Mommie Dearest (1981)

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*. This is a terrible movie. I think the best adjective is “ghastly.” But it’s gone on to become a cult favourite, which means that it’s now cherished for its most ghastly qualities.
*. What makes it stand out is Faye Dunaway’s performance as Joan Crawford, but this is something that should be first put in context. The script is based on Christina Crawford’s bestselling tell-all memoir, and I think the major knock against it is something identified by Roger Ebert: “The movie doesn’t even make narrative sense. Success follows crisis without any pattern. At one moment, Joan is in triumph after winning the Oscar for Mildred Pierce. In the very next scene she goes so berserk we want to scrape her off the screen with a spatula. The scenes don’t build, they just happen.”
*. This lack of structure or flow can be defended as having a certain psychological accuracy, tracking episodes in the life of an alcoholic manic-depressive liable to break out at any moment. But it does give the movie a flat feeling, as though we’re just waiting for these explosions. Meanwhile there are entire scenes that don’t seem to serve any purpose at all.
*. The direction, by Frank Perry is about as uninspired as it gets. In the entire movie there’s only a single shot that I found myself admiring, and that’s when Joan enters Christina’s bedroom for the wire hanger scene and she’s brightly backlit from behind. That’s nice, and anticipates the horrors to come well.

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*. The rest of the time Perry has no idea what to do with Dunaway but to shoot her mask-like face head-on (so mask-like that even when covered in Kabuki cold cream it doesn’t register as a shock), framed in elaborate coiffures and Louis Quatorze headwear. This is done again and again and again. It’s a mark of how dull a director Frank Perry is.
*. And there the face sits, alone on an island. The supporting cast only exists as a surrogate audience, and though I like Mara Hobel as young Christina, she mainly remains a series of reaction shots. Along with her little brother she also gives off a creepy Village of the Damned vibe. I suppose Diana Scarwid is fine as older Christina too, but by then the character is dead, moving and speaking robotically. Younger Christina still has signs of life at least.
*. Not that there isn’t some acuity in this. I can buy Christina as a numb young woman, still going back to find some love from her mother only to be betrayed again and again. It’s just that this makes the older Christina even less interesting than the little girl.

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*. But then it’s like all the rest of the movie has been hollowed out to fit Dunaway in. The interiors look like the generic studio productions they were, which was sort of the style at the time but which seems incredibly dated today, like the sets on a soap opera. The editing is choppy, holding some shots too long and missing continuity several times. Henry Mancini’s score is forgettable. Without Dunaway, you’d have to wonder if there was any professional talent involved here at all.
*. I guess I have to address its adoption by the “gay community.” Why? The DVD commentary by John Waters throws up several suggestion. I guess the main one is that it’s about show business (sets, costumes, hair and make-up). Since other films picked up as camp gay classics include Valley of the Dolls and Showgirls this must have some validity.
*. Also helping is the gay fascination with Joan Crawford. According to Waters gays identify with Crawford because they see in her someone who (a) appears to be in drag (“the first drag queen played by a woman”), and (b) is both rich and a bitch.
*. This is all fine, though David Thomson registered some concern over how “the enduring audience for Mommie Dearest has been gay, sardonic, and rather cruel.”
*. I would also add to this the way the movie rebels against conventional images and models of authority: family most of all, but also corporate power and the mainstream media, school, and church. There’s at least a strain in gay thought that tends to see nearly every aspect of the dominant straight culture as authoritarian, oppressive, and most of all hypocritical. A point of view this movie endorses wholeheartedly.

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*. This comes in to play in curious ways that are never explained. Why is young Christopher strapped into his bed like a mental patient? To prevent masturbation? And why, at Christina’s birthday party, is Joan surrounded by those beefcake guys in military uniform? Are they even real soldiers, or just actors?
*. I was really disappointed in the lack of almost any references to Crawford’s film career aside from the bit about Mildred Pierce (which is all indirect, showing Joan both rehearsing and then winning the Oscar at home). This seemed strange to me but I guess Paramount couldn’t get the rights to show anything (most of Crawford’s work was done for other studios). Too bad. It would have been fun to have seen her fighting with Bette Davis during and after What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, or on the set of William Castle’s Strait-Jacket, or Trog. Instead, none of these films are even mentioned, giving the impression that Crawford remained Hollywood royalty to the end.

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*. One reason this omission is significant is that while this movie’s presentation of Crawford is often viewed as a grotesque caricature, the genre of “hagsploitation” launched by What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? had already cottoned on to the fact that older Hollywood royalty like Crawford and Bette Davis were now seen as grotesque waxworks. And Crawford had been “camp” from at least as far back as Johnny Guitar, where I think she looks very frightening indeed.

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*. I do find Dunaway’s Crawford to be more complex than this, but ultimately only in a soap-opera sort of way. I mentioned before how the sets here seem like those of a soap, and it may be telling that while we never actually see Crawford on a film set we do see her shooting a really crumby daytime drama. That’s the sensibility we’re working with here, something cheap, amateur, and melodramatic, and it signals the star’s biggest fall from grace. We can hear echoes of Norma Desmond’s complaint that the pictures got smaller, but that’s no excuse for a movie about such a process being this limited. I think if this had been a great movie — camp or otherwise — I would watch it with more of a sense of horror. Instead, I just find it depressing.

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