If ever you wanted incriminating evidence that Hollywood would sink so low as to eat its own in favor of filling a movie house, "Mommie Dearest" is the incontestable proof, hands down. Loosely adapted from adoptive daughter Christina Crawford’s scathing book of 1978, "Mommie Dearest" brings to the screen the lurid accounts of a hellish life under the tyrannical and unpredictable rule of Golden Era diva Joan Crawford. Now, in a much anticipated DVD from Paramount Home Video, devotees of this tell-and-I’ll-beat-you-again expose are applauding its long-overdue arrival.
Oscar winning actress Faye Dunaway portrays Joan Crawford in a likeness so chilling it’s almost unnatural (or supernatural as the actress proclaimed afterwards she was haunted by Crawford’s ghost). It’s 1939 and obsessive-compulsive Joan is at the height of her popularity – but she’s not happy. She wants a baby, a daughter, one she can nurture, "to give her all the things I never had." Coldly noting the publicity potential of her cradling a gurgling infant, Joan’s lawyer boyfriend Greg Savitt (Steve Forrest) does an end-run around a denied adoption attempt and delivers the unwitting cherub.
Fast-forward about five years and Joan’s career begins to waver. The stress of lost roles, another failed romance, and the revelation that movie mogul L.B. Mayer has branded her "box office poison" causes Joan to descend upon Christina (played as a child by Mara Hobel) as the scapegoat of her wild ravings and savage punishments: Christina locked in a poolhouse for her defiance; her golden locks savagely lopped off for mocking Joan; and a inexplicably wicked nighttime raid and beating which delivers the film’s most repeatable line, "No wire hangers – EVER!" A lifetime feud of Hatfield-McCoy proportions ensues in which each vile deed Joan unleashes is met with heightened insolence and defiance from the battered Christina (portrayed into adulthood by Diana Scarwid). In almost saint like manner, Christina still attempts to reach out, to reconcile, and to put to rest the bitter relationship between she and her mother. But, in the end, Joan delivers the most heinous rebuke, posthumously, and ultimately has the last word – or does she?
As shocking as this all sounds, "Mommie Dearest" became the unintentional camp hit of 1981. Oozing with thick melodrama fostered by Dunaway’s over-the-top delivery in nearly every scene, viewers’ gasps immediately give way to guffaws as the on-screen atrocities play far too long to the point of absurdity. Despite deservedly dismal reviews, the film fast developed a base of repeat viewers drawn to film’s practically comedic situations, clumsy acting, and highly infectious one-liners. ("Did you SCRUB the bathroom floor today?! DID YOU?!") It’s a guilty pleasure, one that has achieved cult status as one of the most enduring audience participation films, attended by fans adorned in white robes, garish face cream, and wielding – you guessed it – wire hangers. Move over Frank-N-Furter.
Keep in mind, the film bears little resemblance to Christina Crawford’s book, prompting her to publicly denounce the production upon release. Even so, although I enjoy this film for the outrageous romp that it is, I also see a missed opportunity to deliver a truly compelling drama, one that might have succeeded in its more serious aspirations had it portrayed Joan Crawford in more realistic manner. Yes, she would still be sinister, but by adding a more balanced and equally sensitive portrayal of her obvious struggles with manic-depression made worse through alcohol abuse and the black heart of Hollywood, the film could have been much more captivating and significant. Of course, with only one side of the story being told, we can only wonder where real truth has been buried.
Regardless of the film’s artistic and moral shortcomings, the good news is that ardent fans’ overplayed VHS copies can now be tossed out thanks to this welcome DVD edition. Paramount Home Video has released "Mommie Dearest" on this dual-layer disc in a striking anamorphic widescreen format that preserves the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The source print used for the disc is remarkably clean and shows only an occasional imperfection. The overall transfer is, though, is very clean and free from visible defects or compression artifacts. The color is vibrant, giving greater depth to the film’s rich production design, dynamic lighting, and stunning wardrobe. The black levels are deep and true and the contrast is natural, resulting in outstanding detail and a genuinely elegant image.
The disc’s audio tracks, unfortunately, aren’t quite on par with the video quality. The disc offers a newly mixed 5.1 Dolby Digital English language soundtrack which plays nicely enough yet isn’t as full-bodied as I’d like. Henry Mancini’s haunting theme makes best use of the remix while the rest of the audio content largely resides within the front channels. Nevertheless, the sound is free of distortion and the dialog is never difficult to understand. The disc also contains the original English 2.0 Mono mix and a new French language 2.0 Mono dub.
The disc’s extras are limited to the original theatrical trailer (look out – it’s something of a spoiler) and an abbreviated photo gallery that mostly consists of scenes lifted from the film. It would have been nice to see some background features that would touch on the transformation of Dunaway to Crawford, including her approach to the role (for better or worse). Also, an audio commentary is sorely missed where little known tidbits such as the fact that Anne Bancroft was originally slated to play Crawford yet opted out over dissatisfaction with the eighteen shooting scripts presented to her (including one prepared by Christina Crawford herself) could have been shared. Of course, don’t expect Dunaway to participate in such a commentary – she’s all but disavowed the film, claiming it derailed her career for some time.
For all its sins – both in intent and execution – "Mommie Dearest" is one of those films you have to see to believe. Though it’s excessive style might underplay the seriousness of child abuse and alcoholism, it emerges as one of those films that isn’t to be taken too seriously – so don’t. Instead, gather a group of friends with whom you can cheer, jeer, hiss and heckle this unbridled display of Hollywood Babylon that pits the vicious Joan-Monster against the vengeful Christina-martyr.