Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Mommie Dearest (1981)
Directed by Frank Perry. Cinematography by Paul Lohmann (who also shot Robert Altman's Nashville!)
As a practicing film buff ever since adolescence I've spent a lot of time thinking about two different questions. The first, what is it that makes some stars last in the public imagination beyond their own lifetimes while other giants fade? The second, entirely unrelated, what is the difference between a great movie and a terrible movie, and by extension this -- are 'bad movies we love' ever truly terrible or are they actually funhouse mirrors of greatness, very nearly the same but for the random comic distortions?
In Mommie Dearest (1981), the infamous movie based on an infamous tell-all about an infamous movie star -- that's a lot of infamy -- these questions collide...
'TINA!!! Bring me the axe.
Joan Crawford has been dead for 38 years but she's still iconic. Fact: Mommie Dearest helped keep her that way. It's not just that Faye Dunaway is so memorable and fearless in the role but she is. At very cursory glance the two great actresses iciness looks like a perfect onscreen match but it isn't quite so. Though Crawford read as ambitious, steely, and a little bitchy onscreen, Dunaway in her prime flirted more openly and erotically with her own inner sociopath (think Network, Bonnie & Clyde). It's a dangerous combustible mix and the match that blows shit up is the ugly truths or embellishments (who can know with autobiographies?) that Christina Crawford told the world.
The film reshaped, or, more troublingly, comfortably aligned with the only Crawford we'll ever know, the one forever immortalized onscreen that was always just a wee bit too perfect, too posed, too much, the one with those eyes that always felt like a dare when they stared out from the screen.
The opening reel of Mommie Dearest is closer to a great film than a bad one, wisely launching with Crawford's insane commitment to maintaining her beauty and stardom, from the ritualistic early morning facial that is performed with such gusto it feels more like self-flagellation than beauty regimen and onward to the workouts, perfectionist cleaning, and even sex (more on that shower scene in a later post). There's a smart moment where Crawford signs her name repeatedly on glossy photographs, the signature as elaborately choreographed and precisely presentational (all those extra flourishes!) as her literal ascent into, what... maternal glory? The day she brings Christina home she climbs the stairs, and turns her head just so, the window creating a perfect glassy halo, the illusion of a painted icon, if you will, obviously practiced by a living one.
But it's all just a little too much... and then a LOT too much the key culprits being the rose bush, the living room brawl and of course the wire hanger sequence. But, you know what? It needed to be. This wasn't a film that would have ever worked with a light touch. And if it derails too much blame director Frank Perry's shaky control of tone and maybe Faye a little bit... she even goes cross-eyed once - we get it, Faye. Joan be crazy! The film was destined for camp classic 'bad movie we love' status as early as 45 minutes in when Christina brings her the axe but the peak is 15 minutes later in the wire coat hanger sequence. In this scene Faye/Joan is at her absolute scariest, not recognizably human at all.
For a moment what the film needs is not a stronger director but an exorcist.
yes mommie what?
The only mistake the movie makes in this sequence is cutting away from the star(s) at all. We don't need the reaction shots from the terrified daughter. We are little Christina.
From Faye/Joan's unladylike squat, to her march into demented gargoyle crouch, full Joker makeup whispering 'yes, Mommie what?' and then that final animalist lunge toward the camera, totally out of focus, she's absolutely possessed and unforgettable. Like only the greatest movies, and the worst that are also great, can be.
Come back tonight for the complete Best Shot party with all participating blogs. NEXT WEEK: Joan gets the last word after all as we look at "Johnny Guitar"