50 years, 50 films: Mommie Dearest (1981)
We enter the second year of the real Me Decade with a film that demonstrates what a fine line there is between crud and classic
As you will have already gathered, the time has come, in our travels through the last half-century, to consider the question of camp. Why else, in a year that also gave us Reds, Raiders of the Last Arc, Chariots of Fire, Das Boot, Man of Iron and An American Werewolf in London, would we be selecting the picture that won the Razzie. Well, some people do now argue that Frank Perry’s study of Joan Crawford in middle age is quite genuinely a good film. I couldn’t quite go that far. Perry was an interesting director. Before being booted off the project, he shot large sections of the extraordinary 1968 satire The Swimmer. Last Summer remains a fascinating, groovy coming-of-age story. Moreover, you can’t fault the commitment of the players in Mommie Dearest. Faye Dunaway gives what might be the most unhinged performance in the history of the medium as a version of Joan that — if Christina Crawford’s much-disputed book is to be believed — made her daughter’s life a living hell. But, no, You do need to view the picture in Campovision to appreciate it to the full.
In some ways that campness is just a little too obvious. Twenty years previously, in Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, both Crawford and her old rival Bette Davis had allowed themselves to be the victim of extreme heightening. That’s to say the roles were constructed from caricatured notions of the people they had played rather than from any external reality. It’s a brilliant film. But it made it nearly impossible for Davis and Crawford to ever play real people again.
It may also have made it impossible for anyone to play Crawford as a real person again. Let’s not forget what a personality she was. Born as Lucille Fay LeSueur in San Antonio in 1904, she had a very healthy career in silent pictures before suffering a slump and then a resurgence with “women’s pictures” such as Mildred Pierce, Humoresque and, well, The Women. Somewhere along the way — to an even greater extent than Davis — she became a mighty gay icon. It was something to do with her strength, her oddness and that slight hint of the androgynous.
So, Crawford was ripe for camp reinvention with Mommie Dearest. We are not, of course, entirely sure that this is what Perry intended. But that’s what happened. Come to think of of it, it’s probably near-impossible to deliberately create a masterpiece of ironic camp. The stars just have to align themselves in the right pattern. Nor will any accidentally bad film about any real person do the trick. I was not the only critic to bemoan the fact that Diana would never be a midnight movie in the style of Mommie Dearest. It was just too dull. Whatever you were inclined to say about Perry’s film, you wouldn’t call it boring. Just check out the notorious “wire hangers” scene above. Now that’s acting. Well, it’s something anyway.