MOMMIE DEAREST (Paramount 1981) Paramount Home Video
Galvanized in her resolve, Faye Dunaway gave a mesmerizing performance as film queen, Joan Crawford in Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest (1981). In later years, the quirky and reclusive Dunaway would absolutely disown this performance and refuse to discuss it in any interviews. And while many may ponder the reasons for this total expungement from her body of work, I suspect some of Dunaway’s apprehensions stem from the reality, she likely now believes not everything she was expected to do in the picture actually happened in real life; hence, the bastardization of ‘Hollywood royalty’ for the sake of a pay check has weighed rather heavily on Ms. Dunaway’s opinion of herself. If that is the case, from a purely artistic approach to the material, Dunaway’s assimilation into this Crawford-esque snake’s skin is, nevertheless, uncanny; the first sight of Dunaway, as Crawford, being primped to do a take on the set of MGM’s Ice Follies of 1939, looking so frighteningly like that great star, barely dead four years when this movie was released, one is apt to draw in a gasp of fresh air at being startled by the ghost of Crawford, in the flesh. And Dunaway does more than look the part. Indeed, she manages through her formidable skills to make us forget any other Crawford existed before hers. When Christina Crawford published her scathing tell-all biography, it was in the age of what radio personality, Walter Winchell once referred to as ‘brick-throwing’. “The quickest way to get famous,” Winchell insisted, “…is to throw a brick at somebody famous.”
While Crawford’s tenure as an adoptive parent of 4 children could hardly be considered for canonization as ‘mother of the year’, in the many years since passed, Crawford’s other children, particularly daughters, Cathy and Cindy, have publicly spoken out against Christina’s best seller as a work of considerable fiction. Dunaway’s reincarnation of Crawford has been chastised for its heartlessness, and over-the-top delivery of two lines of dialogue in particular – “No wire hangers – ever!” and “Don’t fuck with me, fellas!”; both, delivered with leering aplomb by Dunaway’s venomous matriarch. If, indeed, criticism ought to be lobbed at the movie itself, it remains for the considerable revisions and artistic liberties taken along the way; most definitely, for altering the narrative structure, from Christina’s focus on retelling the tale from a child’s perspective to the movie’s central focus on Crawford as the demigoddess in full self-destructive mode. The sense of trauma in Christina’s book has been eclipsed by loosely strung together events; Frank Yablans, Frank Perry, Tracy Hotchner and Robert Getchell’s slipshod screenplay, inferring no time line, or even particularly interested in narrative continuity, distilling what ought to have played out as horrifying child abuse into unintentionally hilarious camp.
With all that said, precisely how much of Mommie Dearest actually happened remains open for discussion. At the time of its publication, the book was considered the first ‘tell all’ biography of its kind, championed as blowing the lid off child abuse. But over the years, Christina has had her share of detractors, not the least Crawford’s first husband, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and good friend and actress, Myrna Loy. And while their defense of the star could be viewed as ‘third party’, as they were not around when Crawford was supposed to have gone on her many night raids, storming about the house, tying her children to bed posts, or beating Christina across the back with those infamous ‘wire hangers’, hauling her out by the hair to clean up her room in the dead of night, what then, are we to make of twin sisters, Cathy and Cindy, who also grew up in this household, but have absolutely no recollection of any of the incidents as described in Christina’s book. Both twins have since publicly chided Christina’s book as a complete fabrication made by a spiteful sibling, more interested in wrecking her mother’s public image after la Crawford refused to include Christina or her brother, Christopher in her Will. For decades, a mutual animosity has brewed between the Crawford siblings over Mommie Dearest, Cindy insisting that Crawford, while firm, was never abusive and, in fact, reared her adopted children in an atmosphere that was affectionate, loving and supportive to their every need.
Clearly, this is not the image the movie is interested in preserving. Nor, in fact, does it strictly adhere to Christina’s hatchet job, and, as such, emerges with an even more skewed opinion to sensationalize Crawford as a supremely unattractive gargoyle. Dunaway’s portrait of Crawford as a brutalizing/over-sexed anti-Christ, with no time for children, except – of course – when she was beating on them - is, more in keeping with Christina’s recollections of a celebrity, whose iron-will bordered on the psychotic. However, and with all artistic license aside, Mommie Dearest, for all its verve and venom, emerged as neither a good movie, nor especially an accurate portrait of the woman who clawed her way to the top with nothing more than a fifth grade education to become, not only a box office titan but much later, a shrewd business woman for some forty-plus years. There are really two Joan Crawford’s one must consider when viewing Mommie Dearest – the struggling, slightly neurotic and insecure woman, depicted with over-the-top menace by Dunaway, and, the perfectionist film goddess whom (except in fits and flashes) Mommie Dearest chooses to discard – even more so than the book, as inconsequential to our understanding of la Crawford’s persona in totem. Regrettably, Joan by Christina through Dunaway transforms this basically driven woman into an almost satanic caricature – void of any virtue or even tattered shred of humanity. Dunaway delivers a highly charged, but distinctly one-dimensional, characterization that she fast disowned after the picture’s release and, has since refused to comment on in interviews – perhaps the most telling realization that what we see on the screen is not Joan Crawford as she was in life.
Dismantling a star's legacy after their death became something of a blood sport, in vogue in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Who better to write these lurid exposés than the ungrateful children of the stars, especially those who held their parent’s stardom against them? ‘Tell all’ biographies are still very much with us. But their viciousness has since been tempered by facts and lawsuits to challenge any unwarranted claims. Frankly, I think it a very shabby practice to kick a corpse. Have something nasty to say about a famous person? Do it while they are alive and within their full faculties to defend themselves. But I digress. Consequently, the portrait we get of Christina by Christina, both in the book and on film (Mara Hobel as a child, Diana Scarwid as a young adult) is that of an angelic, victimized innocent who endured Crawford's repeated wrath, even an attempted strangulation, yet somehow managed to maintain her sanity and rise above it all with a 'chin up' attitude. The movie unfairly eschews Crawford’s own dark and disheveled childhood, the demons that created her insecurities, the absence of a father, her mother’s botched marriages and chronic slave-driving in the laundries. Instead, we are presented with Joan Crawford, as something of a spoiled, compulsive and exacting screen queen, wealthy but awful and already past her prime, on her way out at MGM – the studio that created and coddled her hand-crafted public image, but eventually cut her loose.
Avoiding all reference to Crawford’s first two husbands – the ‘great romance’ of Crawford’s life, at least in the movie, is MGM attorney, Greg Savitt (Steve Forrest). Crawford and Savitt make love in the shower, after which he inveigles the screen queen in the adoption of Christina after legitimate channels have failed to grant Crawford a child of her own. Then, Savitt bows out leaving the grand dame to ‘wing it.’ No mention is made of Crawford’s numerous affairs with directors like Vincent Sherman or other male costars; her conflict and resolution with moguls, Jack Warner and Harry Cohn; her resentment of actress, Norma Shearer and feud with actress, Bette Davis, or, her struggle with the cancer that finally took her life. Crawford’s marriage to Pepsi Cola president, Alfred Steele is glossed over in one or two vignettes that are woefully episodic. The movie does not even have the decency to accurately capture Crawford’s Oscar acceptance for Mildred Pierce as it happened - in her bedroom, suffering from an attack of anxiety, but happily clutching her Oscar– rather (in the film) standing triumphantly outside her fashionable Hollywood home – holding court for a gaggle of reporters in her housecoat - without the statuette - and milking the moment for all it is worth. What remains are the headline-grabbing sound bites, presumably tabloid-esque and capable of selling tickets. Nothing that does not support this carefully contrived image of Crawford as a manipulative, evil and destructive influence, toxic to any relationship she dared entertain, is left to reconsider. In the final analysis, Mommie Dearest is not Joan Crawford, but a skillful manipulation of the variables that perhaps made Crawford unpredictable and driven to succeed, herein, turned upside down so that one sincerely ponders how she could have worked so much, so well, and, for so long and still have found the energy to exert on all those ‘wire hangers!’
Paramount Home Video presents Mommie Dearest: The Hollywood Royalty Edition in anamorphic widescreen (1:85:1). While looking light-years better than it ever has on home video, image quality is far below expectation. There are more than a handful of scenes exhibiting an overly soft characteristic, blurry and slightly out of focus. Colors can be accurately balanced in one scene, then - quite inexplicably – adopt a rather faded, yellowish tone in the next. Age-related artifacts (chips, scratches) are very noticeable in certain scenes, yet practically nonexistent in others. Contrast levels are weak. Blacks are generally soft dark gray. Whites adopt a bluish tint. The audio has been remixed to 5.1 Dolby Digital. The original mono is also included. Neither is particularly engaging. Extras include three featurettes with director, Perry and co-stars minus Dunaway, and, with snippets of Crawford from 1954’s Johnny Guitar inserted. We also get an informatively glib audio commentary from director, John Waters – a devotee of this movie, plus the original theatrical trailer and stills gallery.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)