My boyfriend is . . . not exactly the most pop-culture savvy person out there. He’s an engineering student so I mean, I knew what I was getting into. Sometimes you just have to work with what you have! But there are some pieces of media that are so integral to the motion picture canon of global civilisation that I have no choice but to educate him on them—that is to say, I absolutely had a viewing party of Mommie Dearest with him.
Some of you may already know where I am going with this. Probably the same six people that know what I’m talking about when I reference Showgirls! For those not inclined to remember every detail about dead white actresses of a certain age, or those not up to date with a touchstone of LGBT pop culture (the older gay white side, anyhow), Mommie Dearest is a 1981 film that was officially sold as a docudrama, but in practice, was a crushing character assassination of one of Hollywood’s most famous Golden Age stars, Joan Crawford. She was (and remains) an incredibly famous icon of her era and her name is just as much of a byword for glamour as it is melodrama. But she has many demons that were passed on to her children. It is based on the autobiography of her adopted daughter Christina in which she alleges decades of emotional and physical cruelty on Joan’s behalf, both to the author and her brother. It all but ensured the death of Joan Crawford’s acting legacy to the general public, as she now lives on as a caricature, a monster included in the American Film Institute’s list of definitive movie villains of the 20th century.
The movie itself is infamous both for its brutality and its unrestrained campiness—in particular, the scene where Joan (played by Faye Dunaway) attempts to strangle her daughter Christina for daring to loathe the abuse heaped on her over the years. But while the scene is horrific, it is played beyond any sense of reality to the point that you can’t help but throw out a kind of scream-laugh at what is happening on screen. By this point in the film, you’ve sat through about 90 minutes of increasingly warped dialogue, with no restraint on behalf of Dunaway. It isn’t coincidental that this ensured the death of Dunaway’s career as well. It is so enduring within many LGBT circles because of its eminently quotable dialogue, and its status as an infinitely reproduced touchstone for many drag queens the world over. Plot and substance disappear in the hurricane of campiness without context. The crowd goes wild.
You’re probably aware of the wire hangers scene, but if you are not, look for it on Youtube. It’s the one where Joan, garish beauty routine on her face, beats her daughter for the crime of hanging her expensive clothes on a wire hanger. Beats her with said wire hanger, no less. It’s hard to put into words just how to feel when watching this scene. It’s easily the most famous and quotable part of the movie, maybe the only section to cross over into the general hetero-consciousness. Hell, even Jay-Z has sampled the monologue in probably the only song of his I can enjoy. When my boyfriend watched this scene a couple of weeks ago, he could not process what he was seeing. And I daresay that is the reaction most people have upon watching that scene if they are unfamiliar with the beloved LGBT curiosity it has become.
But yet . . . for all the love I do have for this unabashed nightmare, it has become such a victim of its myth that much has been lost for the figures represented over the years. This is in part because, until Ryan Murphy’s Feud hit TV screens last year, there was a complete dearth of depictions of Crawford, nothing to counteract the heights reached by Mommie Dearest. Her status as an endearing icon has been painted without any nuance—indeed, until Feud, there had only been two-dimensional caricatures of her in the public mind. I have no doubt that Joan Crawford was an incredibly troubled figure who had some of the personality and committed some of the actions portrayed on celluloid. This is by no means an excusal. But . . . the cruelty inherent in this movie is that it completely omits the background that broke her, the mental illness which, if given the slightest bit of sympathy, could have averted so much heartbreak on behalf both of Crawford, and her daughter and son. It is now thought that she suffered from borderline personality disorder, something I understand well. The fiery hatred directed at a mentally crumbling woman is a testament to the enduring status of mental health issues. It omits the reality of an oppressive Hollywood studio system we can hardly fathom now, one that created, defined and euthanised its stars without abandon. A system where, unlike now, there was no hope of defying the misogynistic and cruel moguls who ran things. One that allegedly pulled out her back teeth for the sake of cheekbones. You get the idea.
It is no excuse by any means. Abuse is abuse and the intention is not to let her off the hook. But while I love Mommie Dearest the movie, I wish there was more insight into Mommie Dearest the person. There is so much more that can be gleaned from a little empathy, than from the callousness we know so well.