Mommie Dearest (1981)
Written by Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, Frank Perry, and Frank Yablans
Directed Frank Perry
Mommie Dearest is a film entangled in so many worlds & perspectives. On the surface, it’s an adaptation of Christina Crawford’s memoir of growing up as the daughter of actress Joan Crawford. It was seen as a “so bad it’s good” movie and won the Golden Razzie in its release year. The film has become a cult classic, particularly embraced by the drag community due to Faye Dunaway’s over-the-top performance. Even Paramount realized a couple months into the release that the picture was being seen as a comedy more than a serious biopic and began advertising it as a piece of camp. It’s a strange film to watch because it’s centered around a child’s emotional and physical abuse, yet it’s delivered so outlandishly you can’t help but crack up.
In the late 1930s, Joan Crawford’s career was at a crossroads. She was in her late 30s, and MGM found it harder to cast in the types of roles she previously played. A relationship with lawyer Greg Savitt had kept her in reasonably good standing with studio head Louis B. Mayer. Crawford is feeling pangs of motherhood and realizing it would make for good publicity, so she goes about trying to adopt a child. After she is refused by an adoption agency due to her being single and her career choice, Crawford goes through less than legal channels and adopts infant Christina. Crawford compulsively worries about Christina becoming spoiled and imposes increasingly insane & erratic house rules. As Christina gets older, she rebels more and is eventually sent off to boarding school. In the meantime, the actress’s career continues in a downturn after MGM drops her, and she has to take parts she would have never entertained before.
The fallout from the publication of Christina’s book and this film adaptation is quite interesting. A significant number of Hollywood performers who knew Crawford came out to say the text was full of lies. What Christina shares are moments these people likely would have never known about. It seems reasonably sure that if there is accuracy to these incidents, Crawford was undiagnosed bipolar due to her extreme manic-depressive episodes. She genuinely cares about Christina, but there’s some parental abuse in her own past that has warped her sensibilities.
I have to say, as the child of abuse at the hands of someone likely undiagnosed bipolar much of what was shown on screen was highly relatable. The episode where Christina refuses to eat her rare steak and then is continually served the same plate for days struck home. When I first got braces, I was also prescribed calcium supplements. Due to the palate device in the roof of my mouth, it was difficult to swallow pills as they could get stuck between it and the top of my mouth. My solution as a nine-year-old was to dump the pills in the trash, hiding them. My parents eventually found the pills, and I was given a brutal spanking followed by being made to stand in the kitchen until I swallowed a pill. I stood there for hours into the late afternoon/early evening, refusing to do so, and my father eventually gave up. I don’t think bad parents genuinely understand the indomitable will a child can summon when they realize their parents are compulsively obsessed with unearned respect and control.
The famous wire hangers sequence is both horrific and so over the top; thanks to Dunaway’s performance, it is immediately apparent why it has become so iconic. Dunaway has since said that she blames the director for not guiding her performance better, but I don’t know if this film could have been tolerable without that volcanic level of emotions. I think he got exactly what he wanted by letting her go to this level of intensity which underlines the monstrous nature of what is happening to Christina. It’s made even better than the sequence is punctuated with little Christina sitting alone in the bathroom after dealing with a whirlwind and stating, “Jesus Christ.”
Mommie Dearest is a damning example of how being white & rich in American imbues you with immunity. Crawford was unfit to be a parent; she had deep emotional issues and compulsions that needed to be worked through before considering parenting. It’s also some horrible gaslighting for other influential people to have come out and tried to invalidate Christina’s experience. It’s a fact that Crawford disinherited Christina and her brother Christopher long before the book was ever published, and her will alluded to their refusal to live under her authoritarian will. I believe Christina, but I think Dunaway’s over-the-top performance actually helped people who were trying to say the abused woman was making things up. This is a wild viewing experience that I found hilarious, but I can also see if other victims of child abuse are deeply uncomfortable with it. I don’t think there’s denying that Dunaway gave a performance unlike much else seen on screen.