Mommie Dearest

mommie-dearst“Mommie Dearest” (1981) is an uproariously funny film about child abuse and alcoholism. Much of the humor stems from the fact that it was largely unintentional.

Faye Dunaway stars as Joan Crawford, a fading star who decides to adopt some kids for a little extra publicity. Her motives aren’t quite as simple as that, actually. She is an independent woman who clawed her way up from the gutter and she’s convinced she can instill that same grit in her children while providing them with a luxurious upbringing.

Both of the actresses who play the daughter, Tina, do a fine job. The Young Tina especially conveys the developing rivalry with her mother with a subtlety that one doesn’t often see in a child actor. That said, this film would be utterly forgotten without Dunaway’s bombastic performance. Her Crawford possesses a madness that seeps through her very pores, into every gesture, every glance; it is either bubbling just beneath the surface or erupting into violence.

Dunaway famously disowned the film. Maybe she wanted to be taken more seriously. Maybe she never imagined that her portrayal of Joan could be interpreted as hilarious. Maybe its reception as a camp classic was embarrassing for her. It’s too bad she isn’t proud of it because it’s a spectacle to behold.

The opening sequence, where we see Joan wake up and begin her daily beauty regimen, illustrates how fully Dunaway embodied her character. Throughout the scene, her face is never shown but her mania is unmistakable. Dunaway became Joan Crawford, right down to her fingertips.

Whether this character called Joan Crawford has any relation to the real person is almost immaterial. The character Dunaway created has a separate and arguably more iconic existence than the real actress of the same name. I feel like Faye Dunaway deserves more credit in the drag community because whenever a drag queen does “Joan Crawford,” she’s really doing “Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford.”

“Mommie Dearest” is one of those movies that seems to have always been present in my head. It must have played on television in the early 80s because in my family we quoted it regularly. This seems odd at first glance since we experienced alcoholism and abuse first hand, but I think that was part of the appeal for us.

When you’re a kid, this film plays like a horror movie where Joan is the monster. Her children live in fear because their mother is perpetually on the brink of violence. The filmmakers seemed to understand the horror of being a little kid and living in the dominion of an unpredictable tyrant twice your size. When she gets angry, the tension ratchets up. You hold your breath, anticipating an explosion.

The scenes where she does lose her shit are the film’s scariest, most memorable, and ultimately, funniest because Joan exposes herself as an unhinged clown. No less terrible or dangerous, but a figure so ridiculous that mocking her becomes irresistible. And if you’re a little kid who’s experienced abuse for real, laughing at Joan Crawford makes you feel a little powerful.

It was cathartic for us, I suppose, because Tina is saner, calmer, and braver than her mother. She repeatedly defies this monster, sometimes with just a cold stare, sometimes with outright disobedience. This is, ironically, exactly how Joan raised her to be: strong, independent, and resilient.

There is material here for a straight dramatic interpretation of the relationship between Joan and Tina Crawford, and perhaps that was their intention, but if that’s the case, I’m glad they failed. Faye Dunaway’s performance was a gift to drag queens and scared little kids alike.

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Raging Bull

raging bull
Midnight shows are my favorite. For one thing, the films selected for this coveted time slot often cater to us film geeks. For another, the people who show up to watch movies in the middle of the night always make for an entertaining crowd.

I recently attended a midnight screening of “Raging Bull” (1980) at the magnificent Nighthawk Cinema in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I was the first to arrive and waited patiently for the parade of those awkward, lumpy film snobs I love so much. I assumed it would be them coming, because who else would go see Scorsese at midnight.

I think all “serious” lovers of cinema have a special place in their hearts for Martin Scorsese. For me, it’s because his films pulse with intensity and energy. In “Raging Bull” in particular, his actors explode and flip tables, and his screen is spattered with blood and sweat. I’ll take that over Antonioni’s ruminations on nothingness or Bergman’s quiet, brooding empty rooms. I understand that this is heresy, but here I must break from my film school brethren. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the auteurs who shaped modern cinema — I do! — it’s just that I can’t honestly say I enjoy sitting through many of their films. I dunno. I like when things happen in a movie. That’s just my preference.

raging bullI’m sure a lively debate could have been held on the subject that night at the Nitehawk. The auditorium was filled with the collective knowledge of countless hours of moviegoing experience, and some debates had already begun in the lobby queue.

Most of the nerds in attendance were in excited, chatty packs, but in the back row I was flanked by a few stragglers. To my left was the only other person, aside from myself, who had come alone. He was the tallest and fairest of all the attendees. I fell in love with him immediately. To my right was a poor dope who’d come with his decidedly un-geeky girlfriend. Clearly a Nitehawk novice, she placed her bag on the floor, nearly killing our waiter when he twice tripped over it. As the lights when down, I sank into my seat, sipping my whiskey, already full of feelings.

We hadn’t reached the midpoint of the first act before it became apparent that the girlfriend on the right had grown bored. She kept trying to chat with her date, but he would only shush her savagely. His rebukes didn’t stop her though. She had a lot to say. After the movie, he hustled her away, probably hoping to avoid any more peevish glares. I wondered if he was reevaluating his relationship, and whether they would have an awkward brunch the next morning. Can a lover of cinema ever get serious with a person who can’t sit through “Raging Bull”?

I pondered this question while the credits rolled, and stole some glances at the elven boy on my left. He did two things after the movie that sealed his place in my heart. First, he stayed seated through the credits. Second, he produced a flip phone from his pocket. A flip phone! My spirited brain extrapolated his whole persona. An entrenched Luddite. Not on Facebook. Writes letters on paper. (Swoon.)

Then my spine stiffened. Suppose he adores Ingmar Bergman? He’s just the type who would. What if “L’Avventura” is his favorite film? I sat through that “movie” (using the term is a stretch) once, last summer, and I wouldn’t endure the experience again. He’d think I’m a complete dunce, of course, and I’d have to allow him that, or I couldn’t say the same thing about that girl who was bored by Robert De Niro’s Jake La Motta. (And I don’t want to not say that.)

The last credit rolled. The boy stood up, stretched, and ambled out of the auditorium. Just as well. It’d never have worked between us. I sighed and searched my glass for a last drop of whiskey.

Next midnight I’ll have to see something more lowbrow. But not too low…