2 Hrs., 8 Mins.
November 28, 2019
aye Dunaway is like a vacuum in Mommie Dearest (1981): loud and prone to engulfing everything around her. She gives an at once awful and awesome performance in the film. Holds are not barred to a damning degree. Dunaway’s unwillingness to compromise is so train-wreckishly compelling that she consistently commands our attention, for better and for worse. It’s hard, though, to treat anything she does in the
movie as connected to reality. This is troubling, considering what the feature is claiming. The film, infamously, dramatizes the relationship between actress Joan Crawford (whom Dunaway plays; I'll refer to the fictional version of the performer as Joan for the sake of differentiation) and her adopted daughter, Christina (portrayed in childhood by Mara Hobel and in adulthood by Diana Scarwid). The movie is based on Christina’s memoir of the same name, in which she alleges that her mother physically and verbally abused her throughout her childhood, and that her adoption, to begin with, was contrived by Crawford to get positive press during a stale period in her career.
Mommie Dearest, despite the seriousness of its content, seems to have no vested interest in being a serious movie. The film begins in 1939 — a year that was notoriously one of the worst in Crawford’s career. (Save for a supporting part in the financially successful The Women.) In 1938, in an article published in the Independent Film Journal, she was named “box-office poison" next to a handful of other actors. Crawford would continue making movies, but hits became progressively fewer and farther between. At the beginning of Mommie Dearest, Joan is reading the script for Ice Follies of 1939, a musical that then and now is considered a nadir for the actress.
At something of a “now what" when Mommie Dearest opens, Joan decides that she would like to adopt a baby. (During her previous marriage, to actor Franchot Tone, she had seven miscarriages, rendering child-bearing, especially now, impossible.) She gets one after her boyfriend, producer Gregg Savitt (Steve Forrest), pulls some strings. The baby is Christina. When the latter is a few years older, Joan adopts another, whom she names Christopher. The suggestion early on is that Joan did indeed want to have children. But later in the movie, Joan intimates to Christina that she became a mother only to boost her career.
Mommie Dearest puts on the "record" the souring of the relationships between Joan, Christina, and Christopher. Career milestones are used to help us keep track of time. In the hands of better filmmakers, and with a central performance that didn’t so much of the time feel like a trigger-locked machine gun shooting knives, the movie might have been a major one about abuse, serving as a mnemonic on how much more nefarious a thing complicity can be when an abuser is rich and influential.
But Mommie Dearest is little more than a series of catfights broken up by scenes where Dunaway, essentially, volcanically erupts. In one sequence, Joan shrieks at her daughter for putting her clothes on supposedly low-class wire hangers. Then Christina gets beaten with one of them, in the dead of night. During an interview with Redbook conducted at the Crawford home, Joan and a now-adult Christina get into a verbal dispute that explodes into a tackle to the ground, then a murder attempt. (The Redbook journalist sitting in the next room is the one who has to pull the women apart.)
It’s darkly fun to see how far Dunaway, who lets us see every vein in her face pop nearly out of her skin time and time again, is willing to go. (Very far, we learn.) But the film has been bizarrely and clumsily made. Much attention by the filmmakers has been given to the period setting and costumes; at times Mommie Dearest even emulates the look and feel of a typical Crawford vehicle. This sensation is increased by Dunaway’s performance. Her portrayal here more often than not resembles one given by an actress who has watched extensive footage — the footage here being Crawford-starring melodramas. This stylistic emphasis is weird. It's beside the point, yet Perry milks it. And the time leaps make the movie feel holey, like we aren’t being told something. Christopher’s relationship with Crawford is barely mentioned, despite his intermittent presence. The film erases Crawford’s two other children, who have long countered the veracity of Christina’s claims.
There are no psychological insights made by the film’s five (!) screenwriters, Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, director Perry, and Frank Yablans. Rather than try to at all meaningfully ruminate on why Crawford acts the way she does, she’s depicted as a nonsensical villain. And though Christina is the film’s heroine, we know little about her. Her interests and ambitions are obfuscated. Later in life she becomes an actress, but what made her want to pursue the art isn’t clear. One would think, based on what we see her endure in the film, that she’d grow to resent anything having to do with the performing arts.
Mommie Dearest is ploddingly cyclical. It’s a succession of scenes of attempted peace-making that end in Dynasty-esque blow-ups. The film is committedly one-dimensional; it doesn’t want to actually address the hard questions, only make light and oftentimes a spectacle of them. Mommie Dearest made me sad, ultimately. It makes such a mess of Christina Crawford’s allegations that it seems to almost be asking us to not so much as consider them. Audiences have long had a good time with the movie as work of camp, but I can't. This is an upsetting, thoughtless movie. D