Second Viewing: Mommie Dearest (1981)

The Thinker by Rodin

There is something mesmerizing about those high eyebrows, artificially extended with makeup far up the forehead. The eyebrows hold a prominent part themselves in this cult classic movie, about the life of the actress Joan Crawford as seen through the jaded eyes of her adopted daughter Christina. They should really get top billing because they look surreal and quite frankly, make Joan Crawford look stunningly unattractive. Watching the movie Mommie Dearest again after thirty years (so long ago that I was unpartnered at the time), I had simply forgotten those mesmerizing eyebrows.

The autobiography by Christina Crawford that the movie was based on turned into an unexpected bestseller in the late 1970s, which made the movie based on the book a highly anticipated event. In the movie, actress Faye Dunaway portrayed the late Joan Crawford as an aging and fading Hollywood star. And what a job she does! Dunaway’s performance is unforgettable, not in a good way, but in a “grab you by the shoulders and shake you until you feel faint and fall on the floor” sort of way. Director Frank Perry must have been mesmerized by Dunaway too, who five years earlier made a star for herself in the blockbuster Network. It’s a director’s job to push an actor when needed or hold her back when necessary. Dunaway desperately needed to be held back in this movie. Instead we get a raw Dunaway playing a cleanliness-obsessed control freak Joan Crawford. The portrayal is so over the top that there is no way the real Joan Crawford could possibly have been this angry and this emotionally abusive.

At first Paramount tried to market the film as a drama, but when it went through previews it became apparent that a new marketing strategy was needed. For the most part audiences were stupefied by Dunaway’s runaway performance and eventually started laughing at them. So Paramount framed the movie as a comedy. Over time, the movie morphed into a cult classic that thirty years later has lost none of its peculiar charm. It never became quite the hit that The Rocky Horror Picture Show did, but for a while after the film itself faded from memory it could be found on midnight showings generally near college campuses. Patrons would show up in Christina Crawford dresses, often bringing wire hangers to dangle during the famous wire hanger scene, and sometimes paper mache axes. Axes? Yes, in just one of many memorable scenes, this one in her garden after learning her contract had been canceled by MGM, in the middle of the night Crawford cuts down a tree in her garden while making Christina and her adopted brother Christopher watch. The classic line? “Tina, bring me the axe!!!”

Thankfully for bad movie buffs, the film is full of moments like this, with my favorite near the end when she tells the board of directors of Pepsi Cola, “Don’t f*** with me, fellas!” Yes, child abuse is just one of Crawford’s way of letting off a little steam, and there is plenty of child abuse to observe. Normally watching incidents like this would leave you feeling sick or shaken, but they are so over the top that it is hard not to laugh instead. Curiously, while you hear lots of crying and wailing from Christina and Christopher in these scenes, it occurs mostly off camera.

The plot gets curiouser when Christina becomes a teenager and Joan ships her off to boarding school. Some innocent kissing with a boy at the school sends Joan ballistic, and Christina is shipped off to a nunnery while Joan suffers through a number of relationships, only one of them results in marriage. When Joan isn’t ranting and raving, playing psychological tug of war with Christina, or feeding her own vanity, she is obsessively cleaning pretty much anything, or she is busy drowning her feelings in alcohol and cigarettes. When as an adult Christina makes a modest name for herself in a soap opera, then has to have an ovarian cyst removed, big mama insists on stepping in to her role on the soap opera, just for a while, until she heals. You just want to hide under a rock during that scene. Apparently the child abuse of poor Christina extended even into adulthood.

Just wow! The result is a movie that is so over the top that it is something of a jaw-dropping hoot, a huge and garish fireworks show for cinemagoers to revel in. While Dunaway generally gets all the camera time, Diana Scarwid’s portrayal of Christina is also memorable. Her adoptive mother seems to be rubbing off on her. At the end of the movie when Christina and Christopher realize she left them nothing in her will, her brother states that she got the last word, as always. Suddenly we see a twitchy look in Christina’s eye. You can see her starting to pen the biography in her mind.

Bad movie fanatics, if you haven’t seen Mommie Dearest, you simply must! It remains a classic in its genre, every bit as bad, if not more so, than any review you can read about it. Rent it.

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