Monday, July 17, 2006
Mommie Dearest (1981)
If the phrase Hollywood Legend could apply to only one person, that person would be Joan Crawford. With the exception of Lillian Gish, no one had a longer career in motion pictures. Crawford began her career in the mid-twenties and remained a star until the early seventies, reinventing her persona with each decade. From the carefree flapper of the 1920s, the ambitious shop girl of the 1930s, the soap opera queen of the 1940s, the middle aged sexpot of the 1950s and finally the horror scream queen of the 1960s and early 1970s, Crawford graced movie screens for nearly fifty years,winning an Oscar for her role in Mildred Pierce in 1945.
As it turns out, Crawford's private life wasn't nearly as successful as her professional life. She had four unsuccessful marriages and one happy one that left her a widow in 1959. In the middle of all this Hollywood madness, she managed to adopt four children.
In 1979, two years after Crawford's death, her eldest daughter Christina published a scathing biography of her mother and her own life as a Hollywood brat. In Mommie Dearest, Christina describes her mother as an abusive, , sexually promiscuous, alcoholic control freak. Since the American public loves to read about the nasty little secrets of the rich and famous, even the long dead rich and famous, the book shot up on the best seller list.
The powers that be in Hollywood saw how much money Christina's little poison pen story was making and decided that they just had to have a piece of the action. Paramount Pictures snapped up the rights. Originally, Anne Bancroft, who had won an Oscar for 1962's The Miracle Worker(Ironically, Joan Crawford accepted the Oscar for her.)was cast as Joan, but the writers couldn't produce a script to her liking. The next choice was Faye Dunaway, a talented, but mannered actress.
Dunaway's first big splash on the silver screen came in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde. This was followed by a slew of hit films and an Oscar for Network in 1976. As if this resume wasn't impressive enough, Dunaway, like Crawford, costared with Bette Davis (In a 1976 television movie called The Disappearance of Aimee.) and like Crawford, she and Davis hated each other.(Davis would go on to publicly attack Dunaway for the rest of her life.) I guess the producers felt that a feud with the same Hollywood legend that Crawford feuded with really sealed the deal and Dunaway was cast. The result was a camp classic of mammoth proportions.
Joan Crawford has it all. A wonderful career, a beautiful mansion and more money than God, but still there's something missing in her life. A child of her own. With the help of her lawyer and lover Greg Savitt (a fictitious character based on the real Crawford's lawyer and lover Greg Bautzer and played by Steve Forrest.)Joan is allowed to adopt a baby girl she names Christina. (In real life, the baby was originally named Joan, but Crawford didn't want her child to go through life as Joan Crawford, Jr, so she changed her name to Christina.) Joan's life is complete now that she has the child she adores. (We know she adores the baby because she holds her like an Oscar.)
Since this is not only a movie, but a Bad Favorite, all is not well in the Crawford household. Joan's behavior becomes more and more erratic. One night, during an argument, Greg tells her to face the fact that she's getting old. No Hollywood diva wants to hear those dreaded words, so she growls at him and calls him a dirty crooked Hollywood lawyer. Greg isn't taking this abuse lying down. He growls back at her, shakes her silly,(This probably is what two rabid wolves look like when they're mating.) and utters the scathing line, "Are you crazy?" He then bolts from the room and says, "If you're acting, you're wasting your time. If you're not, you're wasting mine." (What the hell does that mean? I can't figure it out.) Joan is so furious with at Greg, that she cuts his head off in all of his photos. (I kid you not.)
Joan's career is also hitting the skids. One day, L.B. Mayer calls her into his office and tells her that she's through at Metro since she's been labeled box office poison. (In real life, Crawford asked to be released from her contract.) Of course in bad movie land, anytime a diva gets sacked, we're in for a treat. Dunaway doesn't disappoint us. Next, we see our heroine in her rose garden chopping up the rose bushes wearing a beaded evening gown. (You really have to see this to believe it.) She has her long suffering, faithful servant Carol Ann (Rutanya Alda) wake up the children to help her continue her destruction. As if Dunaway hasn't destroyed enough scenery with her chopping and chewing, she still has a pesky little tree to deal with. (Tina! Bring me the axe!") Joan chops away, looking like Paul Bunyon at a drag show until the poor little tree falls to its death.
Boyfriends and foliage are not the main victims of Joan's hysterical wrath. The brunt of her abuse is reserved for her children Christina (Mara Hobel, a child actress know all over the South for her Bryan Bacon commercials.) and Christopher. Joan chops off Christian's long locks when she catches the child imitating her, makes her give away all but one of her Christmas and birthday presents and tries to force her to eat a steak so rare that it's still mooing.
On night, Joan, wearing a hideous green cold cream mask and a head band that makes her look like a troll doll, comes into the children's room and finds a wire hanger in Christina's closet. It would be an understatement to say she was pissed. She proceeds to trash the room, beat Christina with the hanger and throw cleanser all over the bathroom. If that's not enough to frighten anyone with a pulse, she orders the child to "Clean up this mess." (Everyone seems to think this scene is a campy delight. Personally, I find it very disturbing.)
Joan, having had it with her ungrateful daughter, decides to send her to a boarding school. A sobbing Christian begs her mother not to make her go. (Why would any child want to stay in that house of horrors with that monster?)
Teenage Christina (Now played by Diana Scarwid) is happy at her school and studying drama. On a home visit, Joan tells Christina that she's broke. Christina will have to work at the school to pay the tuition. Christina is okay with it until she finds Joan knocked out drunk among packages of recently purchased expensive clothes.
Back at school, young love is in bloom when one of the male students shows a less than chaste interest in Christina. When the young man and Christina are caught making out in the barn, a furious Joan (When is she ever not furious?) yanks Christina out of school and blames everyone but herself. ( With her revolving bedroom door, who else is to blame?) Joan drags Christina back home and tells a reporter that she was explelled from school. When Christina calls her on this lie, Joan lunges at the girl and strangles her wearing an expression that would frighten the most seasoned Stephen King fan. Faster than you can say "Hail Mary", Joan carts Christina off to a very strict convent school, where she is to receive no privileges.
While Christina serves her sentence for telling the truth, Joan marries Pepsi Cola CEO Alfred Steele (Harry Goz). The marriage is a happy one for the most part, but Joan's extravagant spending sends poor Al's head spinning right into an early grave. The Pepsi board of directors attempt to retire the widowed Joan from the board, but she isn't having any of it. ("Don't f*** with me fellows. This isn't my first time in the rodeo.") She informs them that if they force her to leave, she'll publicly trash their product.(I guess these means she'll switch to vodka and Coca-Cola.)
A now grown Christina is enjoying a modest success in her acting career. She's even landed a juicy role on a daytime soap. When Christina falls ill, sixty something Joan steps in and plays Tina's twenty something character. If this isn't bad enough, she's so drunk on the show that she can't even read the teleprompter.
The years pass and Dragon Lady finally bites the dust. At her wake, Christina gives a tearful speech over Joan's corpse, spouting some nonsense about no more pain and being free. (What pain was she talking about? The pain Joan was in or the pain she inflected on everyone she ever knew?) At the reading of the will, Christina and her brother Christopher (Xander Berkeley of television's 24) find that they have been disinherited by their mother for "reasons known to them." Joan always gets the last word. Or does she?
Crawford fans were outraged by Christina's book. They felt as though Christina ruined her mother's star image. I personally think this is ridiculous. I for one still watch Joan Crawford films.
Some of the true facts of Crawford's life are much more interesting than this movie. No mention is made of Crawford's affair with Clark Gable, her feud with Bette Davis or her alleged bisexuality. Crawford adopted two other children and they're not even mentioned. (Why did she adopt two unrelated baby girls and present them as twins? Now that's bizarre.)
When the movie was released in 1981, it was meant to be a testament of a woman's life with her famous, abusive mother. The public saw it as a campy comedy. Gay bars held "Mommie Dearest" parties with drag queens dressed like Joan Crawford and wielding wire hangers. Yet, no one will ever forget it. Twenty-five years later, it's still a favorite.
What makes this movie bad? Faye's histrionics, the "bending" of the truth, the overall melodramatic feel.
What makes it a bad favorite? It's a hell of a lot of fun.
Mommie Dearest is avaialbe on DVD and VHS.
Watch a hilarious video: