Faye Dunaway delivers a galvanic – if reconstituted - performance as film queen, Joan Crawford in Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest (1981), based on the skewed opinions and somewhat fictionalized memoirs sensationalized by Crawford’s adopted daughter, Christina. Based on Christina’s tell-all book by the same name, the film is heavy on its portrayal of Crawford as a brutalizing anti-Christ whose own sense of celebrity borders on psychosis.
However, and with all artistic license aside, this reviewer would argue that the film is a less than accurate portrait of the woman who clawed her way to the top with nothing more than a fifth grade education, then managed to reign as Hollywood royalty for some forty plus years.
There are really two Joan Crawford’s one must consider when viewing Mommie Dearest – the struggling, slightly neurotic and insecure woman depicted with over-the-top campy perfection by Dunaway, and the perfectionist film goddess whom (except in fits and flashes) the film Mommie Dearest discards – even more so than the book - as superficial patina.The public record illustrates that Joan Crawford was hardly ‘mother of the year.’
But Crawford by Christina through Dunaway transforms Joan into an almost satanic devil woman – void of any virtue or even tattered shred of humanity. Dunaway delivers a highly charged, but tragically one dimensional, characterization that she has since disowned and refuses to comment on in interviews – perhaps the most telling bit of realization that what we see on the screen is not Joan Crawford in all her awful rage, but as Christina Crawford would like everyone to believe that Joan was.
This sort of revenge - dismantling a star's film legacy after said star's death - was in vogue for a time in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Tell all bios are still with us, but they don't seem to have the same viciousness about them as tales told out of school during this era. Frankly, I think its shabby to attack and kick a corpse. If you have something nasty to say about a famous person, then say it while they're alive and then be gutsy enough to stand up to the fallout and be able to back up your claims.
Consequently, our portrait of Christina by Christina, both in the book and on film (Mara Hobel as a child, Diana Scarwid as a young adult) is one of an angelic victimized innocent who endures Crawford's repeated wrath, beatings and even an attempted strangulation, yet rises above it all with a 'chin up' attitude. The film unfairly eschews Crawford’s own dark and disheveled childhood, the demons of insecurity and absence of a father figure, her own mother’s botched marriages and chronic slave driving. Instead, we are presented with Joan Crawford as compulsive and demanding screen queen already past her prime and on her way out at MGM – the studio that created, coddled, and eventually cut her loose.
Avoiding all reference to Crawford’s first two husbands – except to briefly mention that she had them – the ‘great romance’ of the film is left to MGM attorney, Greg Savitt (Steve Forrest). They make love and he finagles the adoption of Christina after legitimate channels fail to grant Crawford a child of her own. Then Savitt bows out leaving the grand dame to ‘wing it.’ No mention is made of Crawford’s numerous affairs with directors like Vincent Sherman or other male costars; her conflict and resolution with moguls, Jack Warner or Harry Cohn; her resentment of actress Norma Shearer and belligerent feud with actress Bette Davis; or her struggle with the cancer that finally took her life. Crawford’s marriage to Pepsi Cola president Alfred Steele is glossed over in vignettes that are woefully episodic.
The film doesn’t even capture Crawford’s Oscar acceptance for Mildred Pierce as it happened - in her bedroom suffering from an attack of anxiety but happily clutching her Oscar– rather (in the film) standing triumphantly outside her fashionable Hollywood home – holding court for a gaggle of reporters in her housecoat - without the statuette - and milking the moment for all it’s worth. Instead, director and star seem hell bent on providing the most limited and headline grabbing sound bytes – designed to foster and promote the image of Crawford as a soulless bitch with little emotional content other than raw anger.
In the final analysis then, it would behoove the viewer to reconsider that Mommie Dearest is not Joan Crawford, but a skillful manipulation of the variables vaguely resembling a Joan that most who worked with her in the industry would be hard pressed to agree upon.
Paramount Home Video presents Mommie Dearest: The Hollywood Royalty Edition in anamorphic widescreen (1:85:1). While looking light-years better than it ever has on home video, image quality is far below expectation. There are more than a handful of scenes which exhibit an overly soft characteristic, blurry and slightly out of focus.
Colors can be accurately balanced in one scene, then - quite inexplicably – adopt a rather faded, yellowish tone in the next. Age related artifacts (chips, scratches) are very noticeable in certain scenes, yet practically nonexistent in others. Contrast levels are weak. Blacks are generally soft dark gray. Whites adopt a bluish tint.The audio has been remixed to 5.1. The original mono is also included. Neither is particularly engaging. Extras include three featurettes with director Perry and co-stars with snippets of Crawford from Johnny Guitar inserted; an informatively glib audio commentary by director John Waters; the film’s theatrical trailer and stills gallery.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)