A few days ago, I started my morning off with the 1981 camp classic Mommie Dearest. It had been a few years since I’d last seen it. I remembered it well, only the last time I’d watched it at night which made all the difference. I’m now convinced that it’s a movie with dual natures, a C-list horror movie by night, and a dark comedy by day. But, no matter what time you watch it, one thing is certain: Mommie Dearest is a delightfully bad movie dressed up and painted like a prestigious bio pic. If it were made today, it would air on Lifetime, and likely be forgotten by the end of the week. And yet the story of Joan Crawford and the abuse of her adopted children has achieved the cult classic status and become a cinematic badge of honor for some LGBTQ communities and for midnight moviegoers who love to talk back at the screen. Thirty-four years after its release, Mommie Dearest remains laughable, nightmarish, and ultimately meaningless, descriptors that most of the film’s cast and crew never imagined would be thrown their way.
Based on Christina “Tina” Crawford’s 1978 tell-all book detailing her life at the hands of her adopted mother, and movie star Joan Crawford, Mommie Dearest is all surface details. Somewhere mixed in between the stagnant glamour shots, massive time leaps, scenes that continue on past their natural conclusion, and outlandish theatricality, there’s an important story. Somewhere, there’s the thematic equipment necessary to create a meaningful discussion on child abuse in the world of the wealthy, mental illness, and the impact of aging and studio systems on one of Hollywood’s greatest stars. But in the hands of a director who doesn’t have a real story to tell, and four screenwriters whose efforts all boil down to vignettes, Mommie Dearest is a hack job (“Tina bring me the axe!”). What the film does do is create a villain for the ages, one that plays into our societal fears of viewing mother as a monster, a notion made popular by Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and furthered by the real-life horror stories of women murdering their children in acts of rage or depression. The real Joan and Christina Crawford matter very little when it comes to the movie. The film is such a far cry from anything resembling reality that it feels ok to laugh, to enjoy, and to mock the events, separating them from the factual accounts. Mommie Dearest not only twists maternal nature into something unfamiliar, but also twists the real-life people behind the events into the equivalent of court jesters meant to prod and poke at our meaningless obsession with Hollywood stardom and gossip. Question: When does ‘based on a true story’ cease to matter? Answer: When the names of those involved hold more value than their story.
Mommie Dearest is built on the star power and brand recognition of Joan Crawford, but the movie isn’t about her. Joan Crawford, as depicted in this movie, is not a person. She’s a caricature, one almost perfectly built to become the oft-repeated drag queen sensation she is today. Ultimately we’re given very few details about her life and even less about her work as an actress (we never actually see her act in the entirety of the film). We see her lifestyle, we see her drunken fits of rage, her obsessive cleaning habits. But who is Joan Crawford? According to the film she’s a cold, cream-smeared face in the night who pulls children from their beds like some figure of fable. But the film never pins her down as a human being, never dares to stray even a little from the sensational. Faye Dunaway is one of the greatest actresses of all time, but to quote the haggard and shaken Tina, “Jesus Christ.” If you only saw her in this movie you’d never know. Dunaway, who allegedly believed she’d win an Oscar for her performance as Crawford, has offered little comment about the film over the years. She’s gone on record blaming director Frank Perry for not having the experience to know when actors should reign it in. Perry may be partly to blame, but Dunaway is completely off the handle in this film, despite nailing Crawford’s look and presence. I mean she’s straight up Babadookin for 90% of the film. In fact, Dunaway even seems to enjoy making Crawford as over-the-top as possible and throwing all the rules of subtle characterization to the wayside. By the time the film reaches its climax and Crawford is choking her daughter on the floor, all the tension is gone. Nothing builds in this film, it’s all crescendo and by the end you’re left exhausted.
Dunaway’s turn as the worst mother of all time, is helped along by Mara Hobel who portrays young Tina. I suspect Mommie Dearest‘s cult status would have been impossible to achieve without Hobel. Most of the film’s unintentional comedy comes from the near-constant “bitch please” look Hobel has on her face when interacting with Dunaway. She becomes an avatar for the audience in many ways, the only one aware of how ridiculous this all is. By the time she’s replaced by the adult Tina, played by a rather dull Diana Scarwid, the film loses some of its wind. The second hour of the film seems almost mundane by comparison, because for a film that really doesn’t say anything except look at this monster, nothing gets more monstrous than the midpoint wire hanger scene.
As ridiculous Mommie Dearest is, there is something frightening about it, about watching Crawford’s silhouette spying on her daughter, seeing her hack up a rose garden in the middle of the night, and beat her daughter with a wire hanger (“You live in the most beautiful house in Brentwood and you don’t care if your clothes are stretched out from wire hangers!”) To be quite honest, I found the wire hanger scene absolutely terrifying the first time I watched the film. I’m not talking about intense or shocking, I’m talking about the sweaty palm kind of fear that only comes from something novel. It’s a scene comprised of pure rage and instability and it’s unlike anything else. Dunaway may not have created a believable character, but she does tap into something primal, an unbalanced thing that must be witnessed. Perry, for all his directorial faults, does know how to use the conventions of horror to the film’s advantage. It works, but also feels extremely out of place in what was meant to be an earnest attempt at a biopic. It’s funnier on subsequent viewings, and in the aforementioned daylight screening, but even if the movie is just noise, “No Wire Hangers” is one of the greatest scenes in film history and it has no right to be. Mommie Dearest is the quintessential distillation of our cultural fear of the bad mother figure, twisted tight and bent out of shape to be gaping and ineffectual, then reshaped for our own amusement. As a film, Mommie Dearest is nothing more or less than a wire hanger; it holds up, but not well.