Mommie Dearest (1981)


Mommie Dearest is a 1981 American biographical drama film about Joan Crawford, starring Faye Dunaway. The film was directed by Frank Perry. The story was adapted for the screen by Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, Frank Perry, and Frank Yablans, based on the 1978 autobiography of the same name by Christina Crawford. The executive producers were Christina's husband, David Koontz, and Terrence O'Neill, Dunaway's then-boyfriend and soon-to-be husband. The film was a commercial success, but a critical disaster and was eventually disliked by Dunaway herself. However, it has become a cult classic.


Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) is a driven actress and compulsively clean housekeeper who tries to control the lives of those around her as tightly as the self-control she exhibits. To prepare for a work day at MGM Studios, she rises at 4am and engages in a slightly neurotic morning ritual, scrubbing her face vigorously with soap and boiling hot water—then plunging her head into a vat of ice and alcohol to close the pores. Joan is obsessed with cleanliness and wants those around her to follow her instructions to the letter. When a new maid, Helga (Alice Nunn), thinks she has Joan's living room in spotless condition, Joan finds one minute detail that she overlooked and momentarily loses her temper proclaiming "If you can't do something right, don't do it at all!". She very clearly intimidates the maid (Alice Nunn), as well her new live-in personal assistant, Carol Ann (Rutanya Alda). Joan is in a steady romantic relationship with Hollywood lawyer Gregg Savitt (Steve Forrest), but her career is in a bit of a downswing. She reveals to Gregg she desperately wants a baby, but is unable to get pregnant; seven pregnancies when she was married to actor Franchot Tone all ended in miscarriages. When she is denied an application for adoption through a legal agency, she enlists Gregg's help to secure a baby. Finally, Joan gets what she wants: a blonde-haired, blue-eyed little girl, whom she names Christina, and later another child, Christopher (Jeremy Scott Reinbolt). Joan lavishes Christina (Mara Hobel) with attention and luxuries such as an extravagant birthday party, but also enforces a strict code of denial and discipline. When Christina is showered with gifts at her birthday party, Joan manipulatively asks her which gift she likes best. When Christina picks it, Joan announces to her crestfallen daughter that all the other gifts will be donated to charity. As Christina begins to rebel against her mother's stringent demands and standards, a series of terrifying confrontations emerges. Joan easily overtakes Christina in a swimming-pool race (hardly a tall order, given the adult Joan's physical advantages over a young child) and then proclaims her victory by crowing to the child "You lost again". Joan then becomes enraged at the young girl when she reacts with childish disappointment, locking her in a closet. When Joan discovers her daughter putting on makeup and imitating her, she hysterically hacks off Christina's hair with a pair of scissors. By this time, her relationship with Gregg is a dismal failure. Joan resents Gregg's allegiance to studio boss Louis B. Mayer and begins an argument with him at Perrino's restaurant. Joan guzzles down glasses of liquor and throws a drink in Gregg's face after he tells her she is getting old. A physical altercation develops between the two and Joan calls Gregg a "rotten, crooked lawyer". Gregg breaks up with Joan. The next day, Joan cuts Gregg out of all the family photos. Joan's tantrums grow more bizarre and violent. When Mayer (Howard Da Silva) forces Joan to leave MGM after theater owners brand her "box office poison", she flies into a bitter rage and hacks down her prize rose garden with a pair of large gardening shears and an axe while dressed in a ball gown. In the film's most notorious scene, Joan, cross-eyed and slathered in cold cream, stalks into Christina's bedroom in the middle of the night and discovers one of the child's dresses hanging on a wire hanger. Joan launches into a tirade, screaming at the girl, "I told you! No wire hangers, ever!". She viciously tears apart her closet and hits the girl with the hanger. Joan then decides Christina's bathroom is not spotlessly clean (though it is only slightly dusty). Furious that the child doesn't understand her notion of cleanliness, Joan wrecks the bathroom as well, throwing scouring powder and hurling the cleanser everywhere, telling her to clean it up. Christopher gets out of bed wanting to help, but Christina, scared, tells him to go back to bed, as Joan will "kill [her]". Fed up by Christina's perceived impertinent rebellion, Joan sends her distraught daughter to boarding school. Later, a teenage Christina (Diana Scarwid) receives acting lessons at Chadwick School. Despite her excellent grades, Christina is abruptly forced to drop out when she is caught in a seemingly compromising position with a boy during an innocent encounter. Joan brings Christina home, where a reporter, Barbara Bennett (Jocelyn Brando) from Redbook magazine, is writing a puffery on Crawford's home life. After Joan lies about the reason her daughter left school, Christina confronts her, and Joan angrily accuses her daughter of deliberately embarrassing her before the reporter. She questions her mother why she adopted her. Joan mildly confesses it was partially a publicity stunt, and Christina says she is not just another fan. Joan becomes completely unhinged, lunging at Christina, tackling her over a coffee table and strangling her. Carol Ann and the reporter witness the attack and intervene to stop it. While attempting to peel Joan off Christina, Joan reaches the height of rage and throws both women off her while letting out a blood-curdling scream. After the incident, Joan sends Christina to Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy to punish her, under the strictest school discipline possible. Joan marries Alfred Steele (Harry Goz), CEO of Pepsi Cola, and pressures him to shoulder a great deal of debt to fund their lavish lifestyle. After his death, she remains on the company's board of directors. When the all-male board tries to force her to resign, Joan threatens to publicly condemn Pepsi. The clearly unsettled board allows her to retain her seat. After leaving the convent school, Christina rents an apartment in Manhattan, where she acts in a day-time soap opera. When she suffers an attack of a benign ovarian tumor, a stunned Christina is temporarily replaced by her much older mother, whose alcoholism clearly affects her acting and personal life. When Joan dies of cancer in 1977, Christina and Christopher (Xander Berkeley) are shocked to learn their mother completely disinherited them in her will "for reasons which are well known to them." When a resigned Christopher says their mother has managed to have the last word as usual, Christina disagrees, hinting at the much-publicized book she later wrote about her mother, Mommie Dearest.