Ham Salad: "Mommie Dearest"
To bring up Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest for a column about over the top performances is a bit cheap. It’s too obvious, like naming Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a great basketball player, or The Beatles as an influential band. No thought goes into it whatsoever, it’s literally the first thing anyone would think of—if there was a category for “Hammiest Actor” on Family Feud, the number one answer would be Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. Yet, to not mention it doesn’t seem right either. Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton might have occupied most of the overacting playing field, but it was Dunaway who not only picked up the ball and ran with it, she pulled the goalposts so far back that very few other actors have been able to reach it since. In doing so, she also managed to raise camp and nothing-but-warts celebrity biopics to an art form.
Based on Christina Crawford’s 1978 memoir of life with her adoptive mother, Joan Crawford, Mommie Dearest is a wildly unsympathetic portrayal of an emotionally unstable woman who treated her numerous undiagnosed psychiatric disorders by drinking and terrorizing her children. Accepted at its base, realistic level, it’s not a funny story, and yet the movie itself is so unhinged that one can’t help but view it with hysterical disbelief. There’s not a single attempt to portray Crawford as a human being. She’s like a glamorous Jason Voorhees, leaving destruction and broken bodies in her wake, powered not on vengeance, but ambition and insecurity.
It remains Faye Dunaway’s most memorable performance, though Dunaway evidently regrets it, later stating that she was “haunted” by Crawford’s ghost, and wished that director Frank Perry had encouraged her to rein it in a bit. On the flipside, Rutanya Alda, who played Crawford’s loyal secretary, served up some delicious dish in a 2015 memoir, claiming that Dunaway deliberately chose to Method act her way through the role, alienating the cast and crew. Whether it was supernatural forces, or a desire to win another Academy Award driving Dunaway’s performance is unknown, but it’s both exhausting and exhilarating to watch, a showcase in clenched teeth, bug-eyed EMOTING. Watching it leaves you feeling like those old Maxell ads where the guy is getting blown back into his chair.
Mommie Dearest is allegedly a biopic, but we come away from it knowing almost nothing about its subject, except that she’s always angry, obsessed with her career, and really, really hates dirt. Everything she does is calculated for publicity, right down to adopting her children. Though Crawford treats her children like props, often foisting them off on the help, she’s enraged when they don’t show a proper amount of gratitude. Oldest daughter Christina is particularly defiant, especially when it comes to Joan’s competitive streak and insistence that she eat barely cooked meat. Christina offers up the slightest bit of sass, barely a modicum of sass, but this infuriates Joan anyway. To be fair, Joan is infuriated at everything—her boyfriend, her studio head, her staff, a tree in her garden—but she laser focuses it on her kids, who have the audacity to act like normal children who don’t really seem all that impressed with who Joan Crawford is.
The more Christina pushes back, the more Joan’s abusive behavior escalates, until it leads to the one scene you don’t even have to have watched the movie to know. In the middle of the night, Joan sneaks into her children’s bedroom, seemingly to check in on them, but the real reason will quickly become apparent. A Kabuki nightmare in face cream, she stands over her sleeping children with a look on her face that should be loving, but instead looks like she’s debating leaning down and sinking her teeth into their necks. Having decided against draining them of their precious lifeblood, she instead decides to look through Christina’s closet, because why not? All seems well initially, until she reacts to the sight of something with an expression of so much horror and rage that you’d think she’d stumbled across a cache of child pornography. No, it’s something far, far worse: a dress hanging on a wire hanger.
Though some of Joan Crawford’s friends, and even her two younger children, denied Christina Crawford’s claims of abuse, they all agreed that she was, in fact, obsessed with cleanliness and order. Crawford herself, in her infamous lifestyle guide My Way of Life, mentions being particular about hangers. It seems hard to believe that the second most insane scene in the whole movie might have actually happened, mostly because if a person in real life behaved the way Dunaway does, they would have died of an aneurysm. Trembling like a human pressure cooker, she shrieks that famous line, the one that will definitely be shown in a lifetime achievement award clip reel (undoubtedly to Dunaway’s chagrin), then proceeds to beat an obvious child-sized mannequin with the offending hanger.
Not having gotten her psychosis fully out of her system, Dunaway then drags little Christina into the bathroom, unsatisfied than an 8 year-old hasn’t done a sufficient job of scrubbing a floor (mind you, “sufficient” by Joan’s definition means a CSI tech couldn’t find evidence of human life on it). She then beats Christina again, this time with a can of cleanser. Satiated at last, she leaves Christina to clean up the mess (growling “Clean up this messssssss,” in a voice not unlike that of Mercedes McCambridge in The Exorcist), but not before silently looking towards the camera and going cross-eyed, then slowly turning and walking away. Dunaway reportedly is not fond of talking about her performance in Mommie Dearest, which is a shame, because an explanation is needed for what she was doing in this moment, and why she made the creative decision to look like she was awaiting further instructions from Pazuzu before leaving Christina’s room.
Speaking for the audience, little Christina looks heavenward and utters a tearful, world-weary “Jesus Christ.” Jesus Christ, indeed, you need a cigarette after watching that kind of hardcore, capital-A Acting.
Now, you might have noted that I described the “no wire hangers” scene as the second most insane scene in Mommie Dearest. Yes, it’s true: by my estimation, at least, there is another scene that goes even beyond that. Later in the movie, when a teenage Christina comes home after getting in trouble at boarding school, Joan, in full view of her secretary and a journalist, spits furious fire at Christina for her ingratitude and slaps her. Christina isn’t having it, though, and when Joan demands to know why she doesn’t respect her, Christina shouts, in the greatest line reading in the entire movie, “Because I am not one of your faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaans!” Joan looks at her hands in confusion for a moment, as if they’re acting under their own control, before leaping on Christina and strangling her. Shot like a catfight in a women in prison movie, it’s astonishing to believe that this was originally meant to be taken seriously. The secretary and the journalist take much too long to step in and try to pull Joan off Christina, but who can blame them? Joan’s like the Incredible Hulk, she could tear a tree out of the ground or punch a grizzly bear across a ravine.
The movie can only go downhill from that point, and it does, with the only additional laughs coming from Joan temporarily replacing Christina, thirty-five years younger than her, on a soap opera when Christina falls ill (an event that, amazingly, did actually take place in real life). You can’t follow up a glistening Honeybaked Ham with a bologna sandwich, it’s impossible. If they had ended the movie immediately following Joan’s half-triumphant/half-anguished scream when she’s pulled away from Christina, it would have been fine. They could have especially gotten away with it once it became apparent that virtually no one viewed Mommie Dearest as the serious domestic drama it was originally intended to be. Within weeks of its release in theaters, the studio remarketed it as a camp classic in the making, describing Joan Crawford as “the biggest mother of them all.” Christina Crawford herself has leaned into its kitsch value, hosting drag shows inspired by it and even rewriting it as a stage musical. May we all overcome trauma to the point where we’re able to write a musical about it.
History has been slightly kinder to Joan Crawford in recent years, particularly when more was revealed about her dirt poor, abusive childhood, her abhorrent treatment as a struggling young actress, and the constant reminders that, even though she was one of her studio’s most bankable stars, her time at the top was limited, far more than it was for her male counterparts. Though Crawford was never known as the most understated of performers, neither were a lot of actors from that era, most of whom came from the stage or silent movies, where everything, even facial expressions, had to be done in an almost comically broad manner. She was still among the best of a golden era, specializing in strong women who prevailed despite having their heart broken by weak men. That the portrayal of her in Mommie Dearest is often conflated with how she really performed in movies is unfortunate—even playing herself, Joan Crawford wouldn’t have overacted that much.