Here’s living, breathing proof of one of the least talked about aspects of screen performance.
We imagine an actor is completely in command of how he or she appears on screen (and the most powerful might have a say in the final cut written into their contracts, although few directors would agree to it if they could help it).
In actual fact, the take of a scene that makes it into the final movie is the director and editor’s decision, and no matter how ridiculous it makes the actor look, that’s the one that will immortalise them. And in the case of Mommie Dearest, it seems director Frank Perry used all the worst takes he got, making Faye Dunaway as screen legend Joan Crawford look as ridiculous as possible. All together now; ‘no…. wire…… HANGERS…… EVER!’ (it’s still found on many a top 100 best lines in the movies list).
Dunaway later blamed Perry’s lack of experience as a director on using every take where it seems she let herself completely off the chain, but that’s a bit like blaming a hammer when you hit your thumb with one. He’s not the one standing in the bathroom doorway, lips drawn into an ugly snarl as he growls ‘clean up this mess’, after all. As one critic said of the movie, ‘ [Perry] was either supremely untalented or he purposefully intended to sabotage her.’
It certainly looks as if it was supposed to be a legitimate drama, but there were two immediate effects after release. First, Dunaway refused to talk about it ever again, walking out of interviews where she was asked about it.
Second, Paramount took notice of the awareness about what a laughing stock the movie was in the public consciousness (and the critical flaying). It repositioned it as a camp and schlocky melodrama, hoping to capitalise on the kind of appeal that’s cemented cult love for movies like The Room and Showgirls.
Adapted from the life story of Crawford’s daughter Christina, it charts the lifetime of emotional and at times physical abuse she and brother Christopher endured at the hands of the increasingly unhinged star.
Depicted as an obsessive compulsive, alcoholic, coddled, self-involved and bitter train crash waiting to happen, Crawford uses her connections to adopt two children when she suddenly decides she wants to be a mother. It comes as her career in Hollywood is ending, one she’s completely ill-equipped to deal with as one flop follows another and MGM chairman Louis B Mayer throws her out of her contract early.
Crawford takes her advancing years and declining stardom out on her kids in several scenes that range from inappropriately competitive to brutal infamy (including the bathroom scene that gives Mommie Dearest it’s classic line).
Following her life from the end of the 40s to the 70s, when she married Pepsi board member Al Steele and then used her iron will to bend a whole company to her wishes, it’s a pretty meandering affair and the only flashes of colour are Dunaway’s freakouts making it the closest thing the drama genre has to an exploitation film.
It feels longer than it is thanks to the period it covers and the story is fairly episodic, but you’ll never look at either Faye Dunaway or wire hangers the same way again.
I’ve read a very interesting theory that the wire hanger phobia was explained by Crawford’s having had several dodgy abortions prior to her fame, although it’s never addressed in the movie.
We should also remember that the whole thing is based on one woman’s account that it happened like this, and it’s not like Christina Crawford didn’t have a motive to bad-mouth her mother in her biography. Her and brother Christopher were inexplicably cut out of Crawford’s will, and other kids she adopted later weren’t even mentioned in the movie.
There’s even a final line where the script seems to admit Christina wanted nothing more than to spit on her mother’s grave. When the lawyer reading the will tells them they’ve been completely disinherited and Christopher observes that as usual, their mother has the last word, the adult Christina adopts a look of steely resolve and says ‘does she?’
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