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.
(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.)
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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.