“It could be hair-raising if Faye [Dunaway] were to have trouble shaking off the gorgon Joan,” wrote critic Pauline Kael, herself a woman for whom career and her own self-aware capacity for utter monstrosity overshadowed everything else, to the delight of legions of nebbish, weak-willed gay men everywhere. (As though being on the outspoken Crawford’s or Kael’s side meant sitting back and letting your enemies answer to someone they couldn’t punch out, thereby never again having to suffer “the vapors” during intellectual brawls.) Kael’s quip is something of a bitch-slap coda to an otherwise fawning appraisal of Dunaway’s “startling, fierce” incarnation of Christina Crawford’s harrowing portrait of her abusive adoptive mother Joan, one of very few contemporary reviews of Mommie Dearest to actually take the whole screaming affair more or less seriously. I mean, when Dunaway was revealed as the Best Actress runner-up in the New York Film Critics Circle voting to that epochal ’70s trophy-bait goose Glenda Jackson (in a film leftover from the ’70s, at that!), you could almost hear the Paulettes reaching for their cans of Old Dutch Cleanser.
But Kael’s sendoff does little to defuse Dunaway’s soon-to-detonate career, and in fact seems to sprinkle a hint of relish over the sacrificial lamb. Kael knew that a performance like Dunaway’s Joan isn’t something one will ever shake off, and that it indeed would become the filter through which both Dunaway’s and Joan’s entire careers would forevermore be viewed. Which is one major reason why Mommie Dearest, like Showgirls (another cause célèbre for drag queens and the men who love/hate them), still registers as questionable on camp value. And why anyone who “ironically” loves either should still probably admit that the guilt in “guilty pleasure” resides within themselves and not the filmmakers. I mean, what could possibly be more insulting than to say that a work of art is so much a failure that it even fails at providing the schadenfreude one exercises when drinking in camp, a sensibility that celebrates failure? Seriously, step off, mother-Freuders! Your latent misogyny is showing.
Which is not to say that the contemporary revisionists (and I incriminate myself with this group) are much more chivalrous in their defense. It’s all too easy now, with the benefit of retrospect and securely degraded (female) careers like Dunaway’s and Elizabeth Berkley’s, to act as a postmortem resuscitator, as though mistaking cinephilia for necrophilia. The act of loving Mommie Dearest or Showgirls has evolved to the point where critical understanding gets tossed out the window for reactionary tautology. Now Mommie Dearest and Showgirls aren’t “so bad they’re good,” they’re so good they’re bad (or, as John Waters puts it in his commentary track for the new “Hollywood Royalty” edition DVD, “so good it’s perfect”...perfection, roughly translated, meaning unbelievable badness). Well, doesn’t that just warm the cockles of your heart to see the testicles of the self-appointed target audience descend just long enough for the men attached to go off comparing the size of theirs with that of Joan’s and Nomi’s? To say that the films owe their rejuvenated reputations to their stalwart love of camp, unwittingly knocking them up a tier or two in the circu-freakshow caste? Ah, failure. It’s an awfully entitled stance these days.
Now that this review has provided me the forum with which to perform my own imitation of Joan bucking off fag pretenders to her throne like so many crusty Pepsi board directors, let’s get down to business. I suppose that the film’s most enticing failure is that it refutes its own structural punchline. The final scene of the film depicts poor put-upon Christina reacting to the reading of the late Joan’s cutting will by wondering aloud “Does she?” to her brother Christopher’s morbid assessment: “She always had to have the last word.” “Does she?” she asks again, lest anyone in the audience remain unable to hear her drafting the first few sentences of her impending tell-all book in her head. Well, judging from the evidence on display in the film version of Mommie Dearest, then yes, Joan does get to have the last word. Not to take anything away from Mara Hobel and Diana Scarwid’s sweet-and-sour portrait-in-tandem of ’Tina Darling, but Joan, thanks to Dunaway’s performance, manages to steal Christina’s story from beyond the grave. Faye grabs center stage of the entire would-be excoriation by the throat and throttles it with a fury that plainly doesn’t exist in any other film performance. Her commitment to the role goes far beyond plucked eyebrows. Here we see an actress daring to use her lower eyelids, the facial muscles that are usually mere backdrop for copious tears but here hitch up, fatten, and contort to convey rage eight ways to Sunday.
Kael’s review, aside from the snideness of the last sentence, claimed the best thing one could say about the film itself is that it doesn’t get in the way of Dunaway. Was it supposed to? That was the whole point. In any case, the role of the straight man is as underrated by camp aficionados as it is overrated by everyone else. Director Frank Perry and producer-scriptor Frank Yablans do as well as any of Joan’s square-jawed paramours to maintain an even keel, letting the grotesque hysteria of the film’s first hour to simmer down to a resigned, jaded emotional iceberg that very nearly reaches pathos. All the while, they refuse to add exclamation points to Dunaway’s readings, letting vaguely perverted details such as that harness little Christopher is forced to wear in bed surreptitiously underscore Joan’s mania. (The harness was reportedly used to prevent Christopher from masturbating…at age seven.)
Perry and Yablans fuse this formal schizophrenia with the cruelly episodic structure and fetishized period details of Hollywood biopics, sneakily turning Crawford’s plight into an endless (even at just over two hours, it feels like Syberberg) series of smartly-decorated character sketches in some gruesome variety revue. Or, as Christina reportedly accused upon the film’s release: “They turned it into a Joan Crawford movie!” Is it any surprise that composer Henry Mancini, in The Book of Lists, put this film toward the top of his list of “hardest films to score,” next to Ghost Dad and Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce? Inscrutably powerful and brutally honest about diva worship as another form of male domination, Mommie Dearest is to camp what Medea was to Dr. Benjamin Spock.