This film, is the definition of what someone would all a camp classic. 1981’s Mommie Dearest, certainly retains that reputation even today. A bio-pic of actress Joan Crawford, the film is based on the book of the same name, written by her daughter Christina. Both the book. and the film painted the late Joan in a not to flattering color. The film was panned by many critics, and not taken seriously by several audience members upon release. It became one of those ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ films. It seems strange that a film about an alcoholic, abusive, manipulating mother would become a camp classic. I feel it’s not as campy as one might take it for, it certainly doesn’t get the reputation it does.
First if all, there’s the one thing in this film that people remember the most: Faye Dunaway. Dunaway plays the iconic film star Joan Crawford. Her performance is best remembered for being completely over the top, and the absolute definition of ‘chewing the scenery.’ In recent years her performance has even inspired many a drag queen, due to the raucousness she embodied on screen. While this has always been a topic of mockery, I would go so far as to say it’s almost fitting. There was absolutely nothing subtle about Joan Crawford. Watch any of her old films, it’s easy to see where Dunaway got her inspiration.
Now, one the things I’ve alway thought about this film is this, remove Dunaway’s performance, and what is it you’re left with? You’re left with a really bleak story, one that isn’t so easy to make fun of. A story about someone who has experienced a lifetime of both physical, and psychological abuse. Unlike today, where such things are easily reported, back then it was often times ‘swept under the rug’, especially when the family was well-to-do. This was also a time, when Hollywood was infamous for keeping its secrets as hidden as possible. After the publication of ‘dearest’, many came forward to corroborate the details of abuse detailed in the book.
Although this might have been the case, it’s the over the top performances that leave the lasting impression. It also serves as somewhat of an lesson. In the golden age of Hollywood, actors weren’t just actors, they were giants who captured the hearts and minds of a country, engaged in war and the poverty of a depression. Although glamorous they might have been , they were far from perfect. Like everyone else, they had quite the collection of skeletons in the closet.