I’ve always been fascinated by the writing of, and indeed, the legend of playwright Joe Orton. It was so refreshing to discover someone who was, shock horror, a confident homosexual in the 60s rather than some simpering, guilt-ridden closet case. I remember when I arrived in London to study film, a friend told me about an organised tour entitled The Joe Orton Walk that went to the sites of public lavatories where Joe looked for casual sex. A worthy tribute as ever there was one.
Stephen Frears’ 1987 film adapts John Lahr’s fantastic biography of Joe with the working-class boy from Leicester venturing to London to join the RADA (darling) and pursue a career in acting. It’s here that he meets Kenneth Halliwell who becomes his partner and co-conspirator. But this union would come to a horrifying conclusion as the tutored (Orton) would eclipse his teacher (Halliwell) and accomplish everything he wanted to but that which was beyond his grasp (you could say it was ‘Beyond Our Ken’ haha).
We get a fantastic depiction of being gay in London in the 1960s where sex was everywhere with a knowing look or if you knew the relevant places to frequent. We also get a vivid depiction of the gay paradise of that era, Morocco.
Orton was ‘punk’ before ‘punk’. His plays poked fun at society’s hypocrisies through his amazing use of language and his fantastic, laser-sharp wit. The library books he altered the covers of and wrote new liner notes for were another example of his playful subversion. I love the fact that the existing examples of these books have now been preserved for the enjoyment of generations to come. And to think that this act actually earned Orton and Halliwell six months holiday at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Outrageous.
Frears’s directs amazingly aided and abetted by a screenplay by none other than Alan Bennett. The cast is also uniformly brilliant with Prick Up Your Ears being an example of perfect casting- Gary Oldman as Orton, Alfred Molina as Halliwell and Vanessa Redgrave as the regal but irreverent Peggy Ramsey.
I also loved the parallels between Kenneth Halliwell and Lahr’s wife that the film establishes. This is very perceptive indeed.
And something else which is remarkable about the film is that it’s currently on YouTube for your delectation. Watch it before it gets taken down.
Mommie Dearest has the wrong kind of reputation. It was conceived as a movie version of Joan Crawford’s adopted daughter Christina’s tell-all book regarding her upbringing and the years of abuse she endured at the hands of her mother. Instead, it’s now synonymous with being campy, ‘so bad it’s good’ and as being one of the worst films ever made. This article will show that all of these tags are wrong, the result of lazy journalism and hack film criticism and that Mommie Dearest is far more complex and ahead of its time than most film critics, journalists and viewers give it credit for. There is more to Faye Dunaway’s central performance than meets the eye.
But first, a little background as to how the film came to be made.
The book of Mommie Dearest was published in 1978, a year after the death of Joan Crawford. It was a huge sensation and topped booksellers lists, eventually selling 4 million copies and that was only in hardback form!
Its transition to film was always going to be problematic. Joan was beloved by both industry insiders and moviegoers alike and so there would instantly be a lot of opposition at such a hatchet piece making it’sits way onto the screen before it had even been made.
Another group that would be waiting in the wings to give their verdict on the movie was the gay community. Crawford was and quite possibly still is the biggest gay icon to have ever graced the silver screen. In fact, the only other actress to rival her in the eyes of gay viewers was her real-life nemesis Bette Davis who would later star with Joan in the horror movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Crawford was such a gay icon that her image and the very iconography surrounding her was a telling indication of all things ‘gay’ and used to great effect to imply this in other films. During the explosive revelations that unfurl in The Boys in the Band, a character feigns boredom and grabs a coffee table book on Crawford to peruse instead. Ms Crawford’s presence isn’t out of place in this landmark movie which deals with gay men and their lives.
Within the movie Heathers, Christian Slater and Winona Ryder’s characters have just bumped off a duo of school jocks but are trying to frame it as a double suicide of two men in a homosexual relationship. The artefacts they leave behind to confirm this are mineral water, mascara and a Joan Crawford postcard as well as a fake suicide note. Joan’s inclusion leaves no doubt that the pair must have been nelly.
Joan Crawford once stated in an interview that of the then-current crop of Hollywood actresses, Faye Dunaway was the only one who she’d like to portray her in a film. In her book published in 1971 entitled My Way Of Life, Crawford stated that, ‘Of all the actresses, to me, only Faye Dunaway has the talent and the class and the courage it takes to make a real star.’
And she was right. Dunaway was the last of a dying breed- an exceptional actress with an incredible acting range, a palpable strength and was a real star reminiscent of the kind that Hollywood used to foster the talents of decades before.
The director chosen to helm Mommie Dearest was acclaimed director, Frank Perry. His previous works included such lauded works as The Swimmer and Diary of a Mad Housewife.
With everything in place to make an esteemed biopic of Ms Crawford and her adopted daughter that might bag Dunaway a clutch of awards and even an Oscar for her portrayal, why is the film today seen as such a cult classic rather than as a universally celebrated mainstream landmark? What was it within the finished film that appealed to lovers of more marginal cinematic pleasures that resonated so powerfully? Is there any kind of explanation for the extremities of the film? I believe there are plenty of signifiers regarding this in almost every scene within the film.
Mommie Dearest had the tagline ‘Faye Dunaway IS Joan Crawford’. A huge part of the movie’s success and if it would be believable and actually work was to be if Dunaway could convincingly look like Crawford and behave like her. Crawford was an actress who was beloved by the movie-going public who thought of her as a friend as well as a star and actress. People had seen her in so many movies that she felt almost like someone they knew. This meant that Dunaway had her work cut out for her. If her depiction of Crawford didn’t look, feel or sound right then the movie’s plausibility was impaired right from the start.
This reminds me of the movie Superman in 1978. Whilst big names (including the acting Holy Grail, Mr Marlon Brando) were secured and in place to star in the film, the tagline and the conceit it hinged on was as the tagline stated ‘You’ll believe a man can fly.’ Thus, if there was one whiff of wires, dodgy visuals as were used in other previous screen incarnations of The Man of Steel or any cheap techniques used to show Superman airborne then this would turn this huge budgeted movie into a Superflop. Of course, by the time we see Superman fly (and the filmmakers cheekily don’t show this until well into the running time of the movie after Clark had travelled into the cocoon of The Fortress of Solitude and gestated into Superman) we do see that the wait was worth it.
The same happens with Mommie Dearest. Yes, we get a picture of Faye as Joan on the film’s poster but any kind of picture editing trickery could have been applied to make the likeness plausible. The audience needs to see Faye as Joan moving before their eyes on the movie screen.
We don’t have to wait as long as we did with Superman but director Perry still tantalisingly keeps us on the edge of our seats for the ‘big reveal’. But this first faceless scene isn’t some filler introduction that feels unnecessary or is only played out to build to the first glimpse of Crawford. We get to see how a typical day in the life of a Hollywood heavyweight would begin and how dedicated Joan was regarding what she did.
This is also a very important scene for fans of Crawford who saw her as Hollywood Royalty. Crawford wasn’t just a great actress but also, and more importantly for some, a star. Everything was done for her fans and we get a glimpse of how all-consuming this was with the 4am wake-up call, the straps applied under her chin being taken off and discarded, the ice facial (Ms Crawford has finished washing her face with boiling hot water and grabs a couple of handfuls of ice which we saw her prepare earlier and presses them into her face. ‘Ah! Youth!’ John Waters exclaims on his audio commentary for the movie when this sequence is onscreen).
The scrubbing of the arms, hands and nails is very telling in this scene as we will see later in the film. Ms Crawford seems to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and a severe, irrational hatred of germs and dirt.
This film was possibly the first to depict this and is one reason why there is more to Mommie Dearest than others would have you believe. This condition and its depiction in the film will be examined in more depth later on. Back to the ‘big reveal’.
We then get to see her being taken to the studio. Even in the car, we see that she’s hard at work- inspecting the script, making amendments and recommendations, signing 8x10s for fans.
Whilst she is in the studio we are teased with specific facial features being made up but still not the whole face. We see an eye and her lips at the start of their cosmetic transformation and then when they are fully made up.
This is a great scene as it shows how Joan had a trademark look and how her appeal was reliant on image, makeup and how this image was intertwined into every role she played. This could also show Joan’s false self, the mask she wears for fans which is VERY different to her real self underneath this artifice.
We next get to see her being dressed for her role and the care and precision taken in this process.
And then we get a studio lackey pop his head round the door of La Crawford’s dressing room asking if she’s ready. And BOOM! We get to see Faye Dunaway spin around in a swivel chair she is sat in to face the moviegoing public as Joan Crawford for the first time. Eyebrows and all! And it was worth the wait!
The next scene hints at the insanity at the dark heart of the movie. Joan, her faithful housekeeper and personal assistant Carol Anne and Helga, Joan’s housekeeper are cleaning the house. Joan inspects her worker’s cleaning efforts and on seeing a large pot plant, asks to move it. On doing so there is found to be dirt under it which enrages Joan who insists on cleaning it herself. She then says to Helga after first shouting at her that, ‘I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt!’, the first of many lines from the film that transcends the movie and its script and took on a life of its own. Joan’s OCD has reared its ugly head.
On the arrival of Joan’s boyfriend Greg Savitt they head upstairs for some ‘afternoon delight’. It’s with this that we get the tremendous scene in which Joan is in the shower, letting the water seemingly melt her perfectly coiffured hair and wash away her mask of make-up. She is in an OCD sufferer’s nirvana- a shower!
It’s in the next scene that we see Joan get broody as the topic of children and the whole premise of the film (and book) comes to the fore. Does she sincerely want children or does she just sees the opportunity for the extra publicity she will garner from having them? The occasion is a photo op that involves Joan giving Christmas presents to orphans at a Catholic orphanage. This shows the sheer perversity of Hollywood, the false ‘too good to be true’ way that stars were depicted in those days (the photos taken at such an event would have been so syrupy that they could have given the magazine readers diabetes by just looking at them) and how surreal such a set up was. There are nuns, orphans, Joan but most importantly for her, photographers! It’s here that a small blonde-haired girl catches Joan’s eye as we see her get broody- for more column inches!
A walk on the beach with Greg provides Joan the chance to provide backstory by telling him that she can’t have kids, having had numerous miscarriages with her previous beau, Franchot Tone. Greg warns Joan that it will be nay impossible for her to adopt a child as she isn’t married and so the child wouldn’t have a father figure in its life and she’s been divorced not just once but twice.
This leads to the scene in the adoption office in which Joan is informed that indeed her adoption application has been rejected. Joan sees red (the first real glimpse of Joan changing into Godzilla in an instant), grabs the adoption application folder out of the agency woman’s hands and curses her (as a funny aside, John Waters on his commentary for the film yells ‘Hit her!’ when this happens. And I’m surprised Joan didn’t!).
Yet the next scene shows that rules can be bent as Joan prepares for the arrival of her first child from sources unknown (‘You cost me a lot of favours’, Greg says to the baby. Joan describes him as nothing but a ‘crooked lawyer’ in a later scene which might explain how he acquired a child for Joan) when she is finally brought to Casa Crawford. There’s a hilarious moment where Joan takes her new baby in her hands for the first time. This exquisite and innocent baby comes face to face with the overly made-up, utterly artificial face of Joan/Godzilla and is quite something to witness.
In fact, the first time I saw Mommie Dearest this scene reminded me of when the xenomorph comes face to face with Jones the cat in Alien.
Tellingly Joan says to the child ‘I’m going to give you all the things I never had!’ Joan was born Lucille Fay LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas to Thomas E. LeSueur who worked in construction and Anna Bell Johnson. It’s clear within Mommie Dearest that Joan thought she should have been born into a family that had a higher social standing. The fact that she was born into such blue-collar and ordinary circumstances shows how entitled she felt with entitlement being a massive indicator of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (more about this later).
The next scene depicts Joan’s daughter named Christina as a young girl at a lavish birthday party thrown by her mother in her honour. At first glance this scene is strangely reminiscent of the birthday scene from The Omen but obviously minus the nanny hanging herself. Instead, we get Joan dressed in a similar costume to her daughter and looking utterly bizarre and sinister because of it. There are echoes of Baby Jane wearing one of her child star costumes even though she is a grown woman. Her attire may be cute on a child star but is utterly creepy on a grown adult. In fact, in her book Christina said that on some occasions such as when her friends came over her mother wanted to be just like her daughter and to be seen as an equal to her. One occasion was when Christina had her friends over for a sleepover. Joan was keen to be just ‘one of the gals’ and even insisted that her and her friends referred to her as ‘Stinky’!
Yes, the occasion is a birthday party for her child, but the reason why everyone is there is because Joan is. We see other children at the party, soldiers (!) but again, more importantly, photographers. We also see that Joan has adopted another child, a boy named Christopher. Whilst Joan coos over Christopher whilst being shot by the paparazzi as the soldiers look on, she exclaims to her spectators ‘I’d like to adopt every unwanted child in the world. No one should be unwanted. Life is tough enough when you are wanted!’ She’s presenting an image to the world of being the perfect mother, a sickening and unrealistic ideal that, as the course of the film shows, is completely false and couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, later in this scene Joan’s mask almost slips. She calls over Christina whilst she is still being photographed by the bank of paparazzi attendant. When Joan suggests to Christina that it’s time to open her presents, her daughter notices that she has a huge grass stain on her frock. Whilst Joan says it doesn’t matter, Christina insists that one of their staff can clean it off and that it won’t take long. Joan is adamant until a photographer says that, in fact, the grass stain might show in the photographs. Joan is forced to back down and allows Christina to have the stain removed. We see Joan angered by this. She has been shown to be wrong and sees this as her own daughter, who is just supposed to be a mere accessory for her own image, seemingly getting the better of her.
Also, when Christina returns to open her presents and to be photographed doing so, the gathered press frame the pics so that Christina is centre-stage with Joan being relegated to the sidelines- Christina the subject, Joan the accessory. This upsets Crawford massively. This scene also shows the start of the power struggles that occur between Joan and Christina. Throughout the film, we’ll see that when Christina (or anyone else for that matter) causes some kind of narcissistic injury to Joan, she gets her own back and with more severity if she can.
It’s worth introducing Narcissistic Personality Disorder here. Joan exhibits many facets of this condition and explains why the film and its lead character are so extreme. NPD is a personality disorder that involves someone who has an irredeemably low sense of self-esteem and self-worth and will do anything and everything to remedy this situation and inflate their low, empty self, (apart from self-reflection and self-development which the narcissist is incapable of) however dark these actions might be. The feeling gained from elevating their fragile low self is known as narcissistic supply and is like a drug to a narcissist.
NPD is classified as a Cluster B Personality Disorder. Other examples of personality disorders in this group are psychopaths and sociopaths which should show how dark and dangerous NPD really is. Narcissists, psychopaths and sociopaths all share the trait of a complete lack of empathy and an inability to possess it which is also a telling sign of how malevolent these personality disorders are. In Dr Grande’s excellent video What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder, he categorises the criteria for NPD as set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as being a grandiose sense of self-importance (the narcissist needs to be recognised as being ‘superior’. Woe betide anyone who doesn’t comply), a preoccupation with unlimited success (this could manifest itself in terms of success, money and power), a need for excessive admiration (this is to prop up their very low self-esteem. They constantly want to be complimented) and a massive sense of entitlement (they expect everyone to look at them favourably. As everyone has some sense of entitlement, the narcissists is hugely disproportionate when compared to non-narcissists. The narcissist wants EVERYTHING and NOW!), exploiting relationships for their own gains and, as previously mentioned, a lack of empathy (this makes the task of exploiting relationships with others very easy for narcissists. Narcissists can’t connect with the verbal and non-verbal cues that indicate what type of feelings someone is experiencing or possesses). Narcissists also exhibit chronic envy (this can manifest itself as them being envious of others and delusions of others being massively envious of them) and huge levels of arrogance (they will be condescending towards other people they view as ‘inferior’ and beneath them).
Someone with NPD doesn’t deal well with criticism. They perceive it as humiliating which leads to a sense of shame and even depression. Narcissistic injury is a term that refers to what a narcissist experiences when they sense perceived or actual criticism, when others attempt to control them (they only like to control others), or if others call them out on their terrible and degrading behaviour toward others. This ‘injury’ sets into motion a series of techniques that the narcissist will use to redress the balance and humiliate, degrade and possibly destroy the perpetrator whilst giving the narcissist huge amounts of supply.
Even worse, if the narcissistic injury is bad enough for the narcissist, this might make them very quickly change for the worse and fly into a fit of what is called ‘narcissistic rage’ in which their mask of false self comes off completely and we see the true horror of what is beneath and how evil this person’s actions can be (we will see this in a handful of scenes within Mommie Dearest which mark the film out as so extreme and why lovers of cult cinema almost levitate towards the film like it’s so kind of exploitation film fan magnet if you will).
Another important facet of narcissism to note is that many speak of the ‘mask’ narcissists wear and the image they try to project onto the world. The narcissist seeks all of their validation from external sources as they don’t seek to address their low self-esteem themselves through self-development to ultimately seek self-validation which is so much healthier. The image they project is crafted to try to satisfy their need for this external validation and admiration to the maximum. This mask or ‘false self’ is a massive lie and fabrication which hides their true dark and damaged self. When the mask slips the narcissist’s true self and what lies beneath this mask is apparent for the whole world (or just a select few) to see. And it’s never pretty.
A great example of the type of person who would seek validation solely from external sources (from fans and the public in general) who also has a professionally crafted, honed and polished manufactured image or mask would be a huge Hollywood star. Which is why we’re here!
The kind of madness and crazy-making behaviour that the narcissist creates is so extreme that it would appeal instantly to the fans of exploitation, ‘cult’ cinema with events being so over the top, accentuated and completely nuts that fans of this broad genre would be more than just satisfied but leaping to their feet to applaud, as we’ll see as events unfurl within Mommie Dearest.
Far from being the over the top movie depiction of child abuse that seems exaggerated complete with events and emotions turned up to 11 for the cinema screen, Mommie Dearest is the most complete and uncensored depiction of Narcissistic Personality Disorder presented on celluloid so far. It makes later depictions of the disorder (The Devil Wears Prada instantly springs to mind) somewhat mannered and conservative by comparison. The fact that NPD was only classified in the DCM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the text used to diagnose psychiatric conditions and used by psychologists, psychiatrists and clinicians professionally) in 1980 and Mommie Dearest was released the following year, shows how far ahead of it’s time the film really was.
Of course, Joan in real life or the persona depicted in the movie was never professionally diagnosed. Another facet of narcissists is that they cannot self reflect on their condition and would deny possessing it if they were accused of having NPD. They would probably try to turn the diagnosis around to try to imply that in fact, it’s the accuser who has the condition rather than themselves (another narcissist trait is employing this technique which is referred to as D.A.R.V.O. which stands for Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender). It might be pointed out that this essay isn’t a definitive diagnosis as Joan isn’t alive to be assessed professionally and so I can only go on the behaviours laid out in the movie which is based on Christina Crawford’s version of events from her upbringing i.e. a subjective second handsecond-hand chronicle of events.
And so the earlier event at the birthday party sets into action a chain of events that we will see replayed throughout the movie- Joan besmirched, sometimes by something that actually happened, sometimes not but rather something that has somehow triggered a narcissistic injury which makes her try to get revenge and engage in oneupmanship to make herself more powerful than her opponent and gain narcissistic supply to inflate her perpetually low self-esteem and self-worth. After the party, Christina is marvelling at all of the presents she has received. She loves one doll especially. Joan asks if this is her favourite present. When Christina says, ‘Yes’, Joan responds with, ‘Good! Then that’s the present you’ll get to keep!’ whilst saying that the other presents will be donated to the orphans who have nothing. We see Christina deflated and upset by this. Joan has restored the power dynamic in their relationship that had been reversed momentarily at the party and in front of onlookers.
Greg enters with a bracelet for Christina but on hearing about Joan’s ‘one gift rule’ persuades her to let Christina keep both his gift and the doll.
But this scene also shows something else and that is that Christina can be somewhat stubborn and possesses a rebellious streak. When asked about the present to Christopher that Joan has made Christina give him so that he doesn’t feel left out, she screws up her face, picks up his present and then casually chucks it to one side out of resentment. It would appear that Joan isn’t the only diva in the Crawford household. There are more examples of Christina’s brattishness that maybe explain why audiences side with Joan within the film, even when she is inflicting on her daughter the most brutal child abuse and neglect. The match between a beloved and iconic member of Hollywood Royalty (not to mention a huge gay icon) and a brattish, privileged adopted child living in the lap of luxury was never going to be a fair fight in the eyes of the audience, especially cult film audiences. Viewers were always going to cheer for Joan.
The following scene shows Christina swimming in the huge swimming pool that is part of Casa Crawford. This scene also further plays out the power struggle between Joan and her adopted offspring. Joan says to Greg poolside that she doesn’t want Christina to grow up to be a ‘spoiled Hollywood brat’ and pushes her daughter to practice and swim more even though the child is at the point of exhaustion.
Just as Greg is leaving he turns to see a race in the water between Joan and Christina. Even with a headstart Joan wins easily and doesn’t concede defeat to her child. We even get to see Joan exit the pool with perfect poise and a movie star walk almost as if the press are present. Joan is always ‘on’.
On leaving the pool Joan the narcissist can’t help but taunt her daughter with ‘You lost again!’
Rather than letting her daughter win on purpose, Joan sees her victory as a life lesson for Christina by telling her that her win was down to her being ‘stronger and faster’ than her and overrides Christina’s protestations about size and age. This was an easy win for Joan in terms of the race and the acquisition of power and narcissistic supply. The narcissist will always win when it’s possible to do so and certainly not concede or feign defeat even for a small child who just so happens to be their offspring.
With this Christina says that if that’s her attitude she’s not going to play with her anymore. Joan smacks her behind for this and locks her in a poolside building.
There was something very masculine and somewhat otherworldly about Joan Crawford, in real life and not just in this movie. Her shoulders and use of shoulder pads accentuated this further. It brings to mind the quote by Alan Bennett regarding the similarly masculine character of Beverley Moss in Abigail’s Party when he described her as having ‘shoulders like a lifeguard and a walk to match’. These masculine shoulders have also provided another reason for various drag queen’s love of Crawford and Dunaway’s portrayal of her.
Mommie Dearest perceptively portrayed this facet of her with Dunaway’s wardrobe. The swimming scene perfectly shows this. Look at the shoulder pads of Joan’s robe. These aren’t natural-looking shoulder embellishments but a quarterback’s shoulder guards. These give Joan an air of being all powerfulall-powerful, unconquerable and invincible. There are similar wardrobe embellishments that emphasise Joan’s body shape that are perfect for certain extreme scenes throughout the film that we will examine in due course.
After this, we see Joan have a run next to Carol Ann who is driving one of Joan’s gorgeous vintage cars. This short scene gives a glimpse not just of Joan’s commitment to being a huge Hollywood star but also of her internal battles and worries that she is obviously wrestling with and vicariously getting out of her system through her arduous exercise session. ‘Fans should know the price you pay’ Carol Ann says to which Joan replies, ‘Mayer should know the price I pay. The biggest female he’s got. Ever had. And he’s burying me alive.’ Joan then follows this with much muttering and a brief sequence of truly manic running that is very disturbing. The mask has slipped and the demon beneath is briefly viewed.
She arrives back home to hear from Gregg on the phone that he has secured a dream role that she had desperately wanted. She is over the moon with this. She tells Carol Ann with Helga looking on. Notice how everyone present is happy with this news or rather everyone present is permitted to be happy. Contrast this with the earlier scene that also features both Carol Ann and Helga whereby they were both on tenterhooks as Joan inspected their cleaning efforts. This is very telling. The narcissist likes control and that includes the control of others’ emotions. It’s almost as if Joan is dictating which emotions it’s acceptable to feel as she is letting her staff know when it’s OK for them to be happy (when she is) and when they aren’t allowed to be (when she has discovered dirt under a potted plant which means Joan has the right to be angry. Her staff, accordingly, have to be apologetic and meek). The narcissist really is the centre of their universe and the most important person present with other lesser (in the mind of the narcissist) people orbiting around them whilst knowing their inferior status and standing.
However, this jubilant scene suddenly becomes the opposite as Joan goes to look for Christina to tell her the good news. On looking in her bedroom and not finding her there she instead finds her daughter in Joan’s bedroom, in front of the many mirrors that the ever-vain Joan has. Christina is unaware that her mother is watching her as she pretends to be her mother whilst accepting an imaginary award, thanking her fans and luxuriating in the imaginary attention of the collected fans and press.
On seeing this a more emotionally stable person would think this scene was adorable and the ultimate compliment with Christina pretending to be her massively famous mother as she obviously looks up to her as some kind of hero and role model, a person to try to aspire to be. But this is Joan Crawford! She accuses Christina of trying to humiliate and mock her. There is also an air of Joan feeling that Christina is trying to step into her shoes. Joan had worked hard to get to where she is and she wasn’t going to vacate her throne, even for her daughter. Joan’s insecurity is bubbling to the surface.
The ‘imitation’ first half of this scene reminds me of the scene from the trash masterpiece Pink Flamingos with Raymond and Connie Marble’s ‘rather fertile’ manservant Channing being caught pretending to be them whilst they are supposedly out of the house. ‘I was just playing!’ Channing protests as the pair expose him mid-act and humiliate him accordingly.
However, the second half of this scene in Mommie Dearest turns unexpectedly chaotic, feels out of control and is yet another reason why the movie is so beloved of the cult cinema fraternity. On snatching away a scarf of hers that Christina is wearing, Joan tries to brush out the setting lotion that her daughter has put in her hair to try to imitate her mother. When it won’t brush out, Joan grabs some scissors out of a drawer and proceeds to frantically, hysterically and manically cut Christina’s hair whilst hollering ‘I’d rather you were bald than looking like a tramp!’ As Christina is imitating her mother, does this mean that Joan thinks of herself as a tramp?! Narcissists also use projection and project their feelings about themselves onto their prey. This film is a therapist’s wet dream.
In Dr Ramani’s excellent video ‘Are Narcissists Happy?’ she explains that narcissists possess very superficial emotions and because of this can switch emotions very quickly. With these emotions being surface level rather than deep, a narcissist can go from happiness (Joan rejoicing that she has just received the role she wants) to disbelief and/or rage in an instant (Joan seeing her daughter imitating her and perceiving this as Christina trying to either share or take over completely her spotlight and what makes her feel ‘special’).
This scene is so frenzied, so insane that it’s easy to see why the film has a fond place in the hearts of cult cinema fans the world over. For a second the audience gets the impression that rather than just cutting her daughter’s hair, Joan will start to actually physically maim her, which is also seemingly felt by Joan as after cutting massive sections of Christina’s hair off she looks at the scissors in her hand as if the thought of maiming her with them would be a fitting conclusion, comes to her senses and throws them across the floor.
This scene shows the emotional instability, fragility and extremities of Joan’s emotions, how she can turn from jubilation to destructiveness and all-consuming anger in a heartbeat. If film fans and critics thought that this adaptation of Christina Crawford’s book was going to be lily-livered and wouldn’t depict the true horror of what she lived through then this scene (along with other notable stand-out scenes to be explored later) proves the opposite. The film doesn’t go the extra mile in depicting these extreme events, it goes a lot further.
The next scene provides the impetus for another chain of events in Joan’s world. Joan arrives at a restaurant with Greg but is forced to dine with studio head LB Mayer even though she states that she has a separate table booked for just her and Gregg. ‘I insist!’ Mayer says with a hard glare as Joan tries to escape to her own table whilst he has financial backers dining at his. Joan being there would lend the meal some glamour and proof of the kind of star that Mayer’s studio cultivates and who bring in money for them. Joan is an accessory, a cash cow, akin to a rented escort for the evening.
‘You’re aces!’ Mayer says to Joan to which she quips back ‘That’s good because aces beat kings!’ (first pic below) ‘Not in Hollywood, dear!’ is how Mayer responds (second pic below). Joan has lost that battle and publicly (her face in the third pic below says it all!). This scene is also very telling as Joan now knows how Christina must have felt because of how her mother has viewed her all along- as an accessory and dehumanised because of it.
And we don’t have to wait long before we see these repercussions. We witness Joan and Greg in her bedroom back at her mansion. She is livid with what happened at the restaurant which she solely blames on Greg. If only he had walked into the restaurant together they would have had dinner at their table rather than Greg entering first and gravitating to Mayer’s table. ‘Hauling me over like some kind of picked up floozy!’ Joan remarks.
As she pours her umpteenth drink Greg remarks that ‘When you were a kid that made you look sexy. Now it just makes you look drunk!’ This dig at her age causes another narcissistic injury for Joan which results in her throwing a drink over him.
When Greg states that he didn’t walk into the restaurant because Joan was besieged with fans she states ‘You expect me to ignore my fans? They are life and death to me, baby! They’re the ones who really made me.’ This is very telling and is also narcissistic behaviour- her self esteem and self-worth are so low that she needs the love of others to feel good about herself and seeks external validation rather than being able to obtain it from within. The blind adoration of her fanbase would do this for her. Anyone who doesn’t unconditionally love Joan or sees behind her mask will be dealt with accordingly- as we see now. Greg then states ‘You were the shop girl who fought her way to the top. Made a great success.’ He then stipulates it more plainly. ‘The truth is you’re getting old!’ to which she replies ‘You’re nothing but a rotten crooked lawyer!’ When Greg gets up to leave, even at one point grabbing her shoulders and shaking her with rage, she backs down, breaks down into tears and begs him not to leave. He also astutely accuses her of acting which is another way of him saying that he sees through her and her false self. Her tears, if they are genuine, might be yet another sign that Joan suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Narcissists hate being abandoned.
Greg does leave and because of this is excised from Joan’s life on every imaginable level. The next day Joan and Carol-Ann are found cutting out Greg’s image from every photograph that he is in.
The control freak Joan is clearly attempting to erase her past. Christina notes that it appears that if her mother doesn’t like you, she can just make you disappear. In her book, this was actually pertaining to another older adopted child that Joan took in. Something had happened to make Joan hate the child, their possessions and any trace of them removed from her household and her life, never to be mentioned again as if they had never existed or been part of her and Christina’s life in the first place. The child’s name was Christopher. Tellingly, he was replaced with another son who Joan also called Christopher as if the older one was merely replaceable, same name and all.
We then see a team of staff putting photographs of Joan into envelopes for her adoring fans. The fans made her after all! And they give her the adoration and validation her fragile ego demands to elevate itself. The sending of a signed image of herself to her fans ensures that their love and adoration for her will always still be there.
There’s another overlap with John Waters’ oeuvre with the next scene in which Christina and Christopher’s loud playing wakes Joan up. Joan shouting at them from an upstairs window is reminiscent of Peggy Gravel shouting at similarly noisy children after her window is smashed by a baseball.
Christina is seen bringing her mother her coffee on a tray after this and saying, ‘Sorry, Mommie’ whilst being completely compliant and meek after this incident even though she was just being a child and playing boisterously with her brother. This is also a trait of people who have a narcissist in their lives. In Dr Ramani’s excellent video ‘The Narcissist and the Handmaid’ she explains how victims of narcissists will act as ‘handmaids’to the narcissist to minimise any toxic behaviour or catastrophic fallout that may come from the narcissist. This is very common when the narcissist is a parent, especially one with an addiction problem. The victim is desperately trying to make their life as stress-free as possible by making the narcissist’s life as smooth as possible even if it puts themselves or others at a disadvantage. In this instance, Christina bringing her mother her coffee, apologising and addressing her mother in the way her mother prefers is an example of this. In some instances, if the handmaid also enables the narcissist’s toxic actions towards others then so be it, if it makes their life a little easier and less toxic.
Joan being an all-powerful presence who can make people and things disappear is also evident in the next scene. Joan spies on Christina telling her dolls off (and tellingly validating one of Joan’s narcissist episodes) for waking her mother up who has a very important meeting with studio head LB Mayer and needs some peace and quiet before that! When Christina returns to her bedroom later she finds that all of her dolls have been removed. On asking her mother about it Joan remarks that maybe the same could happen to Christina if she misbehaves! This scene is especially notable because Joan is reclining on a chaste longe wearing a turban, matching white bathrobe and applying skin cream to her elbows! The film just continues to give and give.
Joan’s meeting with head of MGM Studios LB Mayer doesn’t go well. Out of nowhere, Mayer says that Crawford will leave MGM as cinema owners have voted her ‘box-office poison’. This visibly rocks Crawford so that she starts to weep. She requests for Mayer to do her the courtesy of escorting her to her car. But he doesn’t and Joan has to endure the Walk of Shame in all its terrible glory.
This leads to such a deep narcissistic wound that it initiates one of Mommie Dearest’s most infamous scenes and quoted lines. Joan has gone berserk in her rose garden (and changed into a ballgown to do it!) with a pair of garden shears (!)
Carol Ann wakes Christina and Christopher up so that they can help to clear up the roses that Joan has hacked away. It’s here that we see something within the film that isn’t explained but is within Christina’s book. We see Christopher is fastened into his bed by some kind of harness type contraption. This was known as the ‘Sleep Safe’ according to Christina. It was used to fasten small toddlers into their beds only Joan had had it modified for Christopher so that even though he was older than the age it was originally intended for, it could be used to stop him from getting up in the middle of the night for committing some terrible deed such as using the bathroom! This act of power and control is also indicative of Joan’s narcissism. How dare he get up to empty his bladder when it might wake her up?!
As Joan undertakes some frantic midnight horticulture she repeats Mayer’s damning, ego-bruising words (‘box office poison!’) as they violently swirl around her head. She is also shown to have cuts to her face and shows that her rage is stronger than any kind of superficial self-injuries. Her face is just one step away from Regan MacNeil’s in The Exorcist.
Just when this display of narcissistic rage couldn’t get any more extreme Joan hollers, ‘TINA! BRING ME THE AX!’
With that, she starts to manically chop down a tree in her garden until it is triumphantly felled. This is one of the most demented, surreal, nightmarish and brilliant sequences ever filmed in the history of cinema. It also demonstrates the extra mile the film and Faye Dunaway went to fully portray just how bizarre the circumstances were. Joan focussed the rage that she couldn’t aim at Mayer against an object that couldn’t answer back and could be successfully destroyed. Why she chose her garden is anyone’s guess.
Maybe Joan was tapping into this side of herself when she chose/was driven to star in films later in her career that were aimed more at the exploitation/cult film crowd out of necessity. She was certainly no stranger to wielding an axe either onscreen or during promotion for these types of films and whoever cast her must have recognised the manic and extreme side to her on-screen persona.
After this mindfuck of a scene we see (relative) stability restored and a new day with fresh drama (but minor compared to Joan’s attempts at horticulture). Carol-Ann has been chosen to read lines from Mildred Pierce with Joan so that Crawford can learn the script. Tellingly, one section of the screenplay resonates with Joan a little bit too much. It’s suggested by Mildred’s daughter (voiced by Carol-Anne) that her mother is from the wrong side of the tracks and maybe that’s why her father left. With this Joan full-on slaps Carol-Anne across the face which understandably halts rehearsals.
This is very perceptive of the film. With Joan being the ‘shop-girl who made good’ (in the book of Mommie Dearest, Christina mentions the rumours of Joan becoming a prostitute at one point to claw her way to the top) she is only well aware of the circumstances she was born into and is deeply ashamed of them. In fact, her other issues (NPD, OCD) could maybe be explained as being the result of her childhood and this sense of shame of not being born into money. Her sense of grandiosity and entitlement suggests that she should have been. These are also key facets of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
After the slap, Joan replies with her next line from the script that seems just as apt to what has happened in real life (‘I’m sorry I did that. I’d’ve rather cut off my hand’). But this scene also has an extra layer of meaning- Joan is rehearsing because this is the first time in years that she is being made to take a screen test for a role. This is understandably a huge step backwards for Joan and reminiscent of when she first started and all of that time’s associated fears and uncertainties for her. This also must have bruised her already oh so fragile ego.
Another scene that highlights Joan and her need for control is the lunch scene. Joan, Christina and Carol-Anne are eating rare steak but Christina complains because she doesn’t like it as there’s blood oozing out of it.
There then ensues a battle of wills. Christina is adamant that she won’t eat the steak. Joan tells her she can’t leave the table until it’s finished.
Joan goes back to her later on and says she can leave the table but not until she’s taken the still uneaten steak to the fridge. The steak is then produced again for her evening meal which Joan insists on her eating on her own in her room. The steak is then seen untouched beside Christina’s bed as she sleeps when Joan checks on her late at night. When Christina comes down for breakfast the next morning she finds the steak again waiting for her to be finished. When she still doesn’t finish it she is made by Joan to put it in the bin.
Whilst this scene emphasises Joan’s need for control and the extraordinary lengths she will go to to make Christina bend to her rule, it shows the reality that Joan had to face. Far from being the ready-made fan club that she envisaged when she thought of adoption and the press columns this would afford her, Christina was a stubborn child as some children are and so what manifested itself was a battle of wills between Godzilla and a small child who was asserting herself.
It’s very telling when Joan wins the Oscar for Mildred Pierce and leaves her home to address her adoring fans and the press outside her mansion.
Check out Christina’s expression when she is closing the door on her Mother’s throng. She is in awe when she is shown just how alluring and appealing her mother’s kind of celebrity is.
Now comes the scene that is the most extreme in Mommie Dearest, the scene that would secure the film its place in film history (whether the boring film purists like it or not) and which the studio would use to promote the film as a cult classic when they saw that audiences were going to the film and laughing and quoting lines as they would with any prime slice of cult goodness.
In Christina Crawford’s book, she would describe what happens next as one of Joan’s many ‘night raids’. Apparently out of nowhere, her mother would become enraged in the middle of the night, waking Christina and Christopher abruptly out of their slumber for some kind of misdemeanour (which she’s intentionally looked for to enact punishment) one or both of them have committed, whether it made sense to them or not.
We see Joan (slavered in cold cream on her face and wearing an Alice band and nightrobe) going through her daughter’s closet whilst her little ones are sound asleep. She makes sure each of her daughter’s dresses are equally spaced apart from each other in her closet, another indicator of her need for control and order (her control, her order). She suddenly notices, horror of horrors, one of Christina’s dresses on a wire hanger.
The beginning of this scene is extremely telling and fully illustrates the kind of hair-line trigger emotions the narcissist possesses. Anger can rear its volcanic head at any moment whether the reason for this can be perceived by others or not.
With this Joan swipes the hangers and dresses on them with manic gusto and singles out the offending article that the frock is hung on.
Christina and Christopher are woken abruptly by their mother shrieking ‘No wire hangers! What’s wire hangers doing in this closet when I told you no wire hangers EVER?!’
But as Joan explodes and wreaks havoc on her daughter it’s clear that the dress and the hanger it’s on isn’t the real reason behind her volcanic outburst. ”I work and work till I’m half-dead and I hear people saying ‘She’s getting old!” she hollers. She also shrieks that Christina treats her dresses like dish-rags and shows her disregard for the expensive garments bought for her by putting them on wire hangers. The true motivation for this burst of narcissistic rage is also extolled by Joan when she yells ‘You live in the most beautiful house in Brentwood!’ as she later beats Christina with another wire hanger she, unfortunately, found in the closet. This is the reappearance of the shop-girl past of Joan as she admonishes her daughter for having all of the luxuries she felt she was entitled to but didn’t receive. She is punishing her daughter because of her own past.
Within the documentary ‘The Estate of Joan Crawford’ it’s stated by Christina that this incident may have been sparked as when Joan was growing up she helped her mother in one of her jobs by working with her in a laundry. When clothes were returned to their owners cleaned and pressed they were placed on wire hangers. The sudden sight of this offending object may have reminded Joan of her impoverished past.
This is an uncomfortable scene to watch on many different levels. The first is because this is child abuse being betrayed in a no holds barred fashion the likes of which hadn’t been seen in a mainstream Hollywood film before. It is obviously very disturbing. But there’s more to this scene that makes it surreal and bizarre. This isn’t just anyone beating their offspring. This is Queen of Hollywood, Joan Crawford. And she looks and acts like someone possessed.
Her face is so bizarre, demonic and Medusa-like throughout this scene that at times we were treated to seeing Dunaway’s eyes almost pop out of her skull. During her rant, her bug eyes remind me of the eponymous villain of the old horror movie The Reptile.
Whilst this scene is one of the most talked-about and loved amongst fans of the film and cult movie lovers, it’s enjoyed not as out and out camp or because it’s ‘so bad it’s good’. It’s because it’s so extreme and perfectly depicts Joan’s mood swings and fits of all-consuming narcissistic rage. This film possibly showed the first-ever depiction of this type of rage on celluloid. Anyone unfortunate enough to have someone with NPD in their lives can vouch for the accuracy of this sudden and very extreme outburst.
Dunaway’s performance here is extraordinary. Her face gurns and seemingly mutates. She truly was ‘in the zone’ and very brave to forego dignity or beauty to give an exceptional performance. NPD isn’t pretty in its ‘warts and all’ horror when the ‘false mask’ slips and she fully conveys this.
Joan starts manically and frantically throwing all of Christina’s dresses out of her closet and onto the floor. Christina pleads with her mother to stop. Joan then looks for another wire hanger and on finding one wields it in her hand whilst demanding that her daughter gets out of bed.
She tells Christina to clean up the mess that ironically she has created (we’ll see this happen again within the second part of this scene). Christina, visibly shaken and scared stiff, complies and starts to put the dresses back on their hangers. This is again typical behaviour of those unlucky to have been subjected to narcissistic rage and the threat of it- acting as a ‘handmaid’ (as discussed earlier) to try to placate the narcissist so that their narcissistic rage simmers down and dissipates. Christina would also have been acting out of sheer terror when she started putting her dresses back on their hangers.
As Joan’s rage seemingly reaches fever pitch she starts to beat her daughter with the wire hanger in her hand.
It’s worth noting that after she has beaten Christina with the hanger, she then goes to the adjoining bathroom to crouch down to seemingly have a think. It’s almost as if she is mentally digesting the massive episode of violence that she has just inflicted and the chaos she is at the centre of.
This is reminiscent of the scene at the climax of Taxi Driver in which Travis Bickle shoots the pimp Sport. He then goes and sits down on a stoop nearby. This is an odd moment of calm within a tumultuous and violent scene.
But this brief moment of calm proves to be fleeting as Godzilla is back for Round Two.
It’s noteworthy in this part of the scene that with her twisted appearance and face cream that is now almost like a cracking pan stick applied to her face, Joan bears an uncanny resemblance to Heath Ledger’s take on The Joker.
Also, when Joan prompts Christina to thank her for her beating with her preferred ‘Mommie Dearest’ after it, she opines ‘When I asked you to call me that I wanted you to mean it’ which is then followed with an otherworldly and utterly disturbing hiss from Joan as she drags Christina into the bathroom for more madness.
In this scene, Joan seems almost like a supernatural being or malevolent force of nature. People have spoken about narcissistic rage as being like demonic possession. This is depicted eerily well here. In her review of the movie in The New Yorker on Oct 12th, 1981 (and collected in the book ‘Taking It All In’) Pauline Kael wrote ‘these scenes transcend camp’ and she is right on the money as was the rest of her positive and very astute review. This scene is the epitome of the film going well and truly beyond camp and steering into darker and more troubling waters. This is Exorcist territory. Also, notice the way that it’s almost like Joan invades the personal space of the audience as her hissing possessed face comes right towards the camera. Who needs 3D with such a scene like this?
This really is an extraordinary performance by any standards with Dunaway’s facial gymnastics and seething Medusa as another facet of her depiction of one woman’s personality disorders and dark metamorphoses.
It’s in the bathroom that Joan’s OCD kicks in with her shrieking that the bathroom isn’t clean and that they must clean it together. She even points at imaginary dirt, wipes the surface of an immaculately clean sink and shows the dirt (that isn’t there) to Christina as ‘proof’.
Joan pulls out a canister of cleaning powder, putting a small portion of it on the floor and hysterically telling Christina that they will scrub together.
Notice the vulnerability, irrationality and fear in Joan’s voice as she says to Christina that they will clean the floor together and sets this in motion by saying ‘Go! Scrub hard!’ She sounds so child-like as this seemingly echoes the upset child inside and whatever trauma it was from her own childhood that has now manifested itself as her current OCD.
But this cleaning soon becomes more frenzied with Joan wildly flailing the powder around the room by waving the canister like some kind of possessed being and even beating Christina a couple of times with said container.
Joan’s cleaning and scrubbing become dangerously out of control and manic as it’s clear that her irrational OCD has kicked in and is now running the show. We are seeing pure NPD and OCD, a very dangerous combination.
This wild episode then cumulates in both Joan and Christina dissolving into tears in the middle of a bathroom completely covered in cleaning powder.
This could be seen as some kind of wish fulfilment on Joan’s part just like the earlier incident involving Joan throwing all of Christina’s dresses onto her floor. Here she complains to Christina that the bathroom was dirty when it wasn’t and so she makes sure that by the end of her shit-fit it is dirty and needs to be cleared up.
Joan’s OCD in this scene could also be seen to be triggered by her start in life. She never had the advantages that Christina has been afforded and no matter how hard she scrubs, she can’t change the past and the dirty smear that forever stains her psyche because of it. This also shows a massive amount of entitlement (again, this is also a narcissistic trait) on the part of Joan. She should have been born into different circumstances, better circumstances but wasn’t. She deserved better but didn’t get it.
After Joan has gotten up to leave she turns around to her daughter and demands that she cleans up the mess. She is then asked how.
The supernatural being shows its face again as Joan says, ‘You figure it out’ and then her face contorts to such a degree that she goes slightly cross-eyed as she surreally leaves the room.
One of the most unexpected aspects of this scene is that Christopher was actually present in the same bedroom as the abuse was going on. We see that he has escaped the constraints of his Sleep Safe to come and console his sister and say that he will help her clean up the mess.
Christina urgently tells him to get back into bed as he will be in massive trouble too if Godzilla sees that he has escaped his bed and is trying to help her. Christopher reluctantly goes back to bed.
‘Jesus Christ!’ is how Christina responds when her mother has left and is surveying the carnage of Godzilla’s havoc. Her use of this phrase feels like an obscenity from the mouth of a being too young to use it but far too advanced in what she’s been through already.
The next scene couldn’t be more different from the madness we’ve just witnessed. It shows the facade and false image Crawford and the Hollywood machine have crafted. Joan, Christina and Christopher are participating in a Christmas radio special regarding how La Crawford and her children will spend the festive season. It’s such a deceptive depiction of family love, harmony and perfection that it is almost vomit-inducing in its falsity and artificiality, especially the end in which Crawford and her offspring recite the last lines of Twas The Night Before Christmas for the audience. But this scene is also very perceptive as Joan extols the virtues of motherhood and not spoiling her children. ‘Discipline mixed with love is such a good recipe!’ Quite! But in what proportions?
The fact that this farcical and completely dishonest scene is straight after the infamous ‘wire hangers’ scene shows the sharp contrast between real life as suffered by Christina and the fake life scripted by Hollywood and Joan for radio listeners and film fans worldwide. If this scene is the equivalent of Joan’s false self then the savage scene before this is her true self, the mask slipping off completely.
Another scene after this that is also very telling is when one of Joan’s suitors/meal tickets arrives at her house to be met by Christina who seems to take on the role of bartender for such occasions (‘Easy on the Scotch, Christina!’) as we note that she seems to have done this before (‘I make all my Uncle’s drinks this way!’) This is also an example of someone with a narcissistic parent who acts as a handmaid to the narcissist to make their own life as free from toxic fallout from the narcissist as possible.
This scene is also noteworthy as when we see Joan (in a thoroughly bizarre start to the scene) as she is admiring her legs in a way that suggests admiration but maybe also one of ‘Have I still got it?!’ This question may still be resounding around her head just as the taunts of her being ‘box-office poison’ do. Oh, the transitory, fickle world of Hollywood. This wonderfully surreal scene (within a wonderfully surreal movie) is yet another example of the sense the viewer gets that literally, anything could happen within Mommie Dearest. Like so many scenes within the film, this also gave birth to a whole new generation of drag queens.
Christina brings her suitor (a producer named Ted Gilbert) to Joan who bemoans that the script that he brought her is no good. When he leans into Joan for intimacy her face changes to one of neutrality. It’s apparent why Joan is with him which is what she may be able to get from him. When she has obtained as much as she can from him she will then ditch him (known as ‘the discard’ and also a trait of narcissism) for other fare. This idea of seeing others as merely objects and/or commodities that are useable in some advantageous way is also symptomatic of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Others are seen by what they can do for the narcissist or what they can bring. This scene also hints at something that Christina explicitly states in her book and that is there were rumours of her mother becoming a prostitute to claw her way to the top. This clearly hasn’t changed with Joan prostituting her affections in exchange for a film role/star vehicle that might make it possible to clamber onto her throne again.
Christina rearrives with a fresh drink for her mother even though one hasn’t been requested which alarms Joan. Her daughter also seems to be in no hurry to leave and is even dismissed to leave by her mother. She leaves slowly with lots of knowing and suggestive backwards glances that further enrage Joan. ‘That’s quite an extraordinary young lady!’ remarks Gilbert.
Another narcissistic injury brings another act of retribution from Joan as we next see her driving Christina (despite tearful pleas of protest and remorse from her) to Chadwick’s Country Boarding School. We see the full cycle that we have seen many times in Mommie Dearest- the stubborn child who Joan the narcissist wants to be labile and subservient instead being bolshy, this causing a narcissistic wound with Joan who must be all-powerful which causes narcissistic rage from her as she takes revenge.
She is met by Mrs Chadwick (the ever-brilliant Priscilla Pointer) who surprisingly soothes her by saying, ‘I understand just how you feel. I understand!’ This environment could be just what Christina needs in that it will be a peaceful and more emotionally calm respite from the psychotic high drama of life with Joan.
The film then flashes forward several years as we see Christina now as a teenager and capturing the attentions of a young male classmate. This storyline will be picked up later by the film.
We then see Joan and Christina in a very upmarket restaurant as a waiter flirts with Christina who duly flirts back. Her mother sees all of this and reprimands her. ‘Flirting can be taken the wrong way!’ she opines maybe because it wasn’t her who was being complimented by the waiter. We see that Joan’s narcissistic ways haven’t abated in the time away from her daughter with her ordering for them both of them without any hint of consultation with Christina (she orders the New York steak and rare to boot which takes us back to the earlier incident). Another display of her need to wield total control and power even when it comes to what her daughter will eat.
When Christina proudly tells her mother about her great grades at school she is met with her mother chastising her about whether she has completed her Christmas card list even though the Yuletide season is months away. Joan will get the upper hand, even if her means of achieving this are irrational and completely insane.
But whilst all of this can be seen to be yet another feast of Cluster B traits from Joan, the scene then sails onto more sensitive and heartfelt waters (well for Mommie Dearest anyway). Joan explains to Christina that she has had to let go of their home-help Helga and that she will need her help around the house. We get to see Joan’s hands during this shot with another aside that is as strange and unexpected as the one of Joan inspecting her legs that we were blessed with earlier. Is there a reason for this? Does it correlate to a later scene in which Joan is drunk and surrounded by gifts she has bought for herself? Maybe it hints at the possibility that Joan isn’t as broke as she makes out. Helga is let go but her jewellery stays?
This leads to a scene that almost shows Joan as human. Almost. She goes down to join her daughter in the laundry.
Joan explains to her that she is having financial difficulties. She also explains that because of this Mrs Chadwick has decided to let Christina stay on at her school but on the work scholarship programme. Joan looks genuinely down beaten as she reminisces and says that she did the same thing when she was young, scrubbing floors to get through school. And then the unthinkable happens. Joan starts to show genuine (or is it) vulnerability and breaks down in tears as she says that she has lost her contract at Warner’s and states that she has ‘no money, no contract, no studio’. ‘I’m scared’ she cries to Christina as we see her tearful confession. The mask has slipped but rather than exposing the all too common gargoyle beneath we see her softer, all too human side.
After this we see Christina go to find her mother but after seeing her comatose on a couch shouts to Carol-Ann as she fears the worst and that her mother has actually topped herself.
Carol-Ann then duly tells her that in fact she’s just passed out drunk.
What’s more she is surrounded by lots of newly bought items such as shoes even though she had told Christina that they were broke. Was this a lie (narcissists love to lie)? Was this Joan claiming victimhood (narcissists love to play the victim)? Or was this Joan telling the truth but going out and spending money she didn’t have to prop up her fragile ego and try to prove that her status as a once huge member of Hollywood Royalty was still valid even though she has been told her star is on the wane?
They help Joan up and get her to bed. Joan says to Carol Ann that she is a ”Lousy substitute for someone who really cares” on seeing her!Joan being drunk in this scene and being seen part-taking heavily in other scenes within the film is also indicative of narcissistic behaviour. Some narcissists can’t take the truth of who they are and so rush to find solace in many different addictions whether it be drink, drugs or serial promiscuity. This is done as a means of escape from who they are and as a distraction from their real dark self.
Back at school, Christina goes to the school’s stables to get with jiggy with the boy who she’s caught the attention of but is then caught and reported by a student who thought she was in a relationship with the boy caught rolling in the hay (literally) with Christina. This wouldn’t be the last time we see Christina’s shocking choice of underwear in this film (more of that later).
When Joan is notified of this she storms in like the force of nature that she is and accuses Mrs Chadwick of running something akin to a brothel rather than a school despite the school owner’s protestations that what Christina was caught doing was completely natural. This black and white thinking of Joan’s is again a key trait of narcissism. Why see shades of grey when you can think the very worst scenario has occurred? There’s more drama to be had with pretending the worst has happened. What’s more Mrs Chadwick states that Christina and the boy have just been placed on probation for what has happened but it’s Joan who grandly states that Christina must leave this wicked school which is seemingly (but only in Joan’s head) teaching her such wicked ways. It’s worth noting that during this exchange Mrs Chadwick accuses Joan of overreacting whilst Joan counters with the opinion that Mrs Chadwick is, in fact, underreacting. If anyone line of dialogue could epitomise the whole of Mommie Dearest it’s surely this!
On the drive home ,Joan is apoplectic with rage. On seeing that her hip-flask which is conveniently stashed in the glove compartment of her car is empty, Christina drolly remarks ‘There’s a liquor store to the right.’ But whilst she thinks this is a stinging put down to her mother she is aced with the following comeback from The Queen of Venom- ‘I might have known you’d know where to find the boys and the booze!’ And another catchphrase associated with the film is born.
But Christina’s line about the liquor store isn’t just a catty putdown for her boozy mom. It’s also indicative of a child with a narcissistic parent (with addiction problems natch) acting as a ‘handmaid’ to her narc parent as we’ve seen before within the movie.
What happens next goes down as one of the most extreme scenes in film history just as the ‘wire hangers’ scene does. This scene is loved by fans of Mommie Dearest and cult cinema and just goes to show how edgy even mainstream Hollywood cinema could be at one time.
Joan and Christina arrive home to find journalist Barbara Bennett in their house writing a piece on Joan. La Crawford has sternly pre-warned her daughter of Barbara being there and that she should be on her best behaviour, even though as the scene plays out it should have been her who paid heed to her own words of advice.
It’s also worth noting that again this is an extreme scene resplendent with an extreme outfit Joan is wearing with, yet again, shoulder pads that would make a quarterback jealous.
On entering the house Joan is regaled with the carefully crafted fan magazine bullshit that Bennett has concocted so far (‘Movie star manages to have it all. Career, home and family!’) After a brief exchange with Christina, Bennett remarks how Chadwick has taught her some very good manners to which Joan counters that she has just been expelled, as big a lie as the tommyrot that Barbara has been writing. But just as Barbara’s lies are sickly sweet, Joan’s lie is blackly venomous and meant to injure, besmirch and ruin Christina’s reputation with Bennett. Her lie shows Joan doing what comes naturally to the narcissist. Paradoxically this could, ironically for someone like Joan, very well find it’sits way into print. For someone like Joan to whom image is everything, this could prove fatal. She only has herself to blame but hence, would never admit this to herself. She seems not to be able to tell the difference between truth and lies as we will see as this scene develops.
Christina is quick to counter Joan’s untruth with ‘That’s a lie!’ Joan and Christina then carry on their discussion/slanging match in another room and away from Barbara. Joan is still under the impression that Christina got expelled and seems to believe the lie herself even when it was her who unnecessarily took her daughter out of the prestigious school. When Christina states again that it is a lie she is slapped by her mother but defiantly turns her head back to face her mother again after each slap.
The narcissist in Joan then angrily responds ‘You love it don’t you?! You love to make me hit you!’ as if she is substantiating and validating why she has struck Christina and as if to show that Christina is the guilty party. This is, tellingly, a tactic used by those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and is known as DARVO (as stated earlier) which stands for ‘Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender’ whereby the narcissist projects their own toxic behaviour onto the victim of their actions and then blames them for it. It’s a classic example of victim-blaming that a narcissist will employ. Joan is stating that Christina is the guilty party in this scenario as she made Joan hit her.
Joan’s statement is also an example of the tactic used by narcissists which is known as ‘gaslighting‘ whereby the narc will try to distort reality to sow a seed of doubt in the mind of their victim. Christina was meant to start to think, ‘Maybe I am to blame here’ and back down accordingly. This fails in this instance however as it appears that her daughter is well aware of what the truth is and thus sees through the lies and distortions.
After being joined by Barbara, Joan redirects her to find Carol-Ann if she needs anything. With Ms Bennett out of the way Joan just gets worse.
She has experienced enough of a narcissistic injury already but this is compounded by the spat being witnessed by Bennett which surely acts as a direct attack on what she holds most dearly- her false persona, the Hollywood Royalty mask and her reason d’etre as Bennett could very well report to the outside world what she has witnessed. ‘You deliberately embarrass me in front of a reporter. A reporter! I told you how important this is to me. I told you!’ she screams. Her body language and gesticulations are key here and show what a genuinely great and nuanced performance Dunaway gives. As she says, ‘a reporter’ for the second time she stretches out her forearms and fingers in Christina’s direction. We then see her bring her hands to herself as she shows that she is the target of this perceived incoming attack from her daughter. She brings her hands close and onto her body and then brings her hands up to her chest to show how fatal this will be and that her whole being, her soul and her very core are under threat and will be adversely affected. This is an extraordinary piece of acting.
Joan is under threat now on every level. Joan’s public image and ‘false self’ are everything to her. If this public image is reported to be a lie by a reporter along with the truth that her private life isn’t as rosy as Joan’s PR spin would have you believe then the adoration and validation she receives from the general public is threatened and as a result of this, her very being will be destroyed. This situation of not being able to obtain supply would be disastrous for any narcissist. They have no means to self-validate hence the false self. This could lead to what is known as narcissistic collapse.
This is then abruptly interrupted by Christina who demands to know ‘Why did you adopt me?’ If there was ever any exchange in the whole film that gets to the core of matters being played out in front of our eyes, it’s this. Joan is genuinely shocked and taken aback. She even looks as if she has been slapped herself. The elephant in the room has been identified, brought out into the open and forced to be discussed. To this Joan replies with ‘What?!’ whilst looking mortally wounded. When her daughter repeats the question Joan feigns compassion and says, ‘Because I wanted a child! I wanted someone to love’ to which Christina responds with ‘Don’t you act for me! I wanna know! Why did you adopt me?’ Note that this was the second time in the film that Joan has been told to stop acting with ‘acting’ being another term for her narcissistic false self as Greg said the same in the scene where he leaves her life for good. This forceful demand for the truth makes Joan’s mask slip for her to *shock horror* tell the truth. ‘Maybe I did it for a little extra publicity’. The mask has momentarily slipped to which she then slips it back on and tells Tina, ‘That’s not true! You know that’s not true’. ‘Maybe just a little true’ Christina responds as if what she has known all along has been brought out into the open at long last.
With this Joan makes sure that the point or target of the hostility within the argument is directed back at her daughter as she says that she doesn’t know what to do with her to which Christina screams ‘Why not?’ Notice Dunaway’s amazing performance here again as she trips down the first step she has to walk down to get closer to her daughter. Joan would never have normally done that as her movie star persona demanded perfection and poise at all times. She has been damaged by this toxic conversation/argument with Christina. Her narcissism then comes to the fore again with her entitlement making her say, ‘I don’t ask much from you girly! Why can’t you give me the respect that I’m entitled to? Why can’t you treat me in the way I would be treated by any stranger on the street?’
Christina then responds by bellowing ‘Because I am not one of your fans!’ This scene could have easily been a ‘the worm has turned’ type scenario with the downtrodden finding their power, using that power and sticking it to their oppressor. Instead, Mommie Dearest goes the opposite way which is why it’s now regarded as one of the most infamous, uncompromising and extreme films ever made. When Narcissistic Personality Disorder is at play this kind of extreme behaviour is completely plausible.
There couldn’t have been a bigger insult made to Joan. A narcissist seeks validation and approval externally akin to the kind she receives from her fans. It’s obvious she wanted an instant fawning, sycophantic fan club to be at her side at all times in the form of her adopted children. She also wanted the extra press that her brood could garner her. Instead, she had a rebellious, assertive daughter who stood up for herself and reflected back to Joan other more complex emotions rather than just pure unquestioning adoration.
Such a scene in a more conventional biopic would have concluded with Joan backing down and learning the error of her ways. As this is Mommie Dearest and a prime slice of cult filmmaking, the following happens.
Joan rugby tackles Christina down to the floor by her neck, takes out a very expensive side table and lamp in the process…
…and proceeds to strangle the very life out of her adopted daughter/fashion accessory whilst shrieking lines such as ‘You never loved me!’, ‘You’ve always taken and taken’ and ‘You never wanted to be my child!’
Notice Dunaway’s performance here and how she eerily and expertly conveys the narcissistic mask of false self slipping to show the demon underneath it. Again, as Pauline Kael stated Mommie Dearest ‘transcends camp’.
There’s even a backwards shot of the proceedings that shows Christina’s very unattractive knickers for a second time as if once wasn’t vomit-inducing enough as she flails her legs around wildly as she’s being throttled by her mother.
Carol-Ann and Barbara both rush in and attempt to wrestle Joan off her daughter. Joan then suddenly flings back her arms to get them off her and roars like some kind of beast as Godzilla makes another appearance during the film. Joan’s narcissist rage is there for all to be horrified by.
This scene of utter insanity ends with Joan screaming that Christina ‘Get out!’ as she lies on the floor clutching her throat and making choking noises.
The next scene depicts Christina being induced into a convent school and is eerily calm and serene. This transition is at complete odds with the previous scene of complete and utter madness. It feels like, in fact, Frank Perry knew very well that he was making a cult film and that the movie should have a knowing black humour intertwined within it. It’s also one of the most jarring and blackly funny scene contrasts I’ve ever seen. We see Christina’s induction into the convent school as retribution from Joan because of her colossal tussle with her mother, the effect coming after the cause. She is told that her mother has requested ‘the strictest discipline for you. There will be no privileges. You’re not to leave the school. There will be no telephone calls, in or out, no visitors, no mail.’
In fact, another great aspect of the film as a whole is the way the edits and gaps between scenes are so dizzying and kamikaze. An edit can mean either later that day or several years into the future. It disorientates in much the same way as someone hitting you in the face repeatedly with a metal tray would. These edits and sensations all add to the extreme nature of Mommie Dearest. Again, you feel like anything can happen.
The film flashes forward as we see Joan getting married to Pepsi Cola CEO Mr Alfred Steele. Was it for love? Now that we know Joan’s narcissistic traits, we can presume that the answer is ‘No’. Narcissists see others as objects and as what they can bring for their own nefarious gains. The head honcho at a huge corporation like Pepsi Cola could bring a hell of a lot to the life of the Hollywood actress with a career well past its prime.
We see Christina leave the convent school and arrive home to Joan who asks her to introduce herself to her new father. There’s a marvellously awkward scene where Christina goes up to Steele who is swimming lengths in their pool and says, ‘Hi Daddy. I’m Christina!’ before they cordially shake hands.
It’s at the building renovation of their new apartment cum Pepsi showhome that we see Joan and Christina discussing Tina going into acting. She explains that she is working nights so she can go to auditions during the day. She also asks her mother for a little financial help but, of course, Mommie Dearest says no and that ‘doing things on your own is best’. But we then see Alfred give her some cash in private and out of sight of Joan. We also see Alfred asking Joan to cut back on her spending and the plans she has for their new building. When she objects to this he says ‘This isn’t Hollywood. This is the real world!’ This is reality vs Hollywood make-believe again just like this is the true self vs the false self that Joan has concocted to hide her dark heart.
Within this scene, we get another prime slice of Joan being all-powerful and the stroppy diva that audiences of the film all know and love. Discussions are being had about the layout of the apartment and specifically about a bearing wall that is blocking the view. Joan responds with her own solution for the problem- ‘I’ll tell you what to do. Tear down that bitch of a bearing wall and put a window where it ought to be’. Joan has delivered this line as if it’s a speech from one of her own movies to demonstrate that the leading lady can be strong, assertive and have better ideas than those around her. But this isn’t a film, it’s real life and so her bizarre and out of context Oscar-winning speech results in exchanged glances and aghast expressions of all those around her. This is another example of the distance between Joan’s reality and actual reality not to mention that a bearing wall actually holds up part of a property as opposed to a partition wall. But as we’ve seen from previous scenes in the film, Godzilla loves to destroy so maybe this was her intention all along.
Another jarring cut takes us to a board meeting of Pepsi Co which Joan is a member as we now learn that her husband has passed away.
The other members explain that Al was in debt when he died and that they will give her plenty of time to repay that debt. They also stipulate that they will have to take back the Fifth Avenue apartment. When others voice their opinion that they thought because of this Joan would want to leave her position on the board this gives Joan ample opportunity to flex her muscles. When she says she wants to stay on the board they say that they have already retired her. She voices that she has fought bigger monsters in Hollywood than in Pepsi Co and that she will publicly come out against their product. This makes the other board members quake as they understand the power of a huge star and how important celebrity as a concept is for the advertising and revenue of a product. Joan holds the aces here and it also gives us another of the film’s most infamous lines. ‘Don’t fuck with me fellas! This ain’t my first time at the rodeo!’
Joan recognises that her star power can be used against Pepsi Co just as it can be used for it and so ‘It’s a sword, cuts both ways!’
The board en masse backs down (the subtitles on the movie’s DVD say that the head of the board ‘Clears his throat’!) from La Crawford’s threat and continues on with her as a senior member. Another win for Joan, another massive source of narcissistic supply.
Just as Christina and Joan together at the apartment renovation (the previous scene) appeared to be cordial towards each other, we see Joan unexpectedly turning up at Christina’s NYC pad and even bearing gifts- a set of pearls that were the first present that Al gave to her. She gives them to Christina in what might be seen as a period of their relationship that seems to be quite peaceful and drama-free. In reality ,this is probably the narcissistic trait of breadcrumbing in which a narcissist will every now and then throw their source of narcissistic supply a few crumbs of kindness, admiration or even (fake) love. This is done as a play of power for the narcissist and also to keep their source of supply in place. Christina will think that things between herself and her mother are finally OK and that maybe her mother has turned over a new leaf. But leopards (and narcissists) never change their spots.
This is proved in the next scene as we see that Joan has more tricks up her sleeve. After Christina is rushed to hospital with an ovarian tumour, the producer of the daytime soap she is starring in goes to the hospital and meets Joan instead who just so happens to mention that Christina will be incapacitated for quite some time because of the tumour and the surgery to remove it. Joan asks to speak to the producer again. It’s here that we see why. It appears she had an idea regarding her daughter’s absence from the TV series.
Christina is woken up in her hospital bed by a nurse who is turning on the television so that she can watch the soap she normally appears in. She is shocked to see that her mother is appearing as her character even though Joan was 60 years of age at the time and playing a 24-year-old. This decision to include Joan as her daughter’s character wasn’t just farcical but also bizarre. It was also symbolic of Joan’s narcissism to usurp her daughter and kick her off her pedestal. It must have irked Joan that her daughter had dared to enter the same profession that Joan was (once) a part of and was (at one point) very well renowned and revered within. Joan clearly has no qualms about stealing her daughter’s limelight even whilst she’s in the hospital.
Another disorientating cut happens as we seemingly venture forward by several years. We see Christina getting ready after Carol Ann (visibly much older) has brought a gown for Christina to wear to accept a lifetime career award on behalf of Joan as her mother is now too old to accept it herself. We see that Joan is now is incapacitated due to old age. She watches the award ceremony in bed.
But when Christina looks into the camera and tearfully says ‘I love you, Mommie Dearest’ there is more pain than love in her proclamation and the audience now knows why. In fact, when she says it the movie’s audience instantly thinks of the wire hangers scene where she was forced to use the same term of endearment to her mother.
We see Joan start to cry on seeing this.
We then jump forward to Joan’s funeral and Christina going to see her embalmed mother’s body.
There’s a very poignant scene in which she starts to cry on seeing her dead mother and says the words ‘No more pain’. How apt. Who would want to live the life of a narcissist?
But even at Joan’s funeral and the reading of her will, we see that Joan has one last ace up her sleeve to serve from beyond the grave. Even mortality can’t diminish Joan’s desire for power, control and narcissistic supply. It’s explained that Joan has cut both her and Christopher from her will ‘for reasons that are well known to them.’ ‘As usual, she has the last word’ Christopher remarks to which Christina knowingly replies ‘Does she?!’
But what the film cunningly leaves out is the fact that before her death Joan had found out that Christina was planning to write a book about her upbringing and that it would be far from complimentary. Joan spoke about this with Charlotte Chandler in her Vanity Fair article.
Christina’s book came out and repainted Joan as a child abuser but wasn’t the all-powerful trump card that she hoped it would be. Plenty of people came forward to voice the opinion that Joan was far from the monster Christina tried to paint her as. Two notable examples were the two other daughters adopted by Joan, Cathy and Cindy who said that Joan was never abusive to them with Cathy confirming this to Charlotte Chandler in the same Vanity Fair article.
Myrna Loy, in addition to being a family friend, had occasion to work with both Joan and Christina Crawford, and wrote about Christina in her autobiography, “I’ve never known anyone like her – ever. Her stubbornness was really unbelievable. She would not do a single thing anyone asked her to do. Christina wanted to be Joan Crawford, I think that’s the basis of the book she wrote afterward, and of everything else. I saw what her mind created, the fantasy world she lived in. She envied her mother, grew to hate her, and finally wanted to destroy her.”Others stepped forward to defend Joan including her first husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Bob Hope, Cesar Romero and Barbara Stanwyck.
Whilst the book didn’t manage to tarnish everyone’s opinions of Joan ‘Hollywood Royalty’ Crawford, the movie and its legacy arguably won Joan a new generation of fans. Christina wasn’t to know that the movie would become a cult classic and that cult audiences would cheer on Joan as the protagonist and see the scenes of child abuse as surreal Grande Guignol resplendent with immaculately decorated interiors.
When the movie was released it received mixed notices with some being massively scathing like the review that appeared in Variety (‘Dunaway does not chew scenery. Dunaway starts neatly at each corner of the set in every scene and swallows it whole, costars and all’) and the review from noted film critic Roger Ebert (‘I can’t imagine who would want to subject themselves to this movie…It is unremittingly depressing, not to any purpose of drama or entertainment’).
Whilst Vincent Canby’s review in The New York Times was negative it did mention the perceptive assertion that ‘It achieves that state of wild, out of control melodrama that is both comic and horrifying’. It also talked about ‘the ferocious intensity of Faye Dunaway’s impersonation’ (of Joan) and that ‘the woman in this film is much more interesting and comprehensible than the fabled character depicted in the movie magazines and reminiscences on the same literary level’. Backhanded praise wrapped up in a generally derogatory review.
Gene Siskel’s review in The Chicago Tribune was similarly not altogether negative and he even gave the film 2 and a half stars as opposed to his Sneak Previews partner in crime’s rating of 1 star.
The film did receive enough positive reviews (or at least enough positive parts of reviews) that an ad could be cobbled together by Paramount which brought all of these together and showed that the film was of considerable merit.
But special notice has to be paid to the review by Pauline Kael (mentioned previously and which can be seen in her excellent collection of reviews ‘Taking It All In’) that marvels at Dunaway’s performance and doesn’t see the extreme scenes as mere melodrama on steroids but rather as channelling Joan’s damaged psychological states. She mentions that maybe Dunaway and Crawford were both suffering from a ‘folie a deux’ which literally translates as ‘madness for two’. Kael wonderfully and astutely sums up the whole movie.
Even with these largely disparaging reviews, Paramount noticed that the film was still drawing crowds but the kind of crowds who went to see cult films and midnight movies. Paramount quickly tried to capitalise on this and issued a new poster emphasising the ‘wire hangers’ scene (see earlier in this article for said poster) which Frank Yablans the film’s producer and co-writer tried to sue Paramount over. The studio even employed drag queens clutching wire hangers to stand in the lobby for screenings according to John Waters in his commentary for the film on the ‘Hollywood Royalty’ edition of the DVD. The fact that Waters of all people should be asked to provide a commentary for the film decades later is a testament to the film’s ‘cult’ status.
Mommie Dearest featured heavily in the nominations for a new set of awards, The Golden Raspberry Awards known less formally as The Razzies. These awards were designed as a celebration of the worst films made in that year, an anti-Oscars if you will. Mommie Dearest was nominated in the 2nd year of the awards in a number of different categories with the film clinching the Razzies for Worst Picture, Worst Actress (this was a joint win with Bo Derek in Tarzan The Ape Man), Worst Supporting Actor and Worst Supporting Actress.
Whilst this may have sealed the film’s reputation as ‘terrible’ or ‘so bad it’s good’ with more conservative film fans (those behind the scenes at The Razzies who chose the nominations are invariably just as conservative and dull in their tastes in cinema), the Razzies quickly earned a reputation as a set of awards that in fact had an uncanny knack of highlighting films that were actually brilliant examples of cult cinema. In some cases, these films were merely ahead of their time on first release and would receive the plaudits they deserved years later. Need proof? The previous year’s Razzies would nominate such gems as The Shining, Cruising, Dressed To Kill and Friday the 13th in different categories as examples of the worst the film industry had to offer in 1980! All of these films are now regarded as either cult classics or bona fide masterpieces. When Mommie Dearest was nominated so was Tangerine Dream’s groundbreaking score for Michael Mann’s Thief for Worst Musical Score and Heaven’s Gate for Worst Picture. I’d love to see what those at The Razzies thought of as good cinema.
The reputation of Mommie Dearest continued to grow and grow with cinemas booking the film even though it had long finished its general release run. The film’s status as a cult classic was sealed with the kind of people who obsessively watched John Waters’ and Russ Meyer’s films paying particular attention. It was almost as if naming Mommie Dearest as a film you loved was like giving a knowing wink to other lovers of edgier and darker cult cinema that knew no limits. It meant you knew your stuff when it came to all things ‘cult’.
With all of this going on it must have appeared to Christina that rather than her having the last laugh as was intimated by the film’s final scene, Joan was enjoying it instead. Christina would publicly denounce the film as being more about her mother than her and the fact that she wasn’t paid as she was quick to state when interviewed by Larry King.
But then the funniest thing started to happen. She started to appear at midnight screenings of the film. There was even a tour organised in which Christina would introduce the film with a Q&A after it with proceeds going to charity and allowing her to promote the new edition of her book. It was almost as if the cult juggernaut of Mommie Dearest couldn’t be stopped under any circumstance so why not join in and milk it for all it’s worth. If you can’t beat em, join em, right?!
With all of this analysis regarding the film and the narcissistic abuse it depicts, am I somehow stating that Mommie Dearest can’t be enjoyed as a cult film anymore, that audiences shouldn’t enjoy the film in the same way that they enjoyed it before because of the horror of some of the events depicted within now that we know more about narcissistic abuse? My answer is NO! Mommie Dearest is a headfuck of a movie. It’s surrealist Grand Guignol and the most extreme scenes are shot to accentuate this quality. Yes, there’s abuse depicted which gives the film an underbelly of darkness and grit that almost makes the audience want to avert their gaze, especially during the wire hangers scene and the other extreme sequences.
The events depicted are based on someone’s life and show that abuse can occur in even the most privileged of settings. And that’s where the brilliance and cult cinema goodness of Mommie Dearest lies. The abuse depicted in the film isn’t being inflicted by a white trash Mom in a trailer park. Rather, it’s in opulent settings. It’s reality versus the image that has been carefully crafted by Hollywood and the many press agencies and fan magazines. It’s the fact that the abuse is being inflicted by one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. It’s so unexpected with the surface being scratched away to reveal the dark underbelly of Christina and Joan’s private lives. Any film that contains a sequence involving a member of the Hollywood A-list (and not to mention that she’s dressed in a bathrobe and Alice band whilst slathered in face cream) beating her adopted child with a wire hanger will always be brutal but will always cause the audience to open their eyes wide and outwardly exclaim ‘What the fuck!’ This is nearer to The Exorcist than the ‘campathon’ others would have you believe.
And with such bizarre situations, there is a level of dark humour present that is closer to gallows humour than out and out ‘laugh out loud’ comedy. This is in the same way that certain sequences are funny within The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (‘Look what your brother did to the door!’) or Taxi Driver (during the Dantes Inferno-esque climax to the film Iris screams that Travis not shoot a client she is with with Travis completely ignoring her and shooting him anyway. This sequence wouldn’t be funny if it wasn’t within a truly gruesome sequence at the climax of a very dark movie).
The way the more extreme sequences within the film are filmed also lends to the unreal nature of the film as a whole and cements its cult status. Whether it’s the flailing knickers shot or the sequence of Joan armed with an axe felling a pesky tree in her rose garden whilst dressed in a very expensive ballgown, these sequences are one part dark, three parts ‘WTF!’
And what’s more, it contains one of the most brilliant performances I’ve ever seen let alone the best-rounded depiction of the full madness of Narcissistic Personality Disorder ever captured on celluloid. I hope the film starts to get the kudos and acclaim it so richly deserves. And if it educates people as to the full horror of NPD then all the better.
If this essay was a TV programme at this point a voice-over would chime in proclaiming ‘If you were affected by any of the issues featured you can contact…’ and this is what I want to write here. Narcissistic Personality Disorder and narcissism in general still aren’t known about by the majority of people but needs to be. Apparently, 1 in 10 people are narcissists which means that potentially 10% of the population are seriously dysfunctional people wreaking havoc on those who are unfortunate enough to be in their orbit. Your education starts here. Do your research, learn how to work on yourself to repel these seriously fucked up people and how to get these monsters out of your life. Also, learn how to heal after narcissistic abuse.
Here are some great YouTube channels to start your journey-
If Mommie Dearest resonated a bit too much with you and brought back unpleasant memories from your past, maybe a good place to start when visiting the YouTube channels above would be by looking up Narcissistic Mothers. Believe me, there’s plenty of material!