MOMMIE DEAREST, if nothing else, proves that indeed “what goes around, comes around”, or—perhaps more aptly—“payback is a bitch” (um…plural). The mighty b-slap of scornful derision this putrid icon-slimer generated resulted in reputation wounds to those who dredged it, ignominy that lasted long past bad reviews and underwhelming box office. Lousy as it is, and unpleasant to boot, this wasn’t really the year’s worst: ill-flavored 1981 coughed up a bracing number of laughably crummy flicks. *
Some awful movies are great fun to watch. You can marvel, between smirks and guffaws, how it was that talented cinema chefs managed to overbake such turkeys: a few classic examples of a good bad time would be The Conqueror, The Oscar, Valley Of The Dolls. Cheapo sci-fi offers a universe of spacy junk. But this $10,000,000 trashbag, directed and written by competent professionals, headlined by an accomplished star, aside from some jaw-dropping quease-giggles (akin to what you do after nearly getting hit by a bus or finding your passport in the cat box) is hardly a joy to witness, unless you insist on getting cheap, self-congratulating titters over child abuse, ad hominem gossip and cross-blaming production lore. Alas, plenty do, considering the cottage industry afterlife this gaudy goop spawned in gleeful carrion circles. There’s little as smugly vicious as waiting until someone’s down to kick them. In high heels.
In 1978, Christina Crawford, sometime bit player and 39-year-old adopted daughter of Hollywood legend Joan Crawford, unloaded a 286-page screed that portrayed Joan (who died the year before) in a decidedly bad light, a self-absorbed, abusive parent. Self-absorption as a movie star is only news if you’ve never seen a movie, while as to the nastiness, other adopted Crawford children said it was hooey, as did a host of the deceased star’s friends, famous and ‘civilian’.
New Hollywood screen queen Faye Dunaway, then 39, re-imagined Joan with an intensity bordering on a psychotic break. It is impressive, in the over-the-top way of a suicidal World War One frontal assault, and she gets a mighty assist from the makeup department: a genuine salute is due to the team headed by Lee Harman and Kathryn Blondell. Daughter Dearest was covered as a kidlet by Mara Hobel (age 9), then by Diana Scarwid, 20, as a teen and young adult. Early reviews were split between aghast and admiring. Then, faster than you can kitty-claw a dig at the drapes, camp deification descended with a hiss heard round the bar. The tills stopped at 43rd place for the year, a low blow gross of $19,000,000 further twisting the shiv. Subsequent accounts of how hellish the shoot went just stoked the flaming debris field.
The screenplay was stirred up by the director, Frank Perry (Ladybug Ladybug, The Swimmer, Last Summer), Frank Yablans (North Dallas Forty), Tracy Hotchner and Robert Getchell (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Sweet Dreams). Their adaptation of the younger Crawford’s book, and Dunaway’s interpretation runs roughshod over balance, let alone taste, painting Joan as someone closer to rival Bette Davis’s character in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? That Crawford was driven and complicated (in a cannibalistic business) is given the bum’s rush in order to make her look and behave like a gargoyle, better suited to the medieval cathedral of Notre Dame than the sound stages of MGM: it’s not just false and shallow, it’s insulting. The overkill was so absurd that Christina had to allow “My mother didn’t deserve that. (Faye Dunaway)’s performance was ludicrous. I didn’t see any care for factual information. Now I’ve seen it, I’m sorry I did. Faye says she is being haunted by mother’s ghost. After her performance, I can understand why.” Joan Crawford’s excellent work as an actress—a “star”—endures, and will shine far longer than this meretricious meteor of mendacity. Whatever her faults and flaws, she possessed a brand of battle-earned stamina that sniping harpies can only wish to die for. Now, back to those damned hangers: who the F put the sweater on that one?
With Steve Forrest, Howard Da Silva (an unconvincing Louis B. Mayer), Rutanya Alda, Jocelyn Brando, Xander Berkeley. 129 minutes.
* 1981’s Scroll of Shame: Inchon, Butterfly, Under The Rainbow, Honky Tonk Freeway and two Bo Derek fests, Tarzan The Ape Man and Bolero. Not only them apples but Back Roads, Rollover, Victory, The Fan, They All Laughed, Eyes Of A Stranger, Friday The 13th Part 2 and My Bloody Valentine. Any year where Porky’s is a major hit and a snore like Chariots Of Fire gets Best Picture has seriously rampant cranium issues.