Film Score: Henry Mancini Cinematography: Paul Lohmann
Starring: Faye Dunaway, Diana Scarwid, Steve Forrest and Mara Hobel
Mommie Dearest is an absolute hoot. It’s a great film, despite whatever your personal feelings about Joan Crawford might be. The other day I happened to catch a bit of Torch Song on TV and when Crawford was brow beating her mother I smiled at the thought that she didn’t even have to act at all. But then perhaps, as the film suggests, her entire life was spent acting. The film is based on the autobiography of Christina Crawford, the film star’s adopted daughter, which detailed a life of systematic mental and physical abuse at the hands of her movie star mother. What the film became, however, is a camp classic with the over-the-top performance of Faye Dunaway achieving a sort of artistic quality all its own.
The film begins with Crawford waking up at four in the morning to go through her daily beauty regimen, and then going off to the studio to be made up. When the scene shifts she is scrubbing the floors of her house, emphasizing her mania for perfection. Soon Crawford decides she wants a child as another way of perfecting her life . . . in addition to getting some great publicity. Hollywood lawyer Steve Forrest is dating Crawford and is able to get her a child on the black market that she names Christina. Tension between the two begins when her daughter is only five or six years old, and quickly escalates into a war of wills between the two. But rather than see it as a childish phase, Crawford takes it as a personal affront and imposes harsh penalties as well as humiliating her daughter to teach her a lesson. The climactic scene of her childhood period--and one of the iconic scenes in the film is when Crawford finds a wire hanger in the girl’s closet and comes unglued.
Several years later, when Crawford has had enough, she ships Christina off to boarding school. Diana Scarwid does a great job as the teenage daughter, and when she discovers boys, Crawford uses that as an excuse to pull her out of the private school and put her in a convent, though not before attempting to choke her to death. Even as a young adult, Crawford manipulated her daughter and used her for gaining publicity for herself. When Christina was in the hospital Crawford took her place in the soap opera she had been acting in, and in the process embarrassing everyone involved. The final blow comes after Crawford’s funeral when Christina and her brother discover that they have been cut out of her will completely. It’s a beautiful ending because it sets up the whole autobiography and the way that Christina had the last word after all while making a bundle of cash in the process.
Dunaway is tremendous in the film, and though she’s been accused of chewing the scenery and stealing scenes, she’s playing Joan Crawford. Would we really want it any other way? Dunaway is quoted as saying that, in retrospect, she wishes director Frank Perry had had the experience to tone down her performance, but I fear had that happened the film would be seen as little more than a TV biopic today, and would never have stood the test of time. Mara Hobel is wonderful as Christina as a child, and Howard Da Silva gives one of the best portrayals of Louis B. Mayer on film. Ultimately, debates about the veracity of Christina Crawford’s book are beside the point. Mommie Dearest is right up there with Sunset Boulevard in portraying what Hollywood could do to women who bought into their own self-importance. It’s a classic film that deserves classic status.