Nathaniel’s pick for this very special April Fool’s Day edition of Hit Me with Your Best Shot is none other than the legendary camp disasterpiece Mommie Dearest, the infamous Joan Crawford biopic from 1981, a film that I had never seen before, and one that plunged me into a deep personal crisis.
Basically, it goes something like this: for a while now, I’ve begun to be terrified that I overindulged on camp at a young age, and have inoculated myself against. Crazy deranged badness just doesn’t strike me the way it used to; instead of pointing and gawking and being delighted at the sheer madness of it, I find myself more and more thinking about it analytically, and dear God help me, looking for the good even in bad movies. And so when I finally sat down with this most infamous misfire, a career-killing miscalculation for Faye Dunaway, and I found it to be…
It’s not a good movie, Lord knows. The performances of anybody and everybody besides Dunaway are unforgivably flat, and the script has a dreadful sense of chronology, especially in its second hour. But even as it rolled around to the famed “Tina! Bring me the axe!” scene, and the notorious “No wire hangers!” scene, all I could think of was how entirely not ridiculous I was finding everything. Are these big, sprawling moments that are hysterical in the most old-fashioned, sexist sense of the word? Sure they are. But the movie kind of actually earns them. Or anyway, Dunaway does. She’s basically playing Joan Crawford as Norma Desmond: an actress gone to seed and dealing with her never-distant awareness that she’s old and faintly laughable by lashing out with unhinged anger. It’s a good performance: not good because it’s so outlandish and insane and florid, good because Dunaway does a spectacular job of portraying a woman who spends all of her time and energy being constantly On, a hammy performer even in her own private home, because she is mortally terrified to stop being The Iconic Joan Crawford long enough to discover what it means to be just plain Joan.
You know what I think the movie’s big sin is? Being a straight-up melodrama on the back side of the New Hollywood; being a total throw-back of a “woman’s picture” using the raging aesthetic roughness of a decade of films by boys, about boys, for boys. Not a good melodrama, of course, which is its small sin. We’re miles from Douglas Sirk here, and I think director Frank Perry is surely guilty of having no clue how to manage tone on a scene-by-scene, or even shot-by-shot basis. But I don’t know. It’s proficient. It is a proficient biopic. As a work of cinematic storytelling, I’d unironically watch it any day of the week before I turned my attention back to A Beautiful Mind or The Imitation Game. And I’ve spent the whole afternoon sick to my stomach and terrified that I just can’t do camp anymore. Because if you watched Mommie Dearest sincerely and didn’t hate it, what hope can there be for you?
Eventually, I was able to get myself aligned to the film’s campy wavelength, after it’s burned off all of its most famous scenes and aged up little Christina Crawford from the bland child actor Mara Hobel to the openly helpless Diana Scarwid: she fumbles everything that comes her way and plays up her hidden glaring and portentous line deliveries so much that it seems like Joan might have been the victim of her bad seed daughter all along. And that’s good for some silly laughs. Still I found myself disappointingly non-outraged, so much so that for my best shot, I didn’t even pick one of the outlandish moments of High Melodrama, Dunaway caked in kabuki-white face cream like a monster from a bedtime story or the like. It is, in fact, not a goofy shot in any way.
This comes early on, at Christina’s birthday party, but the moment is All About Joan; it is, in fact, more or less the first time that we start to figure out that Mommie Dearest is an abusive, self-centered tyrant. And more to the point, a self-centered tyrant who is deeply invested in presenting a carefully polished image of herself to the world. A baby in one hand, four of Our Boys ready to go Serve Their Country in World War II, and a smile that couldn’t possibly be any more warmer or welcoming or matronly; for it to be any more wholesome, familial and All-American, it would have to involve a bald eagle eating an apple pie and shitting baseballs. And it’s fake as hell, a calculated pose for those cameras that cuts off right at the edge of the frame.
Mommie Dearest is all about the gap between the images that are presented and the things that are true: Joan Crawford, glamorous actress, was an abusive monster; Christina Crawford, earnest truth-teller, comes across as a schemer and whiny pill; a prestige adaptation of a major book starring one of the preceding decade’s key actresses is appreciated today solely for being tacky and low rent. And that’s what drove me to this shot: it embodies everything about that. It is a carefully manipulated moment designed to bid for sympathy and love, but we see the reality, not the canned photograph. Of course, Mommie Dearest is itself one more manipulation; but it is not a careful one. It is sloppy and the seams show all over. And that is perhaps the best part of its charm, ironically or otherwise.