Checking in with the Imaginary Summer Book Club: Mommie Dearest (Frank Perry, 1981)

(Click here for information on the 2012 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As each of the titles for 2012 have a filmed adaptation, this year we will also be looking at each movie version as well. This week, the August selection, Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest.)

In my estimation, the opening sequence of Mommie Dearest falls just short of being some kind of a classic, as it details Joan Crawford’s daily rising before dawn, doffing of her sleep-gloves and chinstrap, the obsessive beauty and exercise routine, her arrival at the studio for costume and makeup, and finally the big reveal, where she turns around and- OH MY GOD, FAYE DUNAWAY WITH ENORMOUS PAINTED-ON EYEBROWS! (An abbreviated version of the scene in shown in the trailer):


The book, a memoir by Crawford’s adopted daughter, tediously details Crawford’s shortcomings as a parent. It is not very well written. In contrast, the filmed adaptation strikes a tone that falls somewhere between a domestic horror movie and a camp comedy about child abuse.

The situation is not helped by the directorial choices of having Dunaway dressed like a female impersonator-impersonator and SCREAM ALL OF HER LINES!

In the first hour of the movie, Joan and young Christina alternate scenes of prancing around in matching pinafores with scenes of Joan cutting off all of Christina’s hair and throwing away all of her toys (neither incident is portrayed in the book); although, frankly, by the time Christina is packed off to boarding school I was ready to smack that smug smirk off her face myself.

In the second half, Christina is played as a young woman by Diana Scarwid, introduced reciting a dramatic monologue from Antigone with all of the emotion of a hunk of driftwood. Which is actually a faithful interpretation of the younger Crawford’s acting style, best exhibited in this scene, in which Dunaway’s and Scarwind’s stunt doubles have a weirdly fetish-y brawl:


Christina is then packed off to a convent.

(At this point my screening notes pretty much just degenerate into scrawled “????” and “!!!!”s)

The one thing the book is good at putting across is exactly how big a star Crawford was at the time of her death. Despite having not appeared in a film in nearly a decade at the time of her death, it is practically an occasion for national mourning. Three separate memorial services take place, including a star-studded tribute taped for a national television broadcast.

While the movie, and Dunaway’s performance, do nothing to convey what made Crawford a star, it did give Christina’s career a new lease on life . Retired after doing a few movies (most notably the Elvis Presley vehicle Wild in the Country) and a costarring role on the soap opera “The Secret Storm” in the late 1960s, she now took the act on the road, appearing on the talk show circuit in support of both book and movie. Which I really only bring up because I want to include this bizarre clip from Bill Boggs’ show:


“Why did Joan Crawford want to be a mother if she ended up being such a bad mother?”

I am still not totally convinced that is not Will Ferrell in a Funny or Die sketch that isn’t quite working.

 Additional Changes in the Film Adaptation:
The screenplay really ramps up the level of violence. While it has become the iconic scene in the movie, Christina does not describe being beaten with a wire hanger nor Joan’s self-flagellation with a can of Old Dutch cleanser.

Joan is pretty much made a gazillion times meaner all around, and the movie mostly ignores the last 20 years described in the book, during which Joan and Christina have a mostly-peaceful and mutually supportive relationship.

Crawford’s involvement in the Christian Science movement is completely eliminated from the movie.

End Notes:
For years I’ve been puzzled by a line early in the film in which Crawford mentions that she’s unable to have children, and had seven miscarriages “with Franchot” referring to her second husband, actor Franchot Tone. It finally got through to me during this viewing that she is saying “Franchot”, not what I had been hearing for 20 years: “Groucho”.

Near the end of the book, Christina describes a scene at the memorial service where she walks into a room and Myrna Loy immediately jumps up and runs away, not even bothering to take her martini with her. OH MY GOD, GUYS! WHAT DID CHRISTINA DO TO MYRNA LOY???

Director Frank Perry: Katy Perry’s uncle.

And finally, a life’s philosophy I can really get behind:

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6 Responses to Checking in with the Imaginary Summer Book Club: Mommie Dearest (Frank Perry, 1981)

  1. I confess, I did NOT make it through the book. I do have Waiting for Mr Goodbar (book) waiting to be read, and I am planning to watch Mommie Dearest asap – I’ve seen it before but who can resist NO MORE WIRE HANGERS?????

  2. Cee says:

    “Joan cutting off all of Christina’s hair…” They may have taken this from another biography of Crawford’s–there was one that came out in the mid-’70s (before Christina’s book) that mentions this incident. Apparently Christina was brushing her hair (the book for some reason feels the need to tell us that the girl wasn’t exactly known for her looks (!), that her one vanity was her blonde hair) and said to Joan “Mommie, don’t you think I have pretty hair?” Joan replied “I will not have a daughter who is vain” and cut off her hair right there. The earlier biography actually has other incidents and mentions of abuse that are not detailed in Christina’s book–apparently it was an open secret in Hollywood, and the fight in front of the reporter was written about when it actually happened in the early ’60s. You can find the article online if you look, the Redbook reporter sounds kind of shocked in the writing–these things just weren’t acknowledged back then! The book isn’t that well-written but I do find it heart-breaking–the scene between young Christina and her mother on the beach at Carmel was very sad.

    That said, the scene in the movie when Joan says “you always know where to find the boys AND the booze!” is classic!

    On another note, when I was young I got this book and Flowers in the Attic confused–the parallels are weird! Four children, all with C names including two named Cathy and Chris, including twins, with an abusive mother. And both books came out at roughly the same time. I was a confused burgeoning adolescent.

    • mondomolly says:

      Interesting, I’ll have to go looking for the Redbook article!

      The tone of the movie is just so weird, especially the way it’s been promoted for it subsequent releases.

      And I never made the connection to the similarities with Flowers in the Attic! Must have definitely been something in the national zeitgeist that made the time ripe for abusive mothers or twins. Whose names start with a C.

      Thanks for your comments!

  3. Pingback: Mommie Dearest (1981) | timneath

  4. Pingback: Mommie Dearest (1981) | Tim Neath - Visual Artist

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