Be careful what you wish for…Joan Crawford wanted a family and adopted daughter Christina in 1940; a year and a half after she died, Christina published a tell-all lambasting her mother. The book, also titled Mommie Dearest, was turned into a movie in 1981 starring Faye Dunaway, Diana Scarwid, and Mara Hobel. Infamous for its “…no wire hangers!” scene, the unflattering story presents Crawford as erratic, abusive, mentally disturbed, and shallow. Some of the gripes that the film reveals are, shall we say, petty. Most of the early childhood scenes show grievances that most kids would have with their parents, forced to choose between things one really wants, being made to eat food one doesn’t like, being treated like “Cinderella”, a plethora of examples of life not being fair. Suddenly, with the wire hanger scene, we get a shocking level of violence as Crawford beats Christina with the said wire hanger (a badly done cutaway of the hanger hitting what is obviously a pillow is laughable, better to have focused exclusively on Ms. Dunaway’s facial expressions in this moment). One comes away from the early scenes of the movie with the impression that Christina really was a brat, Crawford may have taken things too far in trying to normalize her kids lives, and she was prone to fits of outrageous violence.
The second half of the movie focuses on Christina as a teen and young adult. Crawford send her to a boarding school where she hopes they will instill discipline in her. Crawford’s drinking is shown as getting more and more out of control, leading to blackouts. Christina is seen to be a rebellious teen, upset when her mother makes her go back to school as a work-scholarship student (as she once had been herself) citing poverty, while having just gone on a wild shopping spree herself. Another scene in which Crawford is seen to choke Christina while the girl struggles to fight her off, jolts one with it’s depravity and violence. Eventually, Christina moves out on her own and lands a job in a soap opera. Rushed to the hospital with a ruptured ovarian cyst, she is dismayed to find that the soap has temporarily replaced her with her mother. This outrageous episode actually happened, which exemplifies the terrible competition between mother and daughter, Crawford unwilling to cede to her daughter the youth she desperately clings to. A final scene in which Christina and her brother Christopher come together for the reading of Crawford’s will, only to discover she has made explicit that she leaves nothing to them, reveals the reason behind Christina’s book…with mother dead, she can write the tale of growing up her way.
The movie is uneven to be kind. Dunaway certainly looks like Crawford, but her performance swings from beautifully human to grotesquely caricature. Scarwid is wooden throughout the film, perhaps her way of showing how Christina felt she was walking on eggshells around her mother, but it comes across as bad acting. The only time she truly seems natural is in the scene where she is saying goodbye to the Mother Superior of the school where she finishes out her education. The story is strangely unconvincing. With so many petty grievances being aired, and then two radically violent scenes, one can dismiss the whole story as the disaffected complaints of a vengeful child upset at being cut out of the will. On the other hand, if one accepts those scenes of physical and verbal abuse as being more typical, one could discount the petty complaints as those of someone trying to protect their psyche by not revealing too much, couching the episodes of intense abuse with more benign stories more appropriate to a vengeful child upset at being cut out of the will. Had Christina shared her stories with a proper biographer, one who could tell her story within the context of a fuller portrayal of Crawford, who would have done corroborative research, who could divorce some of the emotion from the retelling and presented a more even history, her story of the difficulty of growing up as the “chosen” daughter of the “Queen of Hollywood” would have been more emotionally touching and disturbing. As it stands, it just seems like a ridiculous exercise in getting your just desserts, attacking a person who is dead and can’t stand up for themselves.