by Dan Schneider

If a thing is so over the top in real life can the thing that is merely derived from that outrageousness be called over the top? Yes. But, is it fair to blame the reflection for the sins of the original thing? I think not. This is not to say that Frank Perry's 1981 Mommie Dearest, which chronicled the life and times of movie superstar Joan Crawford and her adopted daughter, Christina, is a great film. It certainly is not. But it’s not a bad film, either, despite its reputation. In fact, it’s quite a good film. It’s not a visual marvel, not particularly well scored, but its screenplay--despite the few "campy" moments (which, in fairness to the complexity of the character Dunaway creates, really never had me laughing), is balanced by two or three times the number of deep, well-acted moments. In fact, the film is well acted. Both Mara Hobel and Diana Scarwid (as the child and adult Christina) are very good. Hobel gives one of the better child performances in memory, as she veers between JonBenet Ramsey-like preciousness and emotional precocity. Scarwid also gives a very nuanced performance; and, in many ways, has the most difficult performance in the film, for she has to be filled with resentment toward her mother, as well as a pathological neediness that eventually drives her to write the memoir of her mother that the book is based upon. Scarwid says far more with her body than Christina’s words do. This is a mark of good acting.

Then, of course, there is the monumentally towering performance of Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford, from the first five or so minutes where we see only parts of her body, never the whole, through her display in her coffin. What can be said of this performance that does it justice? She channels Crawford? She’s a female drag queen? She’s the mother of all Hollywood bitches? She’s a psychopath? A needy monster? A feminist? Answer: all of the above. But she is not her most spectacular in the legendary quartet of scenes that are usually mentioned: the destruction of her rose garden, where she orders Christina to "Bring me the ax!;" the wire hanger scene where she beats her daughter and destroys a can of Comet cleanser, prodding Mara Hobel’s Christina to utter the most heartfelt "Jesus Christ!" in film history; the famed fight where Joan attacks and chokes Christina and we get a crotch shot of Christina’s panties; nor the Pepsi-Cola boardroom scene (which had to be legend, simply because Christina could not be there) where, after they try to dump her, she tells them, "Don’t fuck with me, fellas!"

No, while those are well acted scenes, Dunaway excels in many little under-the-radar scenes that could be Acting 101 lessons. Watch Dunaway’s glee when she beats her daughter swimming, the fear she shows when she tells Scarwid’s Christina she cannot afford her ritzy private school, the slight looks aside when she tries to replace her daughter’s character on the soap opera The Secret Storm, or the great scene in the office of MGM domo Louis B. Mayer (Howard Da Silva), when he cruelly ousts her from the studio, and won’t even do her the courtesy of walking her to her car, despite calling her "Hollywood royalty." Watch that scene, and the eyes and lips of Dunaway, and then note that it is the now infamous rose garden destruction sequence that comes after it. Imagine, after nearly two decades of star treatment, getting treated that way. Now, given Crawford’s mental ills, her taking out her frustrations on the rose garden is actually quite restrained when she could have beaten Christina or her son, Christopher (Jeremy Scott Reinbolt as a child; Xander Berkeley as an adult). No, this is great acting when given a great character who is also a "great character" in the "she’s quite a character" sense. For other such performances, see George C. Scott as Patton, Anthony Hopkins as Nixon, or Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler in Downfall. All in all, it’s a shame that Dunaway reportedly loathes this film and her performance, because it’s one of the great embodiments in biopic history, and anything but an imitation or impersonation, raising this otherwise solid picture into the "good or better" category. Dunaway’s Crawford is not a psycho bitch, but a multifaceted character whose next move is never predictable. Note the scene where Joan tells Christina of her financial straits, and Christina treads carefully, understandably expecting an eruption of Mount Joan, only to get one of the tenderer moments in the film.

But, despite that, the film is not great, and not really because of the campiness that dominates ideas about the film, but for problems that commonly afflict many biopics, as well as a problem unique to this film. The shared problem is that this film sprawls across four decades, from Joan’s life in the late 1930s, before adopting children, to her death in 1977. The sheer need to leave out things from such a huge life inevitably leaves gapes in the film’s ability to fully craft Joan Crawford as a character (most notably some marriages and the adoption of three other children, including one child’s return, the first to be named Christopher Crawford, with the boy in the film as the second to bear that name, to her birth mother; and the subsequent selling of that child out from under Joan’s auspices), despite the number of well written and acted scenes. Such facts as her flirtations with cults like Christian Science can contribute to the depth of a character, even with just small hints. Most of life’s moments of insight and revelation come in its valleys, not at its peaks. But an even greater detriment to the film occurs from the very fact that Crawford’s victim--Christina--is simply not a likable character; and this is not a fault of the actresses who portray her, nor even the screenplay, which is well written. It’s just that Joan is so pathetic and needy that we can see that she gets no real empathy from the child, who, early on, assumes the role of the nurturer. Thus, when Christina has her famous moment when she calls out her mom, demands to know why she was adopted, and declares that she is not a fan of her mother, and is attacked by Joan, the audience doesn't sympathize. Joan’s mental ills, and her alcoholism, are damaging, and it’s worth noting that the screenplay cleverly allows Joan’s drinking to be hidden, then slowly progress to full out binging on flasks for all to see. Yet even when, by all accounts, a viewer should be rooting for Christina to write her tell-all memoir, after hearing the bullshit that Joan declares about her and her brother when she screws them out of an inheritance, there simply is no interest in this character.

The DVD, put out by Paramount, is shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and virtually matches the 128 minute long film: good, solid, but not great. It’s a one disk package with photos, the original theatrical trailer, and three featurettes: The Revival Of Joan--a making-of film; Life With Joan-- an extended making-of film; and Joan Lives On--on the cultic aftermath of the film. Bar none, though, the best feature is the film commentary by filmmaker John Waters. While not a great commentary, in terms of insight into the movie's art or background, it is highly entertaining.

The film, like the book, is necessarily one-sided, but it’s interesting to read about and see that, when it came out, Christina Crawford bitched that director Frank Perry and writer/producer Frank Yablans had turned her memoir into a "Joan Crawford film." But, really, what else could a film about a movie star be? Why would anyone want to read about Christina Crawford, save for her mother?

Naturally, the film was savaged by the critics, and the studio almost immediately tried to turn the film’s fortunes around by re-marketing it as a camp classic, rather than serious drama. It did not work, although the film did make a profit, and in the intervening decades has become a cult favorite amongst gays. Dunaway did, however, get some well deserved kudos, including a nomination as Best Actress from the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, for what it’s worth. But, the post-release arc of the film has been one of almost constant critical cribbing--especially in a negative vein; and to the point that many online critics flub even basic facts about the film and specific scenes. Mainstream critics fared just as poorly. Critical superstar Roger Ebert lamented: "Mommie Dearest repeats the same basic dramatic situation again and again. Baby Christina tries to do the right thing, tries to be a good girl, tries to please Mommie, but Mommie is a manic-depressive who alternates between brief triumphs and long savage tirades, infecting her daughter with resentment and guilt…" Yet this is clearly not so, for much of the film shows the exact opposite--a desperate mother doing anything to try to buy her daughter’s love. And she often refuses it, or will accept it only on her terms! Just watch the scenes of Christina’s birthday party, her watching her mother on the soap opera, and a few others--most notably during the hanger/bathroom scene, when a desperate Joan begs her daughter, after she calls her "Mommie dearest," "When I told you to call me that, I wanted you to mean it." It’s clear that Crawford (at least the filmic version) sublimated a good deal of her real nature (one admittedly not suited for parenting) to try to be a good mother.

This sublimation of the self, as well as the shared commiseration of mother and daughter, is the essence and major theme of the film. It is also the way the two characters define love--not "conquering all," but barely managing to survive. The odd thing is, though, that decades after the events in the film actually took place (or not), the theme remains the same. Not quite worthy of a song, granted, but more than worthy of a look.

2010 Dan Schneider