Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Mommie Dearest (1981)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

Last year, when we covered the Village People-starring flop Can't Stop the Music for the "April Fools" edition of "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," I talked about what it means to be a "great bad" movie. You can click over there to see the full discussion, but the basic idea is that a "great bad" movie is one in which every element of the film fails so spectacularly that it turns around into something that's actually entertaining. It's not exactly failing upward, just failing so thoroughly that the failure becomes spectacle itself.

This year's selection, however, is something different. Mommie Dearest, the 1981 camp classic starring Faye Dunaway as Hollywood legend Joan Crawford, isn't a failure so much as it is a significant miscalculation. Adapted from the memoir of the same name by Christina Crawford, Joan's adopted daughter, the film follows Joan from the height of her career to her inevitable downfall, as well as her contentious relationship with Christina, her fits of insane behavior, and her questionable parenting skills. As in the memoir, the film does not exactly present Joan in a favorable light, and like the memoir it has sparked animosity between Christina and her brother, Christopher.

I call it a miscalculation because, at the time, it seemed like a surefire hit: one of the era's most exciting actresses playing a Hollywood icon, based on a popular and much-discussed book. And to be fair, the film did succeed at the box office, finishing with $19 million domestically (against a $5 million budget, reportedly). However, the film was convinced of greatness, yet showed ineptitude in just about every way, except for one crucial element.

More after the jump.

Director Frank Perry, reasonably, isn't much remembered today at all. His first film, David and Lisa, earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director in 1962, yet he followed up that independently-produced feature with a string of forgettable films, though most of them did obtain modest success. However, Mommie Dearest stands as his most memorable work, though it hardly counts as an achievement for him. Working from a screenplay written by him, Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, and Frank Yablans, Perry's direction is functional at best, confusing at worst. The film's worst offense is a lack of narrative continuity, as the film abruptly jumps to a new time period without any warning whatsoever. The effect is disorienting, and it gives the impression that Perry cobbled the film together from whatever was available, rather than creating a stable narrative.

Similarly, the work from the supporting cast is almost wholly underwhelming. Diana Scarwid fares best as the adult Christina, but even she still comes across as amateurish. But Steve Forrest, as Joan's lawyer paramour Greg, is wooden in every one of his scenes, Rutanya Alda's Carol Ann never comes across as a consistent character, and Mara Hobel (as young Christina) never seems to fit in to the picture.

But on a certain level, it kind of makes sense. After all, we're not here to see them, or marvel at an excellently-written script or masterful direction. No one who watches this is going to claim any of those things; nothing is going to change the fact that the film is based on a memoir that was clearly written out of spite and anger at being left out of her mother's will.

No, we're here to see Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford. And she does not disappoint.

Truth be told, this film didn't deserve Faye Dunaway, and vice versa. She took the role of Crawford after Anne Bancroft had walked away from it, and turned it into one of the greatest performances of her career. Dunaway one-hundred-percent commits to every sensational act and every ridiculous line, selling the script's version of Crawford as a neurotic perfectionist who is as self-serving as she is self-obsessed. The film's portrayal works because Dunaway does such a remarkable job, to the point that even today, when many people think of Crawford, they think of Dunaway's performance instead of Crawford herself.

Take, for instance, the infamous "no wire hangers" scene. This is the best example of the film's trashy aesthetic, taking an extremely over-the-top setup and pushing it even further over the edge. Again, it's Dunaway's performance that completely sells this scene, starting with the look of abject horror on her face when she first lays eyes on the hanger in her daughter's closet:

To her throat-shredding screaming of that line:

Dunaway commits in more than just her actions. Just look at the way that, face covered in cream, she fully transforms herself from the picture of perfection into a bloodcurdling monster, a Gorgon mother out for blood. In fact, Dunaway's performance is practically animalistic. After beating Christina with the offending hanger, she stalks away into the bathroom, perching like a beast plotting its next attack.

And attack she does, confronting Christina again, this time about the cleanliness of the bathroom. It's another act of savagery, made all the more impactful by Crawford's ghost-kabuki visage and Dunaway's ferocious intensity.

But these incidents, as terrific as the performance is, only highlight the trashiness of the whole endeavor, and one can't help but feel that they're watching a studio-produced smear campaign. The film is at its best, in fact, when it's focusing on Joan and her relationship with celebrity and fame, rather than the tawdry details of her family. Perry seems to know this much, as he plays up the images  Joan as a superstar, from her three-headed walk-in shower coursing behind her in an extravagant display:

The best may be his utilization of her Hollywood home's central staircase. During the film's opening sequence, we see Crawford during her morning routine, though he haven't actually seen her in full yet (for whatever reason, Perry waits a full five minutes before making the reveal). She's seen preparing, then descending her elaborate staircase cloaked in a white robe.

But the next time we see this staircase, it's from the alternate perspective. Instead of the camera being positioned at the top of the stairs, it's now at the bottom, looking up at Joan in her Hollywood glamour. As she ascends with her newly-adopted daughter, Perry cuts to a shot of those who helped her be accepted to adopt, looking up at her like adoring fans watching their idol:

To this perfect shot of Joan, standing at the top of the stairs, her purple gown matching the drapes behind her.

*Best Shot*

Here is the Madonna and child, a Hollywood goddess with a chiffon halo holding her bundle of joy. It's a moment that immediately recalls iconography, placing Crawford into the pantheon of movie star royalty and exalting her as an image of perfection. It at once has a distinctly old-Hollywood feel - many stars insisted on being shot in very particular lights and angles, so as not to alienate their fans - and a hint of irony, given the subject material of the film. In this moment, Crawford has been placed on a pedestal, ready to be knocked down by the rest of the film. For one brief shining moment, she appears to be a perfect vision.



i love love love love love this shot and it's one of the film's most carefully crafted "shots"... the way she ascends, the way she turns and you can't see it here because her head turns so perfectly to take it's place but the mini crescent...

it's just mesmerizing. so right and wrong simultaneously. The Mother of all Mothers.

abstew said...

your best shot was in the running for me as well. so good! setting her up to be a saint, while the film shows us the devil she was...

Shane Slater said...

Nice writeup. I had not idea Anne Bancroft was offered this role!