I wrote this review for Epinions in October 2007. We were living in Germany the first time and I needed stuff to do. So I watched Mommie Dearest and reviewed it. Here it is reposted for your perusal, because I mentioned it in today’s fresh content. I have not edited this review from its original incarnation.
I wonder how many kids dream about growing up the child of a movie star. On the surface, it seems like it would be such a sweet life of untold indulgences. After all, movie stars don’t have problems. They all live in mansions and never have to think about money or consequences for their actions. They’re surrounded by people who come at their beck and call. Surely it must be the same for their children, right? Of course not. As CNN shows us with its daily reports on Britney Spears’ legal troubles, stars have their problems, too. And their children often have to deal with the aftermath.
Christina Crawford is the late Joan Crawford’s adopted daughter. In 1978, she published a tell-all book about her experiences having Joan Crawford as a mother. The 1981 film Mommie Dearest, based on Christina Crawford’s book of the same name, is the dramatized story of what Christina endured growing up in Hollywood’s glare. Mommie Dearest, the book, made quite a controversial splash back when it was first published. Three years later, the film version, starring Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford, made a very different kind of splash. Even though a lot of critics panned Mommie Dearest, it still gets regular airplay today. Certain audiences, most notably homosexuals and transvestites, love this film and have made it a cult classic.
I have seen Mommie Dearest dozens of times, first on HBO, then on regular cable, and finally on my own DVD. I recently purchased the Hollywood Royalty Edition of the Mommie Dearest DVD. At $9.95, it was a steal and a great way to kill time until my husband and I can move out of our German hotel room and into our new home. I watched Mommie Dearest again last night. Every time I see it, I notice something new.
Thanks to Crawford’s book and Dunaway’s over the top portrayal of Joan Crawford in the movie, Joan Crawford has become sort of a poster child of child abusers. Indeed, there are several infamous scenes in this movie that can be, depending on how the viewer takes it, either very disturbing or hilarious. Take, for instance, the “wire hangers” scene, the scene for which Mommie Dearest is perhaps best known. Dunaway, as Crawford, comes into young Christina’s room to say goodnight to her sleeping daughter and make sure that everything is in its place. Wearing cold cream and a headband, Joan goes into Christina’s closet and starts thumbing through her clothes, all neatly hung on satin hangers. Suddenly, the movie star comes across a dress on a wire hanger. Enraged, she snatches the frilly creation off the rack and cradles it in her arms. Then, at the top of her lungs, she screams “NO WIRE HANGERS, EVER!”
Sure, lots of people make fun of that scene. Dunaway’s cold cream mask and wild hair make her look like an outraged modern day Michael Jackson. She tears all of the clothes off the rack, dumps them in a pile, and forces Christina out of bed. Then, completely out of control, she starts beating the crying child with the wire hanger. The scene is totally over the top and yet it always sends a chill down my spine. When I look in Dunaway’s heavily made up eyes, I see fury that makes me believe that she’s an angry, abusive mother and Mara Hobel, very impressively playing the young version of Christina Crawford, is her terrified little girl.
Diana Scarwid, who plays the teenaged and adult Christina, is also very compelling in her role. Somehow, she’s able to convincingly demonstrate the paradox that affects children of abusive parents. She hates her mother, yet she also loves her. As she grows up and her mother inevitably starts to lose power over her, viewers still see that love/hate struggle. She knows her mother is crazy, yet she can’t bear to lose her. She faithfully puts up with her mother’s insanity, seemingly unable to cut the ties. Then, when Joan Crawford dies and the will is read, Christina and her brother, Christopher, learn that she didn’t leave them a cent “for reasons well known to them.”
Mommie Dearest was produced by Frank Yablans and directed by Frank Perry. Yablans also wrote the screenplay. According to the special features that are included with the Hollywood Royalty version of Mommie Dearest, Yablans originally meant for Anne Bancroft to play Joan Crawford. But Bancroft’s Joan Crawford didn’t seem to be working. Faye Dunaway wanted the part and when she was made up, looked just like the star. I wasn’t around when Joan Crawford was a big star, but I have seen pictures of her. Dunaway is a dead ringer. Moreover, the makeup and costumes in this movie are fantastic. The sets are also incredibly authentic. Whenever I watch this movie, I often forget that it was made in 1981. It really does evoke the glamour and style of the 1940s. It’s not until the very end of the movie that I remember that the film adaptation of Mommie Dearest was made less than thirty years ago.
Despite the fact that I love this movie for its sheer camp factor, there are a few things about it that I don’t like. First of all, the movie isn’t entirely true to the book. Of course, Mommie Dearest is a dramatization based on a book, but it leads viewers to believe that Joan Crawford only had two children when, in fact, she had four. Her adopted daughters Cathy and Cindy wanted nothing to do with the film, so they aren’t mentioned at all. Also, Dunaway’s performance is often really outrageous, so much so that it draws attention away from the very serious topic of child abuse and almost turns it into a joke. Is it funny to see Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford so outraged by being called “box office poison” that she feverishly destroys a rose garden with a pair of hedge clippers? Sure. But imagine being a child in real life watching something like that. Dunaway’s performance is so crazed that a lot of audiences react with laughter instead of shock.
Ditto the scene in which Dunaway, as Joan Crawford, brings Christina (played by Scarwid) home from her boarding school in a snit because Christina got caught kissing a boy. When Christina openly defies her mother, declaring that she’s not one of her fans, Dunaway, as Crawford, tackles the girl, grabbing her around the neck and choking her. It’s a grotesque, disturbing scene that, again, is so over the top that people make fun of it. It turns what should be a tragic scene into something that’s funny. While I agree with comedian George Carlin’s assertion that a person can make a joke out of anything, somehow it seems wrong to do it with child abuse.
The Hollywood Royalty version of Mommie Dearest consists of the movie, which is rated PG and runs for 128 minutes, commentary by campy filmmaker John Waters, three features that explain how the movie was made and include interviews with the movie’s makers and actors, a photo gallery, and the original theatrical trailer. Although I saw this movie many times when I was a child, if I were a parent, I would probably think twice about letting a young child see it. Although I counted only two swear words (including one use of the f word), there are several violent scenes that involve children that might be frightening for them.
Loved or hated, Mommie Dearest is rarely ignored or forgotten. I’m proud to have it as part of my personal movie collection. And, after watching this, I can’t help but remember that movie stars and their children have problems too.
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