This was one of those big-ish movie releases which somehow let blood in the water and became victim of a feeding frenzy of mockery disproportionate to its failings – it dealt Faye Dunaway’s stature as a star/serious actress a blow from which it has never recovered and kicked the quite interesting director Frank Perry into the long grass too. Based on the tell-all memoir of Christina, adopted daughter of movie star Joan Crawford, it monsters its subject controversially – and explicitly positions itself as Christina’s act of vengeance against her mother for a lifetime of emotional and physical abuse capped off after death when she and her brother Christopher were left nothing in the star’s will. ‘She had the last word as usual’ says Christopher (a young Xander Berkeley), but the camera closes in on Christina (Diana Scarwid) as her eyes narrow and she muses ‘did she?’ – presumably intent on paying the old witch back by blackening her reputation posthumously.
Dunaway is a decent physical match for Crawford, abetted by subtle make-up, but she is a sexier screen presence, which is a bit disturbing in that her major physical scenes onscreen involve maniacally flogging the young Christina (Mara Hobel) with a wire hanger (some camp-followers got het up about the supposed hilarity of this – but it’s a raw, upsetting scene) or trying to strangle the teenage girl when she contradicts her in front of an interviewer (Jocelyn Brando). We have a sense of the Hollywood star as a prisoner of her own regimen – it opens with her daily routine of washing with icecubes – and the imbalance of her relationship with the studios (Howard Da Silva is a chilly L.B. Mayer) but aside from her mid-career comeback/triumph in Mildred Pierce (which, of course, was about a loving Mom and a monster daughter) this skimps on much of the life and career (a whole marriage is missed out) in order to concentrate on the art deco house of horrors where Joan plays at being the best mother in the world but otherwise veers from over-affectionate to hideously violent in a manner that suggests severe mental illness.
The Crawford here evokes her 1960s horror diva credits – which aren’t mentioned in the film – and Dunaway plays grand guignol rather than psychological acuity. Her turns and tantrums are, however, effectively terrifying. One of the more unbelievable twists is that when Christina, a struggling actress, was hospitalised, Joan took over her role on a live soap opera (The Secret Storm): amazingly, this actually happened. Scarwid, an actress who had a vogue in the early ’80s (she was Oscar-nominated for Inside Moves the year this came out), is interesting as the blandly-written Christina, hinting at malice behind the martyrdom – though the actress’s Southern accent surfaces in the odd word or phrase.
With Steve Forrest as a long-suffering agent/lover who checks out early, Harry Goz as that Pepsi tycoon who was Crawford’s final husband, and Rutanya Alda in make-up that suggests all the effort went into Dunaway and she got stuck with the leftovers as the dutiful minion. Despite the occasional camp nod that ‘no wire hangers’ gets, surprisingly the film’s most lasting gift to the language is the phrase ‘this isn’t my first rodeo’, which is a slight paraphrase of a Dunaway line (‘this isn’t my first trip to the rodeo’) delivered while she’s intimidating the board of Pepsi – and which later inspired a country and western song by someone called Vern Gosdin. A footnote: I was recently looking at the obscure, little-liked psychic investigator TV show The Sixth Sense and was quite impressed by an unfamiliar, strange, witchy blonde guest star in the first episode ‘I Do Not Belong to the Human World’ – it turned out to be Christina Crawford, in her last acting role.
I think it’s significant that John Waters did an audio commentary for the DVD, because if Faye hadn’t starred, Divine would have been perfect in the role.
What happens in it is horrible, but Joan here is such a rebel, and Christina such a killjoy (weird way to depict a little girl), that you can see why camp lovers gravitated towards Mommie Dearest.
How much is accurate is often disputed, but it’s not as if Joan’s co-stars had tales of her calm, reasoned behaviour on set either, Tough old Sterling Hayden, himself a bit of a diva, was truly spooked by working with her. I guess we’ll never get to the end of this one.