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