Pop Culture Homework Assignment #14: Mommie Dearest

It seems incredible to me that I haven't written about Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud for the Pantheon yet. There's an oversight I'll have to rectify soon. It's a book I've read about, oh say... sixty times or so. I only bring it up as a reference point for how fascinated I am by the lives and careers of both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Both are gay icons, but that's not why I find them so endlessly compelling. One was a consummate actress who worked her way towards becoming a movie star, and one was a movie star who worked her way towards becoming an actress. And they loathed each other. But I'll spare the gushing about the book until I get around to writing that entry.

I was at a movie-themed trivia contest recently, and for winning a door prize, I was allowed to pick anything off a table of swag. When I saw Christina Crawford's 1978 memoir, Mommie Dearest, I immediately snagged it. Bette and Joan references Mommie Dearest heavily, and naturally, I'd heard of it before, but I'd never gotten around to actually sitting down and reading the damn thing, nor watching the 1981 film adaptation of it. The closest I'd come is seeing the hilarious movie/ABBA remix at Showtune Tuesday back when THAT was a thing at gay bars.

I'm wandering off on too many tangents. All this blathering is to say I have no good excuse for missing out on Mommie Dearest until 2015, but I don't have to worry about it anymore, because in the span of a week, I'd picked up the book, read it, noticed the movie is available to stream on Netflix, and watched it. I'm nothing if not efficient. For the five people who haven't heard about it, Mommie Dearest is about Christina Crawford's relationship with her adoptive mother, and is a tell-all about how manipulative and abusive Joan Crawford was, both emotionally and physically.

There's a lot of evidence that Joan Crawford only adopted children for the publicity they brought, and to put on a good public face for her fans. When it came down to actually having to raise kids, she was woefully inadequate. Christina details everything from her mother's tirades to her excruciatingly over-reactive punishments to the ritual beatings Christina got for even the slightest misbehavior. It's an interesting read, and dovetails pretty neatly into everything else I've read about Joan Crawford, but there's something...off about it. Memoirs are, by necessity, pretty one-sided, and I accept that. They're supposed to be biased in the author's favor. But you know that feeling you get when you hear a one-sided story, and even with the bias built into it, you still can't accept the storyteller's version? That happens here a lot. There's multiple instances of "Well, I politely informed her that such-and-such happened and she just blew up at me," and the reader can tell that something's missing. Not that I necessarily blame her for this; anyone growing up in that household was bound to have issues.

Also, child abuse was not a widely-discussed problem in 1978, and Christina Crawford not only shined a spotlight on it, but did so about a woman who did everything in her power to appear like a perfect, doting mother to the outside world. This book exploded the entertainment world. Think about what it'd be like if one of Meryl Streep's kids wrote a book detailing how they'd been beaten and choked by her. So while it seemed a bit shifty, fact-wise, and a bit too self-congratulatory, this book was one hell of an interesting read.

It was also melodramatic as hell, which explains the movie, which is campier than national parks in summer. Faye Dunaway stars as Joan Crawford, and chews every single line of dialogue. This is the broadest, hammiest movie I've seen in ages, where nobody is able to hold a normal conversation. EVERYTHING must be....SPOKEN....VERY THEATRICALLY. Slaps and punches and grotesque makeup abound. This movie set out to make Joan Crawford look like a monster, and not just figuratively. If I'm judging it based on pure movie-making skill, it's terrible. But if I'm judging it based on how much damned fun it would be to drunkenly watch with a group of friends, it soars. In a way, I guess it's kind of sad that a book about airing a family's dirty laundry in order to highlight the horrors of abuse because an absolute hoot of a movie, but hey baby. That's Hollywood.

Mommie Dearest (1978): B-
Mommie Dearest (1981): B


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