This was a film that seemed to be on TV almost every weekend when I was a kid, and it was strange to watch it again now. At the time, I had no idea who Joan Crawford was. In the intervening years I became a fan of old movies, and of Crawford. I watched the DVD twice straight through, listening to John Water’s commentary the second time.
When Mommie Dearest was first released in theaters in 1981, it was a financial flop, even though the memoirs by Christina Crawford had been a best seller. Distributors tried to force it to become a Rocky Horror-type cult film, hiring drag queens to hand out wire hangers to theatergoers. It is pretty obvious that the people at Paramount were still trying to push the ’80s camp angle, including a trailer of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off before the film and getting The King of Camp, John Waters, to provide commentary, as director Frank Perry had passed away in 1995. Waters goes against expectation, by providing a serious analysis of the film and praising Faye Dunaway’s performance, which is indeed remarkable, but which Dunaway supposedly wants to distance herself from.
The story of Crawford’s adoptive daughter Christina’s life-long battle to get along with her famous mother provides a great example of domestic melodrama in the vein of Douglas Sirk, a good foray into the artificiality of the classic era of Hollywood, and a platform for a striking performance by Dunaway. It is hard to say if this film has really helped or hurt Crawford’s reputation. Immediately after the book was published, friends of the star such as Myrna Loy came out on her defense, while neighbor Betty Hutton sided with Christina. However, the film did introduce Crawford to a whole new generation of film fans, including myself, who love Crawford especially because of her bitchiness, which is evident in her later films, and amplified to mythic proportions in this biopic. As John Waters says in his commentary, “It is rare to have a films that has its villain as its main character.”