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Mommie Dearest
Remind Me

Mommie Dearest
6/23 at Dusk

Faye Dunaway stepped into the most infamous role of her career, that of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, when the originally announced star, Anne Bancroft, withdrew after reading the script adapted by director Frank Perry and others from the best-selling 1978 memoir by Crawford's adopted daughter Christina. Ironically, Crawford had once said in an interview that, if a movie were ever made of her life, Dunaway was the actress she would most like to play her. But she could hardly have imagined that this would come to pass in an unflattering screen bio so flamboyantly over the top that it has become a camp classic, playing more successfully as grotesque comedy than the gripping psychological study originally intended.

If anything, the film exaggerates Christina's scathing portrait of her mother as an abusive harpy - a characterization that many in the film industry felt may have been an act of revenge for the fact that Christina and her brother Christopher were left out of Crawford's will "for reasons which are well known to them." However faithful to real life this portrayal of Crawford as a cleanliness-obsessed, child-beating monster may be, Dunaway throws herself into it with fearless abandon in a performance that the actress herself has compared to Kabuki theater. With the aid of makeup artist Lee Harman and costume designer Irene Sharaff, Dunaway transformed herself into an astonishing Crawford clone. (Sharaff did not care for Dunaway, later claiming that in entering the star's dressing room it was best to first "throw a raw steak in - to divert her attention.") The actress must have felt herself in good hands under the direction of Perry, known for his sensitive handling of actors in such previous works as David and Lisa (1962), The Swimmer (1968), Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and Play It As It Lays (1972).

But many scenes in Mommie Dearest come close to parody. Among them are Crawford's frenzied destruction of her rose garden in a fit of temper after being fired by MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer; a tirade in which she chops off young Christina's hair with scissors after she finds her daughter mocking her; and, of course, the tirade in which a cold-creamed Crawford screeches to Christina, "No wire hangers, EVER!" When the film was screened for the press and industry professionals at Paramount studios in Hollywood, these scenes and others were met with derisive laughter. At a preview in Westwood a few days later, the reaction was much the same. The movie opened to generally negative reviews, although some critics pointed out that, on its own terms, Dunaway's work was nothing short of brilliant. In the tradition now established by The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), audiences treated Mommie Dearest as a campy treat by showing up with wire hangers and cans of Ajax and spouting choice lines of dialogue along with the actors. Paramount exploited this notoriety with a new campaign that treated the movie as an intentional comedy, stressing the wire hanger angle and creating posters with the tag line, "This is the biggest MOTHER of them all!"

Mommie Dearest earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first film to sweep the Golden Raspberries, winning five awards from a then-record nine nominations. Among the "winners" were Dunaway (in a tie for worst actress with Bo Derek for Tarzan, the Ape Man), director Perry and the film itself. In 1990 the movie won a "Razzie" as worst picture of the decade. The development that Joan Crawford might have appreciated most, however, was the fact that Christina herself disliked the film version of her book and reportedly complained, "They turned it into a Joan Crawford movie!"

Producer: Frank Yablans, David Koontz (Executive), Terence O'Neill (Executive), Neil A. Machlis (Associate) Director: Frank Perry
Screenplay: Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, Frank Perry, Frank Yablans, from book by Christina Crawford
Cinematography: Paul Lohmann
Original Music: Henry Mancini
Editing: Peter E. Berger
Production Design: Bill Malley
Costume Design: Irene Sharaff
Cast: Faye Dunaway (Joan Crawford), Diana Scarwid (Christina Crawford as adult), Steve Forrest (Greg Savitt), Howard Da Silva (Louis B. Mayer), Mara Hobel (Christina Crawford as child), Rutanya Alda (Carol Ann), Harry Goz (Alfred Steele), Michael Edwards (Ted Gelber), Xander Berkeley (Christopher Crawford as adult), Jeremy Scott Reinbolt (Christopher Crawford as child).

by Roger Fristoe