Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Mommie Dearest

Written as part of the series hosted by Nathaniel, the benevolent overseer of The Film Experience.

Some films loom so large over the cultural consciousness that you feel as though you already have an opinion about them before you even see them. Mommie Dearest, the adaptation of Christina Crawford's memoir about her mother, (in)famous movie star Joan Crawford, is one of those films. It is a camp classic! Faye Dunaway is incredible as Joan! But the movie itself is terrible! So bad it's good! It ruined Dunaway's career! It soiled the memory of Joan Crawford! The thing about those films, though, is that preconceived notions are quite often their undoing.

Mommie Dearest isn't great cinema by any stretch, but outside of a few scenes it's hard to read it as a camp classic, either. It's true that Dunaway goes big - VERY big - in her efforts to play one of the most larger-than-life movie stars ever to grace Hollywood, but outside of one scene (you know the one), I wouldn't say it's TOO big. Joan Crawford was a big personality. And to the eyes of a child, she was likely even bigger.

And that's the ultimate undoing of Mommie Dearest as good cinema - its source material. Joan may be the main character, but we're seeing her through the eyes of Christina, her adopted daughter, one who may or may not have very good reason to be traumatized by this woman, and who very likely has every reason to want to take her down. Whether what we see is true, "true", or false we may never know. But what is clear is that this is not a film that goes big in order to find bigger, deeper truths about its subjects - it's a film that goes big because its main subject was HUGE. It goes big because IT HAS TO.

Which is why my choice for best shot kind of surprised me. It comes very early on, but when I saw it I immediately held onto it, because it just felt right. After reaching the end of the film, reflecting on it, reading about it, and rewatching some of the better scenes again, I realized that this shot is the key to the whole film.
BEST SHOT
In Mommie Dearest, we're not seeing Joan Crawford as she was. We're seeing her through several filters - her daughter, her daughter's book, the screenplay, Dunaway's performance, the director's vision - enough layers to be like frosted glass. We can barely see her through not just all that has been put between her and us, but all that's been put between the film and us. Neither Crawford, Dunaway's performance, nor the film can stand on their own, without a filter between them and us. If even they ever could. There's so much history and cultural knowledge that came between this film and even audiences who saw it when it was originally released - and has only accumulated since - that I'm not sure it was ever possible to see this "blind," completely devoid of any preconceived notions of Joan, Christina, and even the film itself.

(It's also the closest Dunaway comes in the film to looking like the younger version of Crawford she's supposed to be playing at this point. When she has to play older, the resemblance and performance are uncanny, but she looks far too harsh for most of the first part of the film to look like the woman who was Mildred Pierce.)

*                          *                          *

Okay I couldn't let this go without bringing this up: I know everyone talks about that "NO WIRE HANGERS!" scene, but what's REALLY scary is what comes after that, when Joan makes Christina scrub the bathroom floor. I could only watch it with my hand attempting to cover my mouth - my jaw hit the ground the second the soap started flying everywhere and WOULD NOT CLOSE until about five minutes after it was over. It's the scariest, most hilarious, most hilariously frightening, most frighteningly hilarious thing I've ever seen, very nearly reaching the heights of the sublime.
Were I more sure of Mommie Dearest's quality or lack thereof - which I am still very much in debate over - I might have chosen it as my best shot. Because even all the preparation and cultural conditioning in the world did jack shit to prepare me for THAT particular shitshow.

8 comments:

  1. love this piece and it's a great choice, well supported. Totally agree on the bathroom floor scene. In fact the big WIRE HANGER moment is to me one of the film's least frightening EXCEPT when it's over and she's completely lost it hence my choice "yes mommie what?" which moves directly into yours. Just when you think it can't get any more psychological disturbing it keeps on going.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So true - that "yes, mommie what?" moment is terrifying. It's a rhetorical question with a known answer, but in the moment there's no right answer to it. The entire scene is sick-making... or rather, it would be if it didn't also go so far over the top as to become a giant cow flying over the moon. This almost feels like the actressexual equivalent of torture porn.

      Delete
  2. the shower scene is the best. love that shot you picked and your reasoning and observations were brilliant. her frosted image and hand pressed against the glass are like a image from a horror movie almost - a premonition of the trauma to come...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! I actually didn't think of that, but now that you mention it, I totally see it. It's also very much an Old Hollywood glamour shot - all soft focus and big hair and sultry lips.

      Delete
  3. Great choice of a shot and wonderful reasoning behind it. The film is badly constructed but Faye, apparently lacking a strong directorial hand, does everything but swing from the chandelier to make Crawford work.

    I'm in agreement about Faye in the earlier scenes not being as convincing in her look to the Mildred Pierce era Crawford. One of the few times she talked about the film, on Inside the Actor's Studio with that annoying suck-up James Lipton, that she struggled with matching Joan's appearance until she realized it wasn't the make-up that made the difference but the tautness with which Crawford held her facial muscles. That was a gradual development throughout her career and it would have been near impossible to replicate over the shooting of the film so I guess the approximation she arrived at had to sustain her throughout the filming no matter what period she found herself in. It's eerie in the latter part of the film that's for sure.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Aw, I love James Lipton! Even if he is a giant softball as an interviewer. That's a really interesting tidbit. And you're right, the resemblance is eerie in the later parts of the film.

      Delete
  4. Good choice and I like your observation about the various filters.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, man! I'm proud of this one.

      Delete