Tag Archives: Jessica Lange

A quick note on Mommie Dearest

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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.

mommy dearest diary

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.

 

José Arroyo

Feud (Jaffe Cohen/Ryan Murphy/ Michael Zam, 2017)

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Feud is super trashy but great fun. The feud in question is the one that started when Joan Crawford and Bette Davis first got together to star in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, USA, 1962). The film is worshipful of stardom in general and these two in particular. Joan Crawford admires Davis’ talent; Davis admires Crawford’s beauty and her professionalism. They’re both, in different ways, each other’s equal. And so they’re jealous of each other. On the one hand, the series aspires to be an examination of what Hollywood does to great female stars past a certain age, on the other it seems the work of worshipful fans hanging on to every gossipy tidbit (many of them from Shaun Considine’s Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud) and offering a retort to the matricidal work of the two stars’ daughters: Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest and B.D. Hyman’s My Mother’s Keeper) with the aim of rescuing their reputations. And it succeeds. After Feud, wire hangers will not be the first thing we think about when we think of Joan Crawford.

Sarandon

 

I think the series miscast. Susan Sarandon, seventy, but meant to be playing mid-fifties, looks no more than 40.  I love her and she’s very attractive in this but actually not very good; she mimes Bette without having the volatility or danger that Davis had. Sarandon is so warm, still sexy, and rather maternal in spite of all the mother-daughter conflict shown in the film. What makes her a star is so different than what made Bette a star that she’s bad casting (though extremely watchable).

lange

 

Jessica Lange gives a terrific performance, but not as Crawford. She’s too soft. Crawford was never that. She lacks that tough, almost mannish quality that Crawford brought to her most memorable parts. It’s good to see her vulnerability accented. But everyone’s vulnerable. What made Crawford special is the zeal and focus with which she fought for her place in the movie firmament in order to transform Lucille Lesueur into Joan Crawford. Crawford had been a dance hall girl, a ten-cents a dance dancer; she’d done porn, gotten to Hollywood as, I think, Eddie Mannix’s girl. She was not this soft, almost yielding creature presented here. At least not by any account I’ve read. Lange does show great depth of feeling in the role she plays. She’s creating someone much more complex than Sarandon. But it’s not Crawford. Nonetheless, Lange and Sarandon are stars playing stars and thus extremely watchable (alongside Judy Davis, Alfred Molina, Stanley Tucci – I don’t get the casting of Catherine Zita-Jones as Olivia de Havilland).

The series never becomes good but it does become compulsively watchable as it unfolds. It’s fun in all kinds of ways. I loved pointing out the anachronisms: was Joan Crawford ever really called an ‘Icon’ to her face? Did her agent really speak to her about ‘branding opportunities’? As one can see in the cut and mix videos that fans have done, it’s also great fun to compare the depictions in the series with the actual events as filmed. This clip of Susan Sarandon/Bette Davis singing the theme song from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a favourite.

The fun, however, is laced with something nastier: there’s a slight air of misogyny infusing all the admiration and worship and slightly camp approach in Feud. Why this project anyway? On the one hand, it’s to remove the tarnish spewed by two vengeful daughters and revarnish two film immortals for posterity. On the other: Take two gay icons, add a touch of fading glamour, show them in their decline, posit them as antagonists and create a bitchfest in which fur may fly. There’s a nasty edge that constantly threatens what is otherwise a bubble of fandom and good will. Camp and misogyny need not overlap but there’s a magnetic field around which the two terms seems to attract each other in the presence of gay men; and there’s something about that overlap in the show, not very overt, more like an overhanging air, or a slight infusion. One feels it all through Feud.

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José Arroyo