Sunday, February 21, 2010

Female Villains in Horror: Mommie Dearest


Critically bashed, Mommie Dearest (1981) was a thorn in actress Faye Dunaway's side. She not only received a Razzie for Worst Actress that year, but she has been known to say it ruined her career as a leading lady.

Lord, it's really no wonder. As a kid, after I saw this movie it stuck with me for months. Every time I would close my eyes I would see Dunaway's wicked sneer and hear her screaming about those wire hangers. This is what makes her a villain in what is not considered a horror film but was more frightening to me than Samara and Asami put together. Because your mother is supposed to love you.

The movie is based on the book of the same title by the adopted daughter of Joan Crawford. In her memoirs, Christina Crawford contends her mother had a greater love for her movie career than her, that she was a victim of child abuse, and that Joan was a raging alcoholic.

During the film, we see Christina (Mara Hobel as the youngster and Diana Scarwid as an adult) dealing with the pressure of having such a monster for a mother, and they really did it up well. Dunaway's scary visage was all it took for me to practically run from the room.
If we are to believe all the hype of the story as truth, then Crawford really was a bona fide nut-job.

Apparently she had a furious case of OCD, as she scrubbed her face each morning using boiling water and followed with an ice bath. She bullied and harrassed her household staff, and then moved on to doing the same with her children. Having a string of lovers, she always made Christina refer to them as "uncles" (that's just creepy). She bought her loads of gifts and then gave all but one away. Joan has a ridiculous shit-fit the day she finds Christina in her bedroom playing with her makeup and acting like her mother in front of a mirror. She grabs scissors and hacks off all Christina's hair. No, really.

Joan is - by this point in the film - a rabid, fantastically cruel megalomaniac.
Everything must be exactly as she wants it in life or she flies off the handle. When a movie studio director tells her she's basically washed up, she ends up in her rose garden - in an evening gown no less - hacking up her shrubbery with an ax. Shades of Jack Torrance.

In the most disturbing (and infamous) scene - the one that sticks in my head like flypaper - she storms into Christina's room and goes ape-shit about the use of wire hangers. I mean, she has a major, violent outburst about her daughter's wardrobe. O---kay. What makes it even more frightening is the look of Crawford - hair all pulled back off her face, white night cream smeared all over her face, eyes practically bugging out of her head. (*shudder*)

She also beats the young girl with said hanger, and I don't care who you are that is abominable. Joan then launches into a tirade concerning the condition of Christina's bedroom, believing it to be messy when it actually looks fine. Joan trashes the attached bathroom as well, throwing scouring powder everywhere and making an even bigger wreck of the room, leaving Christina to clean it up amidst fear of severe punishment if things don't end up perfect.

Joan evidentally didn't stop there. When Christina was a bit older she was sent to boarding school - which would have been a blessing in my book. When she gets thrown out of a private acting school due to a chaste encounter with a boy that was perceived as something more, Joan lies to the press about the incident. Christina challenges her mother to the truth and in turn, humiliates Joan to the point of near-insanity. She physically attacks Christina and tries to strangle her! The incident is covered up and Christina is sent to a strict religious academy.

But no! It doesn't end there. Joan marries the head of Pepsi, manipulates him into keeping her in the lavish way she has become accustomed to, then after his death, threatens the powers-that-be at Pepsi to let her remain on the board or she will publicly denounce and ruin Pepsi.

Naturally Joan's reputation continues to deteriorate at a rapid pace, as does, for all intents and purposes, her mental status.

Christina becomes a soap opera actress, and when she is suddenly ill, her studio surprisingly hires her mother as her temporary replacement, until it is blatantly obvious that she is too drunk all the time to continue.

The final kicker is when Joan dies. Christina and her brother are astonished to be told their mother had cut them out of her will and left them nothing. The lawyer tells them simply that Joan had said "they knew the reasons why". Nice.
I think most would have to agree that this is very likely the reason that the memoir by Christina was written. To ostracize and condemn her mother's memory. Whether it is actual truth or not we will never know.

Mommie Dearest is more than deserving of it's schlocky reputation, and it's really a ridiculous piece of filmmaking that seems to be more of a kiss-off from Christina Crawford to her (at that point) dead mother more than anything else.
But I really have to stress that if Joan Crawford was indeed that horrific and detestable, she is probably the most entitiled of our entire group to the female villain designation. For she wasn't just the figment of some random screenwriter's imagination - she was a living, breathing nightmare.

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Pax Romano said...

If you have not, by all means read the book - it lacks the camp value of the film (obviously), but it's like a kick in the stomach. Joan really was a mentally ill woman, and apparently she beat Christine so bad at one point that she suffered a major head injury, the effects of which still are evident today.

But the movie is pure over-the-top-joy! And frankly, I think it was one of Faye's best.

Tower Farm said...


The greatest horror movie monster of all time is Faye in "Mommie..." Seeing her with that cold cream smeared all over her face is frightening in a way few other screen images are.

The book is interesting -- more violent than the movie, for sure, as the abuse really seemed to go on for a long time.

Great mention of a very deserving female horror villain!

Sarah from Scare Sarah said...

She is awesome. You would *not* fuck with her, right?

Emily said...

I heart this movie beyond most. I even dressed as Joanie in the wire hanger scene for Halloween a few years back. There's a great DVD release with John Waters providing a really thoughtful commentary. He makes some decent points about how if you dismiss the terrible editing and lack of any storyline, Dunway actually gives a really brave and strong performance. I still think that in the hands of a better director, this could have actually been a decent film.

The Shitty Astrologer said...

I have mixed feelings to this day about this portrayal of Joan Crawford. I wonder how much of it was exaggerated for dramatic guess is a lot of it was. I think the reality was a lot more depressing than this. However, for whatever reason, Christina turned the knife on her mother and the rest is history.