SCENES FROM MILRED FIERCE

You don’t have to be an Evelyn Wood reading dynamics grad to flash through Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest. About the tribulations suffered as the adopted daughter of Joan Crawford, the pop psycho tell-all can be read in a few hours because it’s a rush of self-pity: Joanie dearest did this to me, and that, and that and, damnit, that and that! Christina has a few legitimate axes to grind—especially the fact that Joan’s treatment of her two oldest adopted children was a scandal that nearly everyone in Hollywood suspected but did nothing about, similar to the shame kept under wraps about Bing Crosby and finally exposed in son Gary’s tome. Christina’s book is choke full of Joan’s letters and notes to Christina—many of them convenient examples of what appear to be misconstruings of the put upon daughter’s intentions—but, funny thing, there aren’t many of Christina’s letters to read. Perhaps Joan discarded them after she replied, or Christina stashed them away for a later milker. Either way, the betting would be that—like mother, like daughter—the letters are charged with calculation. If there’s one thing you learn in Mommie Dearest, it’s that Christina and brother Christopher discovered early on that they do as little as possible to keep from “setting Joan off”; at the same time, however, you can learn how Christina absorbed to a degree Joan’s “no more wire hanger” night rage psychotics as method by which she might counter-strike: by the time you finish the book, you get the distinct impression that Christina, made defiant by Joan’s own deeply-rooted but unexplained psychosis, and having learned to needle in ways that kids embittered towards their parents are expert at, knew exactly what buttons to push. And that’s what Frank Perry’s movie version is all about: just about everyone manages to set Joan off, and no one more than angry Tina. Mommie Dearest as movie is 40s melodrama done as early 80s pop-your-cork soap: all the confrontations, showdowns, tirades, explosions, spiteful revenges are rigged for multiple climaxes. If it really wants to be about the war of control between parent and child, and a bit of serious bio on a warped superstar, Perry turns on the safety valve of near-camp and soaks the leading monster in glossy drag: Faye Dunaway goes from pencil-browed impersonation to crossed-eyed, night-creamed nightmare with just about as much analysis as you got from an old Photoplay. Arguably less. Dunaway said that of all her roles, she regrets this one the most, yet that’s more a defense ploy against being indicted for not merely chewing the scenery but chopping the hell out of it. In spite of Perry’s scummy crumminess, Dunaway is fairly authentic to Crawford’s momentary lapses into madness: when she got canned by MGM, who rubbed it in that she was voted “box office poison,” she maintained the outward appearance of dignity until she sought refuge in her home and the bottle. As Christina says in the book, Joan’s outrage probably had less to do with her lack of box office appeal than with the way MGM gave her the boot. She knew the transitory aspects of fame, but she also knew that the garbage the studio put her in helped destroy her. Mommie Dearest doesn’t put a spotlight on the groundwork-causes for Joan’s vicious behavior, which is the real story yet to be told. (We’ve heard too much from Tina’s side: her 20th Anniversary edition of the book adds more horror but no insight.) Pandering to topicality, Perry’s more interested in Joan’s niggardliness, idiosyncrasies, contempt, orgasmic eruptions—scenes of a dethroned drama queen.

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