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MOMMIE DEAREST
Hollywood Royalty Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Faye Dunaway, Steve Forrest, Diana Scarwid, Mara Hobel
Director:  Frank Perry
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, 2-Channel Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  128 Minutes
Release Date:  June 6, 2006

“NO…WIRE…HANGERS…EVER!!”

Film ***

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Mommie Dearest, as well as an inexplicable fascination for it. 

Based on the tell-all book by her daughter, it’s the story of Hollywood legend Joan Crawford as we’d never seen before (at the time), but has come to present such an indelible image of the star that today, we can hardly think of her in any other way.  It’s a harrowing tale of love, fear, and failure in a setting as big as California and as small as a simple family…yet though it deals with subjects like child abuse, alcoholism and heartbreak, it almost instantly became regarded as camp.  I remember reading that the studio, upon sensing the audience’s initial reaction to the film, decided to go with the flow:  the initial posters hinting at drama were pulled in favor of one emphasizing the wire hanger, and boasting the tag line, “The biggest mother of them all!”

It’s a curious and flawed picture…the director, Frank Perry, seems to have worked like a silent film man of old.   One can imagine him screaming, “More!   More!” off to the side, as an argument between Joan (Dunaway) and her lawyer boyfriend Greg (Forrest) elevates into something almost comical, with a ridiculous looking shoulder-shaking sequence and both actors going over the top as if their lives depended on it.  Mr. Perry also has a curious sense of eloquence in the wrong places, as with an unforgettable, beautifully constructed shot of his leading lady at the foot of her staircase, with the banisters making an elegant frame, and carefully cultivated lighting and color on either side…yet what are we really looking at?  A woman holding an unappetizing looking piece of day-old meat on a plate.

But Ms. Dunaway is unforgettable in her performance, which is brilliant and courageous.  She finds the humanity within Joan in every aspect.  At the start, we see her washing up and then being made up for a role…Hollywood glamour.  The next shot is of her scrubbing the floors of her own house.  Two sides, each played with conviction, each demonstrating a passionate, possibly dangerous, sense of obsession.

When Joan adopts baby Christina, it first seems like a match made in heaven.  But Joan’s ideas of motherhood are not mainstream.  She loves her child, but at the same time, feels it necessary for her to grow up steeled like she did, and not get by in life just by being a movie star’s kid.  Did she go too far?

The question is interesting for several reasons.  One, I found Christina, the character, unlikable and unsympathetic, both as a child and as an adult (played by Diana Scarwid).  When Joan loses her patience with her daughter, it quite frankly is always the same point that I’ve lost it, too.  There’s enough blame to go around, but Christina is clearly portrayed as a kid who knows where her mother’s buttons are, and relishes pushing them at the worst times.

Another reason the question is fascinating is because of the source material.  After all, this film was based on a book by a kid who was cut out of her mother’s will, and written after the mother was no longer around and unable to defend herself.  How much of it should we take seriously, and how much requires a grain of salt?  Better still, did the real Christina ever imagine how bad she’d end up looking in the film based on her own book?

But the film has its honest, touching moments, though many forget them in favor of scenes like “NO WIRE HANGERS!”.   What about right before that, when Joan’s hand dance lovingly, attentively across her daughter’s clothes?  Faye Dunaway is an actress capable of completely losing herself in a role and intuitively finding magic where others would find only throwaway business.  So the clothes end up on the floor, and the bathroom covered in cleanser, and the famed wire hanger across the back of little Christina.  But can you helped but be touched by Joan’s simple, direct plea:  “When I told you to call me that (Mommie Dearest)…I wanted you to mean it.”

Christina turned out to be a foil for her mother, whose insecurities were beginning to wreak havoc.  More and more, Joan is told she’s too old, she’s box office poison…she’s even asked to leave the studio she helped make legendary in one touching scene.  One could argue that Christina bears the brunt of Joan’s emotional baggage, or one could argue that she purposely acts as a catalyst for them.  I can’t judge either of the real life women, mind you…I can only go by what I see in the film.  And the film has its own designs on Christina.

As an adult, Christina is still wretched, and Scarwid’s performance leaves much to be desired.  Fortunately, Dunaway is more than capable of carrying both of them.   I mentioned courage with respects to Ms. Dunaway’s work…this has to be one of the most demanding roles of her career.   Joan is a woman of many faces, from the one she gladly showed the world to the one the world would have never seen if not for her daughter’s book.  I recall a rumor when I was younger that the real Ms. Crawford was a fan of Faye Dunaway, and reportedly even stated that if her life were ever portrayed in a movie, Ms. Dunaway was her actress of choice for the lead.  The physical resemblance is startling, but that’s only the beginning.  She captures the hidden emotions of Joan, but also her chutzpah, when she gets to deliver a line like, “Tear down that bitch of a bearing wall and put a window where it ought to be!”  She's willing to go hopelessly overboard, but one thinks...how could you play Joan Crawford and not?

So where does all this really leave the film?  Did it falter as a drama, or did it succeed in finding camp?  Does it deserve to be remembered as more than a picture that made child abuse seem funny to its audience?  Or is it a mix of that and something more, like Joan herself, who won Oscars on one hand and yet produced a string of bad films like few stars have ever done and lived to tell about it?  Maybe now, 25 years after the fact, it’s a good time to go back and re-evaluate this film.  Maybe we’ll see something we’ve been missing all this time.

Maybe not.

BONUS TRIVIA:  The real Christina Crawford plays the adoption agent who denies Joan early on in the film.

Video ***

This anamorphic transfer from Paramount deserves some accolades…despite its age, it handles colors with clarity and surprising subtlety.  A shot of Joan and Greg outside by her pool is indicative of this: between the water, the cushions, and a handy beach ball, there are many distinctly different shades of blue playing against each other, and they all render with detail and integrity.  Even night shots, like the famed one of Joan attacking her garden at night, maintains this sense of detail against the darkness and shadows.  The print shows effects of aging here and there, but overall, this is an impressive job.

Audio **

Both the original mono and new 5.1 mixes are serviceable…the surround track isn’t very bold, though, merely adding a little more openness to the sound without any real sense of discretion.  Dialogue sounds just fine either way, which is the main attraction.   No complaints.

Features ***1/2

This Hollywood Royalty Edition gives Ms. Crawford the red carpet treatment she deserves.  It kicks off with a wonderfully entertaining commentary track by filmmaker John Waters.  Not the most informative I've ever heard, but fun...it's like watching the movie with a friend who shares his thoughts, and he happens to be one who knows a thing or two about Hollywood.

There are three terrific featurettes on the making of the film and it's enduring popularity, particularly amongst the gay community.  They feature some cast and crew interviews, as well as a look at a man who plays Joan professionally in drag.

Rounding out is a photo gallery and the original trailer.

Summary:

Mommie Dearest was intended as a drama but succeeded as camp, and has left images on our culture both indelible and unshakable.  With this DVD offering, though, modern audience can re-evaluate the film with fresh eyes, enjoy a remarkable performance, and possibly reformulate an opinion or two.

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