Rethinking Mommie Dearest

Mommie Dearest (1981)
Directed by Frank Perry
Paramount, 129 minutes, PG (violence)

All reviewers have weaknesses. One of mine is curiosity about movies proclaimed to be awful. I had never seen Mommie Dearest, the notorious 1981 exposé of Joan Crawford (1904?-77) based on her adopted daughter Christina’s memoir. Although the film was not a box office bomb, it was savaged as camp, crap, or totally concocted. After all, it made a Hollywood legend into a monster at a time in which Crawford was not yet four years dead.

In my view, it’s worth watching, though it is campy in parts. Some critics praised Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Crawford. Dunaway was herself nearing the end of her reign as a Hollywood idol, so the role of Crawford seemed to fit like a glove. In retrospect, it was more like a mitten. Her performance often pushes the needle into the red on the histrionics meter and one wonders if director Frank Perry lacked the courage to make her dial it back. Dunaway had a reputation for being very difficult. In Mommie Dearest she munched scenes like a koala in a eucalyptus grove.    

For the unknowing, Crawford desperately wanted a child, but suffered miscarriages. She was deemed an inappropriate candidate for adoption, because she had been divorced–a disqualifier back then–and she and her current husband, actor Franchot Tone, were said to be too busy to care a child. With the help of Hollywood lawyer Gregg Savitt (Steve Forrest), her lover after she divorced Tone in 1939, Crawford adopted Christina, a blond cutie pie. For a time, Christina and her adopted brother Christopher were doted upon. If Christina is to be believed, their dream world became a nightmare. Hollywood queens often sit upon the throne less time than one of Henry VIII’s wives; in 1938, studio head Louis B. Mayer (Howard Da Silva) declared her “box office poison” and pushed her out of MGM. She went on to Warner Brothers  and won an Oscar for Mildred Pierce in 1945, but in the interim, Christina claimed her mother became a violent authoritarian drunk who abused her, most infamously by beating her with wire hangers, and by forcing her brother to strap himself in bed so he wouldn’t walk to the bathroom at night. Christina grew up sullen and defiant, so Crawford sent her off to private schools. Did any of this happen?

First, let’s talk about what’s good in the film. Mommie Dearest certainly gives insight into how Hollywood royalty lived. It is a world that could have been clipped from Newport society, except filled with celebrities instead of upper-class twits. Note that the elaborate lawn and pool parties you see took place near the end of the Great Depression and through World War II, so call them glamour, privilege, and tone deafness on the part of pampered stars. Second, a few of the secondary roles were well played. Forrest plays Savitt deftly in his attract/repel/recyle relationship with Crawford. Rutanya Alda maintained the same balancing act as Carol Ann, Crawford’s assistant, but tread-softly protectress of Christina. In the just-for-kicks department, the Redbook reporter whose puff piece on Crawford an angry Christina disrupts is Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s older sister.

On the minus side, the actors playing adult Christopher and Christina (Xander Berkeley and Diana Scarwid) are outshone by the child actors. Quite a bit in Scarwid’s case; young Christina (Mara Hobel) is so vivacious that we too hurt when she is abused. By contrast, Scarwid is too flat to make us believe in her anger, and simply lacks the chops to turn sweet when the role called for it.  The biggest flaw, though, came from trying to do too much. The last quarter of the movie is like a Crawford career coda, including nods to later films, her involvement with Pepsi, and subbing for her twenty-something daughter in a soap opera when she was in her sixties. These things happened, but this wasn’t supposed to be a Crawford biopic. One odd omission, though, is that Crawford adopted two other daughters, who got the bulk of her estate when she died.

This inevitably raises the question of how much one should trust Christina’s book. I don’t know. Much of Hollywood rallied to denounce Mommie Dearest as a fake; others vouched that it was accurate. I can only say that Christina’s life—she is 81 now—followed in her adopted mother’s footsteps in that she was divorced three times and flamed out as an actress. She ultimately enjoyed more success as a writer. Mommie Dearest won awards, but not of the Oscar variety; it claimed five Golden Raspberrys, which are “awarded” for bad movies. It’s not a terrible movie; merely incomplete and unconvincing.

Rob Weir

No comments: