Bad Movie Night: The Blisteringly Overcooked Madness of ‘Mommie Dearest’

In belated celebration of its 35th anniversary, we take a look at the notorious Joan Crawford biopic/exposé.

Welcome to “Bad Movie Night,” a biweekly feature in which we sift through the remains of bad movies of all stripes: the obscure and hilarious, the bloated and beautiful, the popular and painful. This week, in belated celebration of its 35th anniversary, we take a look at the notorious Joan Crawford biopic/exposé Mommie Dearest.

When we last visited the magic land of terrible movies we looked at Valley of the Dolls, a showbiz roman a clef whose characters were clearly inspired by the likes of Marilyn Monroe and (especially) Judy Garland, a film (and novel before it) that ended up influencing the public perception of those stars as much as any of their films. To that tradition we can add Mommie Dearest, Frank Perry’s 1981 biopic of Joan Crawford, which recently passed the 35th anniversary of its release, and of particular interest thanks to its slot at the conclusion of the You Must Remember This podcast’s excellent “Six Degrees of Joan Crawford” summer mini-series. In that episode, host Karina Longworth notes that Mommie Dearest is, today, a film that’s probably been seen by more people than any Joan Crawford movie – not out of some fascination with the subject, but due to the sheer force of its retching badness.

It was based on a scorched-earth memoir by Christina Crawford, the adopted daughter of the Hollywood legend, a volume published barely a year after Joan’s death in 1977. One of the first celeb “tell all” books, it was a tabloid and publishing sensation, thanks to its explosive accusations of Christina’s extensive physical and mental abuse at the hands of her mother, whom she claimed was a monstrous alcoholic who only adopted children for publicity and became jealous of her daughter as she grew older, ultimately leaving her and brother Christopher out of her will. The book, it seemed, was her payback.

Producer Frank Yablans quickly snatched up film rights to the book, setting it up at Paramount, originally hoping to attract Franco Zeffirelli to direct and Anne Bancroft to star as Crawford. But both bowed out, with direction falling to David and Lisa‘s Frank Perry and Faye Dunaway – one of the few actors of the 1970s Crawford went on record to praise – taking on the role of Joan. The script changed hands numerous times, in attempt to find a tone and approach that would satisfy Christina Crawford, Dunaway, their respective producer beaus, and the filmmakers; it was ultimately credited to four people, including the producer and the director.

That’s usually not a good sign, and Mommie Dearest is no exception. From the beginning – after a five-plus minute opening sequence in which we see Faye/Joan beginning her arduous star workday without ever seeing her face, like she’s the neighbor on Home Improvement or something – Dunaway’s Joan is not a character, but a caricature; she does an impressive physical and vocal impersonation, but all of her tricks and tics can’t make a real person out of the cartoon villain in the script (and book). She comes across as equal parts Joan Crawford, Norma Desmond, and Carrie White’s mom.

There is certainly an argument to be made that Ms. Crawford lived her life broadly and theatrically, and perhaps this was the logic behind Dunaway’s decision to BRAAAAY all her LIIIIINES at top volume, a move that has endeared her to fans of camp for 35 years now. When little Christina snaps at her, Joan barks, “Don’t you EVER use that tone with me, MISSYYYY!” When she’s embarrassed at a favorite restaurant, she moans to her boyfriend, “Damnit, PERRINO’S is MY PLACE!” When the board of Pepsi tries to muscle her out after the death of her husband, the company’s CEO, she vamps, “Don’t FUCK with me, FELLAS! This ain’t my first time at the RODEO!” When her dismissal from MGM prompts a midnight gardening session in full gown and make-up, she calls for her daughter, takes a giant, theatrical pause, and bleats, “BRING ME THE AXE!”

And, of course, there is the scene that lives in infamy, the scene that even people who haven’t seen Mommie Dearest can tell you is in Mommie Dearest: the “no more WIRE HANGERS EVERRRRR!” scene, in which Ms. Crawford wakes up her children to chastise her daughter for hanging her dresses on wire hangers, screams maniacally, throws shit around the room, beats the girl with a hanger, and then hisses, “Did you scrub the bathroom floor today?”, so she can drag her into there, scream some more, cover the bathroom in Ajax, and wail on her with the can. And then she exits, announcing “Clean up this MESS!” Christina, not unreasonably, asks, “How?” Her mother replies, “FIGURE IT OUT,” and I kid you not, crosses her eyes before marching out of the room. If there were ever a better example of a director leaving an actor to die on the vine, I can’t think of it.

But it’s not just that the scene is so comically overacted, or that Dunaway performs it with a dripping clown mask of white nighttime anti-aging cream, or that it includes dialogue like “And your room looks like some two-dollar-a-week furnished room in some two-bit back street town in Oklahoma.” It’s that the scene comes immediately after her Oscar triumph, with no transition, no explanation, no through-line – just a subtext of Hey, look at how nutty she was, nothing made her happy. The entire movie is like that, rotating between (it must be noted, painstakingly and impressively detailed) snapshots of Old Hollywood and vignettes of horrifying child abuse, with no connective tissue to bind them. It plays like an adaptation of an exposé in the worst possible sense, as if its script was born of someone going through the book with a highlighter pen and marking “the good parts.”

Mommie Dearest came at the end of an odd period in Hollywood’s self-reflection, in which the New Hollywood era (and its subversion of classic genres) ran parallel to a nostalgia boom for movies and movie stars of the past. Campus film societies and TV late shows found a new audience for the work of Humphrey Bogart, Groucho Marx, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean, and the days of movies yore were suddenly a popular subject for new movies like The Day of the Locust, Silent Movie, Nickelodeon, Inserts, The Wild Party, Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood, and The Last Tycoon. Those fictional stories included plenty of avatars for real-life Hollywood figures – and they were complimented by a rash of theatrical and television biopics of old Hollywood stars, including Bogie, Gable and Lombard, Bud and Lou, W.C. Fields and Me, and Goodbye, Norma Jean. And many of them, like Mommie Dearest, took pains to underscore that these people weren’t quite so lovable off-screen.

But in Mommie Dearest, director Perry and producer Yablans seemed bent on setting their sights higher. From this perspective, its easy to see the movie they were trying to emulate: 1980’s Raging Bull, a brutal examination of a popular cultural figure, brought to life by a Method star in a self-punishing leading performance, creating an experience that aimed to make its audience squirm at its physical and psychological violence. But Mommie Dearest, to put it mildly, is not Raging Bull. It offers up the misery of the Scorsese picture, but none of the craft or (more importantly) psychological insight; even when Dunaway is allowed to connect to the character, to have a moment of real emotion (like her breakup with her kind boyfriend Gary) or to create a scene that’s genuinely upsetting (like the one where she discovers Christina imitating her in a mirror, and proceeds to chop of her hair), the character is rendered such a grotesque, those moments don’t accumulate to an arc or even a readable profile. They just pile up, like cars in a traffic accident, and all we can do is gawk.

Never is this more clear than in the scene above, one of the many climaxes of its second half, in which adult Christina (Diana Scarwid, also way out of control) and Joan finally go at it – hissing and thundering at each other, exchanging slaps to the face, until Dunaway finally looks at her hands as though they’re slipping from her control, like a day player on an Ed Wood movie, puts them around her daughter’s throat, and lunges at her, propelling both of them across the room, breaking a lamp and a table, so Joan can choke Christina (loudly) on the floor. The scene is like a master class in how not to stage, act, shoot, and cut a big breakdown scene; it’s utterly hilarious, and it shouldn’t be.

And that, for all intents and purposes, became the movie’s epitaph. It was greeted with blistering reviews (Roger Ebert’s is still the best: “It is unremittingly depressing, not to any purpose of drama or entertainment, but just to depress. It left me feeling creepy”), and only became a financial success when Paramount realized the few people who were seeing it were hooting at it and talking back at the screen, Rocky Horror-style, and adjusted their ad campaign accordingly a month into its release, pivoting from the tasteful original campaign to newspaper ads featuring a prominently displayed wire hanger and the tagline “The biggest mother of them all.” Producer Yablans was furious (he sued the studio), and Dunaway claimed the movie kept her from working for years. But that was the angle that stuck – now and then, and if you don’t believe me, I have some T-shirts I’d like to sell you. The take-no-prisoners force of Dunaway’s performance and the sheer tone-deafness of Perry’s direction make a combustible combination. It’s not a good movie, by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s essential viewing.

Mommie Dearest is streaming via Amazon, iTunes, and the usual sources.