“Why can’t you give me the respect that I’m entitled to?” —Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford
For over 30 years, Mommie Dearest has been the high-camp champ of motion pictures. There have been a number of worthy contenders, like Valley of the Dolls and Showgirls, but gay movie fans have a special reverence for both Joan Crawford and Faye Dunaway, who took on the movie idol and lived to regret it. The film’s famous lines (almost any line in the film!) “No more wire hangers,” “Tina, bring me the axe,” etc., have entered camp nirvana. So why at this late date do we still need to talk about Mommie Dearest, and what more can be said? For starters, Faye Dunaway should be given the respect that she’s entitled to.
For the past three decades, Faye Dunaway has squirmed at the very mention of Mommie Dearest. She blames the movie for ruining her career (not true), and she goes out of her way to avoid the subject at all costs. But the simple fact remains—Faye Dunaway gives the greatest performance of her life in Mommie Dearest. Dunaway was nominated for an Academy Award three times in her career, for Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Chinatown (1974) and Network (1976). She won for Network, and her driven TV executive Diana is just a warm-up for her take-no-prisoners performance as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Faye Dunaway has no one to blame but herself for the state of her post-Oscar career. In the years between Network and Mommie Dearest, she made only a few films, Eyes of Laura Mars, Voyage of The Damned, The Champ and The First Deadly Sin. Why Dunaway picked these films is a mystery. She wasn’t even the star of the last two but a supporting performer to Jon Voight and Frank Sinatra. When Faye Dunaway made Mommie Dearest, she was at a low ebb in her career and she was 40 years old—the kiss of death in 1980s Hollywood.
In her 1995 autobiography Looking For Gatsby, Dunaway writes:
“‘No more wire hangers!’ Those words remain, even now, an ugly wound on my psyche.” She continues: “I’ll go all the way with something, because that’s how I work. … But if you do that, fling yourself into it, you need a director shaping the performance. You’re in the middle of it and you have to trust that someone will keep the entire film in sight, that someone will keep the proportion of it in line.” Dunaway’s empathy for Joan Crawford is also revealed: “I certainly had a sense of the price of her stardom, though I had missed the contract studio era, which seemed even more brutal than the Hollywood I had to deal with.” She sums up her Mommie Dearest experience with: “Without question, Mommie Dearest was a turning point in my career. … After Mommie Dearest, my own personality and the memory of all my other roles got lost along the way in the mind of the public and in the mind of many in Hollywood. It was a performance. That’s all that it was. For better or worse, the roles we play become a part of our persona. People thought of me as being like her. And that was the unfortunate reality for me about this project.”
Faye Dunaway threw herself into the role of Joan Crawford with a vengeance seldom seen on stage or screen. Interestingly, Crawford herself had written earlier in My Way of Life, “Of all the actresses, to me, only Faye Dunaway has the talent and the class and the courage it takes to make a real star.” Faye Dunaway was the perfect choice to play Joan Crawford. Both women came out of nowhere and clawed their way to the top. Both women were tough and both were survivors.
Christina Crawford’s 1978 scabrous memoir of her adoptive mother Joan Crawford sold over 4 million copies. Hollywood was horrified by the hideous revelations of child abuse, alcoholism and other seedy secrets. Paramount bought the film rights, and Anne Bancroft was the initial choice to play Crawford. Bancroft bailed on the project when none of the scripts submitted to her were acceptable. Faye Dunaway finally accepted the role despite the advice of many who warned her to stay clear of such notorious material. Frank Perry, who had directed Tuesday Weld to a great performance in Play It As It Lays, was chosen to guide Dunaway through the emotional minefields inherent in Christina’s book. When Mommie Dearest opened in 1981, the reviews were abysmal and the studio even turned on the film when it became apparent that people were coming to the film just to laugh. The newspaper ads went right for the camp angle with “No more wire hangers … ever” in large print followed by a drawing of a coat hanger and the line, “The Biggest Mother of them All.” The film’s producer threatened to sue Paramount, but the damage had been done. Mommie Dearest and Faye Dunaway had been thrown to the wolves. To add further insult, Christina Crawford blasted the film, stating ironically that her book had been “turned into a Joan Crawford movie.”
Looking back, it is amazing that Faye Dunaway received some of the greatest personal reviews of her career. Legendary critic Pauline Kael raved, “Faye Dunaway gives a startling, ferocious performance in Mommie Dearest. It’s deeper than an impersonation; she turns herself into Joan Crawford … she digs into herself and gets inside ‘Joan Crawford’ in a way that only another torn, driven actress could. Dunaway lets loose with a fury that she may not have known was in her. She goes over the top, discovers higher peaks and shoots over them, too. Has any movie queen ever gone this far?” Even those critics who attacked the film could not fault Dunaway’s performance. Vincent Canby in the New York Times: “Mommie Dearest doesn’t work very well, but the ferocious intensity of Faye Dunaway’s impersonation does.” At year’s end, Faye Dunaway’s incredible transformation into Joan Crawford was the runner up for Best Actress by both the New York Film Critics and The National Society of Film Critics.
Watching Mommie Dearest 30 years later you certainly see all the faults. The movie is lumpy, there are composite characters (to avoid lawsuits), some of the dialogue would floor Meryl Streep, the time elements and career references are garbled and most of the supporting performers are weak. Mara Hobel as the young Christina is pretty amazing, but the grownup Tina is played by Diana Scarwid as if she were chloroformed. Plus Scarwid slips into a Southern accent occasionally and she is so passive that Faye Dunaway has no really strong adversary to play against. Rutana Alda is fun as the long-suffering Carol Ann, but no one in the cast can stand up to Joan Crawford or Faye Dunaway. The only gold in all this dross is Faye Dunaway. As Pauline Kael astutely wrote, “The best that can be said about the movie itself is that it doesn’t seem to get in the way of its star.” Faye Dunaway captures every facet (imagined and real) of Joan Crawford. Dunaway is sexy, grotesque, moving, funny, maudlin—sometimes all in the same scene. She gives a gigantic performance. It’s like grand opera without the music.
Faye Dunaway’s post-Mommie Dearest career had a lot of low points and a few highs. Her Evita Peron in a TV miniseries was first-rate, as was her Golden Globe-winning supporting role in Gia—and she was excellent in a few indie films like Barfly. And Mommie Dearest was the turning point in her career. Faye Dunaway pours a scalding galvanic fury into her performance. It’s part Kabuki, part opera and full of bile. Mommie Dearest is a flawed masterpiece. Campy? Of course. Over the top? Yes. But Faye Dunaway gives one of the truly great performances in movie history. Take a look at Mommie Dearest again. Forget why you first saw it and just concentrate on Dunaway. Movie acting doesn’t get much better than this. Pauline Kael was prophetic in the last line of her Mommie Dearest review: “It could be hair-raising if Faye Dunaway were to have trouble shaking off the gorgon Joan.”