Mommie Dearest is the ultimate Hollywood tell-all movie. It’s a laughably virulent piece of Hollywood dish about Golden Age Hollywood actress Joan Crawford and her strained relationship with her daughter Christina, based on a memoir by the daughter herself. It’s a veritable waking nightmare of Hollywood bitchiness and über diva-ness that has infiltrated the popular culture in a big way, especially with gay men and transvestites, whose culture is impacted heavily by Hollywood starlets of the 40s and 50s, with their larger-than-life personalities and their sheer elegance of form and fashion. It’s not a film to be taken too seriously, and I saw this melodrama turn into a comedy at various points, to my delight, but too often the movie skirts the lines between what’s funny, what’s serious, and what’s simply agitating.
It tells the story of Joan Crawford’s later years, through the end of her Holywood career and all the way to her death. The film begins with the starlet pining for a child with her lawyer boyfriend. She is unable to conceive, and wants to adopt, but her application continues to be denied. She asks her man to pull some strings, and after a few pretty pleases, she gets her hands on a beautiful baby girl with blonde hair and blue eyes. Things go well at first, but as her career in Hollywood hits a decline and her relationship with Mr. Sexy Lawyer begins to crumble, her mental stability begins to deteriorate. She begins to lash out at everyone around her, especially her daughter. She grows angrier and angrier, more obsessed with her slipping beauty and household cleanliness and less concerned about her family’s well-being. Her instability grows worse and worse after Sexy Lawyer leaves her, and when long-time studio MGM drops her, will she be able to recover, or is it all down-hill for Joan and her family from there?
This is a very awkward film that seems to pride itself on its own campiness. Faye Dunaway especially blows the fucking fuse on the Dramameter! She chews more scenery than a goat on the set of How Green Was MyValley! From her first scene to the very end, she vamps it up, and if acting were an Olympic event, she would have won a few medals here. But just as a stand-alone film, it hurts the already manic vibe when she goes from realistically angry to Kabuki Theater angry, a habit she displays nearly every 10 minutes.
Not that there’s a plethora of believable drama to be had here. Much like a real Golden Age Hollywood drama, the lines, emotions, and motivations are tweaked to such a point where they are rendered almost unrecognizable as human mannerisms, instead existing as moving parables as large as Mount Olympus and equally as unrelatable. I can’t understand Joan Crawford because she has made every concerted effort to set herself apart from the world, and even in a tell-all dish movie like this, there’s no explaining her violent tendencies and her deep psychoses, so we can only look at them at face value, which is just as shallow and as empty as old Hollywood itself.
And this character IS disturbed. Whether she was close or not to the real Joan Crawford is anyone’s guess, but Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford is a god-damn psycho. The slightest thing sets her off. We all know the infamous wire hanger scene:
From destroying her rose bushes to breaking up her daughter’s bathroom to just plain ol’ beating the shit out of her little girl, Joan is a force of unmitigated fury. She has no real feelings of guilt, only selfish shame and self-pity. It’s an interesting character, just not a comprehensible one.
As for the direction, the movie attempts to keep the soft lighting that dominated much of Hollywood throughout the 50s, and on a technical aspect, it looks pretty good. The direction by Frank Perry is anything but brilliant, but you can hardly say he botched the job. Subtlety is not one of his strong points, I’ll just say that. The music is as large as the era in which the movie takes place, and the score by Henry Mancini is on par with most of his other works. I expected no less from the man, but it’s worth noting that the score for Mommie Dearest really does feel like an entity unto itself at times. It keeps you interested in these oblique Hollywood types and all the drama that surrounds them. If I was to recommend one aspect of this film, it would be Mancini’s contributions.
But all in all, it’s not really worth a solid 2 hours of your time. Go watch Valley of the Dolls if you want some real campy cinema that packs a punch, or ANYTHING by John Waters. This is really just a Hollywood tell-all that struck a chord because of its frankness and its shocking (if not entirely reliable) source. It’s nothing special; not terrible, just nothing special. What really stands out is Mancini’s soulful score and Faye Dunaway’s amazingly over-the-top performance. I’m not sure whether history will remember Dunaway’s performance as credible or atrocious, but it’s something that has to be seen to be believed, simple as that. So all in all, I give Mommie Dearest 5 wire hangers out of 10.
Stay tuned for my review later today for Arachnophobia! Until then!
(On a side note, does anyone know why it is called Mommie Dearest instead of Mommy Dearest? Is that a colloquialism or simply improper spelling? Or am I the pnly person that gives a shit? Either way, let me know!)