“Hysterical,” an adjective meaning both “prone to excessive or uncontrollable emotion” and “extremely funny,” is probably the best word that can describe the cult film Mommie Dearest, the dramatic interpretation of Christina Crawford’s 1978 tell-all autobiography about life with her glamorous movie star mother Joan Crawford, played by Faye Dunaway.
The story begins at an awkward point in Joan Crawford’s career when she was old enough to be widely respected as an actress, but too old to actually get any meaty roles. After some legal finessing, Crawford upped her publicity by adopting a baby girl she named Christina (AKA “Christina Darrrr-ling”). Christina was promised a perfect existence and grew up with all the things Joan never had, like pony-filled birthday parties, an Olympic sized swimming pool, designer clothing and a large, very clean Art Deco mansion. But growing up with a neurotic single mother who just happens to be a perfectionist Hollywood megastar with major OCD tendencies would take a toll on anybody, and Christina quickly and repeatedly learned that it was Mommie’s meticulously ideal way or the highway. (Here “highway” translates into “forced into a remote convent school for several years” and “nocturnal coat hanger beatings.”) But somehow through the bumps, bruises, and traumatizing night terrors, Christina attempted to accept Joan’s strange way of showing her motherly love -- until, of course, the not-so-shocking-but-still-pretty-shocking ending to the story that prompted the writing of Mommie Dearest, a book which remained on the New York Times Bestseller list for 42 weeks.
This particular DVD release, “The Hollywood Royalty” edition, is peppered with fantastic special features that will delight both the hardcore Mommie fans and uninitiated viewers. One of my most favorite people in the world, cult director John Waters, blesses us with a hilarious yet sympathetic commentary track to really highlight the film’s many strengths and point out where a few weaknesses might be hiding. (Spoiler alert: they’re mostly in the rose garden and the closet.) Three short documentaries take you on the set and behind the scenes, featuring interviews with producer/writer Frank Yablans as well as cast members like the wonderful Diana Scarwid, who talks candidly about her emotionally charged performance as adult Christina and the enduring legacy of the movie. Another welcome voice is Joan Crawford enthusiast and impersonator John Epperson, AKA Lypsinka, interviewed in the Joan Lives On feature along with additional comments from John Waters on the film’s cult following.
Although marginalized by audiences and thoroughly lambasted by critics upon its release, this lavish biopic remains one of the most memorable portraits of a movie actress ever seen depicted on screen. How much of it is factually accurate we’ll never know, but hey – it still makes for some fine watching if you take it all with a huge grain of salt. In addition to getting a helping hand from gay and drag queen audiences keeping it in the limelight, Mommie Dearest has withstood the test of time for some darn reason, and I’d like to think it’s because the film is actually good. I recall seeing Mommie Dearest on television for the first time and being absolutely amazed -- not because the censors let the film’s sole F-bomb slip by, but because the performances, sets, costumes and overall power of the whole production impressed me even as a nine-year-old. (Yes, nine. I was even inspired enough to play-act pretend Mommie Dearest scenes. Don’t ask.)
In the words of the great John Waters, Mommie Dearest is “not a movie that’s ‘so bad it’s good’… it’s a movie that’s ‘so good it’s perfect.’”
Fun Fact! Faye Dunaway was convinced during filming she would win an Oscar® nomination for her performance. Today she not only refuses to speak about this film in interviews, but also has an aversion to letting her suitcases touch hotel room floors.