Review

  • The life of Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) is detailed from 1939, when her career was on a downswing, to her death in 1977, focusing on her rivalrous relationship with her adopted daughter Christina (Mara Hobel & Diana Scarwid).

    "Mommie Dearest" (1981) is a 'controversial' drama because it dares to reveal the hidden truth about a member of Hollywood royalty, at least according to her first two adopted kids, Christina and Christopher, who have stuck to their guns in the decades since. Sure, the younger twin sisters, Cindy & Cathy, dispute the claims of gross abuse (while admitting Joan was strict), but they were only 3 years-old when Christina was 11 and so weren't present or were simply too young to know what went down with Christina & Christopher. Another thing to consider is that Joan learned a few lessons on parenting in raising the two older kids and therefore was wiser with her treatment of Cindy & Cathy.

    The movie is neither campy nor an "unintentional comedy." This is a dramatic biopic of the final 38 years of Joan's life with concentration on the 40s-50s. It's a great behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood of that period. The viewer becomes privy to Joan's struggles with romance, maintaining success in a challenging career, aging, finances, male chauvinism and... childrearing.

    While Gene Siskel gave the movie a fair 2.5/4 rating, both he and Ebert complained that the picture was too depressing, but that is a one-dimensional perspective. Yes, the abusive episodes aren't fun, but there are only two really bad ones, the wire hanger and the choking sequences. In other words, there's WAY more to this movie than Joan being an abusive monster.

    Speaking of which, the flick is surprisingly evenhanded with the "Queen of the Movies." It shows the good, the bad and the ugly, NOT just the ugly. Near the end of the story it's clear that there was some genuine warmth and care in Christina's relationship with Joan. The ending, however, put the final nail in the coffin (which I'm not going to reveal, even though it's historically documented). Yet the film makes it clear that Joan believed in self-made success because she felt it created character as opposed to everything being handed to the individual. So perhaps in her mind she believed she was doing both Christina & Christopher a favor because she believed they had the talent & aptitude to make it in life just fine without any further help from her.

    Some critics, including Siskel & Ebert, claimed that the movie didn't explain Joan's abusive tendencies with Christina (and Christopher), but it does for anyone who opens their eyes. She was a control-freak and perfectionist, not to mention she clearly developed a spirit of competition with Christina, as observed in the pool scene and, later, the soap opera episode.

    Faye blamed the director for not reining her in during the two extreme scenes of mistreatment but, while these may or may not be slightly overdone, ALL biopics exaggerate things for dramatic purposes. For instance, do you think for a second that, in "Braveheart" (1995), William Wallace really trotted into a Baron's bedchambers on a freakin' horse for a confrontation and was easily able to escape on the horse? That said, I found those two maniacal scenes thoroughly believable. In fact, from my experience these kinds of hysterical incidents happen in practically EVERY family on occasion, hopefully very infrequently (just like in the film). For instance, I've had a few shameful meltdowns over the years that I wouldn't care to elaborate on, how much more so a passionate actress juggling the demands of a Hollywood career and everything that goes with it?

    Speaking of Dunaway's performance, she was perfect for the role and shouldn't be embarrassed by this movie in the least. Critic Pauline Kael rightly emphasized that she gave "a startling, ferocious performance." Furthermore, the movie was a deserved financial hit at the box office and continues to make money decades later as a cult phenomenon. Unfortunately for Faye, it was considered blasphemous to honestly criticize such an icon as Joan Crawford. Evidently people can't handle the truth.

    The film runs 2 hours, 9 minutes, and was shot entirely in the Greater Los Angeles area.

    GRADE: A-