Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Mommie Dearest (1981)

(Directed by Frank Perry, 1981, USA)

What can be said about "Mommie Dearest" that hasn't already been said? Since I've never read Christina Crawford's 'tell-all' memoir, I can't really compare between her book and the campy, cheesy cinematic train wreck/adaptation that is this cult film. Yes, 'it's so bad it's good' comes to mind, Faye Dunaway does an exceptional acting job channelling Crawford except when she crashes off the rails (at least three times during the movie). I do admit that Faye gives an awesome performance here, even when she is 'over the top', not just acting: she lives, breathes and IS Joan Crawford that, on a recent youtube search, many posters lampooning this movie thought that she WAS Joan Crawford. It's unfortunate that she refuses to talk about this movie after 26 years and no longer wishes to be associated with it. Besides the scenes where she soars completely over the top (the notorious 'No wire hangers!" scene, the garden butchery, and the scene where she tries to strangle Christina in a reporter's presence), she is totally convincing. Yes, we remember this film for the alleged child abuse depicted, but there are also scenes where Dunaway shows the character's vulnerable side. These scenes occur during the second half of the film featuring the actress Diane Scarwid as the teenaged Christina, the first part of the film featuring Mara Hobel as a younger Christina are the most excruciating to watch. There is a 'laundry room scene' where a tearful Joan confides about her future to the teenage Christina and, towards the end of the film when she visits Christina's NYC apartment with a gift of pearls.

Yes, and then there are the famous lines, which I don't need to repeat here (they can be found on the Internet Movie Database entry for this movie). My favorite comment comes from the real-life Christina Crawford who (after seeing this movie) declared: "They turned it into a Joan Crawford movie!" (not sure if this is true or not, but it's great that Joan C. gets revenge from beyond the grave!!!).

When the bestseller "Mommie Dearest" came out (around 1979), there were two Crawford camps: for and against. The book and subsequent movie did a great deal of damage to the memory of Joan Crawford and her posthumous fame. Being a Bette Davis fan, I never really saw much of Crawford's films until cinema studies classes and TCM. I remember a summer night watching "Mildred Pierce" in Bryant Park and the audience cheering on her every move. A revival of Nicholas Ray's "Johnny Guitar" was revealing: how bizarre it was to see two strong women duke it out in a western no less. "Mommie Dearest" makes you want to rewatch "Mildred Pierce" and other Crawford films, you want to discover who this woman was, what made the actress unique, why she was such an icon for so long.

The "Mommie Dearest: Hollywood Royalty" DVD is a real hoot, with a hilarious commentary from John Waters, and a few features on the making of this movie and its continuing 'popularity' as a high camp classic.

It's hard to watch this without feeling that queasy reaction of not knowing whether to be shocked or to laugh, it just continues to tread that line between camp and melodrama.

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