As sunday was Mother’s Day I thought it was the perfect time to watch the cuddly, heartwarming testament to the power of motherhood, Mommie Dearest.
I hadn’t seen it before, but it is one of those cult classics that seeps into your consciousness through reference and parody. I have often unwittingly pushed people to the extremes of resistance where they have been reduced to yelling “DONT MAKE ME GO ALL MOMMY DEAREST ON YOU!” at me whilst sobbing. It is only now, having finally watched the film, that I can see what holding your hand half an inch away from someone’s face continuously for 45 minutes, or repeating everything someone says for two weeks can do to a person.
Sorry about that.
I love biopics, especially about people I only know the very surface details about. I had an image of Joan Crawford as someone with a huge, if fragile, ego, old-fashioned – bordering on uptight, competitive and losing a desperately sad battle with aging. I knew she had adopted children, possibly through a system that could be more accurately described as a shady supply and demand outlet, and that perhaps she wasn’t in possession of the warmest of maternal bosoms.
I was about right, just a little sloppy with the levels, Mommie Dearest has them turned up to Screamingly Loud. The film is adapted from the book written by Crawford’s daughter Christina which depicts the physical and mental abuse Christina claims to have been subjected to by the star.
It opens with the sound of a screeching alarm clock and the volume and tone doesn’t let up much from there. We follow Crawford from behind as she inches out of bed, head trussed up in a mummy-like wrap against aging. She heads straight to her bathroom where she almost attacks her skin with a scrubbing-brush before dousing her face with fresh ice. As with many biopics we follow our central character about for a bit before the big reveal of the actor’s face – is Dunaway going to convince us she is Crawford? As she turns to the camera for the first time, her face haloed by dressing table lights, there is no doubt that Dunaway looks spectacularly like Crawford. With that hurdle over, I buckled myself in for the ride. With the perfect image of Hollywood glamour established, I sat back and waited to watch it crumble.
It was apparent from very early on that this was going to be a juggernaut of a film. We learn that the only thing missing in Crawford’s life is a baby, and she is hell-bent on getting one. Numerous miscarriages and the humiliation of being deemed unsuitable for motherhood by the state’s adoption services aren’t going to stop Crawford. And as I had thought, the film implies that the bundle of joy that arrives at Crawford’s door my have cost a pretty penny and might not have arrived through ethically sourced channels.
From Christina’s arrival we start to witness the unravelling of the icon and her behaviour towards her child, fuelled by competitiveness, jealousy and loss of power, becomes increasingly harrowing. From insisting that Christina may only keep one gift from the pile she receives on her birthday to almost strangling her to death, we run screaming through the gauntlet of their relationship.
Its hard to stomach some of the scenes, not only because they depict such horrific abuse, but because Dunaway’s performance is so full-on-bananas you can’t help feeling like you want to laugh. It elicits one of those horrible sniggering laughs that you know you shouldn’t be encouraging, that are only happening because you feel awkward and don’t know what to do, but will only keep building until you let it go. Its one of those laughs that happens when your mind is trying to protect itself from the lunacy it is watching – like when Ian Beale cries over murdered Lucy and turns into a spluttering red-faced snot turtle – you know it shouldn’t be happening, that its wrong and shows your soul is rotten, but the laughter splurts out between your fingers no matter how hard you try to shove it back into your face screaming “I WILL NOT LAUGH AT CHILD ABUSE!!!”.
What makes its worst is that you are witnessing something that has come first hand from a living, actual person. This isn’t made up melodrama like Eastenders that you can excuse the odd scoff at, but the dramatisation of real life child abuse (though some still attest that Christina Crawford is lying about the abuse – when are we ever going to start listening to, and I don’t know, BELIEVE people who say they are victims?) so it was a dizzying mind screw of the brutal and hilarious constantly banging into one another. For every scene I found almost lol-some I also found it as equally terrifying as anything I’ve seen in a horror movie. I found the hair brushing and the infamous coat hanger scenes almost unbearable to watch but also blisteringly funny. WHOSE FAULT IS THAT? THE DIRECTOR’S? DUNAWAY’S? MY OWN DARK SOUL?
God its complicated.
And its true, for all its bat-shit craziness I found the whole thing deliriously entertaining. The set design was fabulous, especially Joan’s sprawling house – all stark whites and cold surfaces (except her conspicuously padded bedroom). And the frocks! Amazing! I have never seen a fluffy white bath robe with shoulder pads before!
Ok, so it doesn’t dig very far into Crawford, no diagnosis or possible reasons are given for her behaviour, I was left with a very one-dimensional image of her that wasn’t too far removed from the one I’d stitched together already – if a little more monstrous. But it has definitely left me wanting to find out more about her and there are already three books about Crawford on my wishlist.
The movie is bonkers and at times incoherent ( for example we see Christina arriving at a convent in one scene only to have here leaving again, apparently years down the line, a scene or two later) and its handling of abuse and mental health is absurd, but I lapped up all its craziness, and its stark depiction of slipping glamour and status.
It is also wonderfully and endlessly quotable…
I should say now that I wasn’t WITH my mum when I watched it on Mother’s Day…….just the thought of that…
I also love that I know, for sure, what my next Halloween costume is going to be:
Until next year, Happy Mother’s Day!