Wednesday, January 06, 2016

I Want My Mommie!

Reading Rutanya Alda’s recent book on the making of Mommie Dearest (1981) triggered me to take an umpteenth look at a fascinating film that never gets old to me, and an iconic star performance by Faye Dunaway that forever changed the trajectory of her career.

In her personal diary of the filming of this camp opus, Alda, who played the downtrodden and underappreciated secretary/companion Carol Ann to Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford, weaves an absorbing tale of neurotic and insecure actors (including dear Rutanya herself!), overworked technicians and designer divas (all as high-strung as the star, in fact). She paints Dunaway as the consummate narcissist, totally engrossed in her own performance to the detriment of the overall production. (Alda’s wry reflections are also a general indictment of how cold the movie business can really be.)

And at the end of her book, Alda confides that Dunaway herself is planning to publish her own Mommie memoir—and even asked Alda to help her write it (as if Carol Ann was still her faithful handmaiden).  Fanatic lovers of the cult classic are waiting with bated breath to hear her side of the story, as the actress has steadfastly refused to discuss the film at any length, indeed flying into a rage at the mere mention of Mommie.

Alda’s memoir is a great read, but there are so many unanswered questions that only Miss Dunaway can answer. Was Anne Bancroft really the first choice to play Joan? What were the original creative intentions of this film? Did they expect it to be taken seriously by critics and audiences? What in the world did the creative team think they were creating? Perhaps Faye will give us a clue, if she ever follows through with her own book.

According to Alda, Faye was convinced that the role of Joan Crawford would bring her another Academy Award nomination (“I won’t win it, though,” Dunaway added with false modesty.)
Day after day of obsessively running the dailies, poring over every foot of film shot, how could Faye Dunaway not know that both her performance and her appearance were an over-the-top cartoon?

Dunaway 1967—bigger than Jennifer Lawrence is today
Undeniably, Faye Dunaway was a fine actress of rare beauty and megawatt star power, the Jennifer Lawrence of her day. Her startling breakthrough role opposite Warren Beatty in 1967’s acclaimed Bonnie and Clyde brought her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, as did her turn in Roman Polanski’s homage to 1940s noir, Chinatown (in which Dunaway pays homage to The Maltese Falcon’s Mary Astor as the inscrutable seductress). In 1976, her realistic portrayal of an ambitious TV executive in Paddy Chayefsky’s chilling satire Network won her the coveted Oscar. Throughout the 1970s she costarred with Redford, Nicholson, Newman, McQueen. She was A-List all the way.

How could she have taken such a wrong turn with Mommie Dearest? What were the filmmakers intending? Was it some sort of creative experiment gone horribly bad? Were she, director Frank Perry, producer Frank Yablans (The Other Side of Midnight) and executive producer David Koontz (Christina Crawford’s husband) deliberately creating an overblown, surreal and cinematic biopic as an homage to Crawford’s famously mannered performances in iconic melodramas? Therein lies the mystery not solved in Rutanya Alda’s diaries.

Diana Scarwid as Christina; Faye and an overpowering bouffant as Mom
Producer Yablans had assembled a glittering production team to create a sumptuous period piece, recreating old Hollywood glamour of the 1940s and 50s—most notably Oscar-winning costume designer Irene Sharaff, who dressed Crawford herself, as well as Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor and Doris Day back in filmdom’s golden era; and production designer Bill Malley, who created the eerie look and feel of The Exorcist. The period costumes and sets were all first-rate and authentic, and early photographs of Faye as Joan (taken by Dunaway’s photographer paramour Terry O’Neill) were leaked to the press. The likeness would be uncanny, everyone thought.

But ultimately, according to Rutanya Alda’s book, the hair and makeup team quickly became fed up with Dunaway’s perfectionism, and the actress’s resulting looks suffered tremendously in the translation. Irene Sharaff also quit the production in a huff after a tiff with Dunaway. The script, originally adapted from his wife’s book by David Koontz, was tinkered with by a laundry list of writers of various styles and points of view. The shooting schedule of the film was demolished by poor time management, and many scenes were never shot, others filmed but never used. (Such is undoubtedly the case with many films.)

Mommie’s supporting cast, led by Mara Hobel as the younger and Diana Scarwid (Inside Moves, Silkwood) as the older Christina, are poorly developed (though those actresses do both give it their all opposite Faye), and in the final cut Rutanya Alda’s faithful servant Carol Ann is barely a cipher (and her horrific old age makeup is the pits!).  As a result, it was solely up to the star power of Faye Dunaway to carry the film. (And she runs away with it—but at what cost?)

Severe, taken to the extreme 
In many ways, it’s a monster movie, on a par with Godzilla or Frankenstein. In an early scene, Dunaway as Crawford walks into her foyer to greet her boyfriend, lawyer Greg Savitt (Bautzer to true Crawford historians), played by Steve Forrest. The camera moves in on Dunaway, looking quite attractive, but then in the close shot, we see her beauty marred by comically painted-on, caterpillar-width eyebrows. (Yes, that may have been the style in 1940, but it strikes one of the first jarring notes in this 1981 symphony of cinema dissonance.) The greatest drag show on earth has begun.

Dunaway allows herself to become more and more unattractive as the film goes on, wearing a series of wigs and hairstyles that are either severe or overwrought but always unflattering. Her grinning painted-on face leers underneath a tight white swimming cap in the pool sequence, transforming her from glamour gal to an evil, demonic clown. Most famous is the night raid sequence, where a drunken Joan bellows like a harridan about wire hangers in her daughter’s closet, then beats her with both a hanger and a can of Bon Ami cleanser. Dunaway’s horrifyingly insane-looking, cross-eyed face glinting under a thick layer of cold cream is iconically nightmarish.

Deep in character for the night raid scene
Faye Dunaway’s performance is histrionic, to put it mildly, positively operatic in its range and scope. (Faye herself described it as a Kabuki during a brief discussion of the film on Inside the Actor’s Studio.) She paints a no-holds-barred portrait of a monstrous shrew, evoking a tempest of trumped-up emotions and theatrical gestures. Unfortunately, there’s precious little heart or depth, and few quiet or introspective moments to offset the unrelenting bombast. Director Perry fails to pull Dunaway back from the precipice of ridiculous overacting, and the actress just simply takes the plunge into the grand guignol. (And truly seems to glory in it). 

Mommie Dearest, after receiving excoriating reviews and being branded an ignominious flop upon its release,  was immediately elevated to cult status by the gay community—and there it remains, where countless thousands of other films have disappeared from public consciousness. And generations of gay fans have applauded Faye’s balls-out performance as her most fabulous, fearless and unforgettable screen creation. The film has become an obsessive guilty pleasure, a gleeful happening on a par with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a repetition ritual to be experienced over and over until every line and gesture is memorized and indelibly inscribed upon the psyche. 

A beauty-in-a-turban moment for Faye, and the real Joan Crawford

Faye’s A-List career never quite recovered despite creditable performances in dozens more films over the years. But her reputation was tarnished, and the characters of Joan/Faye seemed to blur as coworkers stepped forward to name Dunaway as a real-life diva who was as much a horror as the Mommie character she had created.

Bette Davis and Roman Polanski had both named Dunaway as the most difficult actress they had ever worked with, and Rutanya Alda’s tales confirm that Faye was indeed demanding, self-absorbed and contrary as she created the character of Crawford, always failing to connect on a human level with the other actors in the film. (Reportedly, she’d reblock entire scenes, pushing the supporting characters out of the camera frame whenever possible, commandeering and appropriating their lines, and insisting that no crew member be in her line of vision when the cameras were turning.)

But isn’t every great star a little bit of a monster? Don’t they all have to be tough cookies, to succeed in the hyper-competitive business of show? Ambition, self-preservation, immersion in craft and character, a ruthless determination to compete and come out on top...undeniably all the ingredients needed to obtain and maintain a firm footing in the quicksands of the cinema firmament. Faye had ’em all.

Miss Dunaway, we eagerly await your side of the story. In the meantime, we will always love you, Mommie Dearest! (And three cheers for Carol Ann!)

P.S. Read more about Rutanya Alda's book at Le Cinema Dreams


Ken Anderson said...

Hi Chris
OMG! Talk about collective consciousness! I haven't read your post yet, but I'm flabbergasted that we BOTH covered this book on exactly the same day! off to read it!

Ken Anderson said...

Hi again, Chris
Loved your piece on this book and how it reflects on the film! Like you, I'm fascinated when a film goes so far afield of its original intention. I would love to hear Dunaway's take on all this, but as you say, as someone who insisted on going to the dailies every day...and she's a professional who prides herself on being a "perfectionist" the hell did she not glean that her performance needed a little guidance and reining in?
If all the whispers about drug use are true, that's about the only thing that makes sense.

I've loved "Mommie Dearest"for the longest time, and the more I see it, the more questions flood my mind and more answers I crave. I'm glad Alda got the ball rolling with her book and personal appearances. Dunaway's book is sure to be a lot of face-saving and damage control, but it would be a must-read no matter what. thanks for this double dose of "Momme Dearest" today! I haven't visited here in a while, so I'm happy to see some new posts to catch up on!

angelman66 said...

Hi Ken! That's wild, the Law of Attraction at work! I read Alda's book over the holidays and was delighted...who knew that she was the protege of Peckinpah and Altman, and knew so many other great creators of film? I also especially loved her reminiscences of living at the Chateau, one of my favorite places to visit, have lunch (and star gaze) whenever I am in your fair city.

I know you are as crazy for this strange and wonderful gay cult classic as I am, and I can't wait to read your Le Cinema Dreams post!

William said...

Chris, as usual, your post was beautifully written, although I must say (and you're probably not surprised) that I am one gay guy who fails to see the fun of this particular camp movie, LOL! It has it's funny moments, but it's just so awful. Of course, that doesn't mean I won't look at the damn thing again one of these days.

I remember thinking that Dunaway's whole problem is that she played Crawford as if she were Crawford acting in a really bad movie instead of Crawford being herself. Sure, one could argue that Crawford, like most stars, was never herself, always acting and so on, but the film never really takes us inside the mind of a real person and just offers an utter, unreal freak. [And let me make it clear that I have always thought Christina's book was mostly bullshit.]

I will, however, read Alda's book because that sounds like it might be more interesting than the movie!

I have also heard that Anne Bancroft was set to star as Crawford but ultimately turned it down, although I'm not sure why. Common sense, ha?

angelman66 said...

Hi Bill, thanks so much for stopping by!

I really think you have hit the nail on the head...I can't help but think that the creators deliberately set out to make a satire of a Joan Crawford Movie--that is the only explanation for this travesty. I have NEVER seen anyone chew scenery so gleefully as Faye Dunaway in this one--except maybe Divine in Female Trouble!!

I think you'll love the Rutanya Alda book...she was a protege of Peckinpah and Robert Altman, knew everyone...and the behind-the-scenes look at the making of a movie is always fascinating. It is a wonder that any of the movies that get made in Hollywood are any good!

Your point about Miss Bancroft is well taken! She probably read the script!

William said...

Probably! You know what -- I just ordered "Mommie Dearest" from the library. You and the "Dreams" blog guy have piqued my interest in seeing this again. Hopefully drunk!

angelman66 said...

Yes, Bill, please have a few while watching it...I have a feeling you are never going to love it, but you might just come to love to hate's so overblown...a real train wreck of a movie.

J.D. Lafrance said...

My gateway into this film was Diana Scarwid who I first saw in RUMBLE FISH where she had a brief but memorable bit part. I've always felt that MOMMIE DEAREST is some kind of horror movie - at times at least it feels that way. It is a fascinating character study to say the least and your review was very informative!

angelman66 said...

Scarwid is a great actor, but everyone remembers her for this camp favorite Scarwid performance is in Silkwood as Cher's lesbian lover. Great movie I have to write about one day! She is also good in Night Moves, as well as Rumble Fish!

angelman66 said...

I meant Inside Moves, not Night Moves, J.D.!