When Louis B. Mayer saw Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, he exploded, “How dare this young man, Wilder, bite the hand that feeds him?” (Wilder, who was present, replied, “I am Wilder and go fuck yourself.”) As Joan Crawford in the much-ridiculed Mommie Dearest, Faye Dunaway doesn’t so much bite the hand that feeds her as rip it off with her teeth and stand there gnawing, oblivious to the bloody stump she’s inflicted.
Ms. Dunaway’s Crawford is one of the most reckless and extreme performances any star has ever dared. Ms. Dunaway goes at the role as if she were exacting revenge for every indignity and slight, every pass made by some Hollywood sleazeball, every ounce of worry expounded over a wrinkle or a bit of sagging flesh, that she or any female star has ever endured. She wants to stand, bloodied and unbowed, on the corpse of the star system—which, of course, is a way of making sure she’s a bigger star than ever. In Mommie Dearest, Ms. Dunaway both tries to slay the demon of stardom and incarnate it. That this terrifying and astonishing performance is regarded as camp says more about the squeamishness of audiences than about the conflicted fearlessness of its star.
You don’t go to a movie like Mommie Dearest out of innocent impulses. Audiences wanted to see the physical and verbal abuse Crawford’s adopted daughter, Christina, had detailed in her memoir, published in 1978, the year after Crawford died. But the book’s brand of tabloid kicks is simply the flipside of fan-mag puffery. The movie supplied those moments—the infamous nighttime rampage over the “wire hangers” in Christina’s closet; Crawford’s obsession with cleanliness and order. But Ms. Dunaway gave audiences something they didn’t want: a sense of how they helped create the monster before them.
When Ms. Dunaway’s Joan, her face contorted in rage and smeared in greasy cold cream, leers out at us brandishing the wire hanger she’s about to beat Christina with, it’s a Bizarro World recasting of the preceding scene: Joan greeting the fans and reporters outside her house after she wins the Oscar for Mildred Pierce. She tells the crowd that they and they alone are responsible for giving her this honor. But if the adoring fans put that Oscar in Crawford’s hand, they are complicit in putting the wire hanger there as well. Not that the movie blames anyone but Joan for her explosions. But it understands her rage as coming from her fear of losing the public’s adoration.
You don’t have to know anything about Crawford’s early scrabbling life as a waitress and shopgirl (and the movie doesn’t tell you about it) to empathize with the particularly American hunger in Ms. Dunaway’s performance. It’s the hunger for acclaim and security, the gratitude for achieving it, the fear it will go away and the resentment at whatever threatens it. That’s what those wire hangers represent to Joan: a return to the dreariness she clawed her way out of. Everything Joan does to herself—the skin scoured in scalding water; the face held in bracing bandages while she sleeps, then submerged into ice upon waking; the punishing exercise regimen; the rigid discipline in everything from studying a script to autographing photos; the fawning supplication to photographers and celebrity scribes; a life in which every moment is lived as “Joan Crawford”—all of these are Joan’s sacrifices to the gods of stardom. And like anyone who believes in the gods, she lives in fear of their wrath. When she’s summoned to the office of Louis B. Mayer (Howard Da Silva), who dismisses her from her MGM contract after years with the studio, you understand what she has to be afraid of.
As the child Christina, Mara Hobel gives a very creepy performance; she’s less a child than an automaton playing Joan’s idealized notion of a child. Ms. Hobel’s two big confrontation scenes with Ms. Dunaway go right to the heart of the worst parent-child eruptions you’ve ever been party to, the kind where each side knows exactly what buttons to push to wound the other. (The older Christina, played by Diana Scarwid, has become more subtle and accomplished at striking back.)
Those scenes are a specialty of Robert Getchell, the screenwriter whose best work (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Sweet Dreams) understands the barbed emotional slapstick that takes place between parents and children, husbands and wives. Getchell wrote the original screenplay, and everyone I know who has read it has, to a person, called it one of the best film scripts they know. But the script was reportedly rejected by the original star, Anne Bancroft, and then not reinstated when she left the project. It was then worked on by Tracy Hotchner, and finally cobbled together by the director, Frank Perry, and the producer, Frank Yablans. Maybe that’s why huge swatches of the story seem to have been cut in the last half. Perry’s direction is, at best, serviceable: He brings it no imagination or sensibility to dovetail with its star. The upside is that nothing distracts from Ms. Dunaway—though now she may wish it did.
After Mommie Dearest opened to mocking reviews in the summer of 1981, Paramount quickly began selling it as camp, which is how they’re selling this new “Hollywood Royalty Edition” DVD. As a promotional gag, I was sent a pair of marbou-trimmed rubber kitchen gloves and a bottle of cleanser with “Mommie Dearest” on the label. (To their honor, both John Waters and John Epperson, the drag performer known as Lipsynka, don’t condescend to the movie in their bonus commentary).
Treating the movie as a campy, queeny bitchfest is easier than submitting to the power of Ms. Dunaway’s performance, which, in terms of what we expect from our movie glamour queens, is the emotional equivalent of watching her commit seppuku. As a widely circulated tape of a phone message she left for a Vanity Fair reporter makes clear, Ms. Dunaway loathes the film and resents the ridicule it brought her. That Ms. Dunaway did her finest work in a film about a woman who turned herself into a monster out of fear of rejection, only to wind up ashamed of a performance that should have brought her honor, says as much about that fear as anything in Mommie Dearest.