This year BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival has a strand dedicated to all things camp. Winks and Nudges offers a selection of kitschy, culty treats, including a sing-a-long screening of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and a big screen outing for Jane Fonda’s craziest hour, Barbarella (1968). Meanwhile, Village People musical Can’t Stop the Music (1980) finally makes it to the mighty BFI IMAX, surely its natural home. Best of all is the chance to catch Mommie Dearest (1981), one of the most beloved gay audience favourites of all time, although, unlike its sister films in the programme, this was a film that wasn’t meant to be seen through the rainbow-tinted lens of camp.
Amid all the glee over the botched announcement of the winner of this year’s best picture Oscar, when it turned out trophy-eating colossus La La Land hadn’t beaten Moonlight to the top prize after all, one ironic aspect of all the drama was that it tarnished the return to the spotlight of one of Hollywood’s greatest actors of the 1960s and 1970s – Faye Dunaway. While blurting out the name of the wrong winner was hardly her fault, it once again added an extra dose of farce to the career of the woman who once had her pick of great film roles, before one movie changed (although far from ended) her career forever. That film, of course, was Mommie Dearest.
“The enduring audience for Mommie Dearest has been gay, sardonic, and rather cruel. I can see how the history and iconography of Hollywood have gained that whiplash audience.” Film historian David Thomson, an often brilliant writer, sometimes has opinions about films that leave me raging, but it’s hard to argue that Mommie Dearest, the unintentionally outrageous biopic about Joan Crawford’s abusive relationship with her adopted daughter, Christina, has been savagely embraced by queer audiences since its cinema release in 1981. Drag queens outdo each other for the fiercest impersonation of Faye Dunaway in Crawford mode. And who doesn’t want to be part of a ‘whiplash’ audience, whatever that is? Well, possibly Christina Crawford, who has seen her harrowing history of child abuse transformed into a gay pantomime. Watching audiences howl with laughter as your avatar is beaten and throttled must be a sobering experience.
Everyone knows the classic scenes in Mommie Dearest. Just the utterance of one line – “Barbara, please!”, “Tina, bring me the axe” and, of course, “No wire hangers EVER!” evoke a scene of such ostentatious fury that many viewers can quote the dialogue verbatim years after seeing the film. Hooting through the ridiculous moments – and there are many – is an easy pleasure beloved of the movie’s many fans. But those who revel in the absurdity are missing out on the film’s genuine qualities.
The film is at its best when it shows some affection for poor Joan. Dunaway does an excellent job of conveying Crawford’s fear of returning to poverty and, ironically, her terror of ridicule and rejection from her devotees. When the film takes a breath and shows Crawford at her calmest, the viewer sees Joan’s vulnerability. She briefly seems a sad, lonely woman in desperate need of constant approval from her fans. Despite her claims of pride that Christina may be following in her footsteps (“Something good had to rub off”), Dunaway’s Joan is triggered into fury when she sees young Christina trying to emulate her by using her hair products or imitating her in front of her dolls. When the adult Christina tries her hand at acting and is forced by illness to temporarily abandon her soap opera, in steps Joan to take her part, killing her daughter’s achievements by turning up drunk and forgetting her lines. The horror of seeing her daughter trying to match her speaks of a deep self-loathing.
Not that Joan is always so tinged with pathos. The scene where she fights back against the governor’s board of Pepsi is flat-out sensational, and a rare moment when the film is actually on Crawford’s side. Newly widowed from the President of Pepsi, the bigwigs want Joan out of the picture and attempt to oust her from the board. Joan, a survivor if ever there was, threatens to ruin Pepsi’s reputation on a national stage, snarling the immortal line, “Don’t FUCK with me, fellas!” Watching a fading diva destroy a room of pale, stale males with ruthless efficiency is an exhilarating experience, not a million miles away from Sharon Stone’s take-down of a hostile room of police agents trying to slut-shame her into submission in Basic Instinct (1992). Crawford is told over and over again by men that she is unwanted, that she is box office poison. Again and again she makes them eat it.
Dunaway’s performance hints at what the movie could have been. Her impersonation of Crawford – particularly the Crawford of fiery 1950s melodramas such as Queen Bee (1955) and Autumn Leaves (1956) – is uncanny and captures Crawford’s unusual beauty and slightly wobbly smile. Her Crawford is never not performing, whether breaking up from her boyfriend or curating a cheesily flawless family Christmas for a radio show. She thrives on drama. It’s an operatic performance that belongs in a better movie.
And I stand by the wire coat hangers scene. I saw Mommie Dearest as a young child and, while the absurd excesses of the most famous set pieces were not lost on me, I found the scene where Crawford, plastered in face cream, throws an extraordinary violent tantrum after discovering her child has wire coat hangers in her closet alarming and disturbing. Dunaway looms over the camera like a nightmarish ogre, with the audience given a cowering child’s-eye view of an out-of-control parent. After the storm, Crawford appears to calm down, only to flare up again when the bathroom fails to match her high standards of cleanliness and another hurricane hits. As an adult viewer, the sequence is ridiculous, but as a child it was a scary rollercoaster ride. Coming straight after a scene of Crawford at her happiest, having won an Oscar for Mildred Pierce (1945), it showed the terrifying unpredictability of living with an unstable parent.
While Dunaway is more willing today to talk about Mommie Dearest, her reluctance to embrace a film that hobbled her status as a Hollywood great is understandable. Anyone who has seen Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Chinatown (1974) knows how fantastic Dunaway can be with good direction and a good script. After Mommie Dearest, her only strong leading role came in Barfly (1987), in which she excels playing an alcoholic woman opposite Mickey Rourke. Otherwise, she has embraced a more knowing side of camp, having a ball in diverting trash such as The Wicked Lady (1983) and Supergirl (1984). Yet she shouldn’t look back at Mommie Dearest with disgust, for, although it fell short of its ambitions, her remarkable performance has brought happiness to millions of viewers around the world. The sense of community at all LGBT screenings of the film still warms the heart. But if you focus solely on what the film does wrong at the expense of what it does right, you really are missing out on the full Mommie Dearest experience.