subject, of course, but in the way it’s presented. There’s just something undeniably comical about a grown woman having a glaring competition with a child at the dinner table, or that same child later casting her eyes heavenward and letting out a world-weary “Jesus Christ.” That key moment that everyone knows (even if they haven’t seen the whole movie) is hilarious because it’s staged like a horror movie, as Joan, looking like she’s wearing Kabuki makeup, stalks around Christina’s bedroom, literally looking for something to get mad about. When she does, innocuously hanging in a closet, she reacts to it like she’s discovered a stash of child pornography.
This is all Dunaway, who clearly was hoping that the film would do for her what Raging Bull did for Robert De Niro a year earlier. She makes a series of baffling choices, including dropping the register of her voice so low in some scenes it sounds like a shoddy “possessed by Satan” effect, and staring directly into the camera before going cross-eyed and slowly, ever so sloooooowly turning away. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another high point later in the film, when Joan gets into a women in prison movie catfight with an older Christina after she gets in some minor trouble at school. Like a mad scientist who’s taken her experiments too far, Joan looks at her hands in confusion for a moment, suggesting that they’re acting under their own control, before leaping on Christina and attempting to strangle her. When she lets out a scream of half-triumph/half-anguish after they’re pulled apart, you can all but see her writing out her Academy acceptance speech in her head.
As is often the case with the best kind of camp, Mommie Dearest was initially meant to be taken seriously, and Dunaway was hardly the only person associated with it who expected to come away with a handful of awards. When Paramount learned that audiences were reacting to it with howls of laughter rather than choked sobs, however, they retooled the film’s marketing to suggest that of course it was meant to be funny all along, advertising it as “Meet the biggest mother of them all!” It did win an award, though–the Golden Raspberry, along with a handful of nominations, including one, inexplicably, from the Young Artists Awards for “Best Motion Picture–Family Enjoyment.”
It’s also worth noting that Dunaway’s performance was nominated by the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle. It’s not a good performance so much as an interesting one, both because Dunaway makes so many strange decisions, seemingly all on her own, and because we so rarely get to see what it looks like when a female actor goes so deep into a role that it seems to impact her emotional well-being. This version of Joan Crawford is so thinly drawn–she’s an irredeemable monster to the very end–that it’s odd that Dunaway thought she really had to get inside her head and understand her. It would make more sense if the movie was about Joan herself, but it isn’t, it’s about Christina’s version of her. There is no “understanding” this Joan, there is only fearing her.
Christina Crawford has stuck to her version of the events, though she rejected the movie and, in an “only in Hollywood” touch, wrote a musical based on her book. As for Joan Crawford, history has been a bit kinder to her over the years, thanks largely to the work of film historians such as Karina Longworth. It’s been a bit kinder to Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest too. Thanks solely to her balls to the wall performance, it gave color, flair and a heck of a lot of juice to what’s normally a safe to the point of boring film genre. When you consider that a movie like Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t even have the courage to let Freddie Mercury be gay on-screen, it’s admirable. That may have earned lots of critical acclaim, but I know which one I’ll be watching again.