Based on the memoirs of Joan Crawford’s daughter Christina, Mommie Dearest (1981, dir. Frank Perry) tells the story of the legendary actress’ relationship, or lack thereof, with her children. It begins with Crawford longing for a child, but as she is unable to become pregnant, she decides to adopt; first a girl, then a boy. The film then follows the development of Christina’s relationship with her mother as she grows up and becomes an actress herself. Although initially Crawford’s relationship with her children is fairly positive, it descends into fierce competition, manipulative behaviours, and physical and verbal abuse.
I was inspired to watch Mommie Dearest after watching the finale of an older season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, where the iconic “no wire hangers!!!” moment was referenced. To be honest, I’m not surprised that I was convinced to watch this film by a fabulous drag queen. I have never seen a draggier performance by a non-drag queen before in my entire film-watching life. Faye Dunaway is the very definition of camp as Joan Crawford. She should have earned a PhD in scene chewing after this masterpiece of mastication. In fact, after its release, Variety magazine described her performance: “Dunaway does not chew scenery. Dunaway starts neatly at each corner of the set in every scene and swallows it whole, costars and all.” At times it can be really overwhelming, but over time, this overacting almost becomes a symptom of Crawford’s need to be the perfect actress at all times.
What I really loved about this film was the opening credits sequence. The film takes its time until we get to see Dunaway’s face in full Crawford getup, with the giant drawn on eyebrows and pouted lips. But the setup perfectly prepares viewers for what they’re about to see throughout the rest of the film: a perfectionistic maniac. In these first moments, we watch as Crawford wakes up, ferociously scrubs her arms and fingernails with soap, douses her face with scalding hot water, and then again with rubbing alcohol and ice water. This is a sequence of self-abuse in the name of cleanliness, ritual and preparedness. Without knowing what’s going to happen next, it seems a bit extreme. But looking back, this was the perfect setup to the film as a whole. Mommie Dearest is the perfect portrait of Joan Crawford’s obsessive compulsiveness in contrast to her composed public persona; illustrated via this morning ritual, Crawford working out and running until she moans in pain, her cleaning and floor-scrubbing mania, and her destructive relationship with her children.
It is clear from what I’ve written so far that Dunaway absolutely dominates in this film. But I was also quite impressed by the performance of her daughter Christina as a young girl (Mara Hobel). Her portrayal of an abused and terrified child was so convincing that it was fairly disturbing. However, when acting as a happy child she had the tendency to look a bit robotic. I wonder whether this was intentional to show how the children were trained to act happy in the public eye. Unfortunately the older actress for Christina (Diana Scarwid) is not as convincing, and was a bit wooden. Thanks to Dunaway I can’t even remember much about any of the other actors. I really liked the illustration of the insecure attachment that the children had with their adoptive mother. However, I think there must be other films out there that illustrate these types of relationships in a more measured, contemplative, and nuanced way.
The direction, music and cinematography is pretty unremarkable, aside from the wire hangers scene where all three combine and succeed to create something completely frightening, like a horror movie. The costume design was quite nice but nothing to write home about. One big issue with the story development of Mommie Dearest, aside from some elements of the acting, is that there’s no real marker of time passing. When an amount of time does pass, and actors change as the children grow up, it seems awkward and sudden.
Even though this film is almost relentlessly uncomfortable, it is definitely a camp classic that has to be seen to be believed. It’s at least an interesting exploration of the horrific childhood that Joan Crawford’s adopted children experienced. As it’s based on one child’s perception of her relationship with her mother, who knows whether these events are accurate and true without further investigation, but it is a pretty compelling story nonetheless. Mommie Dearest makes for a passable dramatic film with a couple of key moments and cheesy performances that will be referenced by many drag queens for years and years to come.
Watch the trailer here.
Watch this film at Amazon!
Nice review, I quite enjoyed that film……the ending is a real shocker!
Thanks! 🙂 It was a pretty crazy film!
those eyebrows, yes!
They’re quite dramatic! I was surprised they didn’t scrub off when she was doing her face ritual.
Whew! I find that photo of the mom & daughter in their matching white hats absolutely terrifying. And uh, Joan sounds a bit too much like a certain grandmother of mine for me to enjoy this film!
What you can’t really see is that they have matching poufy floral dresses as well – total nightmare. I think anyone who has had negative experiences with narcissistic or compulsive personalities might be triggered a bit by this film. It’s a pretty disturbing one!
Crawford seems like a real douchebag by this. I understand that the film isn’t executed all too well, but the premise is very interesting. Also, your last sentence made me chuckle quite a bit. 😉
It is a very interesting film, and it sheds a bit of light on the lifestyles of hugely famous and talented classic actors. But she does seem like a real douchebag! Apparently the daughter’s claims have been disputed by her other siblings. But regardless, it’s pretty entertaining… and very draggy! Which I love!
Great movie, but a very strange tale, certainly this movie destroyed Crawford’s reputation
Yeah, after watching the film I’ve been reading up on it. Looks like whenever anyone mentions her on the internet there’s a mention of the wire hangers scene, which is not a good association!
Interesting review, I bought the DVD a few months ago, yet to get around, was intrigued by how the filmed ruined Dunaway’s career. Looking forward to see it all the more now, even just for the wire hangers.
Would love to read your thoughts on it! It’s a very strange film indeed. Dunaway totally dominates it. I didn’t know it ruined her career but it makes a lot of sense!
Oh that is such a hilarious movie. I loved what you wrote about opening credits and Variety quote – so true!
Thanks Sati! 🙂 That wire hangers scene is burned in my retinas now. I’ll never use wire hangers again!
Good review! I am also a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, I love that show! It’s my secret obsession. Love this movie, I remember watching it as a kid and being scared of that woman. Scary momma!
Thanks Melissa, I love RuPaul! If I had watched this as a kid I would have been scared of wire hangers for life!
I know right scary stuff!
[…] Anna writes about Mommie Dearest […]
[…] Mommie Dearest (1981): “No wire hangers, Ever!” (filmgrimoire.wordpress.com) […]
[…] There is little to no subtlety here. His acting as Caligula almost reminded me of Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest (1981) – no wire hangers, ever! And the same can be said for Peter O’Toole, […]
[…] believed my favourite Faye Dunaway performance to be her hammy and crazy role as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1981) – NO WIRE HANGERS, EVER! – but I actually think her performance as Evelyn Mulwray […]