I was wondering what the final result was going to be. I thought, "Hey, the '80s are crazy. Maybe they gave this one a confused PG? Nope. Well deserved R.
DIRECTOR: Frank Perry
Do you know how hard it is to find a great photo from Mommie Dearest that isn't the "No Wire Hangers!" scene? All the high res ones are Faye Dunaway covered in the Mrs. Doubtfire cold cream pie makeup. I feel like I deserve an award for finding a still that is both high res and doesn't make the movie look as bananas as it actually is. Like most people, I know this movie from reputation. I never really thought I needed to sit down and watch it. The way I understood it, it was always a cult classic for people who liked this sort of thang. (I spelled that correctly.) This never seemed to be my bag, so I held off. Someone on my Facebook page put down that it was a genuine classic instead of a cult classic and I've always seen it on lists of movies that I needed to see. Then I started watching Feud: Bette and Joan, so I figured I'd get the inside poop on this part of Joan Crawford's life. Now that I've seen it, I have to wonder what the heck was going on.
I did a fair amount of Wikipediaing and Google searching during this movie. I know. It's blasphemy to have your phone out during a movie, but this movie was almost built for a world that needed a phone. I know 1981 wasn't exactly the year of the smartphone, but I have the luxury of living in the present, so I took advantage. The movie almost needs the smartphone or a working knowledge of Joan Crawford's career with a recent reading of Christina Crawford's autobiography. The movie adapts Christina's autobiography and that leaves much of Joan Crawford's motivation up in the air. The movie portrays her as bananas crazy. Perhaps that's what sends the movie deep into the cult classic shelves is the complete abandon of restraint that Faye Dunaway gives the mentally unhinged Crawford. Watching both Feud and Mommie Dearest simultaneously, I am amazed at the subtlety that Jessica Lange gives the portrayal of Ms. Crawford. They clearly are the same individual and Lange has to have seen Dunaway's portrayal because there are definitely elements of that. But since this is an adaptation of Christina's autobiography, I was left completely confused about motivation for much of Dunaway's performance. That makes a good amount of sense. Christina would have little insight into a world before she was introduced to Ms. Crawford. All she experienced was the complete psychosis that her mother presented to her. It makes sense, but it is extremely frustrating from the point of view of an audience member. The film implies that Joan Crawford was simply attention starved and desperate for the spotlight, but there are moments -the infamous "No wire hangers!" moment -that are left completely without description. What about the compulsive cleaning? Or the kicking it into high gear around Christina?
It's weird that I'm applauding the best efforts of a little kid in an absolutely bananas movie. I don't know what it must be like acting across from Faye Dunaway (More like "Faye Runaway-TRAIN!") (I'm sorry.) But I think my greatest applause for this movie must go to Mara Hobel. The goal for the film was to make me feel sympathy for the young Christina Crawford and despite the worst intentions of the cast and crew, Hobel does a fairly solid job of eliciting a degree of sympathy for this girl. I'm sure this girl's life was destroyed after this movie. Her IMDB page shows 21 acting credits going as far as 2015, but her headshot and image are nowhere to be seen. It seems like following this movie, she went into extra work rather than continue in the limelight. I don't get the child actor thing, but it seems pretty unforgiving, especially considering how this movie was panned for its lack of subtlety. But Hobel does a solid job for the most part. Perhaps people might write her off as being a one note character, but there's a moment after the "No wire hangers" sequence that is pretty impressive. Perhaps I'm a bad judge of character (keep reading!), but when she drops the Lord's name in vain, there seems to be a level of epiphany behind those eyes. She knows the nature of her scenario, but she gains this weird adult understanding unseen in performers her age.
Part of the thing that I love about the movie, besides the fact that it is possibly the most shameless movie that I've seen all year, is just the beating of the dead horse that this story provides. The movie isn't about the same kinds of hits that Christina takes, but the variety of equally painful hits that she takes. The story honestly covers Christina's adoption at a few weeks old to Joan Crawford's death. This kid gets hit from every angle simply for existing. The only real subtlety that Dunaway provides throughout this painful ordeal is the question of Joan Crawford's feelings towards Christina. Sure, we knew she wanted to kill her, but Crawford's choices in the movie make even that moment complex and confusing. The movie is a lot of "What am I watching?" and I think that needs to exist out there. I'll never call this movie great. I don't think I can. I can't even ironically call it a classic. What I can do is just sit there agape and wonder what the heck I just watched for two hours.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.