Faye Dunaway takes the limelight as screen legend Joan Crawford in this tale of child abuse against her daughter Christina (Mara Hobel and Diana Scarwid).
An adaptation of Christina’s memoirs, this film is twice removed from actual events meaning its absolute accuracy shouldn’t be assumed. But allegations of child abuse should never be taken lightly, which is precisely what Mommie Dearest does.
It’s not that it sets out to make a campy classic. It’s just so poorly made as to be laughable. It’s not often you notice that a film’s makeup work is bad, for example, but from Crawford’s eyebrows, that look like they’ve been drawn on with marker pen, to her refusal to age over the 30 years covered, it smacks of a lack of vision.
But the reason it’s so infamous, and the reason it’s still watched to this day, is due to Dunaway’s performance. She throws the kitchen sink and more into the raging caricature on screen. She has since put this down to the director, Frank Berry, being too inexperienced to know when his actors should tone it down. But this is only half the story, as Dunaway hams it up more than a battalion of flying pigs on its way to William Shatner’s house.
She certainly succeeds in bringing emotion to the role, just in far greater quantity than required. It would be unfair to describe it as a bad performance, however. In one scene where Crawford rehearses for Mildred Pierce Dunaway sounds exactly like the Crawford we know from the screen.
But the scenes of her rage are so extreme that it’s impossible to believe this woman, who is a howling, raging, violent lunatic behind closed doors, manages to hold it together the moment the cameras are rolling. I don’t doubt that Crawford was different from her refined, elegant public persona in private, but the film fails to convincingly explain this difference. Crawford here is an exaggerated sketch rather than an oil painting.
But part of the problem is the editing, as the camera lingers far too long on reaction shots to the point that they become comical. In places it almost looks like the actors believed the cameras to have stopped rolling before the cut.
The film has other problems too. There’s a lack of attention to detail, in particular the way in which ageing is dealt with so unconvincingly. Christina stays the same age as a child for several years, even while her brother goes from being a baby to a walking, talking child.
It jumps about from scene to scene. One minute Crawford is marrying Alfred Steele, chairman of Pepsico, the next he’s dead and she rages to the board about how she helped build the company, even though it seems like they only just met.
Reportedly dissimilar from the book and disowned by the real life Christina Crawford, the film has a blatant disregard for its subject matter. Christina’s own problem with the film was not so much the exaggerated portrayal – she said her mother was not shown really shown as crazier than she was in real life – but that it moved the focus of the story from the child, and how she deals with abuse, to being about a movie star.
I would argue that the film equally fails to lift the bonnet on Joan’s inner workings. But its disregard for the victim it dramatises is apparent. So all we can do is laugh at how hilariously bad it all is. To take it seriously would be to flatter it. Bring me the axe…