“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.