You ever get obsessed with a good movie year? Lately I’ve been really diggin’ 1981. I’m not sure if it’s generally thought of as iconic or important a movie year as, say, 1980 (The Shining, The Empire Strikes Back, Raging Bull — all of which are getting the big 40th anniversary treatment this year), but it should be. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Escape from New York, Scanners, Heavy Metal, The Evil Dead, Excalibur, Blow Out, The Road Warrior, An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, Halloween II, Friday the 13th Part 2 — ‘81 was just a weird, fun, dark, culty, commercial, experimental, and deceptively influential year for genre films, sequels, and high camp.
Which is why I jumped at the chance to watch Mommie Dearest when I saw it was streaming on Amazon Prime. I had never seen the notorious ‘81 cult-classic in its entirety, but there were a few things I knew about it going in. I’ve periodically seen the “No wire HANGERS!” scene on TV in retrospectives and shit like VH1’s “I Love the 80’s” as far back as I can remember. I was also vaguely aware of its so-bad-its-good-reputation, and that it had virtually wrecked Faye Dunaway’s career.
So I went into it expecting to have a good time with an extravagant mess of unintentional comedy. What I wasn’t prepared for was the blinding revelation of Faye Dunaway’s performance and the reminder that Hollywood seldom lets its actresses get away with being this explicitly outrageous, even when they’re slayin’.
Mommie Dearest is a campy adaptation of the memoir of the same name by Christina Crawford, the adopted daughter of Golden-Age Hollywood star Joan Crawford. The memoir was a source of controversy for years as it chronicled the abuse Christina endured at the hands of her famous adoptive mother. And though the film was a financial success, it was critically reviled upon arrival as a piece of inflammatory, opportunistic trash. It’s an absurd kabuki-esque spectacle to be sure, but I think the mainstream culture still hasn’t quite figured it out yet. And we certainly haven’t given Faye Dunaway the respect she deserves for what she accomplished in it.
Obviously, I’m not the first to point this out, nor am I the first to unironically admire this film or Dunaway’s performance for their bizarre charms and tonal audacity. Sure, there’s the unintentional comedy framing that lends itself to the midnight-movie circuit, but there’s also a rich history of Dunaway’s Joan Crawford being embraced by the drag community. Here’s a clip of drag queen Evah Destruction doing an incredible “Mommie Dearest remix” at a live show.
Fucking killer. And what rules about it is that Evah clearly isn’t making fun of or “parodying” Dunaway. Instead, she’s tapping into the raw feminine power and animal rage that defines the original performance. Like I said earlier, I went into this movie with a fairly open mind, and my only complaint about it is there were sections of the film that weren’t outrageous enough. As for Dunaway, there wasn’t a lot of unintentional comedy going on in what she was doing, at least not from where I sat. Sure, I reacted to her performance with loud laughter and straight guffaws on several occasions, but not because it was “funny” or “bad.” If anything I was shocked at how she was able to pull it off so well in a movie that’s idiosynchratically part Hollywood soap opera/part horror film.
And I think Dunaway pulls it off because she plays to both aspects of the movie. In the scenes when she’s the public-facing Joan Crawford, her ability to capture Crawford’s essence is uncanny and tremendous. Then, when she goes off the rails and becomes a monster, it’s some of the most powerful crank-it-to-11 acting I’ve ever seen. Take the famous “No wire HANGERS!” scene, where Crawford goes on a violent rampage in Christina’s room in the middle of the night. Dunaway’s animalistic physicality and endless well of borderline supernatural hysteria took my fuckin’ breath away before I could find the time to laugh or cry or do anything else. It’s the kind of stuff you see Nicolas Cage or Al Pacino (two of my faves) do over and over again, often to mixed results, only their careers aren’t ruined for it. Point is, people love when male actors play to the rafters and fucking GO FOR IT, but seldom praise women for doing the same.