Biopic Theater: Mommie Dearest (1981)
This Mother’s Day we should all hug our moms…for fear they decide to beat us with a wire hanger! Mommie Dearest, the movie that’s collectively become synonymous with schlock and the “mother” of all bad movie moms. No one walked away from this movie unscathed – Faye Dunaway disavowed it, Christina Crawford despised it, and director Frank Perry, proverbially, never worked in this town again. But is the hate truly warranted? Yes, Crawford’s book has been hotly debated, and much of the hate for this movie comes down to whether you believe her or not (there’s just as much debate for as against). Yes, the movie is campy, with Grand Guignol-level acting from Crawford, but I maintain the movie is well-made, beautifully costumed and designed, with good performances. Strap yourselves in as I prepare to defend the mother of all biopics….Mommie Dearest!
The story of Joan Crawford (Dunaway) and her often tempestuous relationship with her daughter, Christina (Mara Hobel as a child and Diana Scarwid as an adult). Along the way, Joan navigates the cruel world of Hollywood.
Some backstory: Mommie Dearest received the film treatment three years after Crawford’s book set Hollywood on fire with her tales of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her adopted mother, Joan Crawford. After that, practically every celebrity child started writing books about their horrific upbringings. Joan Crawford herself had passed away only four years before the movie was released.
With that, Mommie Dearest was perceived to be a serious awards contender, snapping up Oscar-winning actress Faye Dunaway (after Anne Bancroft turned down the role) and was considered Paramount’s darling come awards time. Unfortunately, after excoriating reviews and dismal box office, the studio realized the potential of rereleasing this as a “midnight movie,” and promoted the film’s comedic elements and over-the-top acting which further alienated everyone associated with it. To this day, Dunaway refuses to discuss her participation in it – although, there are rumors she’s writing a book about it – and Mommie Dearest has entered the pantheon of films dubbed “so bad they’re good.”
I’ve watched my fair share of biopics and Mommie Dearest is as far from the worst as you can get. (If you think it’s the worst, I give you Goodbye Norma Jean.) Some of the meaner-spirited biopics leave you questioning whether anyone truly likes this person, and Mommie Dearest presents just as much humanity for Joan as antipathy. Because filmmaking requires us to see in third-person, we’re judging Christina Crawford as much as Joan in many instances (possibly why Crawford disowned it?), and are left to sympathize with a mother whose daughter is just as head-strong and stubborn as she is. If anything, Christina Crawford is often painted as spoiled or entitled, whether it’s wanting to keep two presents during her birthday – manipulating both her mother and Joan’s boyfriend Greg (Steve Forrest) to break the rule – or engaging in a battle of wills over refusing to eat a steak rare.
Dunaway said, she realized director Frank Perry was out of his depth when he decided to film a tenderhearted sequence on the beach between mother and daughter on the first day of shooting, only to realize the sequence never made the finished product. It’s sad to hear since, while there are moments of empathy for Joan and background on her life, it’s far too little to justify many of her actions. Before adopting Christina, Joan discusses her desire for a baby and an inability to have one with past husband, Francho Tone (the movie eliminates Joan’s prior marriages before Pepsi head, Alfred Steele). She wants to teach a kid to “take care of itself,” and does have love for her kids…even if she has a terrible way of showing it. Christina’s birthday party shows a mother and daughter bonded together, even in their love for the cameras, and Dunaway is good at giving caresses or pats as a means of showing her affection, despite the hostile environment everyone is living in.
Running alongside the mother/daughter drama, and often ignored because of it, is Joan’s struggle to remain relevant in Hollywood. The former “Hollywood royalty” of MGM becomes “box office poison,” the culmination of which stems from Louis B. Mayer’s (Howard Da Silva) belief she’s too old. When Joan gets the role in Mildred Pierce, the movie depicts it as the rightful triumph it is, despite the fact Joan had to take a screen test to get it. Christina realizes how much her mother “wants everything to be perfect,” as it stems from a longstanding climb to the top.
Of course, it’s impossible to ignore the campier elements of the movie, much of which stems from Frank Yablans (with a host of others) screenplay. As I previously mentioned, several sequences of Joan explaining her life to Christina were removed, and while there are several great lines, there are just as many that are hilarious, predominately as they require Dunaway to boom them with all the power of a bullhorn (“Dammit, Perino’s is my place!”). But, for all the humor, there’s no denying the script led to a variety of memorable lines, not the least of which is “NO WIRE HANGERS!” (Because it’s Mother’s Day, I’ll share with you that my mom’s favorite line is Joan’s admonishment to the Pepsi-Cola board, “Don’t fuck with me fellas. This ain’t my first time at the rodeo.”)
The actual abuse segments are hard to watch, as they would be if it we watched any child being abused. Dunaway certainly commits to the hostility towards her daughter, and their scenes are filmed with an eye towards getting down on the ground and showing the violence without glorifying or reveling in it. In many ways, the scenes of actual violence are extremely limited, remembered because of their brutality (the wire hanger scene and Joan’s strangling of an adult Christina). The scenes with the harshest impact are the psychological ones: the slut shaming Christina gets from her mother after an encounter with a boy at school, stealing Christina’s dolls or cutting her hair because the child is “making fun” of Joan. There’s no denying, Joan is perceived as petty and jealous of her daughter, but her daughter similarly knows the buttons to push.
Regardless of how she feels about it now, Dunaway is a good sport. The costuming and set design are fantastic, and Dunaway’s sharp features combined with them definitely help cement her as a symbol of Hollywood. It’s doubtful that anyone could have inhabited the role like Dunaway, and she acts fantastically. Sure, she’s over-the-top, but the scenes of her corraling Hollywood bigwigs are fantastic. Mara Hobel works as the young Christina, and the film’s first half is better than the second, one reason being Hobel acts like an adult twice her age. Scarwid is okay, but she’s pretty flat, never giving the same caliber of performance as Dunaway, and the movie’s momentum seems to stall because Crawford and Christina were separated at that point. Rutanya Alda is also good as the strong, silent housemaid, Carol-Anne.
Having watched the dreck that is Goodbye Norma Jean, The Amazing Howard Hughes, and the like, there’s no way Mommie Dearest is the worst movie ever. The acting, production design, and costuming are good, and the movie plays it straight for the most part. There are some schlocky moments, but the enhance the insanity that is the relationship between Joan and Christina Crawford. If you’ve yet to experience it, whether you believe Christina Crawford or not, do so.
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
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