Mommie Dearest (1981)

Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway, The Eyes of Laura Mars) is at the peak of her career, but she wants a child and with the help of her lover, studio lawyer Greg Savitt (Steve Forrest, Amazon Women on the Moon), she is able to adopt a girl and a boy, even as a single mother.  The film examines Crawford’s abusive relationship with her daughter Christina (Mara Hobel, The Hand, as a child and Diana Scarwid, Psycho III as an adult)  from her childhood until Crawford’s death.

No wire hangers ever!

1981’s Mommie Dearest seemed to be perpetually on cable in the early 1980s, and several of its most famous lines, especially “No more wire hangers ever!” were often quoted and still recognized to this day.  Although the film is sometimes considered a camp classic, it is very difficult to see why.  Certainly there are a few scenes so insanely over-the-top that they move past being merely awful into comedy gold, but these handful of scenes hardly make up for the film’s faults, starting with its slow pace.

Don't fuck with me fellas. This ain't my first time at the rodeo.

More important is the film’s inability to commit to glorifying or condemning Crawford.  In many scenes we see the difficulties of Crawford’s life and that her intentions are good, if her methods insane.  Apparently events were occasionally changed from how they appeared in Christina’s tell-all book of the same name, and these changes often give sense to Crawford’s behavior, which was merely insane or abusive in the book.  One example is the scene in which Crawford demolishes her garden, asking the children to help, and, famously, asking Christina to bring her an axe.  In the book Christina claims this happened for no reason; in the film it’s a response to Louis Mayer (Howard Da Silva, 1776) breaking Joan’s contract.  Christina is almost completely unlikable here, both as a child and as an adult, and we’re given no reason to sympathize with her except for Joan’s monstrous methods.

William Castle couldn't have done better.

There is also the film’s style, including the hammy references to Joan”s films, such as the moment in which Dunaway raises an axe to chop down the trees, neatly replicating the poster for Strait-Jacket.  Director Frank Perry seems determined to create a “classic” studio look for the film, but merely succeeds in making it look cheap, like an awful made-for-TV biopic rather than the mainstream release of an adaptation of a best-selling book.  The supporting cast play into this, dividing between hams like Da Silva and wooden TV regulars like Forrest; Dunaway alone is acting here, and she does give her all, for what it’s worth, making the few scenes were the film really let’s loose into a mix of genuine horror and laugh out loud comedy.

No comment

Dearest is best left unwatched, a confused film that can’t decide if it’s gleeful character assassination or a very strange rebuttal to the book.  More importantly, it commits the worst sin a movie can commit:  it’s boring.  If you do watch it, be sure to get your hands on the Hollywood Royalty edition, which features a commentary track by John Waters.  Waters is quite amusing, alternating between facts about Dunaway, Crawford, and the production and delivering lines like “There aren’t many comedies about child abuse.”

5 comments on “Mommie Dearest (1981)

  1. dfordoom says:

    I really hated this movie. It pretty much destroyed Dunaway’s career. But the John Waters commentary track sounds tempting!

    • professormortis says:

      The fact that it destroyed her career is pretty depressing, especially as she’s not responsible for the film’s biggest faults. The John Waters commentary was the only way I made it through the film-it’s less laugh out loud funny, and more fascinating, though when Waters is funny, he’s pretty damned funny. Not sure it’s worth revisiting the film to listen to it though, but if I ever were to watch it again, I would watch it no other way.

      Glad to see you around here!

  2. Anonymous says:

    What an unwarranted review. Mommie Dearest is most certainly one of the 5 best classic films and among the best gay cult classics. Anyone who says this ruined Faye Dunnaway’s career is off their rocker, she’s Hollywood Gold in my book!!

    • professormortis says:

      Faye is Gold…but her career certainly suffered after this film came out. She didn’t have another picture come out until 1983, and she doesn’t get the A-list projects she used to. Of course some of that is due to the fact that Hollywood doesn’t like women to age and turned away from the more unconventional actresses it favored in the 1970s during the 1980s and beyond, but to say that her career didn’t suffer from this legendary bomb is wishful thinking…but it’s not to say she wasn’t in anything good after this (I quite liked what I’ve seen of Barfly, for instance). I love Dunaway, I really do. Now to call this a “classic” film…it’s only 30 years old, and maybe I’m showing my age, but to me a classic film is 1950s or earlier….the real Studio era. To call this one of the best gay cult classics? Well, cult classics by their very nature are special entities, and this is definitely a cult classic. I’ll allow others who are more qualified judge whether this is a gay cult classic, but certainly John Waters loves it. For me it just wasn’t what I expected, and the film didn’t live up to it’s reputation…but that’s an opinion, of course, and everyone’s entitled to their own. If nothing else, this is far from the worst movie, cult classic or otherwise, I’ve watched and it’s brilliant moments, especially enhanced by the John Waters commentary, were really something else.

      • sakara says:

        I’ve noticed, on nyc news sites, that nyc gays regard this as a camp classic (a lot of nyc gays also love joan rivers and even rivers’ daughter!).

        The fact that gay John Waters has a commentary for it says a lot, since he and divine weren’t exactly uplifiting gay role models. Waters is still a big fan of william castle and h.g. lewis, and the 1960S, creepy, NATIONAL ENQUIER.

        But, this really was the end of Faye’s career, with a number of gossip articles, over the decades, of her wanting to make some other bio as a comeback, including putting her own money up for funding.

        Peter Sellers was another notorious Hollywood parent—giving most of his millions to his last wife, who coked/drank herself to any early death, with Sellers’ leftover millions going to her own daughter she had later, while his own kids are now almost broke.

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