Saturday, April 26, 2014

Mommie Dearest


I am still smarting from the collapse of my new reality series, American Idyll, where we were busy training young girls in the proper mode to be a true diva of stage and screen, while eliminating those who simply didn’t measure up. Filming was, unfortunately, eliminated due to some absolutely scurrilous charges of improper behavior on the part of the production team. These baseless allegations, it turns out, were brought by the disgruntled stage mother of one of our young contestants. When her daughter was let go, as the little tyke simply did not have what it takes to be a true star, mommy dearest plotted with certain nasty elements of a social services bureaucracy run amok to try and discredit me and my exquisitely planned television show. Fajer and Hellmann, my lawyers, are planning an elaborate countersuit against her. 

I’ve been casting about for a new project to occupy my time and Joseph, my manager, seems to have finally found something appropriate to my talents. It would involve a return to the Broadway stage in a show, which would properly set off my vocal and terpsichorean talents. Apparently, the Tony winning star of one of this past season’s biggest hits will be leaving the role soon, creating a vacancy which requires a truly seasoned performer, capable of carrying the show single handed. I am referring, of course, to The Boy From Oz where I would step in for a departing Hugh Jackman. The producers are quite interested as they realize I do have some previous experience with Oz. Of course, there will need to be just a soupcon of rewriting of the show to accommodate me, and a change of the title to The Girl From Oz. I'm also insisting on the elimination of that character who looks something like me; it might be too confusing if the audience keeps wondering which twin has the Toni. 

I was in a mood to celebrate my good fortune, so Normy and I decided to view a special film in the home theater. The two overwhelming themes of my life these last few days have been monstrous mothers and homosexual entertainment and, as it’s gay pride time (my personal stylist constantly reminds me of this by dressing in nothing but rainbow paraphernalia at this time of year), there was only one movie that could possibly fit the bill. We wasted no time in finding a copy of the 1981 campfest, Mommie Dearest, in which Faye Dunaway destroyed her career as a serious actress with her histrionic and over the top performance as movie legend Joan Crawford. 

Mommie Dearest is based on the sensational bestseller of the same title written by Crawford's adopted daughter, Christina in the late 1970s, shortly after Joan's death from cancer. In it, Christina painted a portrait of her mother as an egotistical, vain, alcoholic and abusive parent under the expensive sheen of studio publicity. Her complete hatchet job on one of the queens of Hollywood's golden age was taken as gospel, even though her problematic relationship with her mother, with bad behavior on both sides, had been a matter of quite public record for some years. The book was such a success, that a decision was made to produce a film version with Anne Bancroft slated to play Joan. Bancroft, wisely, took one look at Robert Getchell's completed screenplay and passed; the part was taken by then mega-star Faye Dunaway. 

The plot of Mommie Dearest is elementary. In the early 1940s, Joan Crawford is one of the great stars of MGM. To win in the cut throat world of Hollywood, she's hard on herself and on others. She has a desire to be a mother and, with the aid of her lawyer boyfriend (Steve Forrest), she adopts young Christina (Mara Hobel) and later, her brother Christopher (Jeremy Scott Reinbolt). As Joan ages, the roles get fewer, the pressures mount, and she copes with alcohol and hypercompetitveness with her children, and a hygiene fetish. Things get worse when MGM, in a cost cutting move, cancels her contract: after one fight too many, Christina is sent away to boarding school where she morphs into Diana Scarwid in a bad Shirley Temple wig. The adult Christina continues to have a tempestuous relationship with her mother, moments of extreme anger compounded with moments of true affection. When she is left out of her mother's will, she decides to have the last word and the book is born. 

In making the film, director Frank Perry, seems to have disdained any sort of realism or attempt to understand the actual complicated relationship that existed between Joan and Christina. His decision was to present Joan as a complete grotesque, a monster in forties make-up delighting in humiliating her angelic blond daughter. This, combined with Faye Dunaway's histrionic acting, turned what could have been a serious exploration of the issues on both sides between famous mothers and children into a sort of Grand Guignol farce. Audiences, especially gay men, who had long idolized Crawford for her image of the little woman who stands up to a man's world and triumphs, recognized how unintentionally funny the movie was and it became an instant camp classic. Dramatic moment after dramatic moment was punctuated by howls of laughter and derision from the auditorium, along with a chanting of lines and waving of wire hangers, like a Hollywood set version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Perry also eliminates anything from the story that might interfere with his angel/devil dichotomy. Crawford's youngest two adopted children, the twins Cindy and Cathy, never appear and are never mentioned. 

Faye Dunaway, who looks amazingly like Crawford in her make-up, plays her like a grandly dramatic movie queen in every single scene of the film. I imagine Crawford, the woman, must have had some down time, some time when she wasn't in persona. You'd never know it from this. As she's always up at about 110% energy, when things get emotionally charged, she has to go up to about 190%. This climaxes in the infamous 'no wire hangers' closet scene where in her face cream, her shrieks, and writhing around Christina's bedroom floor, she resembles the bastard spawn of Maria Callas and Marcel Marceau performing the mad scene from Lucia de Lammermoor. Everyone else in the cast is forced to come up to this level of ridiculously heightened reality, some more comfortably than others. Diana Scarwid tries to give Dunaway a run for her money later in the film, especially screeching out her famous 'I am not one of your fans' line, but can't seem to help projecting a certain feeling of knowing what she's doing is absolutely ridiculous. Even poor Rutanya Alda as Carol Ann, Crawford's loyal housekeeper and companion, keeps eyeing the exits looking like she'd rather walk into the light than have to be in one more scene of the film. 

The one thing the film gets right is the look of Hollywood in the forties and fifties. Irene Sharraff's costumes are glamorous recreations of the time and the art deco sleekness of Crawford's house, with its enormous central staircase, is sensational. There are any number of scenes where Joan poses on or descends those stairs and it's hard to tell if we're supposed to be watching Faye Dunaway the actress or Joan the woman or Joan the actress or all three at once as she's so exquisitely framed by the camera and the architectural details. 

The film continues to appeal to gay audiences with its over the top dialogue, its campy central performance, and its lavish recreation of a vanished era of glamour. Faye Dunaway was never able to live the project down, and soon after its release, found herself shut out of most A list parts and featured mainly in made for television projects or further campfests such as Supergirl. Is it worth seeing? Perhaps as a subcultural icon, but it leaves much to be desired as a film. 

Merry go round riding. Bad haircut. Swimming contest. Spoiled meat. Gratuitous bed harnesses. Excess Old Dutch Cleanser. Gratuitous L. B. Mayer. Glove compartment hip flask. Ovarian cyst surgery. Mother/daughter cat fight. Misplaced cue cards. Pepsi Cola board show down. 

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