Joan Crawford was as loved for her work as she was hated for her personality. The most damning of her critics was her daughter Christina. Famously, Christina penned an autobiography in which she accuses her mother of alcoholism and abuse. In 1981, the book was adapted to film: A biopic called Mommie Dearest (Perry, USA) stars Faye Dunaway as the legendary “Queen of the Movies.”
Mommie Dearest profiles Joan Crawford as a woman and as a mother more so than as an actress. Men and friends are in and out of Joan’s life so the story primarily focuses on Joan’s hired help and her adopted children. There are two Joans that emerge as the story unfolds: The public-relations-friendly, collected, inviting Joan who dotes on her children, and the bitter, neurotic, tyrannical Joan who is quick to temper and quick to reach for a flask. The principal exercise of the film is to reconcile these polarized personalities in order to understand how it could be that a person so unpredictably tempestuous could also be so loved.
There are moments throughout the film that motivate the viewer to disrespect Joan Crawford and to reevaluate whether she deserved the acclaim that she received while she was alive. At times, she is so explosive, cruel, and irate that it becomes too easy to despise her. At times, she behaves aggressively towards her daughter only to be sweet to her moments later. At times, she is so charming, graceful, and warm that the viewer feels drawn to her. Reasonably, viewers adopt the same confused, conflicting views Christina has of her troubled mother.
It was never disclosed whether or not Joan Crawford was ever clinically diagnosed with a mental illness but if what has been reported since her death is true, she was undoubtedly an alcoholic and she very likely had a personality disorder. Some have claimed she had bipolar disorder, some have claimed she had borderline personality disorder, and some have claimed she had obsessive-compulsive disorder. A mental health diagnosis wouldn’t have implied that she should have been pardoned for her actions, but understanding her symptoms provides an important insight into her psychology and that of the industry that shaped her.
Particularly in film, it’s important to be able to think objectively about the past rather than romanticize an impression of it. Mommie Dearest deglamourizes the most glamourous period in cinema and encourages audiences to think critically about those they love and idolize.
The screening of Mommie Dearest will take place on October 9th, at 5 o’clock, in Social Sciences 203.
By Nathalie McClintock