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Mommie Dearest (film)

Mommie Dearest is a 1981 Paramount drama film about Joan Crawford, starring Faye Dunaway. The film was directed by Frank Perry. The story was adapted for the screen by Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, Frank Perry and Frank Yablans, based on the 1978 book Mommie Dearest by Christina Crawford. The executive producers were Christina's husband, David Koontz, and Terrence O'Neill, Dunaway's then-boyfriend and soon-to-be husband.

Plot summary

Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) is a driven actress and compulsively clean housekeeper who tries to control the lives of those around her as tightly as the self-control she exhibits. To prepare for a work day at MGM Studios, she rises at 4am and engages in a slightly neurotic morning ritual, scrubbing her face vigorously with soap and boiling, hot water - then plunging her head into a vat of ice and alcohol to close the pores. Joan is obsessed with cleanliness and wants those around her to follow her instructions to the letter. When a new maid, Helga (Alice Nunn), thinks she has Joan's living room in spotless condition, Joan finds one minute detail that she overlooked and momentarily loses her temper proclaiming "If you can't do something right, don't do it at all!". She very clearly intimidates the maid, as well her new live-in personal assistant, Carol Ann (Rutanya Alda).

Joan is in a steady romantic relationship with Hollywood lawyer Gregg Savitt (Steve Forrest), but her career is in a bit of a downswing. She reveals to Gregg she desperately wants a baby, but is unable to get pregnant; seven pregnancies when she was married to actor Franchot Tone all ended in miscarriages. When she is denied an application for adoption through a legal agency, she enlists Gregg's help to secure a baby.

Finally, Joan gets what she wants: a blonde-haired, blue-eyed little girl, whom she names Christina, and later another child, Christopher (Jeremy Scott Reinbolt). Joan lavishes Christina (Mara Hobel) with attention and luxuries such as an extravagant birthday party, but also enforces a strict code of denial and discipline. When Christina is showered with gifts at her birthday party, Joan manipulatively asks her which gift she likes best. When Christina picks it, Joan announces to her crestfallen daughter that all the other gifts will be donated to charity.

As Christina begins to rebel against her mother's stringent demands and standards, a series of confrontations emerges. Joan easily overtakes Christina in a swimming-pool race and then proclaims her victory by crowing to the child "You lost again". Joan then becomes enraged at the young girl when she reacts with childish disappointment. When Joan discovers her daughter putting on makeup and imitating her, she hysterically hacks off Christina's hair with a pair of scissors.

By this time, her relationship with Gregg Savitt is a dismal failure. Joan resents Gregg's allegiance to studio boss Louis B. Mayer and begins an argument with him at Perrino's restaurant. Back at Joan's mansion, Joan guzzles down glasses of alcohol and throws a drink in Gregg's face after he tells her she is getting old. A physical altercation develops between the two and Joan calls Gregg a "rotten, crooked lawyer". Gregg breaks up with Joan. The next day, Joan cuts Gregg out of all the family photos.

Joan's tantrums grow more bizarre and violent. When studio boss Louis B. Mayer (Howard Da Silva) forces Crawford to leave MGM after theater owners brand her "box office poison", she flies into a bitter rage and hacks down her prize rose garden with a pair of large gardening shears and an axe while dressed in a ball gown. In the film's most notorious scene, Joan, crossed eyed and slathered in cold cream, stalks into Christina's bedroom in the middle of the night and discovers one of the child's dresses hanging on a wire hanger. Joan launches into a tirade, screaming at the girl, "...No wire hangers, ever!". She viciously tears apart her closet and hits the girl with the hanger. Crawford then decides Christina's bathroom is not spotlessly clean (though it is only slightly dusty). Furious that the child doesn't understand her notion of cleanliness, Joan wrecks the bathroom as well, throwing scouring powder and hurling the cleanser everywhere.

Fed up by Christina's perceived impertinent rebellion, Joan sends her distraught daughter to boarding school. Later, a teenage Christina (Diana Scarwid) receives acting lessons at a private school. Although she receives excellent grades, Christina is abruptly forced to drop out when she is caught in a seemingly compromising position with a boy during an innocent encounter. Joan brings Christina home, where a reporter, Barbara Bennett (Jocelyn Brando) from Redbook magazine, is writing a puff piece on Crawford's home life. After Joan lies about the reason her daughter left school, Christina confronts her. She accuses her mother of adopting her as a publicity stunt after Joan says her daughter is deliberately embarrassing her before the reporter. Joan becomes completely unhinged, lunging at Christina, tackling her over a coffee table, and strangling her. Carol Ann and the reporter witness the attack and intervene to stop it. While attempting to peel Joan off Christina, Joan reaches the height of rage and throws both women off her while letting out a blood-curdling scream. After the incident, Joan sends Christina to Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy to punish her.

Joan marries Alfred Steele (Harry Goz), CEO of Pepsi Cola, and pressures him to shoulder a great deal of debt to fund their lavish lifestyle. After his death, she remains on the company's board of directors. When the all-male board tries to force her to resign, Joan threatens to publicly condemn Pepsi. The clearly unsettled board allows her to retain her seat.

After leaving the convent school, Christina rents an apartment in Manhattan, where she acts in a day-time soap opera. When she suffers an attack of a benign ovarian tumor, a stunned Christina is temporarily replaced by her much older mother, whose alcoholism clearly affects her acting and personal life.

When Joan dies of cancer in 1977, Christina and Christopher (Xander Berkeley) are shocked to learn their mother completely disinherited them in her will "for reasons which are well known to them." When a resigned Christopher says their mother has managed to have the last word as usual, Christina disagrees, hinting at the much-publicized book she later wrote about her mother, Mommie Dearest.


Script and production

The role of Joan Crawford was originally to be played by actress Anne Bancroft, who backed out of the role at the 11th hour.

Due to time and budget limitations, the film contains few references to Crawford's early marriages; the character of Greg Savitt is a composite of several of her relationships and Crawford's third husband, actor Phillip Terry. Also omitted from the story are details about her religious experiences as a Christian Scientist, as well as portrayals of her two younger adopted daughters. CBS declined to participate in the movie, so the scenes in which Joan fills in for Christina on soap opera The Secret Storm are intentionally vague; the soap is never mentioned by name, only as "the 4 o'clock show" (the time that it was aired for many years).

According to one of Joan Crawford's friends, Henry Rogers, (former president of Rogers & Cowen, a public relations firm), Louis B. Mayer himself began calling Joan Crawford "box office poison" in a trade publication. Also, the film fails to mention that, as a gift, Mayer gave Joan rose bulbs which she eventually planted in her garden, tended, then later mowed down with an axe.

Many of the most abusive incidents were eliminated; some were merged together. The infamous wire hanger rant is joined with the fight over the cleanliness of the bathroom floor, which are reported in the book as separate incidents. Christina's relationship with her first boyfriend at school — the incident where Joan knocked Christina over a chest and beat her, then sent her to Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy — actually occurred at different times. Joan's relationship with Christina's brother Christopher was also left out of the movie. Joan's threats, punishments, and quite severe abuse of Christina, described in the book, were eliminated from the movie. Despite these cuts, the movie's running time was slightly more than two hours.

The fictional role of domestic assistant Carol Ann is an amalgamation of several Crawford employees throughout the years, roughly from 1938 to 1977.

Faye Dunaway has said that during the filming, she felt Joan's presence on the set many times.

During Faye Dunaway's interview on Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio, James Lipton saved the topic of Mommie Dearest for the end of the interview, since Dunaway credits the film for ruining her career. When he comments on her appearance in the film as Joan, Dunaway says that she and the make-up artist worked for hours trying to get the "Crawford look". Finally Faye says she discovered that Joan looked the way she did because of the way she purposely held her facial muscles, thus explaining why Joan looked different in her very early career. Faye says, "It was chilling."


The movie as a whole received overwhelmingly negative reviews by film critics. Roger Ebert opened his review with the damning statement "I can't imagine who would want to subject themselves to this movie. About Dunaway's performance, Variety said "Dunaway does not chew scenery. Dunaway starts neatly at each corner of the set in every scene and swallows it whole, costars and all. Roughly a month into release, Paramount realized the film was getting a reputation and box office as an unintentional comedy, and changed its advertising to reflect its new camp status, proclaiming, "Meet the biggest MOTHER of them all!

While Dunaway garnered some critical acclaim for her astonishing physical metamorphosis and her portrayal of Crawford (finishing a narrow second in the voting for the New York Film Critics Circle Awards for Best Actress of the Year), she also received a Razzie Award for Worst Actress. (The film received five "Razzie" awards overall.)

The film was damaging to Dunaway's career, and Dunaway later stated that she wished she had never appeared in it. It was said that she attempted to tone down her portrayal of Crawford, but met opposition from Christina Crawford in doing so. In her autobiography, Dunaway only makes a brief mention of the movie stating that she wished the director had enough experience to see when actors needed to rein in their performances. Joan Crawford once said in an interview in the early 1970s that of the current young actresses only Faye Dunaway had "what it takes" to be a true star.

This critical judgment against the film appears to have stood the test of time: in 1990, the film won another razzie for "worst picture of the decade." In 2005, the film was nominated for a razzie for "worst drama of our first 25 years."

DVD release

Mommie Dearest was released on DVD July 17, 2001. It was re-released June 6, 2006 in a special "Hollywood Royalty" edition, with commentary by John Waters. Waters spends the bulk of his commentary dissecting the film as a serious bio-film and is quite outspoken in condemning the two sequences in the film (the infamous "wire hanger" rant and the "Tina! Bring me the axe!" scene) that Waters believes are responsible for the film's reputation as a camp film.

Cultural references

  • The exterior of the Mommie Dearest house is actually a home in Bel-Air, next door to Ronald and Nancy Reagan's home that they lived in following his two terms as President and in which he later died. The house's front exterior was later used in the final episode of the television show Designing Women, as an antebellum home that the cast had been hired to gut and modernize at their disgust. The back of the house, reconstructed on a Paramount lot along with the interior of the house, was later modified and used in the television series The Colbys as the back of the family's home..
  • The kitchen set used for Christina's soap opera is the kitchen set from Happy Days.
  • The experimental band Negativland samples audio from this movie on their 1997 release "Dispepsi". ("We've got to look great for Pepsi Cola!" and "Don't fuck with me fellas!" are two heavily used samples on this release).
  • John Waters refers to this film as "The first comedy about child abuse."
  • Animated sitcoms Futurama and Family Guy each paid an homage to the now-famous scene. In "A Very Special Family Guy Freakin' Christmas" Lois freaks out in similar fashion to Joan Crawford when Meg tells her there are no more paper towels. Also, when Stewie is reenacting his beating from Lois in another episode, he can be heard saying "mommie dearest." In "Bender Should Not Be Allowed on TV", a child actor trying for a part on All My Circuits was being fixed up by his mother. When his chest compartment opens up it reveals hanging wires, to which the mother grabs them and shouts "No more hanging wires" while whipping him.
  • In the Music Video for Victoria Beckham's Let Your Head Go / This Groove, released 2004, she reenacts the "no wire hangers ever" as well as the flower-cutting scene.
  • In the film Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea sees a wire hanger in Brenda's closet. She gets angry and screams, "A wire...HANGER!", and proceeds to destroy Brenda's clothes.
  • In the third episode of the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy says about the nasty mother "So mommy dearest is really Mommy Dearest."
  • In the film Another Gay Movie the drag actress Lypsinka plays a mother who reacts in horror at a wire hanger in her son's room, and later complains of crumbs on the counter, reciting the line "I'm mad at the crumbs!" after her son has sexually defiled a quiche.
  • At The Drive-In has a song entitled "Shaking Hand Incision" containing the lyrics, "no wire coat hangers."
  • In The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Hilary Banks complains to her dad — who is making her get a job — "Why don't you just beat me with a wire hanger!?"
  • In the television series "Wonderfalls", Diana Scarwid (Christina) played Karen Tyler, the manipulative (although not insane or evil) mother of main character Jaye. In the pilot episode, Jaye chides her mother by exclaiming "Mommy dearest!", at which Karen bristles.
  • On Absolutely Fabulous, facing the prospect of a play being made on daughter Saffy's life, Edina Monsoon fears that she will make Mommie Dearest look like Winnie-The-Pooh.
  • The title of Mommie Beerest, an episode of The Simpsons, is a play on the name of this film.

See also


External links

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