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Paramount. 129 minutes.
US release: 9/18/81.
VHS release: 3/4/91. DVD release: 7/17/01. DVD re-issue: 6/6/06.
Cast: Faye Dunaway as "Joan Crawford," Diana Scarwid, Steve Forrest, Howard Da Silva, Mara Hobel, Rutanya Alda, Harry Goz, Michael Edwards, Jocelyn Brando, Priscilla Pointer.
Credits: Based on the 1978 book of same name by Christina Crawford. Director: Frank Perry. Screenplay: Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, Frank Perry, Frank Yablans. Executive Producers: David Koontz (Christina's then-husband), Terence O'Neill. Producer: Frank Yablans. Camera: Paul Lohmann. Editor: Peter E. Berger. Art Director: Harold Michelson.
Plot Summary: When her adoptive mother Joan Crawford died in 1977, erstwhile actress/author Christina Crawford and her brother Christopher were left out of Joan Crawford's will, "for reasons which are well known to them." Industryites have suggested that it may have been this posthumous act of rejection rather than an alleged lifetime of parental abuse that inspired Christina Crawford to pen her scathing autobiography Mommie Dearest. The 1981 film version of this tome was evidently meant to be taken seriously, but the operatic direction by Frank Perry and the over-the-top portrayal of Joan Crawford by Faye Dunaway (whose makeup is remarkable) has always seemed to inspire loud laughter whenever and where-ever the film is shown. According to the film (and the book that preceded it), Joan Crawford was a licentious, child-beating behemoth, who stalked and postured through life as though it was one of her own pictures--more Strait-jacket than Mildred Pierce. This is the film with the notorious "wire coat hanger" scene, just in case you need a reminder. Surprisingly, one emerges from Mommie Dearest with more sympathy for the monstrous but intensely vulnerable Crawford than for her whining daughter (played as an adult by Diana Scarwid, and as a child by Mara Hobel). Our favorite scene: Joan Crawford dazedly replacing her ailing daughter in the cast of a daytime TV soap opera. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide
Awards: 1990 Golden Raspberry (Razzie) for Worst Picture of the Decade. 1982 Razzies: Winner: Worst Picture, Worst Actress, Worst Screenplay, Worst Supporting Actor (Steve Forrest), Worst Supporting Actress (Diana Scarwid). Nominated: Worst Director, Worst New Star (Mara Hobel), Worst Supporting Actress (Mara Hobel and Rutanya Alda).
Janet Maslin in the New York Times
September 18, 1981
She looks a little like Faye Dunaway, albeit a Faye Dunaway with overpowering eyebrows, angry red mouth and the steeliest of gazes. But she is Joan Crawford, as Miss Dunaway gives the uncanny, meticulous Crawford imitation that is at the heart of ''Mommie Dearest.'' The movie itself has nothing like the brilliance of the impression, which is why it remains an impression and can't altogether rise to the level of a performance. But on its own terms Miss Dunaway's work here amounts to a small miracle, as one movie queen transforms herself passionately and wholeheartedly into another.
It's a good thing Miss Dunaway brings so much energy to ''Mommie Dearest,'' which opens today at the Loews State, Orpheum and 34th Street Showplace and other theaters, because the movie badly needs a center of gravity. As directed by Frank Perry, it begins beautifully, with a shot of a gloved hand shutting off an elegant Art Deco alarm clock, which has a shrill and abrasive ring. This is perhaps the most telling, economical image of Miss Crawford the movie has to offer. And it is followed by a montage detailing her early morning regimen, a montage that is equally sharp-edged.
It appears as if the movie will concentrate on Miss Crawford's overweening drive, her vanity and her fanatical attention to detail, and perhaps attempt an explanation of her eccentricities. But this doesn't happen. Nor does the film become the story of her daughter Christina and the child's harrowing upbringing. The movie is so shapeless that it marks time primarily through costume changes, so unfocused that it never decides whose story to tell. Instead of a drama, it's a scrapbook offering disconnected glimpses of Miss Crawford's life and the most hair-raising scenes from her daughter's damning memoir.
There is nothing to string the episodes together into a coherent drama, and no insight into Miss Crawford herself. If the movie opted clearly for Christina's point of view, then her mother could successfully be presented as a cipher. But Christina, played as a child by Mara Hobel and as an adult by Diana Scarwid, is neither a match for her mother nor a well-defined character in her own right, so Miss Dunaway's Joan easily steals all the thunder. And Joan, as presented here, handles everything with a desperate, perfectly unexamined intensity.
The role gives Miss Dunaway an opportunity to rage at, flirt with, scorn and adore the film's other characters, and to do all this at fever pitch. Miss Dunaway's abandon, in giving herself over to such emotions, is accompanied by an air of calculation that is her Joan's most astonishing trait. She can switch gears in an instant, moving from tremendous sensuality if she thinks it will do her some good, to motherly love or even a terrible anger. The tantrum scenes, which are grueling to sit through and which Mr. Perry makes sure are very, very loud, are the more frightening in the way they begin on a manipulative note. Miss Dunaway makes the lapses into fury doubly frightening by emphasizing the calculating Miss Crawford's willful loss of control.
Most of the tantrum scenes, except for a notable occasion when Miss Crawford tries to strangle her grown daughter, come early in the story, when Miss Hobel is still sweetly sympathetic as the young girl. Later on, Miss Scarwid gives Christina a sullen cast, and Joan becomes both more pitiable and grander than her daughter. Miss Dunaway is a good vamp at first but an even better battle-ax later on, having one of her best scenes as she tells off the board of directors of Pepsico.
By the time she dies -- and how and why she dies is one of the many threads the film never bothers to tie -- she seems to have softened toward Christina, which makes the final scene concerning her will particularly bewildering. This is a movie so heartless that the reading of Miss Crawford's will is more important than her demise.
Howard Da Silva, appearing as Louis B. Mayer, provides the film's only hint of Miss Crawford's professional life, though it must have had an all-important effect on her behavior toward her children. With the exception of ''Mildred Pierce,'' her films go unmentioned, and the audience is left to imagine what her career must have been like. Her home's glamorous decor, long hours spent signing photographs of herself and the lifelong devotion of her housekeeper, played with memorable gentleness by Rutanya Alda, are the film's only indications of Miss Crawford's power and authority.
Yet her craziness and her venomous temper are thoroughly, almost lovingly depicted. She needn't have been lionized here, but she did need more humanity than Mr. Perry allows her in order for ''Mommie Dearest'' to have any claim to coherence or continuity. Even a soap opera, of which Miss Crawford's life was a far better example than any of her movies, needs a soul.
Scott Weinberg, Apollo Guide:Start up a conversation about the worst movies ever made and you’ll hear Mommie Dearest offered within the first three minutes. Widely panned and universally mocked, this oh-so-serious“"factual” biopic of Joan Crawford has earned immortal cult status and is now lauded by those who appreciate the biggest cinematic debacles ever unleashed. It may not be as bad as all that, though. While watching the film, I only noticed four distinct areas in which Mommie Dearest is a complete disaster: the screenplay, the acting, the direction and the editing. Other than that, this is a fine film.
TV Guide Online:
"No wire hangers--ever!" That this apparently banal phrase has now achieved something like immortality is a reflection of the unbridled extravagance of Faye Dunaway's performance in Mommie Dearest--every line, every glance, every Crawford-esque tic and mannerism is greeted by howls of gleeful recognition among camp cognoscenti. Joan Crawford (Dunaway, in a remarkable makeup job) comes off as a cartoon monster in this over-the-top biopic, which blithely mixes fact, legend, and--especially--elements of Crawford's unique screen persona....
...Joan isn't the only one who's bonkers. The director seems to be trying to
make some sort of weird hybrid of a horror film and a daytime drama. The
scriptwriters appear to be in on the joke; coming up with hilarious dialogue for
the unfortunate actors to scream at one another. However, the absurdity of Faye
Dunaway bellowing "NO WIRE HANGERS!" seems to have gone right over the heads of
the producers. Plus, the editor must have been absent when they went over the
concept of "continuity" in Filmmaking 101. Page featuring
screenshots, audio clips, best lines, etc.
If you've seen Mommie Dearest and would like to share your review here, please e-mail me. Feel free to include a star rating, with 5 stars the best, as well as a photo of yourself and/or any of your favorite lines from the film.
John Scavens (July 2011)
Rating: of 5
I saw this movie last night at Pershing Square in Los Angeles, outside. I thought it was fantastic! It was scary, funny, dramatic, and the acting was great! Some movies were ahead of their time -- this was one of them. It`s a real buffet -- it`s got everything thrown in and some of the most classic lines I`ve ever heard. It was like a horror movie at times, sometimes kind of a split personality "Homicidal" William Castle movie, then at other times strangely touching, and at yet other times hilarious. As good as "Baby Jane." I was knocked out!
Jack Boyd (October 2009)
Rating: of 5
I am a big fan of camp films, but this is an exception. I watched this film purely for the experience, and I don't know how I managed to sit through the whole of this badly acted, badly written and stupid film. A sequence in which Joan wakes at 4:00 a.m. and prepares herself for the day is about the most interesting bit in the whole film. portrays Miss Crawford with just about no truth at all.
I read the book around 2 years ago and laughed at Christina's childish scrawl. I was ashamed that even an unloving person like Christina could write such a book about her own mother, and also ashamed Paramount even considered turning it into a motion picture. Of course we all remember the "wire hanger" scene (but I have to say I enjoyed watching that little brat being hit, then later having her hair chopped of, then finally being nearly strangled by Joan [all of which are lies, of course]). Another scene in this film is Joan sitting around a table of businessmen. When they try to dismiss her she tells them "Don't fuck with me, fellas! This 'ain't my first time at the rodeo"; this scene has actually turned into one of my most favourite film scenes, as it shows a strong woman, with more power than a male, telling men how things are going to be.
Apart from this, the film is laughable, but also sad to watch a lovely woman being portrayed like this after her death.
This film should not be recommended to a person who knows very little about Miss Crawford, as it would give them the completely wrong impression.
But I must end this review with a comment made, which I agree with: "I did not know but nobody deserves that kind of slaughter. Too bad she did not leave [Christina] where she found her, so she could now be spitting out her poison in the slums of some big city. I hate her with a passion, and I know the public will."
I rate this 1 out of five. For a film like that, 1 star is very generous.
Sandra (August 2007)
Rating: of 5
This is the movie that introduced me to Joan. I was seven years old when I watched . Now being that young you would think that I would be afraid of , but I was fascinated with this woman! The way she lived & the way she was independent & driven to remain on top of the movie industry. She was the ultimate glamorous movie star from start to finish. The acting is way over the top just like dare I say the eyebrows. The child & adult Christina are very annoying & I wished that she would slap them harder. I would suggest this movie for anyone who wants a good laugh, but please remember to take it with a grain of salt. After all the book & movie came after Miss Crawford had passed so she was not here to give us her side of the story. I'm seventeen now & I'm a devoted fan. did not in anyway trash my image of the screen queen who is . Maybe , but never Joan. After all she is "Hollywood Royalty"!
Some of my favorite quotes include:
Joan--No wire hangers!!!!!!!!!!
Joan--Tina bring me the axe!!!!!
Joan--Don't Fuck with me Fellows!!!!!!!!!
Joan--I'm not mad at you, I'm mad at the dirt!!!!
Joan--I'm not acting!!
Joan--I can handle the socks.
Christina--That is a lie.
Joan--Why can't you give me the respect that I'm entitled to? Why can't you treat me the way that I would be treated by any stranger on the street??!!
Christina--Because I'm not one of your fans!!!!!
Danny M. (November 2005)
Rating: of 5
I absolutely love the movie and I find it to be one of the most hilarious things I have ever seen. It is one of my favorites ever. The script is fantastic, and I know many of the lines by heart. I love how Faye portrays Joan, whether or not the events in the movie actually occurred. It's just the best. The over-the-top acting that Dunaway does is excellent. I cannot even begin to describe the joy that overcomes me when I watch this movie. I am a fanatic.
By the way, my favorite line would have to be:
"CHRISTINA, CHRISTOPHER, DAMN IT! Carol-Anne, I asked you to KEEP the CHILDREN QUIET today! And for Christ's sake get them out of the gardennn!"
Also, I cannot forget the quintessential "NO WIRE HANGERS!... Christina get outta that bed!"
mycatjewel (October 2005)
there are so many things wrong with this poor excuse of a movie that I may not even remember all of them, however I will say these problems: Faye Dunaway finally found a way to show she's not that talented that she just chose films that were well written so nobody could notice, both girls who played Christina pretty much ended their careers with this before they even began, those damn eyebrows! I mean they don't even look like eyebrows it looks more like Faye shaved off her eyebrows and drew a new pair on with magic marker and the color doesn't match the wig making it look like Joan dyed her hair (obviously the wig was not the right color as well), and Faye's lips. I didn't notice the dialogue so much because I was staring at her mouth, she's like Angelina Jolie in this role because her lips scare me. and lest we forget: NO WIRE HANGERS!!! God! I don't even say that as a joke anymore it got so annoying.
Jonathan from RI (July 2005)
Rating: of 5
Faye Dunaway plays Joan. This movie is hilarious. It's sort of dark but its lines are extremely campy. I think the movie was made like this on purpose so people would not forget the depiction of child abuse in the movie. This movie has a lot of fabrications about Joan and a lot of truths. Its a must-see because it gives you a premise of what the book Mommie Dearest is about. The movie is a camp classic and it's a foundation to get to know a little bit about Joan. I'm hoping for a 25th anniversary edition on DVD but I don't think we are so fortunate. Watch and enjoy!!
James (July 2005)
Rating: 0 of 5 as a drama, of 5 as a comedy
Prior to her death in 1977, Joan Crawford stated that Faye Dunaway was one of her favorite young actresses.It was easy to understand why: like Joan, Dunaway spent part of her childhood in Texas, she played strong ladies extremely well, she had good cheekbones, and (interestingly) she shared the same middle name as the one Crawford was given at birth (Lucille Fay LeSueur and Dorothy Faye Dunaway respectively). Joan's endorsement of Dunaway was very high praise indeed, and one would logically assume that Faye was appropriately flattered. But then "Mommie Dearest" came along. If this is how Faye responds to a compliment, I’d hate to see how she treats her enemies.
According to Christina Crawford's 1988 book "Survivor," Faye Dunaway desperately wanted to play Joan Crawford. After previous contender Anne Bancroft read the script and wisely fled for higher ground, Faye took it upon herself to show up at the producer's house late one night all dolled-up like Joan. The producer, Frank Yablans, apparently flipped at Dunaway's "uncanny" resemblance to Crawford, and the rest, unfortunately, is Hollywood history. The number of times Dunaway's winced at the memory of this can only be guessed at, but I imagine she’s still wincing today. As she should be. All one can think while watching "Mommie Dearest" and laughing uproariously at the most inappropriate moments is: "Oh, Faye...what hath thou wrought?"
The plot of "Mommie Dearest," based on Christina Crawford's controversial (some would say questionable) 1978 memoir of the same name, pointedly illustrates everything that's wrong with the film: Bitchy Movie Star (the only plot element that's clearly defined from the get-go) decides to adopt girl child. Bitchy Movie Star then spoils girl child. Bitchy Movie Star then adopts boy child and (for no apparent reason) straps boy child to bed. Bitchy Movie Star (again for no apparent reason) decides to lock girl child in pool house, cut off girl child's hair, steal girl child's dollies, force girl child to eat raw steak, beat girl child with wire hanger and scouring powder can, and then banish girl child to expensive boarding school. Boy child inexplicably disappears mid-way through the movie (although he pops up again at the end, with no explanation about where he's been). Bitchy Movie Star later becomes friends with grown-up girl child.
Inexplicably, Bitchy Movie Star then decides to cut grown-up girl child and grown-up boy child out of her will when Bitchy Movie Star dies ("for reasons well known to them"...but not to the audience, unfortunately), prompting girl child to become bitchy girl child and seek revenge by writing a nasty book about Bitchy Movie Star, thus giving bitchy girl child "the last word." Whether by accident or design, the glaring plot holes and poorly developed characters and relationships leave the viewer to surmise only one thing: that Joan Crawford was just mean. Period. End of story. Right there, the movie (like the book it was based upon) demonstrates a profound lack of depth, utterly failing to explain or interpret the main character's actions beyond tossing out the oft-repeated line: "Because I'm damn mad!!!" Why she's mad and what motivates her behavior are never adequately explained, and it's impossible to take the movie seriously as a result.
Joan's very human struggles, emotions, personal experiences, and needs are only vaguely touched upon, often in the midst of highly emotional scenes where the girl child's whiney screams drown out the Bitchy Movie Star's stream of consciousness dialogue. One revealingmoment in the "night raid" scene contains the following line uttered by Faye as Joan: "Your room looks like a cheap two-dollar-a-week furnished room in some two-bit backstreet town in Oklahoma!" This connection to Joan Crawford's own impoverished childhood is a rare moment of depth in an otherwise shallow movie, but it's entirely lost and rendered inaudible due to the incessant screeching of Mara Hobel as young Christina. The fact that the screenplay makes no mention of the tragic physical and emotional abuse Crawford herself suffered as a child, which would've humanized her and helped explain her behavior, was a grave and irresponsible oversight.
Ultimately, all that's left is Faye Dunaway in kabuki make-up on one hell of a menopausal rampage, and an obnoxious, highly irritating brat you find yourself wishing Dunaway would smack just a little bit harder. This, of course, is not the reaction the film-makers were aiming for, which graphically illustrates how badly they screwed things up. There are no sympathetic characters in the film, and the lousy script, Miss Dunaway's over-the-top performance, and the horrible acting by both Mara Hobel and Diana Scarwid as "Christina" combine to create a pointless examination of a highly volatile mother-daughter relationship, and an unforgivably one-dimensional portrait of a very complex and multi-faceted woman, reducing Joan Crawford to nothing more than a grotesque caricature of her on-screen image.
Dunaway only once briefly channels Crawford, in the scene where she’s rehearsing for the "Mildred Pierce" screen-test. Otherwise, her performance is the same as the one she gave in "Bonnie and Clyde." And in "The Towering Inferno." And in "Chinatown." And in "Network." And in "The Eyes of Laura Mars." And in "Evita Peron." And in "The Wicked Lady." Ad infinitum. Taking this into consideration, it becomes patently clear that Miss Dunaway is not a gifted actress, and that if off-screen accounts of her behavior are to be believed, the only character she can adequately portray is essentially a one-note version of her own bitchy, demanding self.
As for Faye's physical resemblance to Miss Crawford, well...let's just sum it up by saying: "not so much." Crawford's beauty and magnificent bone structure are clearly beyond Faye's mousey, pallid reach. Other than her prominent cheekbones, there really wasn't much to work with. The make-up and hair experts hired for the film didn't do much to help, plopping wigs on Faye's head that were the wrong shade of red and pasting on false eyebrows (yes, they actually make such things!) which vary in thickness and position right in the middle of scenes, jumping all over her forehead like inky black centipedes searching for prey. Ultimately, the eyebrows are more Groucho than Crawford, and they're all one can look at whenever Miss Dunaway's on-screen. Her lips suffer similar mistreatment, more often than not painted to garishly clown-like proportions, leaving Faye with a leering, gloppy grin which can only be described as Lucille Ball on crack. If Dunaway resembles anyone in this film it's Michael Jackson circa 2005, and the resulting hilarity of this unfortunate "separated at birth" realization sends the movie right off the camp-o-meter.
The wardrobe they saddled Faye with also utterly fails to evoke Crawford. The closest it comes to "Joan" is how she looked in "Susan and God," a film in which she deliberately parodied her own "clothes-horse" image in her role as a flakey socialite. Crawford did not dress like this in real life or, for that matter, in any other film. As a result, in "Mommie Dearest" Faye's outfits lack the tailoring, sophistication, and attention to detail associated with Joan. Even Faye's shoulder pads are scaled down, and the overall look never quite captures Crawford's flair and style. Joan Collins subsequently had greater success evoking Crawford in her "Dynasty" frocks than Dunaway's misguided attempt in "Mommie Dearest."
In my review of "Queen Bee," I pointed out that "Mommie Dearest" borrowed heavily from this over-the-top 1955 Crawford extravaganza. The comparisons are glaring and regrettable, and Faye Dunaway clearly took note of Christina Crawford's debatable assertion that Joan's performance in "Queen Bee" was how Joan was in real life. It bears repeating from my review that "...the immediate connection between Joan smearing cold cream on a mirror in 'Queen Bee' and Faye playing Joan with cold cream smeared on her face during the infamous 'no wire hangers' scene in 'Mommie Dearest' made me wince. As well, the set designer on 'Mommie Dearest' blatantly copied the lay-out of the entrance foyer and staircase in 'Queen Bee,' dressing it up as 'art deco' instead of '50's southern chic' in order to represent Joan's home. Even the crinkly sheer curtains on the windows are the same, and as Joan paused on the staircase in a black gown in 'Queen Bee,' I again winced at the mental image I flashed of Faye standing on the staircase holding baby Christina like an Academy Award in "Mommie Dearest."
Ultimately, the biggest flaw in "Mommie Dearest" is the way the movie was edited, and the resulting mess leads one to wonder if the editor was a hardcore Joan Crawford fan, hell-bent and determined to make Miss Dunaway look as silly and incompetent as possible. Not that she needed much help. The editing is slap-dash and abysmal, and there are too many scenes to mention where continuity is blown and mistakes are made (the modern Formula 409 bottle on Joan's 1940's bar is one of the most glaring examples).
The best editing gaffes, however, are the ones which allow the audience to revel in the full horror of Faye's histrionics while she thoroughly embarrasses herself. My very favorite moment in "Mommie Dearest" is one not often mentioned in discussions about this film: after the infamous "no wire hangers!" scene, Dunaway commands Mara Hobel, in shrill, operatic tones, to "clean up this mess!" After Mara asks "how?", Dunaway barks "you figure it out!" With her face smeared with lipstick and cold cream dripping from her chin, Faye robotically turns her head and in a moment of sheer cinematic insanity slowly goes cross-eyed.
Without fear of contradiction, I believe it can safely be said that this ranks as the absolute worst moment featuring an A-list actress EVER captured on celluloid. The reason Dunaway's career seriously faltered after "Mommie Dearest" can be summed-up in one ill-advised cross-eyed glance.
And if her most recent gig on an insipid, now cancelled reality TV show was her punishment, one can only sit back and smile. Her signature line on the show, delivered in her bitchiest tones as she gleefully banished aspiring young actresses from her sight, is an exit cue Miss Dunaway herself should perhaps take note of. "Don't call us, we'll call you" indeed, Faye. We hope you're not sitting by the phone waiting for it to ring, dear...we threw away your number long ago.
Joan: "I'm not mad at you, I'm mad at the dirt!"
Joan: "Christina! Bring me the axe!"
Joan: "I should've known you'd know where to find the boys AND the booze!"
Joan: "I’d rather you go to school bald than looking like a tramp!"
Joan: "Scrub, Christina, scrub!"
Joan: "Don’t FUCK with me, fellows!"
Joan: "No wire hangers...EVER!!!"
See the Books page for more information.
The Best of Everything