Mommie Dearest is a 1981 biographical drama film about Joan Crawford, starring Faye Dunaway. The film was directed by Frank Perry. The story was adapted for the screen by Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, Frank Perry, and Frank Yablans, based on the 1978 autobiography of the same name by Christina Crawford. The executive producers were Christina's husband, David Koontz, and Terrence O'Neill, Dunaway's then-boyfriend and soon-to-be husband. The film was distributed by Paramount Pictures, the only one of the "Big 8" film studios for which Crawford had never appeared in a feature film.
The film was a commercial success, grossing $39 million worldwide. Although critical reviews were initially mixed, it has since become a cult classic.
Joan Crawford is a driven actress and compulsively clean housekeeper who tries to control the lives of those around her as tightly as she controls herself. To prepare for a work day at MGM Studios, she rises at 4:00 am and engages in a strict morning ritual: scrubbing her face and arms with soap and boiling hot water, then plunging her face into a bowl of rubbing alcohol and ice to close the pores. When Helga, a new maid, thinks she has Joan's living room in spotless condition, Joan finds one minute detail that she overlooked and loses her temper.
Joan is in a relationship with Hollywood lawyer Gregg Savitt, but her career is in a bit of a downswing. She desperately wants a baby, but is unable to get pregnant; seven pregnancies when she was married to actor Franchot Tone ended in miscarriages. When she is denied an application for adoption, she enlists Gregg's help to secure a baby. Joan adopts a girl whom she names Christina, and later a boy, Christopher. Joan lavishes Christina with attention and luxuries such as an extravagant birthday party, but also enforces a code of denial and discipline. When Christina is showered with gifts, Joan asks which she likes best, then donates the other gifts to charity.
As Christina rebels against her mother, confrontations ensue. Joan overtakes Christina in a swimming-pool race and laughs at the child. Joan becomes enraged when Christina reacts with anger and locks her in the pool house. When Joan discovers Christina imitating her, Joan hysterically cuts off her hair.
Joan resents Gregg's allegiance to studio boss Louis B. Mayer and argues with him after a dinner at Perrino's restaurant. Joan guzzles down glasses of vodka and throws a drink in Gregg's face after he tells her she is getting old. A physical altercation ensues and Gregg breaks up with Joan. The next day, Joan cuts Gregg out of the family photos. Joan's tantrums grow more bizarre and violent; when Mayer forces Joan to leave MGM after theater owners brand her "box office poison", she hacks down her prize rose garden with a pair of large gardening shears and an axe.
On another occasion Joan, her face slathered in cold cream, goes into Christina's bedroom in the middle of the night, meaning to return a dress to the child's closet, but discovers one of Christina's dresses hanging on a wire hanger. She screams at the girl then yanks dresses from Christina's closet, throwing them all over the girl's room and beating her with the hanger. Joan wrecks the bathroom as well, throwing cleaning powder over the floor, then striking Christina with the tin and screaming at her to clean it up.
Joan sends Christina, now a teenager, to the Chadwick School. When Christina is caught in a compromising position with a boy, Joan brings her home. Barbara Bennett, a reporter from Redbook magazine, is writing a puff piece on Joan's home life. After Joan lies about why her daughter left school, saying that she was expelled, Christina confronts her in front of the reporter. In the ensuing argument, Joan slaps Christina twice across the face. Christina questions her mother as to why she was adopted, and Joan confesses that it was partially a publicity stunt, but then says that she did not really mean it. After Christina yells, "I am not one of your fans!" Joan throws her to the floor. She then throttles Christina, who pleads with her to stop. Joan's live-in assistant and the reporter pull Joan away.
Joan sends Christina to Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy; under the academy's strict rules, Christina can have no contact with the outside world. Joan then marries Alfred Steele, CEO of Pepsi Cola, moves to New York City and pressures him to shoulder a great deal of debt to fund their lavish lifestyle. After his death, the all-male board tries forcing her to resign, but Joan coerces them into letting her retain her seat by threatening to publicly condemn Pepsi.
After leaving the convent school, Christina rents an apartment in Manhattan, where she acts in a soap opera. When she suffers an ovarian tumor, Christina is temporarily replaced on the show by her mother. Joan dies of cancer in 1977, whereupon Christina and Christopher learn their mother has disinherited them in her will. When Christopher says their mother has managed to have the last word, Christina questions that.
- Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford
- Diana Scarwid as Christina Crawford
- Mara Hobel as young Christina
- Steve Forrest as Greg Savitt
- Howard Da Silva as Louis B. Mayer
- Rutanya Alda as Carol Ann
- Harry Goz as Alfred Steele
- Michael Edwards as Ted Gelber
- Jocelyn Brando as Barbara Bennett
- Priscilla Pointer as Mrs. Chadwick
- Xander Berkeley as Christopher Crawford (adult)
- Jeremy Scott Reinholt as young Christopher
- Carolyn Coates as Mother Superior (Flintridge Sacred Heart)
- Margaret Fairchild as Mother Superior (orphanage)
- Belita Moreno as Belinda Rosenberg
- Alice Nunn as Helga
Mommie Dearest received mixed reviews from critics, with a rating of 53% on Rotten Tomatoes as of April 2011.
Roger Ebert opened his review with "I can't imagine who would want to subject themselves to this movie." About Dunaway's performance, Variety said "Dunaway does not chew scenery. Dunaway starts neatly at each corner of the set in every scene and swallows it whole, costars and all." However, more positive reviews have been published, with Slant Magazine awarding it four stars in the May 31, 2006 edition. Also Dennis Price wrote "Faye Dunaway portrays Joan Crawford in a likeness so chilling it's almost unnatural" in his review of the film.
With a budget of $5 million, Mommie Dearest was a commercial success at the US box office, with revenues of $19 million with a further $8.6 million in video rentals. The film grossed $6 million internationally. The film was in the Top 30 top grossing films of 1981. DVD counts are vague but suggestions are that it has made more than $5 million since being released on DVD. Total Revenue stands at $39 million.
Roughly a month into release, Paramount realized the film was getting a reputation at the box office as an unintentional comedy, and changed its advertising to reflect its new camp status, proclaiming, "Meet the biggest MOTHER of them all!"
In her autobiography, Dunaway only makes a brief mention of the film stating that she wished director Frank Perry had had enough experience to see when actors needed to rein in their performances. By coincidence, Joan Crawford once said in an interview in the early 1970s that of the current young actresses only Faye Dunaway had "what it takes" to be a true star.
Awards and nominationsEdit
While Dunaway garnered some critical acclaim for her physical metamorphosis and her portrayal of Crawford (finishing second in the votes for both the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actress and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress of the Year), she also received a Razzie Award for Worst Actress. The film received five "Razzie" awards overall, including Worst Picture, Worst Screenplay, and Worst Supporting Actor for Forrest. Scarwid also won a Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Christina; among those whom Scarwid beat out in the category was Mara Hobel, for her portrayal of the child Christina, and Rutanya Alda, who played Crawford's personal assistant, Carol Ann. The film would later receive another Razzie for Worst Picture of the Decade.