When I got home last night I decided that an evening with Youtube beckoned.
I settled for ‘Mommie Dearest’- a biopic about screen legend of the 1920s to the 1960s, Miss Joan Crawford. It is based on the tell-all biography of the same name, by her adopted daughter Christina.
When the book was released the year after Joan’s death (when Christina had been disinherited by her now reclusive mother ‘for reasons known to her’ it caused a sensation. It painted a picture of Joan as an abusive monster, a neurotic, alcoholic, rage-fueled demon. This was the first tell-all book, and it was massively controversial. Old Hollywood always protected their own. The publicity departments of the Hollywood studios were always present to make sure that the stars only received good press. They arranged a wife for Rock Hudson, when rumours surfaced about his errant ways. How dare Christina besmirch her mother’s name?
Christina was condemned as a mercenary, taking advantage of her dead mother’s fame, for financial gain. Especially when Joan was no longer around to refute any of the claims. There were few people who defended Joan however. They had witnessed Joan’s lunatic behaviour at home.
It was adapted into a film, starring another Hollywood legend – Faye Dunaway, who was fast approaching that dangerous age for cinema actresses – the dreaded forty.
It is one of the most insane films I have ever seen.
In real life Joan Crawford was born Lucille Fay Lu Sueur -the illegitimate child of a laundress – in 1908 according to Joan, but 1904 according to the census. She became a flapper dancer in the 1920s – and allegedly made a couple of ‘stag films’ before breaking into more respectable silent movies. Always embarrassed by her humble origins, she decided that she was going to be a star, by hook or by crook. With a steely determination she clawed her way to become one of the top stars of the 1930s.
Apparently she was unable to tell the difference between real life and film. Obsessively clean, she would never leave the house without being fully made up. She was a star 24/7. Having been unable to have her own children after several botched abortions in the 1920s, she wanted to be a mother. Not for any silly reason like loving children. No, these would be wonderful accessories and make the public love her even more. So using the services of a sleazy detective firm she purchased four children. (These are the daughter’s claims.) And their life of hell began.
The reason the film is so unhinged is that Faye Dunaway played the role in a manner that was so over the top – from the opening scene where Joan was doing her morning beauty routine – plunging her face in near boiling water, and then dousing her head in a bucket of ice. It kept her skin young apparently. There is no rest for Faye/Joan. The scenery is chewed up and spat out. Hysterical screaming is the speech style. There isn’t a single silent scene.
A film that was intended to be about the horrors of child abuse became this camp, horror opera. When you should have been wincing at the appalling life she inflicted on her children, I found myself laughing at Faye screeching ‘NO WIRE HANGERS EVER!’ as she wakes her daughter and starts berating her for hanging her expensive dresses on cheap paraphernalia. Apparently our Joan having worked in a laundromat knew that wire hangers are evil. I will live my life by this credo.
It is an insanely over the top movie. Little surprise that it has become such a cult classic. Faye Dunaway has disowned it, saying that it ruined her career. She should embrace it. If she turned up at a film convention in Joan Crawford drag yelling ‘DON’T FUCK WITH ME FELLAS, THIS AIN’T MY FIRST TIME AT THE RODEO’, she’d make a fortune.
By all accounts Joan was a monster, but even monsters have a human side occasionally. Not in this campfest. Evil to the core in this.
One remarkable thing about the movie is that it has preserved Joan Crawford’s legend. During the 1930s Norma Shearer was the biggest female actress in Hollywood. You don’t see her mentioned too often these days. In a world where it’s rare to see a black and white film on television – even films more than twenty years old rarely get aired these days – it’s kept her image alive in a way that most of her films haven’t.
‘CHRISTINA, BRING ME THE AXE’.