When Faye Played Joan: Mommie Dearest (1981)

Mommie Dearest Beauty Regiments
The film opens with Joan Crawford’s (Faye Dunaway) intense morning ritual before arriving at a film set in the late 1930s

On paper, Mommie Dearest looked like an easy Oscar nomination for its leading lady Faye Dunaway. Fresh from a decade of career bests and a Best Actress trophy for Network (1976), Dunaway was on her A-game and was being recognized as one of Hollywood’s most well-rounded actresses. Unfortunately, the tides turned on her ad director Frank Perry’s “sure fire hit” turned out to be one of Dunaway’s most infamous film roles.

The secret tale of Hollywood Icon Joan Crawford was turned into a novel by her daughter Christina, chronicling her troubled and abusive relationship with her mother. The Tell All book garnered immediate response from readers for its gossipy subject matter, written by Christina as revenge to her mother – her last stab, meant to spoil her mother’s legacy after she had been left out of her last will and testament.

Upon the film’s release, unintentional laughter was heard from audiences in theaters. This resulted to a quick change in marketing strategy: promoting the film as a comedy rather then a drama. Multiple Razzie nominations and bad reviews followed, yet audience fluttered to the nearest movie screens to see Faye’s demise in one of “the worst melodramas” produced in the 80s. A cult following was formed soon after, praising the movie for its unintentional camp, mainly due to Dunaway’s large-then-life performance as Joan Crawford. To the eyes of filmmakers, this was the end of Dunaway’s Golden Brick Road, and her star was never regained.

Joan Crawford’s (Faye Dunaway) greatest role: to play loving and ideal mother to her adoptive daughter Christina (Mara Hobbel) when the cameras are rolling

The film opens at the Brentwood home of Joan Crawford in the late 1930s. As Joan gets ready for another day on the lot of MGM studios, viewers discover the world of a movie star through imagery – highlighting her neurotic behavior and obsessive compulsive disorder. The Ice Queen’s daily beauty regiment is so intense, that it borderlines insanity. Still, Joan’s madness is kept in the shadows. She is soon visited by Greg Savitt (Steve Forrest in an atrocious performance), a lawyer boyfriend, where she expresses her longing to be a mother.

Cameras flicker, and we fast forward to Joan’s dream come true. Christina, her adoptive daughter lives the perfect life of a Hollywood heir the day she celebrates her birthday with a grand celebration filled with gifts, paparazzi and a mother she could look up to. But as the camera’s stop rolling, Joan’s true colors begin to show. The pressure of Hollywood begins to consumer her, and an abusive side begins to rise. Christina, being her perfect target.

Mommie Dearest Faye Dunaway No Wire Hangers
The infamous “NO WIRE HANGERS” scene in 1981’s Mommie Dearest; Faye Dunaway plays Joan Crawford in the critically bashed film

Dunaway’s Crawford takes part in some of the most truly memorable scenes put on tape in the 80s. Most of the film shows Christina from childhood to adolescence, head-butting  with her mother’s abusive cracks, metal breakdowns and inner demons. Such instances have become cult favourite scenes, like Dunaway’s infamous “NO WIRE HANGERS” moment where she beats her daughter after finding the wrong hangers in the closet. Though the film is often viewed as a ridicules camp, it is undeniable to see Dunaway transform into the misguided star where she shows true commitment to her performance.

She paints the ghost of a former idol, a woman so mentally imbalanced and stuck with delusions of grandeur. It is a performance so memorable, and often very good, that we forget Dunaway’s existence and begin to believe we are in the home of Joan Crawford. Though many looked down upon Christina’s storytelling as exaggeration, the film is an interesting study on how kids of movie stars paint their parents – theatrical, cinematic and full of flavor – just like the community they grew up in. You can’t run away from the movies, kid. 
One of Irene Sharaff’s intricately designed costumes to capture the grandeur of Joan Crawford’s life in Hollywood
Other film highlights include the elegant costumes created by Hollywood design heavyweight Irene Sharaff. She created a feast for the eyes that spanned 50 decades of movie fashion. Who can forget Joan’s golden dress as she wrecks her rose garden in paranoia? Or her large blue hat as she fights the board of Pepsi Cola? Even the simple black robe and facial cream matched with a headband in the film’s most infamous scene is quite a revel of thought and precision. It truly helped Dunaway in embodying this character. Costumes, should be an extension of the performance.

Bad reviews have caused Mommie Dearest to be overlooked for any type of good awards recognition. Dunaway, though apart of a bad film, was honestly worthy of a Best Actress nomination. She was better then half of the women nominated that year. The movie deserves to be talked about, even if it’s considered bad. Joan as Faye is ACTRESS GOLD.


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