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Mommie Dearest
File:Mommie Dearest-HR Edition cover.jpg
Theatrical Release Poster
Directed by Frank Perry
Produced by Frank Yablans
David Koontz
Terrence O'Neill
Neil A. Machlis
Written by Christina Crawford Template:Small
Robert Getchell
Tracy Hotchner
Frank Perry
Frank Yablans
Starring Faye Dunaway
Diana Scarwid
Mara Hobel
Rutanya Alda
Steve Forrest
Music by Henry Mancini
Cinematography Paul Lohmann
Editing by Peter E. Berger
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date(s) September 18, 1981
Running time 128 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $5 million
Gross revenue $39,000,000

Mommie Dearest is a 1981 American biographical drama film about Joan Crawford, starring Faye Dunaway. The film was directed by Frank Perry. The story was adapted for the screen by Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, Frank Perry, and Frank Yablans, based on the 1978 autobiography of the same name by Christina Crawford. The executive producers were Christina's husband, David Koontz, and Terrence O'Neill, Dunaway's then-boyfriend and soon-to-be husband. The film was a commercial success, but a critical disaster and was eventually disliked by Dunaway herself. However, it has become a cult classic.[citation needed]


Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) is a driven actress and compulsively clean housekeeper who tries to control the lives of those around her as tightly as the self-control she exhibits. To prepare for a work day at MGM Studios, she rises at 4am and engages in a slightly neurotic morning ritual, scrubbing her face vigorously with soap and boiling hot water—then plunging her head into a vat of ice and alcohol to close the pores. Joan is obsessed with cleanliness and wants those around her to follow her instructions to the letter. When a new maid, Helga (Alice Nunn), thinks she has Joan's living room in spotless condition, Joan finds one minute detail that she overlooked and momentarily loses her temper proclaiming "If you can't do something right, don't do it at all!". She clearly intimidates the maid, as well her new live-in personal assistant, Carol Ann (Rutanya Alda).

Joan is in a steady romantic relationship with Hollywood lawyer Gregg Savitt (Steve Forrest), but her career is in a bit of a downswing. She reveals to Gregg she desperately wants a baby, but is unable to get pregnant; seven pregnancies when she was married to actor Franchot Tone all ended in miscarriages. When she is denied an application for adoption through a legal agency, she enlists Gregg's help to secure a baby.

Finally, Joan gets what she wants: a blonde-haired, blue-eyed little girl, whom she names Christina, and later another child, Christopher (Jeremy Scott Reinbolt). Joan lavishes Christina (Mara Hobel) with attention and luxuries such as an extravagant birthday party, but also enforces a strict code of denial and discipline. When Christina is showered with gifts at her birthday party, Joan manipulatively asks her which gift she likes best. When Christina picks it, Joan announces to her crestfallen daughter that all the other gifts will be donated to charity.

As Christina begins to rebel against her mother's stringent demands and standards, a series of terrifying confrontations emerges. Joan easily overtakes Christina in a swimming-pool race (hardly a tall order, given the adult Joan's physical advantages over a young child) and then proclaims her victory by crowing to the child "You lost again". Joan then becomes enraged at the young girl when she reacts with childish disappointment, locking her in a closet. When Joan discovers her daughter putting on makeup and imitating her, she hysterically hacks off Christina's hair with a pair of scissors.

By this time, her relationship with Gregg is a dismal failure. Joan resents Gregg's allegiance to studio boss Louis B. Mayer and begins an argument with him at Perrino's restaurant. Joan guzzles down glasses of liquor and throws a drink in Gregg's face after he tells her she is getting old. A physical altercation develops between the two and Joan calls Gregg a "rotten, crooked lawyer". Gregg breaks up with Joan. The next day, Joan cuts Gregg out of all the family photos.

Joan's tantrums grow more bizarre and violent. When Mayer (Howard Da Silva) forces Joan to leave MGM after theater owners brand her "box office poison", she flies into a bitter rage and hacks down her prize rose garden with a pair of large gardening shears and an axe while dressed in a ball gown. In the film's most notorious scene, Joan, cross-eyed and slathered in cold cream, stalks into Christina's bedroom in the middle of the night and discovers one of the child's dresses hanging on a wire hanger. Joan launches into a tirade, screaming at the girl, "I told you! No wire hangers, ever!". She viciously tears apart her closet and hits the girl with the hanger. Joan then decides Christina's bathroom is not spotlessly clean (though it is only slightly dusty). Furious that the child doesn't understand her notion of cleanliness, Joan wrecks the bathroom as well, throwing scouring powder and hurling the cleanser everywhere, telling her to clean it up. Christopher gets out of bed wanting to help, but Christina, scared, tells him to go back to bed, as Joan will "kill [her]".

Fed up by Christina's perceived impertinent rebellion, Joan sends her distraught daughter to boarding school. Later, a teenage Christina (Diana Scarwid) receives acting lessons at Chadwick School. Despite her excellent grades, Christina is abruptly forced to drop out when she is caught in a seemingly compromising position with a boy during an innocent encounter. Joan brings Christina home, where a reporter, Barbara Bennett (Jocelyn Brando) from Redbook magazine, is writing a puffery on Crawford's home life. After Joan lies about the reason her daughter left school, Christina confronts her, and Joan angrily accuses her daughter of deliberately embarrassing her before the reporter. She questions her mother why she adopted her. Joan mildly confesses it was partially a publicity stunt, and Christina says she is not just another fan. Joan becomes completely unhinged, lunging at Christina, tackling her over a coffee table and strangling her. Carol Ann and the reporter witness the attack and intervene to stop it. While attempting to peel Joan off Christina, Joan reaches the height of rage and throws both women off her while letting out a blood-curdling scream. After the incident, Joan sends Christina to Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy to punish her, under the strictest school discipline possible.

Joan marries Alfred Steele (Harry Goz), CEO of Pepsi Cola, and pressures him to shoulder a great deal of debt to fund their lavish lifestyle. After his death, she remains on the company's board of directors. When the all-male board tries to force her to resign, Joan threatens to publicly condemn Pepsi. The clearly unsettled board allows her to retain her seat.

After leaving the convent school, Christina rents an apartment in Manhattan, where she acts in a day-time soap opera. When she suffers an attack of a benign ovarian tumor, a stunned Christina is temporarily replaced by her much older mother, whose alcoholism clearly affects her acting and personal life.

When Joan dies of cancer in 1977, Christina and Christopher (Xander Berkeley) are shocked to learn their mother completely disinherited them in her will "for reasons which are well known to them." When a resigned Christopher says their mother has managed to have the last word as usual, Christina disagrees, hinting at the much-publicized book she later wrote about her mother, Mommie Dearest.


Script and production

The most significant alteration is the complete omission of Crawford's two other daughters, Cynthia and Cathy. They both publicly criticized Christina and condemned her book, denying its truth.

Due to time and budget limitations, the film contains few references to Crawford's early marriages; the character of Greg Savitt is fictitious, intended to be a composite of several of her relationships (most notably Greg Bautzer) and Crawford's third husband, actor Phillip Terry. Also omitted from the story are details about her religious experiences as a Christian Scientist. CBS declined to participate in the movie, so the scenes in which Joan fills in for Christina on soap opera The Secret Storm are intentionally vague; the soap is never mentioned by name, only as "the 4 o'clock show" (the time that it was aired for many years), and the character of Belinda Rosenberg is also fictional, allegedly based on Secret Storm director Gloria Monty. The character of domestic assistant Carol Ann is also fictional, an amalgamation of several Crawford employees throughout the years, roughly from 1938 to 1977.

The film fails to mention that Louis B. Mayer gave Joan rose bushes as a gift. Joan planted and tended them, then later, onscreen, hacked them down with an axe.

Many of the most abusive incidents were eliminated while other incidents were merged. The infamous wire hanger rant is joined with the fight over the cleanliness of the bathroom floor, which are reported in the book as separate incidents. Christina's relationship with her first boyfriend at school - the incident where Joan knocked Christina over a chest and beat her, then sent her to Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy - actually occurred at different times. Joan's relationship with Christina's brother Christopher was also left out of the movie. Joan's threats, punishments, and quite severe abuse of Christina, described in the book, were eliminated from the film. Despite these cuts, the film's running time was slightly over two hours.

During Dunaway's interview on Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio, James Lipton saved the topic of Mommie Dearest for the end of the interview, since Dunaway credits the film for ruining her career. When he comments on her appearance in the film as Joan, Dunaway says that she and the make-up artist worked for hours trying to get the "Crawford look".

The film is one of the few PG-rated films to have used the word "fuck", others including Beetlejuice, Big, Spaceballs, and Sixteen Candles.


Mommie Dearest was not well received by film critics. The film has a "rotten" rating of 59% on Rotten Tomatoes as of July 2010.[1] Roger Ebert opened his review with "I can't imagine who would want to subject themselves to this movie."[2] About Dunaway's performance, Variety said "Dunaway does not chew scenery. Dunaway starts neatly at each corner of the set in every scene and swallows it whole, costars and all."[3]

Roughly a month into release, Paramount realized the film was getting a reputation and box office as an unintentional comedy, and changed its advertising to reflect its new camp status, proclaiming, "Meet the biggest MOTHER of them all!"[4]

While Dunaway garnered some critical acclaim for her astonishing physical metamorphosis and her portrayal of Crawford (finishing a narrow second in the voting for the New York Film Critics Circle Awards for Best Actress of the Year), she also received a Razzie Award for Worst Actress. The film received five "Razzie" awards overall, including Worst Picture, Worst Screenplay and Worst Supporting Actor for Steve Forrest. Diana Scarwid also won a Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Christina; among those whom Scarwid beat out in the category was Mara Hobel, for her portrayal of the child Christina, and Rutanya Alda, who played Crawford's personal assistant, Carol Ann.

In her autobiography, Dunaway only makes a brief mention of the movie stating that she wished director Frank Perry had had enough experience to see when actors needed to rein in their performances.[5] Ironically, Joan Crawford once said in an interview in the early 1970s that of the current young actresses only Faye Dunaway had "what it takes" to be a true star.[6]

Box office

With a budget of $5 million, Mommie Dearest was a commercial success at the US box office, with revenues of $19 million with a further $8.6 million in Video Rentals. The film grossed $6 million internationally.[7] The film was in the Top 30 top grossing films of 1981. DVD counts are vague but suggestions are that it has made more than $5 million since being released on DVD. Total Revenue stands at $39 million.

DVD release

Mommie Dearest was first released on DVD July 17, 2001. It was re-released June 6, 2006 in a special "Hollywood Royalty" edition, with audio commentary by John Waters. Waters spends the bulk of his commentary dissecting the film as a serious bio-film and is quite outspoken in condemning the two sequences in the film (the infamous "wire hanger" rant and the "Tina! Bring me the axe!" scene) that Waters believes are solely responsible for the film's reputation as a camp film; he also blames the studio for trying to market it as a "camp classic" even during its initial release. A third Mommie Dearest DVD was released February 3, 2009 in a "I Love the '80s" edition with a bonus CD featuring film scores from the movie.

American Film Institute recognition: 2003 AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains:

See also


  1. "Mommie Dearest". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2009-12-09.
  2. [1] Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, Jan. 1, 1981
  3. [2] Variety, Jan. 1, 1981
  4. Mommie Dearest Movie -The 80s Rewind «
  5. "Looking For Gatsby: My Life", Faye Dunaway and Betsy Sharkey, Pocket Books, Dec. 1, 1997, ISBN 978-0-671-67526-4
  6. [3] Time Magazine, Kurt Andersen, Mar. 23, 1981.

External links

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