Saw Mommie Dearest last night for the first time since it came out. It was at the ‘Shock and Gore’ festival, and great programming on their part. I think Dunaway’s great, though her career never recovered, even though the film was a hit. Everyone, including myself, laughed pretty much throughout, but not without discomfort. Was she stitched up by the director? His incompetence is extraordinary in a studio film. A lot of the laughs happen because the shots are held too long, and the editing is terrible and clichéd throughout. Even the make-up, ostensibly designed to make her like an older Joan Crawford, seems on a big screen like quickly applied Kabuki, or a a clown who ran out of time. The way Steve Forrest says his goodbye to Dunaway has to have been directed; and the line reading are ludicrous.
Contemporary audiences will now compare Faye Dunaway’s performance here to Jessica Lange’s in Feud. I love Lange. And she gave a great performance of some movie star in Ryan Murphy’s series. But it wasn’t Crawford. And it had nothing like the commitment and intensity Dunaway gives here. It’s too bad the film is so terrible. I think the whole project is an actor’s worst nightmare: Betrayal by director.
Plus, it’s a film about abuse, and most of the laughs happen at the moments when children are most under threat. So whilst seemingly aiming to decry child abuse it does so via abusing its subject and is lead actress, thus giving off a whiff of misoginy. It’s telling that the film ends not on the death of its subject but on the reading of her will. A weird, funny, and troubling experience.
Adam Carver did a great introduction to the event in which I learned that there is a book called The Mommy Dearest Diaries, written by Rutanya Alda, the actress who plays Carol Anne, and ostensibly an exposé of all the on-set shenanigans, and which I will of course order, in spite of feeling that one is just feeding into the exploitativeness of it all.
Mommie Dearest has been acclaimed as a masterpiece of unintentional camp, which is probably right. It’s why we’re still watching it almost forty years after it was first released. But it’s the kind of camp that’s fuelled by mean-ness; a making fun of, a laughing at. One laughs, sometimes heartily, but also with discomfort and a lingering sadness. At least I do. The film is the height of camp; but also the worst aspect of camp; the meanness and bitterness that comes out of social exclusion; a kind of schadenfreude at the tragedy of life which finds its outlet in laughter.