(featured image courtesy of Taking Up Room)
Thanks to this movie (and to some degree, the book that it was based on), these two words have entered the vernacular for a completely unstable, irrational, controlling, psychotic woman who flies into blind rages about scrubbing bathroom tiles and clothes in a closet hanging from wire hangers, and chops down rose bushes in the middle of the night.
By the way, the woman the term was named after is famed actress Joan Crawford. Yes, that Joan Crawford. Academy Award winner, a longtime public face for Pepsi, and, it was said, a very difficult person.
When Joan Crawford died in 1977, her will contained a rather cryptic and astonishing statement in which she disinherited two out of her four children, “for reasons which are well known to them.” If you loved Hollywood history, you were bound to have read a rather shocking and disturbing book about what kind of person Joan Crawford allegedly was outside of the public eye. That book came out in 1978, one year after Joan’s death. It was called “Mommie Dearest” and it was written by none other than one of the two kids she disinherited, Crawford’s eldest daughter, Christina.
The book claimed Crawford to be cruel and abusive; a self-absorbed woman who was much more concerned with preserving and maintaining her own image as a star than being a positive, loving parent. Among the various claims made, Christina alleges she was forced to live under such extremely strict conditions set forth by her mother that she was a virtual prisoner in the various boarding schools she attended. She also says that Joan was an alcoholic and abused her (mentally and physically) while keeping up that façade of a model mother. One of the most heartwrenching claims is that each child Crawford adopted was procured in order to give Joan positive publicity and nothing more. This book was the first known “celebrity tell-all” and it still comes up in conversations whenever either woman is mentioned.
Three years later, in 1981, the film adaptation of “Mommie Dearest” was released. Needless to say, it did not get good reviews. Starring Faye Dunaway as Crawford, Mara Hobel as the young Christina and Diana Scarwid as the teenaged/adult Christina, despite its serious subject matter, the filmmakers managed to turn this tale of tragedy into camp-filled fodder with highly quotable lines and actions, creating a cult classic. While this movie is always regarded as terrible, winning multiple Golden Raspberry Awards (Razzies), I will admit I do love it. I don’t love the underlying themes as to why it was made, but for what it was, I watch it.
With everything we’ve come to picture and believe about Joan Crawford as a result of both the book and the movie, before I dive into the film, I must preface this with the following:
Joan Crawford was undoubtedly a talented actress. Ambitious, tenacious, and one of the most ballsy, brash, and brazen of all time. She survived what’s been described as a hard-scrabble childhood and crawled her way to the top, becoming a member of Hollywood’s royal court. She also had way too many personal demons and was subsequently branded as monstrous by some. As I previously wrote in a piece about Ryan Murphy’s anthology series “Feud”, I absolutely believe that Joan Crawford had a problem with alcohol, had difficulties in interpersonal relationships, and worked entirely too long and too hard for her own good.
I’ve been endlessly fascinated with Joan; researching her life over the years, reading countless articles and watching interviews about her character and behavior. Based on everything I have read and watched (book and movie included), I do believe that she could have very well possibly suffered from some type of mental illness. This is by no means a diagnosis, as I am not medically certified, nor qualified to make one. I do believe that she was capable of abusing her children and if all accounts made to that effect are true, this is not the Joan Crawford anyone wants to remember. It is entirely possible and plausible that individual treatment of each of the Crawford children was different, as Christina claimed she and younger brother Christopher suffered the brunt of Joan’s wrath, while their younger twin sisters, Cathy and Cindy, claimed they themselves were disciplined, but not to the point of abuse.
Christina states in her book that the age difference between herself and her sisters was significant and she was not really in the picture at home during their upbringing. Why would both she and, by extension, her brother make such damaging claims? The votes were split, with some calling Christina a spoiled, rotten brat who wrote this book to get back at Joan for cutting her out of the will. Another theory is that Joan knew about the forthcoming book and cut them out of the will because her true nature was on the verge of being exposed. What were Christina and Christopher to gain? Christopher Crawford never really publicized his relationship with his adopted mother, maintaining a intensely guarded private life. While the debate continues as to whether Joan was truly an abusive parent or if she was simply an overly strict disciplinarian, let’s put into perspective that no one knows what went on between Crawford and each of her children other than the parties involved.
Now, let’s break down my most memorable scenes in “Mommie Dearest”, the movie.
THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD!
YE BE WARNED!
While never explicitly stated, the movie follows the assumed timeline from Christina’s birth year of 1939 to Joan Crawford’s death in 1977. Just why is this film so bad that it’s good?
One major fault (and success) the movie had was that the script twisted its source material. The filmmakers took those situations straight out of a book that seem so unfathomable and just allowed it to go into a entirely different place. The movie was said to have intended to be a glimpse into the darkness of Hollywood glamour, but what it did was take the story of a deeply disturbing home life for the child of a movie star and made it into the campy “Joan Crawford flips out” movie. Everything was overdone, from the acting to the sets to the costumes. It was the closest thing to a caricature of Joan Crawford and her Hollywood life.
Anyway you look at it, Joan Crawford had carefully calculated her image over the many years she spent as an famous actress and Dunaway followed that example. Faye Dunaway put every fiber of her being as a Method actor into this role. As it’s been said, she ate, breathed, and slept Joan Crawford the entire time. She took on the part with gusto and, to put it frankly, it was just over the top. She took her interpretation of Joan and turned it up to eleven.
The most famous and often quoted scene involves Joan, face covered in cold cream, going through her daughter’s closet in the middle of the night, where she finds expensive garments hanging on wire hangers. She immediately starts ransacking the closet, and then the tantrum starts. Screaming with full force, “No wire hangers, EVER!” she proceeds to beat a crying Christina with the hanger, mumbling about backstreets in Oklahoma and how her daughter treats her clothes like dishrags. After she drags her daughter to the bathroom, the meltdown continues over cleaning the tiled bathroom floor, where she interrogates her daughter as to its level of cleanliness. She then dumps out cleanser, smacks Christina with the can, all the while sobbing and yelling uncontrollably. The final moment of that scene that can’t be forgotten is Joan’s face is she orders her daughter to clean up the mess: the cream molded onto her face like a frightening mask. You can’t help but howl with laughter at how preposterous this scene is!
According to Christina Crawford and other sources, Joan’s deep-seated hatred for wire hangers came from her impoverished childhood. After her father abandoned the family, Joan’s mother, Anna, took a job in a laundry to support herself and children, Joan (then known by her real name, Lucille) and Hal. It was often said that Joan herself participated in the work. As Lucille left her old life behind and was reborn as Joan, she tried her hardest to almost completely erase her troubled past, so that may have struck a nerve to have to remember such an extremely difficult time in her life.
Movie (and possibly real life) Joan would fly into these fits of rage and most of them involved control. She was controlling, desiring (some may say forcing) her children to act and behave perfectly, because any reflection of their behavior goes back to her. She calculated and orchestrated her own image as a star and extended that to her children. Yet not every action was rooted in anger. Several scenes show her as cool, calm, and calculated. Again, calculated, which goes back to that controlling, methodical nature. Dunaway played her as an overdramatic narcissist, fighting with her spoiled brat of a daughter. What moments always jump out at me?
- After catching Christina “making fun” of her gushing over her fan base and covering her hair in setting lotion to imitate her mother in play, Joan grabs the scissors and butchers her daughter’s golden locks, yelling at her that she would rather she go to school bald than “looking like a tramp”.
- Christina “makes fun” of her again by telling her dolls that they are spoiled and selfish children, so Joan hides her daughter’s dolls and condescendingly points that out to a petulant Christina, delivering the line like a proud peacock.
- Christina won’t eat her prepared lunch of rare meat. As Joan takes it as a deliberate act of defiance, she orders that her daughter not be given any other food until she cleans that plate. We see hours and (I believe) at least one day go by with the only food given to her is what’s shown on that sad plate. They set up breakfast the next morning, but Christina is expected to eat the food from the day before. The battle of wills goes on for a bit until Joan pointedly tells her daughter to throw the old food out.
- After her husband, Pepsi chairman Alfred Steele, dies, she gets on the board of the soft drink company, but after a while, they wish to retire her. Joan basically blackmails the board into keeping her on, claiming that her clout as a celebrity could destroy the brand, effectively (and smugly) delivering another powerful line, “Don’t fuck with me, fellas!”
I had seen this film a number of times before I went for broke and bought the book, which was the 20th Anniversary edition published by Christina Crawford herself in 1998. I could not fathom how the movie merely scratched the surface of Joan’s supposed treatment of her children. At the time of its release and the poor publicity and reviews it got, Faye Dunaway was so displeased with her involvement in the movie and her performance that she refused to discuss it for many years.
If you piss off movie Joan Crawford because you don’t eat your meal of rare beef (which I’m not a fan of myself), don’t scrub the bathroom to her liking or call her box office poison, prepare to receive the full range of her manic (yet overdramatic) anger. Case in point, the plant chopping scene, in which she cuts down rose bushes and an orange tree (“Tina! Bring me the ax!”), all while clad in a sequined evening gown.
I’ve seen this movie so many times that it just serves as background noise now, but even though it’s achieved cult status, we can’t forget what the intended message of the book was, even if it didn’t quite come out the same way in the film. It was an attempt to expose the dark side of Hollywood, but it all just went overboard. An attempt to bring to light a very serious issue involving someone who the world thought that they knew: an actress who loved her life in the limelight, complete with a happy family. However, if her daughter’s accounts are completely true, all that glitters in Hollywood isn’t gold, it’s tarnished and blackened.
***Credits, research, and other pertinent information according to “Mommie Dearest” by Christina Crawford, various interviews on the subject, including those between Christina Crawford and Larry King found on YouTube.com, the entire sites and individual pages and articles on The Best of Everything: A Joan Crawford Encyclopedia (http://www.joancrawfordbest.com), The Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com), Vanity Fair (https://www.vanityfair.com), The Hollywood Reporter (https://www.hollywoodreporter.com), Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org), and, of course, Paramount Pictures’ “Mommie Dearest”.
There are so many other movies that are So Bad It’s Good! Check out the official entries to the Blogathon, presented by Taking Up Room right here!
Do you think the movie could have been better if it was treated as a serious film? What moments stick out in your mind? If you could turn back time and re-shoot the film, what would you change? What would you keep?