Movie Notes: Mommie Dearest
Note: This is an entry in the Second Webomatica Contest: So Bad They’re Good Movies
So Bad It’s Good Rating: -4 stars
Starring Faye Dunaway, Diana Scarwid, Steve Forrest
Directed by Frank Perry
Recently on Market Street I saw a mother shoving her screaming child into a stroller, hysterically shrieking all sorts of dramatics about teaching children to behave. Perhaps this was justified, but to an outside observer it just looked like a big person beating the crap out of a smaller, weak, helpless one. The added layer of public humiliation just made me feel terrible.
Well, if mom keeps it up, child eventually grows up and makes a film like Mommie Dearest – and I felt terrible watching it. It’s based on a tell-all memoir written by Joan Crawford’s adopted daughter, Christina. Joan Crawford, the famous actress, is played by Faye Dunaway (whom I really loved in Bonnie and Clyde and Chinatown). Unfortunately, instead of a gorgeous gangster or femme fatale, here Dunaway plays a noxious hag.
Withering critiques of Hollywood’s effect on actresses can be compelling, as in All About Eve or Sunset Boulevard, but Mommie Dearest goes for the sensational and bizarre jugular. There’s nothing sympathetic about this abusive, nutcase Crawford character. We get zero introspection into her life history or why she behaves in such a neurotic-moronic manner.
Well, we do learn early on that Joan has an obsession with cleanliness and perfection, as she berates a housekeeper who neglects to polish the floor beneath a potted plant. Soon, Joan’s desire to raise a presumably perfect child means locking Christina in a pool dressing room, cutting off Christina’s hair, and destroying garden roses before taking a hatchet to an orange tree. Especially tense is a lunch where Christina refuses to eat rare, bloody steak, so Joan serves the same meal over and over until one of them cracks.
Eventually, Joan’s behavior becomes so random and bizarre that all I could do is meekly chuckle at the sheer nonsense of this witchy bitch gone bats. The most bizarre scenes:
- “No wire hangers! Ever!” Joan in a mud mask flips out about Christina’s $300 clothes on wire hangers. Then its, oh crap, daughter is beaten with one. Suddenly, it’s a lesson on how to clean the spotless bathroom, resulting in Old Dutch cleanser shaken all over the place. Christina is ordered to wipe it all up. Cinderella had it easy. (1:00:00)
- “I’m not one of your fans!” blurts Christina, spit flying. Joan again goes ape and starts choking her now teenage daughter. Housekeepers intercede, wrestling Joan off her dying offspring. Joan screams in an action-movie manner that had me laughing. Daughter then prays at church, possibly in hopes of an exorcism. (1:32:30)
- “But my character is only 28 years old…” Christina’s budding television career is sidelined by food poisoning. Joan stands in for ill daughter on the show, seemingly refusing to allow any hope of Christina becoming a better actress than Mommie Dearest. Freud, your field day is calling. (1:53:50)
- “As usual, she has the last word.” “Does she?” Finally, the end. Joan is dead… but Christina and her brother learn that mom wrote them out of the will. Ultimate suckitude. Luckily, Christina’s ambiguous “Does she?” surely refers to the book and film we just watched – and not a Mommie Dearest sequel. Anything but that!
The flick kinda-sorta works as a dark comedy, horror film, or camp masterpiece. A big element of the unintentional laughs is Dunaway’s acting, which drifts into caricature and eventually “drama queen” of the corny order. It doesn’t help that her costumes are often over-the-top, complete with painted-on eyebrows and an endless array of slightly askew hairstyles that have her resembling a wet, washed up drag queen.
I must mention the rather disturbing similarity of Mommie Dearest to Freddy Got Fingered, an equally awful film I recently reviewed, in which Tom Green attempts to “out compete” his father by hosing him down with elephant semen. Mommy Dearest is a battle between mother and daughter, perhaps displaying an “Electra” complex. Both films depict parents in a cruel, caricatured fashion which likely formed when the filmmakers were seven years old. And yes, by saying that, I do believe a seven year old could have written Mommie Dearest.