Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, March 9, 2017


Joan and paramour: Faye Dunaway and Michael Edwards
MOMMIE DEAREST (1981). Director: Frank Perry.

"I don't want [Christina] growing up a spoiled Hollywood brat just because she's Joan Crawford's daughter."

"Bring me the ax!"

The first thing to remember about Mommie Dearest is that it is not about Joan Crawford. It is, in my opinion, about a fictional movie star whose life in some ways parallels the real Crawford. Based on her daughter Christina Crawford's venom-dipped memoir, the film can hardly be accused of objectivity. The second thing to remember about Mommie Dearest is that it might have amounted to a fairly good movie, a moving account of a troubled relationship between a mother and daughter who loved each other in spite of everything, had Frank Perry used made-up names for the characters, admitted it was mostly "fake and fictional" as two of Joan's other children charged, and reigned in the more abysmal moments of Faye Dunaway's performance.

The shame of it is that Mommie Dearest, and Dunaway herself, have their moments. Dunaway's best scenes are her quieter, more vulnerable ones, such as when L. B Mayer (Howard Da Silva) releases Joan from her contract, or when her lover Greg (Steve Forrest) walks out on her, or when she admits to her grown daughter that "I'm scared, Tina, I'm scared" after she's dropped by another studio. The trouble is that director Frank Perry either allowed Dunaway to gnash at the scenery in her worst moments, or was completely helpless to prevent her from going completely over the top. You keep expecting foam to come out of her mouth. It is these scenes that make some people feel that the movie is a camp or cult classic. The screenplay doesn't help, of course, but Dunaway should have realized that even when a person is angry and drunk they don't necessarily act utterly demented. This movie's negative portrayal of Joan does nothing to suggest whatever emotional devastation or disturbance might have caused the fictional Joan's abusive actions. This is not shameless over-acting; it's shameful over-acting. It turns the movie into a travesty.

Dunaway [Bonnie and Clyde] rarely plays a real person, but instead trades on Crawford's latter-day movie image. Hence we have her calling for Tina to bring her an ax (a la Strait-Jacket) in the garden at midnight and slapping Tina as if she were Veda in Mildred Pierce. This not only does a disservice to Crawford, it does a disservice to the movie and everyone connected to it. It dissipates the effect of genuinely well-handled and well-acted scenes, such as when Joan gives Tina a pearl necklace, the first gift that husband Alfred Steele had ever given her, after his death. And the film is illogical as well, with Crawford "acting out" not just when she's at the bottom but after she wins an Oscar! (This is not to say, however, that the film is dull; it isn't.)

The other actors fare better. Steve Forrest as Greg Savitt, a character based on lawyer Greg Bautzer, is occasionally more on target than Dunaway. Both Mara Hobel and Diana Scarwid are excellent as Christina as,a child and an adult. Howard Da Silva makes a cunning L. B. Mayer,  Rutyana Alda scores as Joan's devoted maid and companion, as does Priscilla Pointer as Mrs. Chadwick, who runs the girl's school in which Tina is enrolled. Harry Goz and Michael Edwards have smaller roles, as, respectively, Alfred Steele and Joan's gorgeous date, Ted Gelber, and are fine. Paul Lohmann's cinematography is first-rate. Joan had two other children besides Christina and Christopher (who makes sporadic appearances), but understandably they are not depicted in the film as they thought Christina's book was garbage; Crawford's three other husbands are also ignored. Mommie Dearest does make a few minor stabs at objectivity, at presenting some of Crawford's more positive qualities, but this is Christina's movie all the way -- it was even co-produced by her husband. Christina thought Dunaway's performance was "ludicrous." which is saying a lot, but what did she expect would come out of "Mommie Dearest?"Christina was also reacting to Dunaway's disinterest in talking to her and her possible disbelief in the validity of the memoir. Meanwhile, Frank Perry has directed much better movies, such as Diary of a Mad Housewife and The Swimmer.

Verdict: A textbook case in how an untrammeled star, an uneven script, and poor source material can sink what might have been a good movie. **1/2.


angelman66 said...

Very astute analysis of this very flawed but still fascinating film, Bill...and I totally agree that it might have been taken more seriously if they had changed the names to protect both the innocent and the guilty!

I think you have hit the nail on the head...SOMEBODY may indeed have made the decision that the character of Joan Crawford here was to be a stand-in for the movie persona--Mildred, Straight Jacket, Queen Bee--and a biting satire of the classic Hollywood melodramas that were Crawford's stock-in-trade. Problem is, as you note, that no one but Dunaway got the memo--and there she is, out on a limb, balls out, giving the performance of a that unfortunately derailed her career.

Side note: I'm finding it fascinating to watch Jessica Lange take on the Joan character...she is as bold as Dunaway but with some very interesting and original highlights...will be fun to compare and contrast as the series continues.

Awesome theme this week!! Viva Joan!

William said...

Thank you!

I'm going to have to catch up on "Feud" on DVD as FX is only streaming the first ten minutes, and I watch TV only on the computer. I thought, as others did, that Lange looked even more grotesque than Dunaway! I'll have to reserve my impressions of her performance for later.

One thing about "Mommie Dearest" -- it isn't boring. Nowadays I hear Dunaway shuts down if you even ask her about the movie!