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Blu-ray Review: Mommie Dearest (1981)

October 6, 2021

By John Corrado

The legacy of Mommie Dearest, and Faye Dunaway’s performance at the centre of it, encompasses the film’s rise from critical flop to commercial success and inadvertent camp classic. And it continues to exist as all three things at once.

A modern reevaluation of Mommie Dearest, which is now celebrating its 40th anniversary and has been restored from a 4K film transfer for this Blu-ray release, doesn’t necessarily deem it “good,” as the objective quality of the movie itself and its central performance is much more complicated than that.

But it does show Mommie Dearest to be an interesting cinematic artifact, one that has left a lasting, complex cultural impact and continues to hold an understandable appeal with certain audiences in particular.

The film is director Frank Perry’s adaptation of Christina Crawford’s memoir about growing up as the adopted daughter of Hollywood icon Joan Crawford. Crawford, of course, is played by Dunaway, in a high-camp, go big or go home performance that has inspired both mockery and sincere imitation. The film dramatizes the abuse that Christina (played as a child by Mara Hobel, and as a teen and young adult by Diana Scarwid) suffered at the hands of her volatile mother, whose narcissistic personality traits grew more pronounced as her studio relationships soured and her Hollywood star faded.

It’s interesting watching Mommie Dearest for the first time now (I had previously only seen a few of the most infamous clips), because I have always known it as a so-bad-it’s-good sort of film, which obviously colours perceptions of it. The film was lambasted by most critics upon its release in 1981, but it went on to strike a chord with audiences who turned it into a box office hit, with Paramount embracing its growing cult status in subsequent marketing materials (the studio even put out new ads for the film highlighting the notorious “wire hangers” scene).

Many of the criticisms have focused on the acting choices that Dunaway makes in the leading role, which won her a Razzie award (one of five the film won, including Worst Picture) and has caused the actress to disassociate herself from the film. While Dunaway is over the top, operatically so in the film’s best-worst moments, it’s still a somewhat interesting performance. Yes, her portrayal teeters on the edge of being a caricature throughout with her exaggerated, almost pantomime facial expressions, and it fully descends into one at key points.

The film is largely remembered for the campiness of its most extreme moments, including that infamous sequence where Dunaway attacks the rose bushes with garden sheers while screaming about being called “box office poison” by Louis B. Mayer (Howard Da Silva). Then there’s the wire hangers freakout (“no wire hangers…EVER!”), an oft-quoted tirade delivered with her face covered in white cream. It’s bizarre, ripe for parody, and a moment of unhinged, full-bodied acting by Dunaway that toes the line between hilarious and terrifying. It’s scenes like these that have become the point of mockery and still induce unintentional laughter (a strange feeling for a film about child abuse).

Dunaway goes so big in these moments that they overshadow the movie around them. But if you look at it another way, Dunaway is playing Crawford as Crawford herself might have played her, with all of her harsh looks and pronounced line readings suggesting a larger than life figure consumed by her own image. She is playing the real life actress as if she is doing a meta impersonation of a character being played by the actress, and these multiple layers of artifice behind her performance are a good indicator why it has become a favourite among drag queens.

The stature of Mommie Dearest as a queer camp classic can’t be denied. Aside from the inherent appeal of copying Dunaway’s showy performance onstage, I think the film’s appeal with drag performers is in many ways due to the fact that it is about performative femininity. The opening scene shows Crawford’s morning beauty routine (like a precursor to American Psycho) as she literally puts on a face to present to the world, the film hiding the reveal of her fully made up visage until several minutes in. Through this, Mommie Dearest also scratches at the surface of deeper themes about impossible Hollywood beauty standards and ageism in a world obsessed with image.

It isn’t entirely successful as a whole. Structurally, Perry’s film is flawed. It jumps ahead in time in some jarring ways, and at times feels like a collection of individual scenes strung together. The film at once occupies the space of being tawdry silver screen melodrama and somewhat bland biopic, and it starts to drag slightly at the end of the 128 minute running time. But Dunaway’s perversely compelling, scenery-chewing performance, and a handful of iconic moments, make Mommie Dearest mostly involving to watch as a piece of campy entertainment.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray comes with two commentary tracks (one old, one new) along with four featurettes (three old, one new). There is no digital copy included in the package.

Commentary by John Waters

NEW – Commentary by American Drag Queen Hedda Lettuce

NEW – Filmmaker Focus: Biographer Justin Bozung on Director Frank Perry (7 minutes, 1 seconds): This new featurette allows Perry’s official biographer Justin Bozung to shed some light on the production of the film, including how they initially wanted Anne Bancroft for the role, but Dunaway won the part after showing up to a dinner party dressed as Crawford.

The Revival of Joan (14 minutes, 15 seconds): Producer and co-writer Frank Yablans reflects on the making of the film and the experience of working with Dunaway in this first of three archival featurettes, which also feature actors Diana Scarwid and Rutanya Alda (who plays housekeeper Carol Ann).

Life With Joan (13 minutes, 44 seconds): A continuation of the previous featurette, which focuses more exclusively on the film’s most infamous scenes, with Yablans admitting that perhaps Perry should have helped Dunaway reign in her performance just a bit.

Joan Lives On (16 minutes, 5 seconds): Finally, this third featurette in the series looks more specifically at the legacy of the film within the gay community, and features appearances by drag queen John Epperson (aka Lypsinka) and notorious filmmaker John Waters who both share their views on the film and their favourite moments.

Photo Gallery (2 minutes, 50 seconds)

Original Theatrical Trailer (4 minutes, 10 seconds)

Mommie Dearest is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 128 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: October 5th, 2021

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