In a 2016 “People Magazine” interview, Oscar-winning actress Faye Dunaway admitted to regretting her over-the-top portrayal of Joan Crawford in the 1981 movie “Mommie Dearest” (Paramount), newly reissued on Blu-ray and digital as part of the Paramount Presents series.
Of the movie, based on the equally OTT memoir by Crawford’s adopted daughter Christina, Dunaway said, “I should have known better, but sometimes you're vulnerable and you don't realize what you're getting into. It's unfortunate they felt they had to make that kind of movie. But you can't be ashamed of the work you've done."
“That kind of movie” pretty much tanked Dunaway’s career after that. However, it also titillated and delighted countless fans upon its release and in the 40 years since. A multitude of lines have become iconic in the LGBT vernacular and classic scenes have become sources of endless entertainment. So, how good or bad is it?
From the minute the gloved hand of actress Joan Crawford (Dunaway) turns off her alarm at four a.m. and saunters into the bathroom to begin her morning routine, we know we’re in for something out of the ordinary. Dressed to kill, she heads to the studio, reading scripts and autographing photos in the back of a limo, Crawford was nothing if not devoted to her craft and fans.
She was also devoted to cleanliness, an obsession that would become one of the contributing factors in her descent. As she berates a housekeeper, “I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt."
A first-rate performer in all aspects, Crawford’s annual Christmas gift-giving extravaganza at an orphanage stirs up her desire for motherhood. Unable to conceive, the twice-divorced actress discovers she is not a candidate for adoption, despite believing she can be a mother and a father, providing both a “wonderful and advantaged life.” Her lawyer boyfriend Greg (Steve Forrest) pulls some strings and Crawford becomes mother to baby Christina.
It doesn’t take long (okay, a few years) before the cracks start to show, beginning with a birthday party for Christina (Mara Hobel, in a thankless role), complete with a carousel, an organ grinder and monkey, and a new baby brother named Christopher. Signs of tension are present in Joan’s interactions with Christina, including her bristling at her daughter’s tone of voice. When Joan catches Christina mimicking her while seated at her mother’s vanity, she flips out, butchering her hair.
Christina isn’t the only object of Joan’s aggression. Greg walks out on Joan after a disagreement, and she deals with it by cutting him out of every photo they took together. Studio head Mayer (Howard Da Silva) sends her packing, utilizing the creative differences excuse. This leads to the famous rose garden freak out (of “Tina, get me the ax” fame). Shortly after winning the Oscar for “Mildred Pierce,” Joan discovers a wire hanger in Christina’s closet leading to the notorious “No wire hangers, ever!” beating scene.
Not even teenage Christina (Diana Scarwid), away at boarding school is safe from Joan’s wrath. After Christina is caught getting intimate with a boy, Joan removes her from the school. Back at home, where a journalist is busy writing a story about Joan, Christina and her mother have a heated argument, resulting in the classic slap sequence and the delivery of the “I’m not one of your fans” lines.
Having almost killed Christina, Joan sends her off to convent school. After graduating, Christina returns home to discover that not only has her mother remarried — to soft drink king Al Steele (Harry Goz) — but has put her home up for sale with plans to relocate to New York. Needless to say, the mother/daughter relationship never improves, which explains Christina’s barbed-wire memoir.
Perhaps Dunaway, who worked with uneven director Frank Perry (“The Swimmer,” “Diary of Mad Housewife,” and “Play It As It Lays,” and the bombs “Hello Again” and “Monsignor”) in the past, should have known better. Regardless, “Mommie Dearest” went from shocking biopic to camp classic at light speed, and for that, we are forever grateful. Plus, with Halloween just around the corner, “Mommie Dearest” is a fab reminder of what a great (and terrifying) costume Joan Crawford can be.
Blu-ray special features include commentary by drag legend Hedda Lettuce and filmmaker John Waters, “Filmmaker Focus” with Frank Perry biographer Justin Bozung, short features including “The Revival of Joan,” “Life With Joan,” and “Joan Lives On,” as well as a photo gallery and the original theatrical trailer.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of seven books including the expanded edition of his short story collection How to Whistle (Rattling Good Yarns Press, 2021). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.