Mommie Dearest (1981)

23 Dec


Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“No wire hangers EVER!”

Coming from the 1981 film “Mommie Dearest,” that line is one of the most popular movie quotes, even gaining itself a spot on the American Film Institute’s “100 Quotes” list. It’s so quotable that it spawned over a dozen parodies (most of them are quite funny). And it’s from a film that is now a “cult classic” because of scenes such as the one this line came from, because a good deal of actress Faye Dunaway’s performance is loud, abrasive, and over-the-top. When I decided to see this film to see how truly “funny” it is, well…

Well, first, let me talk about the “no more wire hangers” scene, in which wealthy, stubborn actress Joan Crawford (Dunaway) is angry at her little daughter, Christina, for having wire hangers in her closet. This is the scene that is often quoted mockingly and said to be so bizarre that it’s unintentionally humorous. That really surprises me.

Yes, it’s a little confusing as to where Joan’s daughter’s wire hangers came from. Yes, the line is quite memorable. Yes, the scene is a little too over-the-top. But if you really look at this scene, it’s incredibly disturbing! I mean, you’ve got Joan yelling at her daughter for a ridiculous reason. That’s one thing. It’s another thing when Joan beats her with one of the wire hangers! This is a very unsettling, hardly watchable scene that features child abuse at its center. And it doesn’t stop there. She drags her out of bed and messes up the bathroom so she can wash it herself! Even poor Christina knows this is going too far! “Jesus Christ,” she says to herself tearfully.

(Sarcastic remark: I don’t know what’s funnier—the yelling or the beating.)

It baffles me how people have labeled “Mommie Dearest” a “cult classic” because of “campy” scenes like that. I have to wonder what movie they thought they were watching and what substance they were abusing while doing so.

Okay, to be kind of fair, my guess is that it has to do with “shock value.” Aside from the wire-hanger scene, there are moments in which a mother angrily cuts off a lot of her daughter’s hair, tackles her to land on a glass table, and, in another “campy” bit, harshly cutting hedges out of anger. It’s like watching a “Friday the 13th” movie—its fan base sees the appeal in being shocked every couple of scenes. Because of this, “Mommie Dearest” is not the most effective kind of biopic. It’s supposed to show the truly complicated relationship between Joan Crawford and her adopted daughter Christina, as it only gets worse as time goes by due to cruelty and jealousy. But it goes so far at showing the terrible parts of the relationship that after a while, it’s hard to truly explain what it’s all about. There’s hardly a narrative flow here; it’s all one shocking moment after another without much ground. Most of these scenes don’t even have much of a buildup. They just happen.

“Mommie Dearest” is a depressing film; one I wouldn’t want to revisit anytime soon. One viewing of it was enough for me. The film was so successful as an unintentional “comedy” that its popularity led to no Academy Award nomination for Faye Dunaway (which is one of the reasons she doesn’t like to talk about the film) but several Razzie nominations (and wins, for that matter). I can say this about Faye Dunaway’s performance, however. Dunaway clearly put her all into it, and in all fairness, it is a chillingly good performance. When you think about it, Joan Crawford was an over-the-top personality; therefore, Dunaway playing her as such is necessary. Dunaway should not be criticized for playing a loud, rough, even violent woman with some truly unnerving mental issues. I don’t even see Faye Dunaway in this film at all; I see Joan Crawford. (Oh, and thanks to sensational makeup, she even looks exactly Joan Crawford—another strange reason people make fun of this movie.) Too bad we only see her as a monster though. The film was based on a best-selling memoir, written by Christina Crawford, which only described her movie-star mother as such. That may be the film’s biggest problem. It’s too one-sided. I didn’t care much for this movie, other than to prove the point that I am definitely not part of this “cult” that holds it in high regard for all the wrong reasons (or the right reasons, for that matter).

NOTE: I will point out the film’s one satisfactory scene. Just before Joan attacks a young-adult Christina, they engage in a screaming match with a great exchange: “Why can’t you give me the respect that I’m entitled to?!” Joan shouts. “Why can’t you treat me the same as any stranger on the street?!” Christina responds perfectly: “Because I am NOT…ONE OF YOUR FANS!”

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