Mommie Dearest is a 1981 American biographical drama film directed by Frank Perry. The film depicts Christina Crawford's adoptive mother, actress Joan Crawford, as an abusive and manipulative mother.
Starring Faye Dunaway, Mara Hobel, and Diana Scarwid, the film was adapted for the screen by Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, Frank Perry, and Frank Yablans from Christina's 1978 autobiography of the same name. The executive producers were Christina's husband, David Koontz, and Terry O'Neill, Dunaway's then-boyfriend and soon-to-be husband. The film was distributed by Paramount Pictures, the only one of the Big Eight film studios for which Crawford had never appeared in a feature film.
The film was a commercial failure, grossing just over $19 million in North America from a $10 million budget. Despite receiving mostly negative reviews from critics, the film's bizarre script and highly charged acting, particularly Dunaway's, have brought a cult following to the film as an "unintentional comedy". It was nominated for nine Razzies at the 2nd Golden Raspberry Awards, and "won" five, including Worst Picture.
It is 1939, and Joan Crawford is one of Hollywood's biggest stars. But she tells her boyfriend lawyer Greg Savitt that she isn't content living in her Brentwood mansion with just her devoted secretary Carol Ann and housekeeper Helga. Greg arranges for Joan to adopt a baby girl. Joan names her Christina and promises "to give her all the things I never had." But Joan is obsessed with perfection, and Christina finds it impossible to live up to her mother's standards.
According to Dunaway, producer Frank Yablans promised her in the casting process that he wished to portray Joan Crawford in a more moderate way than she was portrayed in Christina Crawford's book. In securing the rights to the book, Christina's husband David Koontz was given an executive producer credit, though he had no experience producing films. Dunaway likewise demanded that her own husband, photographer Terry O'Neill, be given a producer credit so he could advocate for her on set. According to Yablans, the two husbands jostled over Dunaway's portrayal of Crawford: "I had two husbands to deal with, David driving me crazy that Faye was trying to sanitize Joan, and Terry worried we were pushing Faye too far and creating a monster."
In 2015, actress Rutanya Alda (Carol Ann) published a behind-the-scenes memoir, detailing the making of the film, The Mommie Dearest Diary: Carol Ann Tells All. In it, she describes the difficulty of working with Dunaway, whose method approach to playing Joan seemed to absorb her and make her difficult to the cast and crew. In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Alda stated, "People despised Faye...because she was rude to people. Everyone was on pins and needles when she worked, and relaxed when she didn't." Alda described the process of acting opposite Dunaway very unfavorably by claiming that she manipulated the director to deprive the other actors of screen time and required the members of the cast to turn their backs when not in the shot so she would have no audience. She also claimed that Dunaway was "out of control" while filming the scene where Joan attacks Christina in front of a reporter (Jocelyn Brando) and Carol Ann has to pull her off. Alda was hit hard in the chest and knocked over several times, while Jocelyn Brando, who was scripted to help Alda pull Dunaway off of Diana Scarwid, refused to get near her for fear of being injured.
- The movie's premise: a girl being abused by her crazy mother, isn't really appealing to many audiences.
- Bad directing:
- Scenes are either too short or just drag on for too long.
- There are too many time skips.
- The movie's mood changes way too rapidly.
- The film's campy tone makes the subject matter hard to take seriously.
- Cheesy and bizarre dialogue, like "NO WIRE HANGERS", "I'm mad at the dirt", and "DON'T FUCK WITH ME, FELLAS".
- Bad acting from everyone except Faye Dunaway.
- Even then, Faye Dunaway overacts to a hilarious degree.
- Mara Hobel and Diana Scarwid especially stand out regarding their performances as the child and adult versions of Christina Crawford respectively with the former speaking in a New York accent and the latter speaking in a strong Southern accent despite the real Christina being born and raised in Los Angeles.
- The film's production was troubled:
- The cast and crew had trouble dealing with Faye Dunaway's method of acting.
- Dunaway suffered severe psychological and physical damage from the role, at one point collapsing due to exhaustion, and damaging her vocal cords yelling.
- At the same time, Dunaway gained a reputation for being a diva, constantly making demands and taking away focus from the other actors.
- The terrible reception damaged Faye Dunaway's career.
- The movie is great as an unintentional comedy. Paramount got the idea and began advertising it as such later on.
- Overall, if one looks past the cheesy acting, a lot of things Joan does and the way she acts are genuinely scary.
Critical audience response
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 50% based on 46 reviews, with an average rating of 5.6/10. The website's critics' consensus states: "Mommie Dearest certainly doesn't lack for conviction, and neither does Faye Dunaway's legendary performance as a wire-wielding monster; unfortunately, the movie is too campy and undisciplined to transcend guilty pleasure." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 55 out of 100, based on 13 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
Roger Ebert opened his one-star review with, "I can't imagine who would want to subject themselves to this movie," calling it "unremittingly depressing, not to any purpose of drama or entertainment, but just to depress. It left me feeling creepy."
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."
Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it "an extremely strange movie" yet "a peculiarly engaging film, one that can go from the ridiculous to the sublime and back again within a single scene, sometimes within a single speech."
Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film two and a half stars out of four and wrote, "'Mommie Dearest' isn't a bad film, it's more of an incomplete story," because the script "doesn't care enough to attempt a thoughtful answer to the most obvious question of all—why? Why did Joan Crawford punish her adopted daughter with beatings and isolation? Why did Joan Crawford force her adopted son to wear, in effect, a harness to strap him in bed? I don't think you can show such extraordinary behavior in a film about a famous person and not offer some answers. It's simply not responsible filmmaking, both intellectually and dramatically."
Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Faye Dunaway "is a terrific Joan Crawford," but the film "plays like a limp parody of a bad Crawford movie. When Dunaway's Crawford, who's a seething volcano of emotions, finally erupts, the effect is laughable, rather than terrifying or pathetic, so pallid is the picture. 'Mommie Dearest' is at best campy, and at worst, merely plodding."
Over time, however, critics have warmed to the film, noting that while it wasn't a great film, it was still entertaining due to its campiness and Faye Dunaway's acting.
Pauline Kael declared that Faye Dunaway gave "a startling, ferocious performance," adding, "Dunaway brings off these camp horror scenes—howling 'No wire hangers!' and weeping while inflecting 'Tina, bring me the axe' with the beyond-the-crypt chest tones of a basso profundo—but she also invests the part with so much power and suffering that these scenes transcend camp."
Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote, "one doesn't envy screenwriters obliged to hack a playable, coherent continuity out of the complicated chronology and simple-minded psychoanalysis that clogs the book. It's a booby-trapped source, and there are intermittent signs of both skill and wariness in the filmmakers ... But once the ugly stuff begins, all that methodical preparation and desire to be fair becomes meaningless. The movie is committed to a prolonged, exhibitionistic wallow and can't escape the trashy consequences."
Christina Crawford, the writer of the memoir on which the book is based, had no involvement with the making of the film, and denounced the film as "grotesque" and a work of fiction, specifically stating that Joan never chopped down a tree with an axe, or beat her with a wire hanger as depicted in the film.
Among retrospective reviews, Slant Magazine awarded the film four stars in the May 31, 2006 edition. Also, Dennis Price wrote, "Faye Dunaway portrays Joan Crawford in a likeness so chilling it's almost unnatural" in his assessment of the film for DVD Review.
Roughly a month into release, Paramount realized the film was getting a reputation at the box office as an unintentional comedy and changed its advertising to reflect its new camp status, proclaiming, "Meet the biggest MOTHER of them all!"
Although a box office hit, the film was nominated for nine Razzies and "won" five categories in the 2nd Golden Raspberry Awards, and was ultimately awarded the title of Worst Picture of the Decade at the 10th Golden Raspberry Awards.
For decades, Dunaway was famously reluctant to discuss Mommie Dearest in interviews. In her 1997 autobiography, she only briefly mentions the film by stating that she wished that director Perry had had enough experience to see when actors needed to rein in their performances. In 2016, Dunaway expressed regret over taking the part and blamed it for causing a decline in her Hollywood career. She also claimed that the performance took a heavy emotional toll on her stating: “At night, I would go home to the house we had rented in Beverly Hills and felt Crawford in the room with me, this tragic, haunted soul just hanging around...It was as if she couldn’t rest.”
- Siskel, Gene (September 25, 1981). "Answers are a crying need in 'Mommie'". Chicago Tribune. Section 4, p. 3.
- Thomas, Kevin (September 20, 1981). "Dunaway As Crawford In 'Mommie'". Los Angeles Times. Calendar, p. 27.
- Kael, Pauline (October 12, 1981). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. 150.
- Arnold, Gary (September 25, 1981). "Crawford's Legend". The Washington Post. C1, C10.
- Faye Dunaway and Betsy Sharkey (1997). Looking For Gatsby: My Life, Pocket Books.