After watching it again last night, here’s my mini-essay:
“Mommie Dearest” has gotten an unfair reputation through decades of cable TV repeats and hearsay drag queen re-enactments as an over-the-top campy melodrama. Not true. The film takes itself very seriously and is meticulously crafted; it does not exaggerate itself with overripe dialogue, florid music or quick cutting. Seen on its own, the film is actually a vivid and disturbing examination of child abuse, the perils of being a “star” and of being the child of a star. It’s about how a child can grow up at the mercy of a vulnerable and disturbed woman, loving her and hating her as an adult. At its center is a no-holds-barred performance/recreation of Joan Crawford by Faye Dunaway. She plays her as a woman so dependant on acting as a coping mechanism that it all but consumes her, and in the end she has erased all distinction between her creation of Joan as self-made success story and perfect mother and the real human being. Combined with make-up/hair design that’s remarkable and she IS Joan. Frank Perry’s direction, just as in “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” employs a strategy of restraint and straightforwardness that makes Joan’s outbursts of aggression of violence that much more unsettling. His use of the music score, by Henry Mancini no less, is subdued. This further confounds an easy emotional release on the part of the audience, most notably during the infamous “wire hanger” sequence. Perry also takes the risky approach of telling a story which spans thirty-odd years without using the obvious devices of montages or narration to ground us in the passage of time. The result is that we experience the events in the film as Christina does, as a string of memories: each scene is like a fragment which blurs into the next, character’s ages seem vague, everything runs together in a stream of consciousness. The casting of unknowns and character actors in the supporting roles also helps the film’s overall believability. Despite decades of parody, “Mommie Dearest” still stands proudly on it own, much like Joan Crawford herself; it deserves to be looked at with fresh eyes.