“NO wire hangers, ever!”
If you’ve not heard or read that line before, you are seriously missing out on some remarkable story-telling.
This week in Film School & Chill, Rohan Stephens looks at a movie more famous for its violent atrocities and atrocious over-acting than it is for any semblance of sincerity or genuine quality.
Mommie Dearest is a must-see, just the same.
MOMMIE DEAREST, 1981. Dir., Frank Perry.
What is it?
The premise of this column is to draw your attention to those films you may not have seen already but should, due to their overall outstanding quality. Films that may have won multiple awards, contain exceptional performances by great actors, or perhaps just proffer brilliant script-writing. Ultimately, it’s for films that contribute to the greater consciousness of our vast visual culture.
Mommie Dearest is not one of those films. Mommie Dearest is a film that is so awful, so camp – a film that goes so far beyond the realm of reality or plausibility – that you have to see it to believe it. And you will.
Watch ‘Mommie Dearest’ if for no other reason than to grapple with the power of what not just good cinema can achieve, but what a landmark terrible cinema can be.
In 1978, the daughter of one of the most famous and revered actresses of old Hollywood wrote a biography. And not just any biography. One of the first ‘tell-all’ books exposing a world behind the cameras, fame in the film industry, and the woes of excess wealth… and it wasn’t pretty. Christina Crawford, the adopted daughter of actress legend Joan Crawford, described in graphic detail a lifetime of abuse at the hand of her mother, who would (supposedly) go to extreme lengths to maintain the glossy Hollywood veneer of being an actress in the early era of MGM and Warner Studios, whilst running a relative boot-camp of a household with Christina on the receiving end of much abuse.
Naturally the book was a huge success but it also resulted in the subsequent disintegration of the mother-daughter relationship, with Joan famously leaving Christina out of her rather substantial will when she died in 1977.
Enter Frank Perry and Faye Dunaway in 1981. Prior to Mommie Dearest, Dunaway was at the peak of her career. She had been on a trajectory of becoming one of the greatest actresses in the industry, having won universal acclaim for starring roles in significant films of the 1960s and ’70s such as Bonnie and Clyde, Network, Chinatown and The Thomas Crown Affair. Frank Perry was himself an Oscar-nominated director, having lead productions such as Diary of a Mad Housewife and The Swimmer, before jumping on board to film Mommie Dearest. The end result was spectacular. But for all the wrong reasons.
What was intended to be a deeply serious, psychological examination of the vast complexities of Joan-Crawford-the-mother versus Joan-Crawford-the-celebrity, quickly spiralled into an over-acted, disjointed, poorly written and wildly camp portrayal of a barely recognisable Dunaway.
Upon release, Paramount Pictures – seizing on the unexpected audience reactions of laughter heard throughout theatres during screenings – completely re-directed their marketing strategy for the film, adding the tag line, ‘Meet the biggest MOTHER of them all!’ and intentionally pushing the film as campy Hollywood fiction, infuriating Dunaway and Perry in the process.
Why should I have already seen it?
Classic scenes abound in this picture, including a supposedly true incident involving Crawford quite literally losing her mind. In the scene, Dunaway (as Crawford) finds a single wire coat hanger in her daughter’s closet. The actress’s performance in this scene is like nothing you’ll ever see on screen.
It’s difficult to watch, primarily because it involves her continuously beating her own daughter, however it’s equally hard to watch for the sheer amount of aggression and angst she exudes for what seems like an eternity. The scene ends with Crawford and a young Christina collapsing on the floor of a bathroom covered in Ajax cleaning powder, both wailing hysterically – and it’s hard to tell in the end if they’re still acting or if both are actually recovering from what just happened.
This film is such an interesting moment in cinema for many reasons, but mostly because of the effect it had on Faye Dunaway’s career. Her status prior to it was comparable to that of Meryl Streep or Jessica Lange (who incidently plays Crawford in TV’s Feud); an actress who really just needed to show up to guarantee the success – both critical and commercial – of any project. And despite the film’s obvious failure to achieve what it set out to do, for some reason it couldn’t, and didn’t, just become one of those awkward moments in an actor’s life that they look back on and laugh about afterwards. It quite literally destroyed Dunaway professionally. So much so that in the 30 years since its release, there is only a handful of times she has mentioned it publicly, and apparently the topic of it is listed as something she refuses to speak about to anyone wishing to interview her.
Watch Mommie Dearest if for no other reason than to grapple with the power of not what good cinema can achieve, but for what terrible cinema can deliver, too, to the annals of filmic history.
Where do I find it?