Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Another Trip Around the Mommie Dearest Rodeo

Last weekend I got to experience Mommie Dearest on the big screen. I've seen that movie so many times that I feel like I know scenes verbatim, but there's nothing quite like watching a film on the big screen to amplify one's love. Mommie Dearest is truly one of the most fascinating films I've ever watched; equal parts mesmerising Hollywood epic, glorified and over-stuffed cavalcade of excess, camp masterpiece, and bitter pill memoir. When the screenplay isn't spouting the ridiculous lines of dialogue that we all know and love - even if you've never seen the film, dialogue like "No wire hangers, ever!", "Don't fuck with me fellas!" and "Tina, bring me the ax" have made their into pop culture for long enough to be aware - it's haphazardly jumping around like many other clunky biopics that continue to be made today. That opening gambit of not showing her face works tremendously, and for a brief moment modern audiences may be wondering what the big deal is.

They will surely catch on soon enough, but there is still so much to admire in this picture. Faye Dunaway may have "won" the Razzie for Worst Actress of 1982, but her performance here is one that truly deserves to be hoisted amongst the stars. One of the very, very few biopic performances that earns the catch cry of "omgfayedunawayisjoancrawford" (the poster even says as much), and if you're like me, whose introduction to the career of both of these immaculate ladies was via Frank Perry's film, then it really is hard to separate the two. If you had only ever seen an image of Joan before watching this film you'd swear the star of Mildred Pierce and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? had returned from the dead to portray herself in all of her kitschy glory. That Dunaway came in second place for best actress prizes with both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics (the same placing she received for her Oscar-winning Network performance) proves that it's little more than the film's reputation as a camp flop that makes Dunaway shy away from admitting this is one of her finest roles. She is so convincing, compelling and committed to the role that I believed her every step of the way, embracing the ridiculous and the sublime within the role. She was never afraid to "go there", that's for sure. Sure, she chews the scenery like a seasoned professional, but you can never say she's dull or boring. Give me something like this over the stodginess of J. Edgar any day!

However, it's not just Dunaway's bravura performance that makes Mommie Dearest such a hypnotic film. How about the performances by Rutanya Alda as the long suffering assistant, Carol Ann? Or the wide-eyed Mara Hobel as the child Christina - "Jesus Christ!" she proclaims with the utmost sincerity. How about the superb art direction that sees Joan Crawford's home decked out like a delicious fairy floss castle, and the divine costume design full of dresses, hats and furs that are as glamourous as the Hollywood era she represented. The make up work, too, is as impressive as any of the transformations we saw some 30 years later in The Iron Lady, and above and beyond the terrible work in J. Edgar. It's a shame it wasn't recognised anywhere by the Academy at the time who were presumably too busy honouring Chariots of Fire and On Golden Pond to look beyond the quickly earnt reputation. Although that certainly didn't stop Heaven's Gate from snagging a nomination... :/

While I would have liked the film to have investigated Joan Crawford's much discussed later career - oh gosh, a behind the scenes look at Trog would be WILD given what John Waters discusses on the special edition audio commentary, and what about the much ballyhooed rivalry between she and Bette Davis that culminated in Baby Jane? - but perhaps that would have descended Mommie Dearest into far too obvious mockery and camp. Still, while I personally get a lot of wild hoots of laughter from the film, I also hope it's that very reputation as a cult comedy that will draw people in and allow them to realise it's actually got some incredible work going on. Something good has to rub off.

One last thing before I go, wasn't the marketing for Mommie Dearest just fabulous? These posters are wonderful.

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