This camp classic-slash-disaster would have been a pretty forgettable movie if not for Faye Dunaway‘s unhinged, all-guns-blazing performance that somehow transcends the conventional ideas of “good” or “bad” acting. It is truly something else.
No! Wire! Hangers! Ever!
I got interested in Mommie Dearest thanks to Be Kind Rewind, one of my favourite YouTube channels about film history and Old Hollywood, with a particular focus on women in film. One of their most fascinating videos is devoted to the making and aftermath of Mommie Dearest, as well as the effect it’s had on the legacies of both Joan Crawford and Faye Dunaway, who played the Hollywood legend in the adaptation of the tell-all memoir written by Crawford’s adopted daughter Christina. The memoir was a harrowing chronicle of child abuse, with claims of cruelty so shocking their validity has been debated for years ever since.
By all accounts, the only happy party once the dust settled were the members of the audience who embraced the movie as a hilarious unintentional comedy, to the utter embarrassment of filmmakers who were aiming for a serious Oscar-worthy drama about a painful mother-daughter relationship. I wonder what my own reaction would have been, had I seen Mommie Dearest in a theatre full of appreciative giggling fans who gleefully anticipate every high point and applaud every iconic line of dialogue. Having watched it at home by myself, I certainly found the film excessive and absurd in places, but I can’t say it made me titter.
As a Joan Crawford biopic the movie fails pretty hard, despite the impeccable production design and fabulous clothes that simply ooze classic Hollywood glamour. It gives virtually no insight into what made Crawford the person she was, aside from vague allusions to unhappy childhood, and it lurches selectively from one milestone to another, from crisis to success then back to crisis, without any build-up or pattern. You never know whether the next scene will cut to the next day or jump five years into the future.
What the film is principally interested in is Crawford as a Bad Mommie, the sadistic, jealous, insecure gorgon whose savage mood swings and gigantic ego make life an ordeal for everyone around her, especially her suffering daughter Christina. In scene after scene, she yells at Christina, hacks off her hair with scissors, forces her to finish her meal of near-raw steak even if takes days. It all culminates with the movie’s most notorious and hysterical scene, in which Dunaway’s Crawford, looking like a deranged monster with her face white with night cream, storms into Christina’s bedroom to wage war on the wire hangers in Christina’s closet.
I couldn’t say if Dunaway’s big, brazen, intense performance here is godawful or a certain kind of genius; one thing for certain, she’s impossible to look away from and makes everyone else onscreen wither into insignificance. It would also be unfair to call it entirely one-note: some scenes do allow a more nuanced glimpse of vulnerability felt by a woman who is about to hit a dreaded peak of 40 in an industry obsessed with youth (it’s tempting to speculate if Dunaway, who approached the same peak in real life, channeled some of her own feelings). There’s also a near-affectionate scene between mother and daughter near the end of the film, which contrary to my expectations didn’t tail off into yet another screamfest.
Before watching the movie, I’ve read a few heartbreaking anonymous comments from people who felt that Dunaway’s portrayal was in fact a spot-on impression of their own abusive narcissistic mothers with unpredictable spells of pure rage. These comments must have stuck at the back of my mind, because despite its sheer outrageous excess, the movie never quite crossed into the unintended comedy for me. It could also be because the young girl playing Christina looked and sounded convincingly terrified during the scenes of abuse, keeping them firmly on the side of uncomfortable.
Mommie Dearest may not be a good movie or even a so-bad-it’s-good movie, but it’s easy to see why it’s become a cult classic (and a source of inspiration to drag queens everywhere) purely on the strength of its singular, ferocious central performance. May it live on forever in internet memes and gifs.