Mommie Dearest: Hollywood Royalty Edition (1981)

Mommie Dearest
Frank Perry
25 April 2017

I can’t imagine who would want to subject themselves to this movie.

– Roger Ebert, review of Mommie Dearest (1981)

There is no better movie than this kind of movie when you’re home on a Saturday afternoon… with a slight hangover.

– John Waters, commentary track, Mommie Dearest: Hollywood Royalty Edition

Watching Mommie Dearest: Hollywood Royalty Edition with John Waters’ commentary track is like seeing it with your sharpest, funniest friend, who just happens to have the inside dish on Melanie Griffith. His witty observations make you wish you could go to the movies with him all the time, especially the bad ones.

Mommie Dearest, the infamous biopic about Joan Crawford based on her daughter Christina’s memoir, was critically savaged when it was released in 1981, mainly due to its laughable dialogue, Faye Dunaway’s over-the-top portrayal (which Waters calls the first drag queen role played by a woman), and a scene with a wire hanger you may have heard about. As screenwriter and producer Frank Yablans notes in a featurette, the studio was quick to acknowledge the film’s camp potential a few months after its release, and the initial, straight Mommie Dearest poster was replaced by one that screamed, “No more wire hangers… ever!” followed by a new tagline, “The Biggest Mother of Them All.” The jacket of this new DVD extends this slant, dubbing it a “campy and outrageous film” that will leave you unable to “look at a wire hanger the same way again.”

Given the film’s current reputation, Waters’ argument is somewhat surprising. He says, “I don’t think [Mommie Dearest] is campy. I don’t think it’s so bad, it’s good: I think it’s so good, it’s great, except for a few lines that go over-the-top.” The three scenes he claims pushed this good film into excess are the wire hanger scene, the one when Joan, “in couture”, hacks down her rose garden with an axe after being fired by MGM, and the one when Joan attempts to strangle teenage Christina (Diana Scarwid), tackling her to the floor and rather naughtily exposing her white underpants.

Waters’ take on the rest of Mommie Dearest is earnest and quite compassionate toward the filmmakers’ choices and toward Joan herself, a woman he claims “could have been helped by Prozac.” But even at his most sympathetic, Waters chases his remarks with a zingy twist. Of Joan, he says, “[She] did mean well. It’s hard to be a good parent, rich or poor, with or without eyebrows.” He adds later, “I’m not a Hollywood star, but I would be a terrible parent too. I’d make a great uncle, though. I’d get you an abortion, I’d get you out of jail, all the things your parents would never need to know about.”

While Waters is entertaining, his case concerning the film’s status as camp is not convincing. The screenplay is littered with howlers from beginning to end. Take, for example, the moment when Joan berates the board of Pepsi-Cola for trying to retire her after her husband Al dies. In a fur-trimmed hat and coat, she yells, “Don’t fuck with me, fellas! This isn’t my first time at the rodeo!” Dunaway delivers the line with such lusty glee it’s impossible not to laugh, even after hearing it ten times. (I admit it, I’ve seen this film many times). Or how about the scene when Joan tells the architect renovating her New York apartment, “Tear down that bitch of a bearing wall and put a window where one ought to be!” These outrageous bits constitute much of Mommie Dearest’s appeal, as they give viewers the chance to be a drag queen for a day and shout the most hilarious lines along with Dunaway.

You can’t help but wonder if Dunaway’s excess is intentional, but in the behind-the-scenes portions of this edition, she does not answer that question. Yablans claims that she disowned the role because she had been hurt by the critics. The DVD cannily punctuates commentary about Dunaway with scenes of her as Crawford from Mommie Dearest. When Yablans remarks that Dunaway had a reputation for being a perfectionist, there is a cut to a scene when Crawford berates her housekeeper Helga (Alice Nunn) for missing a spot of dirt on the floor: “If you want anything done right,” she cries, “you have to do it yourself!” This strategy works to underline the connection between Dunaway and Crawford. As the DVD jacket indicates, “Faye Dunaway is Joan Crawford.” Waters adds that when he sees photos of Dunaway, he has to remind himself they’re not of Crawford.

Both Roger Ebert and Janet Maslin praised Dunaway in their reviews of the film. Ebert calls “Dunaway’s impersonation… stunningly suggestive and convincing”, and Maslin writes, “Dunaway’s work amounts to a small miracle, as one movie queen transforms herself passionately and wholeheartedly into another.” Even at her most extreme, Dunaway is never less than captivating. During the wire hanger scene, in which she decides to wear white face cream, Dunaway whips herself into a tornado of irrepressible fury. Drag performer and DVD commentator Lypsinka accurately describes her choices as “brilliant, operatic, and almost experimental.”

Though Ebert and Maslin fault Mommie Dearest for offering no psychological insights into Crawford, I disagree. In one scene, the adoption agency delivers infant Christina to Crawford’s home. Joan, dressed in a high-necked pale blue gown, takes the child in her arms and ascends her glorious art deco staircase (Waters dubs it “the stairway to heaven”). As she pauses at the top of the stairs to look down at her admirers, her head is framed by a half-circle window behind her, creating a halo-like effect. Draped in folds of blue fabric, with light emanating from her crown and a blonde baby in her arms, Crawford looks like a Renaissance rendition of the Virgin Mary. The image is subtly profane considering all that comes after, but it also represents Joan’s self-image as the Blessed Mother in a melodrama titled something like “Baby Christina Comes Home”.

Late on Christmas Eve (another religious allusion), Crawford invites a radio show to broadcast from her home. Christina (at six or seven, played by Mara Hobel) and her adopted brother Christopher (Jeremy Scott Reibolt) politely answer the interviewer’s questions as Crawford looks on like a hawk. After Christina tells the audience that she and her brother will give their gifts to less fortunate children, Crawford looks up and smiles, relieved and proud, indicating that Christina has delivered her lines as rehearsed. The scene illustrates how Crawford attempted to direct her children rather than parent them, which, according to Christina’s version of events, was where she went wrong.

Waters observes that Crawford lived her life as though a still camera was always about to capture her image, and Mommie Dearest takes pains to show how devoted she was to constructing and maintaining her image as a reigning Hollywood queen. Given her flair for orchestration and boundless dedication, I wonder what Crawford would have accomplished behind the camera. With a creative outlet to funnel her drive, ambition, and vision, she could have made one helluva director, to paraphrase a line from the film. Think Barbra Streisand’s The Prince of Tides (1991) – but with bigger shoulder pads.

RATING 7 / 10