If a thing is so over the top in real life can the thing that is merely derived from that outrageousness be called over the top? Yes. But, is it fair to blame the reflection for the sins of the original thing? I think not. This is not to say that the 1981 film Mommie Dearest, which chronicled the life and times of movie superstar Joan Crawford and her adopted daughter, Christina, is a great film. It certainly is not. But it’s not a bad film, either, despite its reputation. In fact, it’s quite a good film. It’s not a visual marvel, not particularly well scored, but its screenplay- despite the few ‘campy’ moments (which, in fairness to the complexity of the character Dunaway creates, really never had me laughing), is balanced off by two or three times the number of deep, well-acted moments, and very good. In fact, it is a very well acted film.
Both Mara Hobel and Diana Scarwid (as the child and adult Christina) are very good. Hobel gives one of the better child performances in memory, as she veers between JonBenet Ramsey-like preciousness and emotional precocity. Scarwid also gives a very nuanced performance; and, in many ways, has the most difficult performance in the film, for she has to be filled with resentment toward her mother, as well as a pathological neediness that, after the film’s ending reveals that her mother has screwed her out of an inheritance, that eventually drives her to write the memoir of her mother that the book is based upon. Initially, I thought little of Scarwid’s acting, but on rewatch it’s actually pretty good, and better than is actually written. I.e.- Scarwid says far more with her body than Christina’s words do. This is the mark of good acting.
Then, of course, there is the monumentally towering performance of Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford, from the first five or so minutes where we see only parts of her body, never the whole, through her display in her coffin. What can be said of this performance that does it justice? She channels Crawford? She’s a female drag queen? She’s the mother of all Hollywood bitches? She’s a psychotic? A psychopath? A needy monster? A feminist? Answer: all the above. But she is also her most spectacular not in the legendary quartet of scenes that dominate the minds-eye when Mommie Dearest is mentioned: the destruction of her rose garden- where she orders Christina to ‘Bring me the ax!;’ the wire hanger scene where she beats her daughter and destroys a can of Comet cleanser, prodding Mara Hobel’s Christina to utter the most heartfelt, ‘Jesus Christ!’ in film history; the famed fight where Joan attacks and chokes Christina and we get a crotch shot of Christina’s panties; nor in the Pepsi-Cola boardroom scene (a scene like that in Mayer’s office, and others, had to be legend, simply because Christina could not be there) where, after they try to dump her, she tells them, ‘Don’t f*ck with me fells!’
No, while those are well acted camp scenes, Dunaway towers in many little under the radar scenes that could be Acting 101 lessons. Watch Dunaway’s Crawford’s glee when she beats her daughter swimming, the fear she shows when she tells Scarwid’s Christina she cannot afford her ritzy private school, the slight looks aside when she tries to replace her daughter’s character on the soap opera The Secret Storm, or the great scene in the office of MGM domo Louis B. Mayer (Howard Da Silva), when he cruelly ousts her from the studio, and won’t even do her the courtesy of walking her to her car, despite calling her Hollywood Royalty. Watch that scene, and the eyes and lips of Dunaway, and then note that it is the now infamous rose garden destruction sequence that comes after it. Imagine, after nearly two decades of star treatment, getting treated that way. Now, given Crawford’s mental ills, her taking out her frustrations on the rose garden is actually quite restrained when she could have beaten Christina or her son, Christopher (Jeremy Scott Reinbolt as a child; Xander Berkeley as an adult). No, this is great acting when given a great character who is also a Great Character, in the ‘he’s quite a character’ type vein.
But, despite that, the film is not great, and not really because of the campiness that dominates ideas about the film, but for the above mentioned flaws, and the major problem that afflicts many biopics, as well as a problem unique to this film. The shared problem is that this film sprawls across four decades, from Joan’s life in the late 1930s, before adopting children, to her death in 1977. The sheer need to leave out things from such a huge life inevitably leaves gapes in the film’s ability to fully craft Joan Crawford as a character (most notably some marriages and the adoption of three other children, including one child’s return- the first named Christopher Crawford- the boy in the film was the second to bear that name- to her birth mother; and the subsequent selling of that child out from under Joan’s auspices), despite the number of well written and acted scenes. Facts like this (and her flirtations with cults like Christian Science) all can contribute to the depth of a character- even with just small hints. Thus the use of composite characters like assistant Carol Ann (Rutanya Alda) and lawyer boyfriend Gregg Savitt (Steve Forrest). Most of life’s moments of insight and revelation come in its valleys, not at its peaks.
The DVD, put out by Paramount, is shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and virtually matches the 128 minute long film- good, solid, but not great. It’s a one disk package with photos, the original theatrical trailer, and three featurettes: The Revival Of Joan- a making of film; Life With Joan- an extended making of film; and Joan Lives On- on the cultic aftermath of the film. Bar none, though, the best feature is the film commentary by cult filmmaker John Waters. While not a great commentary, in terms of insight into the art nor background of the film, it is highly entertaining.
Naturally, the film was savaged by the critics, and the studio almost immediately tried to turn the film’s fortunes around by re-marketing it as a camp classic, rather than serious drama. It did not work, although the film did make a profit, and in the intervening decades has become a cult favorite amongst gays. Dunaway did, however, get some well deserved kudos, including a nomination as Best Actress from the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, for what it’s worth. But, the post-release arc of the film has been one of almost constant critical cribbing- especially in a negative vein; and to the point that many online critics flub even basic facts about the film and specific scenes. Mainstream critics fared just as poorly.
But, this sublimation of the self, as well as the shared commiseration of mother and daughter, is the essence and major theme of the film. It is also the way the two characters define love- not ‘conquering all,’ but ‘barely managing to survive.’ The odd thing is, though, that decades after the events in the film actually took place (or not), as well as the book and film’s shots at immortality, the film’s theme remains the same. Not quite worthy of a song, granted; but more than worthy of a looksy. Trust me on that.
Read the full review here.