ighttime: a female figure looms precariously in the shadows. White-faced and fearsome, like a cross-dressed Michael Myers. “No. Wire. Hangers. EVERRR!” . . . It’s Joan Crawford, the darling of ‘golden age’ Hollywood — and, as brought to life by ’70s powerhouse Faye Dunaway, the mother of all movie monsters.
Few performances have divided opinion as much as Ms. Dunaway’s in Mommie Dearest. Following its release by Paramount in ’81, she was shortlisted for Best Actress prizes by the National Society of Film Critics (USA) and the New York Film Critics Circle. Instead, she tied with Tarzan the Ape Man’s (1981) Bo Derek for Worst Actress at the subsequent year’s Golden Raspberries.
“I think it turned my career in a direction where people would irretrievably have the wrong impression of me,” Dunaway opined in 2016, suggesting that the project had sullied her previously spotless reputation. She may well have a point. Though she’s worked steadily since the Eighties, none of her ensuing roles have attracted the esteem that the likes of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Chinatown (1974) and Network (1976) once afforded her.
Based on the best-selling memoir by Christina Crawford (Joan’s adopted child), Dearest charts the tempestuous relationship between ‘Tina’ and her mother, who, as well as being the biggest female film star of the 1930s and ’40s, was a cruel authoritarian, a narcissist, a manic depressive, and a full-time drunk . . . at least, according to her daughter. The validity of Christina’s account is questionable — we’ll never hear Joan’s side of the story; she died a year before the book hit shelves — but hey, who cares about the truth? Frank Perry’s pulpy adaptation certainly doesn’t. It has just one glaring priority: Faye Dunaway.
A simmering cauldron of vodka, eyebrow pencil and indomitable rage, Faye’s Joan is a force to be reckoned with — a woman under the influence, on the verge, and over the edge. And yet, for all its grotesque theatrics, there’s a rawness and a fragility to Dunaway’s portrayal that propels it far beyond mere camp. She’s a multifaceted mess; soft and graceful one minute, irritable and intimidating the next. More often than not, she goes for the jugular — eyes wide, fists clenched, voice shrill — but there are quieter moments amid the chaos (a furrowed brow here, an aching smile there), and it’s at these times that Dunaway paints a more poignant, perhaps more reliable picture of Crawford: an incredibly damaged human being, whose callous behaviour speaks of childhood misery and a profound self-hatred.
Alas, that’s as far as the psychological insight goes. A stronger team of technicians (writers, director, editor) may have honed the sensationalist source material into something more than melodrama. Instead, the episodic narrative flits from one explosive set-piece to the next, with flaccid lulls between the fireworks carrying little sense of cohesion or continuity. It’s up to our formidable leading lady to hold it all together, and — channelling the real JC’s staunch work ethic — she does, with extraordinary commitment.
Dunaway doesn’t just steal the film. She eats it alive.