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Based on the book about Joan Crawford, one of the great Hollywood actresses of our time, written by her adopted daughter Christina Crawford. Joan decides to adopt children of her own to fill a void in her life. Yet, her problems with alcohol, men, and the pressures of show business get in the way of her personal life, turning her into a mentally abusive wreck seen through the eyes of Christina and her brother Christopher, who unwillingly bore the burden of life that was unseen behind the closed doors of "The Most Beautiful House in Brentwood." Written by
Geoffrey A. Middleton <email@example.com>
Searching - entertainingly but in vain - for Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest
In Mommie Dearest, we watch Faye Dunaway portray Joan Crawford as portrayed in Crawford's adopted and later disinherited daughter Christina's (necessarily?) one-sided and tendentious memoir. That was less a story than a payback about growing up in a Hollywood hothouse with a headstrong and possibly unhinged star as mother. Where the precise balance lies between truth (obviously, some) and spite owing to being read out of the will is not, or no longer, the point. The point is what justice the movie does to the legendary Crawford - how accurately it reproduces her public façade and private dysfunction (where it's open to skepticism), and how well it evokes the way stars lived and were expected to live under the mid-20th-century studio system (where it fares well).
The movie opens at 4 a.m., the wake-up call for a star operating under the punishing regimen that was then the norm when shooting was underway. Dunaway/Crawford scrubs and steams herself, then closes her pores by plunging her face into rubbing alcohol on the rocks. Then she steps into a limo idling in the dark, where she learns her lines and signs glossies for doting fans. Noblesse oblige, Southern California style.
Crawford had been in movies since the last days of the silents (her first roles, uncredited or as Lucille LeSueur, were in 1925), and had since achieved a blue-and-ivory showplace in Brentwood, two ex-husbands, and entrée to the privileged circle of `Hollywood royalty'. All she wants to round out her life is a baby (or two); Steve Forrest plays an attorney and current paramour who helps her to acquire them, like a pair of occasional tables.
The rest of the movie depicts the ambivalent - almost bipolar - relationship between Joan and Christina (the actual Crawford adopted four children, whom the script cuts to two - just one, really, for son Christopher is seen only a few times tethered to his bed and once again, at the fateful reading of the will). So the plot's main thrust is Christina vs. Joan, and the semi-psychotic episodes that made the movie a cult/camp classic focus on this David and Goliath tug-of-war (`Tina, bring me the axe!' and `What's wire hangers doing in this closet?').
Several episodes, however, weren't witnessed by the skulking, passive-aggressive young Tina (Mara Hobel) or by the wilful and defiant teen-ager and woman she would become (Diana Scarwid, with a growling contralto that brings to mind Joan's adversary Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar). No little pitcher with big ears was nearby when Joan, in gingham apron and high-heeled white work shoes, scrubs the floor and bellows to the maid `I'm not mad at you, I'm mad at the dirt' or when, in one of Dunaway's rip-the-envelope-open scenes, emasculates the entire board of directors of Pepsico.
Dunaway's impersonation of Crawford is in many ways unforgettably overripe (and her performance been received as both extraordinary and execrable; she herself is on record as regretting that she did the movie at all). Yet despite an at times almost uncanny resemblance provided by makeup and costume, we seldom forget it's Dunaway on camera. The specific Crawford qualities that gave her unparalleled longevity in Hollywood elude Dunaway - they aren't quite there. (Under all the honeyed diction there's little of the tough broad from east Texas.) Maybe Dunaway was right in doing Crawford her own way, rather than resorting to mimicry. But she - and the script - lose too much of her prototype.
The script hews to known chronology in only the most slapdash way. There's a signpost at the beginning - Ice Follies of 1939 (why not the better known and just plain better The Women of the same year?) - and another at the time of her Academy-Award performance in Mildred Pierce (1945). But Crawford's subsequent vehicles, many of them hits, are ignored - and much of Mommie Dearest suggests she was a washed-up has-been. So it's never clear what juncture of her career she's reached - the late '40s and early '50s when she was still going strong, the Grand-Guignol '60s or, near the end, the '70s (Trog and TV)? It's a crucial lapse of basic narrative skills.
But Mommie Dearest eschews many of those skills, seemingly by choice. No longer, as in the movies Crawford made famous, does scene unfold into scene, does motivation shape the story line. True, real life seldom observes the dramatic unities, but events here come so haphazardly that they're baffling. A triumph like winning the Oscar or the humiliation of being fired from MGM by Louis B. Mayer (Howard Da Silva in a memorable cameo) both lead straight into full-tilt rampages. Do they occur the same day, or weeks or months later? The time-line's too shaky to tell. Nor do the drastic mood-swings ever get explained (maybe they can't be explained), though Crawford's ever-present flask of vodka threads through the movie more as a colorful eccentricity than a central fact of her life.
And in expressing this instability, Dunaway plucks not from Crawford's roles but from Gloria Swanson in the last, loony half of Sunset Blvd. Her eyes turn inward while fleeting emotions flicker across her face, hinting at something dreadful dredged up from her psyche. Yet Crawford held on to her star power in a ruthless industry for close to four decades, then snagged Pepsi-Cola CEO Alfred Steele and proved to be a savvy businesswoman. Nothing in Mommie Dearest accounts for those facts, which makes its accounting practices a little bit suspect. It's not a very good movie, but, thanks to Dunaway and her subject, mesmerizing nonetheless.
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