UCFS Series #4: Mommie Dearest

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
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2 Comments

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  1. It’s always an interesting perspective to see people whose lives are constantly scrutinized but that manage to hide (and hide well, since it apparently came as a surprise to most who weren’t close to her).
    I found it very clever to start the film with a scene of her long, labourious, almost (or definitely) aggressive scrubbing of hands and nails. It sets the tone for the film, and not-so-subtly lets you know what kind of person the subject of the film, Joan Crawford, is.
    I thought a lot of that Netflix documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?”, where Nina Simone’s daughter tells an open and honest (albeit abridged) story of her mother’s long not diagnosed bipolarity. Obviously this is more subjective and dramatised for the sake of the (not very good) script, and contains mostly memories from a single source, that is, Christina Crawford, and how she remembers the events, whereas “What Happened, Miss Simone?” is a documentary, with letters, diaries, interviews with Nina herself and other testimonies taken into question, so one can never truly trust what one sees on screen (except, maybe, by reading the book, but that’s not likely to be unbiased).
    Bias or no bias, it’s still worth watching if not for the unintentionally hilarious scenes (BRING ME THE AXE!), but for the experience in itself, an inside look into the life of a woman coping with many different issues, ranging from alcoholism, to depression, to extreme narcissism.
    All in all, I enjoyed it more than I think it truly deserves, but I like to watch films for experiences, so its imperfections (was she supposed to look a bit like Michael Myers in the wire hanger scene?), its cheesy dialogue, Diana Scarwild’s (adult Tina) strange mix of overacting and underacting – BE, CAUSE, I, AM, NOT, ONE, OF, YOUR, FANS! -, you get the picture. Overall very enjoyable.
    7/10 weak choppings at a flimsy tree 🙂

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    • Nathalie McClintock October 12, 2015 — 7:50 pm

      Good response. I like that you compared Mommie Dearest to What Happened, Miss Simone? Though it’s fine to enjoy a movie for a different reason than its directorial intention (as a comedy instead of a drama), it’s important to acknowledge that the intentions of filmmakers can affect the accuracy of the events on which the movie is supposedly based.

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