June 9, 2006
Volume 34
Issue 23
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Friday, Feb 21, 2020



The Real Spin
Faye Dunaway is the biggest mother of them all in Mommie Dearest: The Hollywood Royalty Edition
by Ron Anders - SGN A&E Writer

For those who weren't around in 1978, it is difficult to describe the impact that Christina Crawford's Mommie Dearest had when it was unleashed on the public. Although "tell all" biographies and scandalous revelations were not new to the publishing scene, this scathing deconstruction of Joan Crawford, the movie superstar of her day - written by her daughter - touched a nerve like no other such tome had previously. The book was received with a ravenous mixture of horror and glee, selling 4 million copies in hardback and staying on the New York Times bestseller list for 42 weeks. It became the blueprint for countless horrifying-but-titillating confessionals.

It was a forgone conclusion that the film would become a movie. How could it not? It had all the ingredients of high melodrama and a revered and feared movie star at its stormy center. The film opened to mostly negative reviews, though some critics hailed Faye Dunaway's performance as Crawford for its sheer volcanic vituperativeness. Still, audiences initially flocked to see the film. However, after the opening, the advertising campaign changed, with a dramatic slant toward promoting the movie's camp potential and wire-hanger hysteria. Although producer Frank Yablans and star Dunaway were outraged at this approach, the studio had its way. Thus, Mommie Dearest began its journey as camp classic extraordinaire.

Dunaway's performance as Crawford is nothing if not dedicated. Her physical transformation into Joan Crawford is breathtaking. She succeeds, despite a by-the-numbers script, in showing her ambivalence toward her adopted daughter and her infuriating realization that - as she grows from infancy into personhood - she will just not bend to her will. It is when her performance goes over the top - her tantrums, her cross-eyed rages, her howling hysteria - that the stench of parody creeps in. Her quasi-operatic approach to these scenes seems to backfire. In her autobiography, Dunaway laments the work of Frank Perry, claiming that a stronger director would have helped her contain some of the character's fury. In her Oscar-winning role in Network, Dunaway shows she is quite capable of playing a character whose vulnerability is visible under a sheen of bravado.

With a camp figure of Crawford's magnitude, could any approach to her portrayal work as serious drama? Is the abuse depicted in the film so horrific that audiences laugh out of sheer discomfort? Throughout the movie, we experience the queasy co-existence of a portrait of childhood torture mixed with a (supposedly unintended) tidal wave of drag queen histrionics. Certainly, if a male figure was doling out this punishment, there would be no rolling in the aisles. As John Waters slyly remarks on the film's commentary track, much of this film's audience seems to identify with the out-of control grand dame, not with the vulnerable child - hence the talk-back-to-the-screen cult that the film has developed over the years since its 1981 release.

That said, there is the inescapable fact that Mommie Dearest is shamelessly, maddeningly entertaining - a modern costume drama of epic proportions. Gleaming sets, extraordinary costumes, scary make-up, drag queen gestures, a star playing a star (both of whom have legendary temperaments), a daughter who exacts her revenge on a real life movie star - all add up to a film that is compulsively watchable. Despite the high production values, the movie is a fascinating train wreck with a made-for-TV texture of processed cheese.

The film has just been re-released on DVD in a much-ballyhooed new package dubbed Mommie Dearest: The Hollywood Royalty Edition. It includes a raft of extras, with three featurettes about mother Joan. The Revival of Joan and Life with Joan give us interviews with cast members who recall being in awe of the film's scary, possessed star. Joan Lives On gives us Lypsinka (alias John Epperson) on his fascination with this grand diva. Epperson has starred in his own show, The Passion of the Crawford, to hilarious (and somewhat frightening) effect. Conspicuously absent from the festivities is Faye Dunaway, who credits the film with almost destroying her career.

As DVD releases of older films continue, it is evident that studios know who their core audiences are, none more so than with this edition of Mommie Dearest, which is clearly aimed at Gay male camp acolytes. To prove their point, the publicity package accompanying the disc included a sacred object: a can of Ajax cleanser with a Mommie Dearest label exhorting "Did you scrub the floors today?? Did you??"

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