Film review by Jason Day of Mommie Dearest, starring Faye Dunaway as movie legend Joan Crawford.
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Based on the tell-all biography written by her daughter the film details the life, loves and career of Hollywood legend Joan Crawford. Told through the eyes of Christina Crawford, the movie alleges that Crawford systematically abused her children emotionally and physically during frequent mood swings partly fuelled by her alcoholism.
Review, by Jason Day
Joan Crawford was the archetypal Hollywood survivor, a tough broad who played the movie game like a pro and usually came out on top.
She remained a star, through various transformations (Jazz Age flapper, working girl made good, career woman and mother, monstrous horror star) for nearly 40 years, building a loyal fan base.
Her reputation took as hard a grouting as she gave her immaculate floors when her first adoptive child Christina wrote the Hollywood dirt digging book par excellence shortly after Crawford’s death in 1977, alleging incredible acts of abuse and neglect.
A lot of people jumped to her defence to denounce the book, but a few others came forward to confirm at least some of the events Christina described.
One thing that is undeniable about book and film is that Crawford was a woman singularly determined if not obsessed with hanging on to her film career for as long as possible.
The opening sequence, the most controlled scene in the film, captures her star essence perfectly. Crawford, wide awake at 4am, begins the process of stripping away the mortal human that is Lucille LeSeur (Crawford’s real name) and grafting on the movie goddess Joan Crawford.
She scrubs her skin almost violently with soap and hot water, bathing her face in ice and blasting herself with a triple directional shower, before the car ride to Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s make-up chair.
Those painted on eyebrows remain permanently arched on Dunaway’s demonically possessed, clown painted face. Director Frank Perry didn’t have the nerve to reign in her excesses and it registers for all to see in close-up.
She doesn’t necessarily descend into campy panto, she was right there before the cameras rolled, with Perry maintaining a safe and quiet distance behind them.
But its magisterial, glossy, perfumed camp of the highest quality that leaves the viewer in no doubt as to the author’s view of the subject’s mental sate. Cut this film open and it will ooze technicolour grand guignol, the type of film that formed the bulk of Crawford’s last hits.
For instance, when she first sees Christina as a baby, she climbs her white and lilac staircase like a drag torch song singer, holding the child aloft like a prize. In the baby’s bedroom, Dunaway’s flash with demonic possession rather than maternal affection.
As Crawford takes a jog, she chants furiously to herself about landing her dream role as Mildred Pierce (1945), in real-life Crawford’s comeback film and the one for which she won her Oscar for best Actress.
The histrionic lines of dialogue have passed into movie lore:
- “Tina! Bring me the axe!” (Joan then cuts down a prized orange tree)
- “No! Go back! Strap yourself in!” (Christina’s brother Christopher is strapped down, to stop him sleep walking)
- “No wire hangers!” (Joan prefers higher quality clothes hangers)
- “Don’t fuck with me fellas! I’ve already been to the rodeo!”
The last one is my favourite (Joan steadies herself to remain on the board at Pepsi Cola, another of Joan’s sidelines) but long before this moment, the film was irretrievably daft.
Dunaway, running her engine in 10th gear, should at least be commended for her energy, but this supernatural performance trickles down the cast list – following her lead, everyone is pitched a few decibels higher than they should be.
This said, the slightly more restrained Scarwid and Hobel, as the adult and child Christina, square up to Dunaway with solid, steely resolve and more than a little cunning.
Cast & credits
Director: Frank Perry. 129mins. Paramount. (12a)
Producer: Frank Yablans.
Writers: Frank Yablans, Frank Perry, Tracy Hotchner, Robert Getchell.
Camera: Paul Lohmann.
Music: Henry Mancini.
Sets: Bill Malley.
Faye Dunaway, Diana Scarwid, Steve Forrest, Howard Da Silva, Mara Hobel, Rutanya Alda, Harry Goz, Michael Edwards, Jocelyn Brando, Priscilla Pointer, Xander Berkeley.