Joan Crawford’s acting style throughout her career painted her as a hard-working, dutiful woman, who wouldn’t let the masculine world dissuade her. It mirrored much of her upbringing as the shiniest example of Hollywood’s star system. A young girl from nowhere and nothing, sacrificing her old life to become a Hollywood starlet, raised to believe that success is earned and handled. She was never naive and her business acumen made her a threat to the structure of society. Not only that, she was a powerhouse of an actress and delivered a number of my favorite performances (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Mildred Pierce, Johnny Guitar) ever. She’s an icon, but her public persona hides a dark, personal secret.
In Crawford’s daughter’s memoirs published in 1980 called Mommie Dearest, a vastly different image of her gets presented to the public. One that shows Crawford as a dangerously obsessed alcoholic that physically and mentally abused her children. It’s a picture of Crawford that uses the same idealistic vision of her work ethic as a reason she was such a monster in private. Her attitude towards success and the career blow to her personally once MGM went in another direction and Crawford ended signing with Warner Bros. Ultimately, that pivot led her to the most fitting role in her career: Mildred Pierce.
It’s as if the character of Mildred Pierce was written with Crawford in mind, and she encapsulated her spirit. It’s a masterful performance and her winning the Oscar was well deserved. She got tossed aside by the industry and rebounded for even greater glory – or at least that’s how the story plays in public
Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest
Shortly after the death of Joan Crawford in 1977, her adopted daughter Christina published memoirs of growing up in that environment named Mommie Dearest. Frank Perry, the electric American director responsible for the 1968 masterpiece The Swimmer, took on the memoirs and adapted the highly divisive story to the screen. It was extremely controversial as people close to Joan, including her first husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr, denounced the book. However, Christina Crawford has always said there’s no way anyone outside the house would know of her neuroses, and that’s confirmed by Christina’s adopted brother Christopher.
Furthermore, Christina paints Crawford as calculated unconsciously forged by her dire drive to succeed early on in her career. And not only that, but she was a true businesswoman and understood the business better than most. She had her sights set on the long-term and always was looked at as the consummate professional in the industry. Unafraid to let the limelight pass over her to build better, firmer relationships with the studios.
In Mommie Dearest, we see that mind for business in each story beat. Communicated masterfully through Faye Dunaway’s performance that completely embodies the unseen version of Joan Crawford. It’s a performance that has a neurotic streamline through the center, but has dramatic mood swings that are blindsighting. Perry shows Crawford’s rampant alcoholism to be absolute terror on the children and caused her to go into a blind rage. Of course, Faye Dunaway is magic in those moments, with a sick level of intensity that’s almost obscene. She’s truly one of our greatest actors regardless of gender.
However, in recent years, Dunaway has gone on record saying she regrets playing the role of Joan Crawford. She expected a different type of role, one that viewed her emphatically, and not as monstrous as in Perry’s version. It put a stain on her career and says it gave people the wrong impression. And this raises a good question on the morality of making and releasing a film with this heavy storyline. Because either way, it’s a sensationalized version of very real events, making Crawford out to almost be cartoonish. Perry walks a fine line and while it doesn’t always hit the right balance, it also teaches a lesson on psychological abuse of children.
Hopefully, the world can remember Crawford for the resourceful and brilliantly shrewd actress and businesswoman she was, with a complicated past where a sick person was given an avenue to release all her boiling anger. Even in Mommie Dearest, there are genuine moments where Christina doesn’t see Joan as a monster, but at her lowest points she goes berserk and loses scope of reality. Dunaway captures the sheer madness of it all with just one line:
“No Wire Hangers!”
It’s a line that will live in infamy. Dunaway especially feels those scenes paint her in a bad light. She said they made her ugly, and with the face cream and hair curls, Dunaway could be compared to a horror monster at that point. It’s over the top, but Perry wasn’t trying to be subtle. He tells the stories from the memoirs as they’re presented in the book, so it’s a singular perspective but the one perspective that the public never saw.
Overall, it’s a type of narrative that Frank Perry would see a cake. He found manic-depressive housewives as the most fascinating of subjects. Despite an overzealous vision, I find this film to be extremely revealing and capture the stresses of an abusive situation.