The year is 1981. Ronald Reagan, newly installed and confirmed immortal after a lung-first meeting with a Devastator that didn’t quite devastate, leads our weary republic with rosy-cheeked, Brylcreemed optimism. There is Pac-Man, Indiana Jones, and Polish Solidarity for all, and we all stared dreamily into those Bette Davis Eyes. The PC, Rubik’s Cube, and Joe Montana’s reign all lay before us, fostering a sense of endless possibility amidst still defiant unemployment and inflation. Neighborhoods teemed with pee-wee football practice, the gravel-grinding whir of Big Wheels, and yes, even the faint whiff that somewhere among the shadows, a toothless molester lay in wait to turn us all from doe-eyed innocents into headless Adam Walshes. From worry to woe, it was a heady time in which to come of age. But while America moved forward, I spent a typical afternoon with my father at the cinema, not being entertained so much as deliberately brainwashed.
All of eight-years-old, I was, during that year of triumph, introduced to Mommie Dearest. Not yet the camp classic it was destined to become, Frank Perry’s then-serious Joan Crawford biopic was, in fact, my trial by fire; a primer for the messy divorce to come, and likely my devious dad’s opening salvo in his endless campaign to convince me of my mother’s inherent evil. Sure, my mother, no mansion dweller, inhabited a nearly-foreclosed home (thanks dad, I’m sure those Derby bets were worth it) and lacked furs and diamonds and all that, but I’ll be damned if she too didn’t share Joan’s unquenchable lust for alcohol and bipolar lovers. And while I was never beaten with a bottle of powdered cleanser or forced to eat raw steak for breakfast, my moms roaring belches that one summer evening did, come to think of it, closely resemble Joan’s axe-wielding romp through the rose garden. And when the dashing diva passed the fuck out after a particularly self-indulgent day of shopping, I guess I could see the parallels with my own mom’s slur-filled entrances after a 16-hour trip to the grocery store, sans actual groceries. Sure, my old man’s motives were nasty and selfish and his way of trying to duck child support, but was he completely wrong? Was this the real story of mommies everywhere? And would I see 1982 if I stayed under her not-so-protective wing?
Following my introduction to Crawford’s symbolic stand-in for all things womanly, the offenses against motherly love began to pile up like the past due notices that clogged our mailbox. Birthdays were missed, authoritarian grandmothers came to visit and hung around like a pestilence, and humorless, fun-deprived visits to Disneyland with dad acted not as experiences in their own right, but as ways to get us kids out of the house so mother dear could ride in the same car as some sweaty drunk, jump out when open hands evolved into fists, and end up in a heap, unconscious and broken, at the bottom of a long hill. Did you have fun, son? No, mom, and why the hell is your leg in a cast? No matter, and are you ready to spend a month with your other grandparents while I self-medicate? I began to panic, and feared I was but a lippy retort away from being sent to a convent like little Christina, though my mind could not yet grasp that nuns and young boys did not mix in modern America. But live-in Grandma was very similar to the Mother Superior of that cinematic world, and like that woman of God, my own was not above inflicting pain and denying all forms of pleasure. Our rent stayed good and paid, thank the stars, but I’d have rather been homeless. Though brief, that seemingly endless stretch of hell convinced me for all time that if a grandson is good for anything in this life, it is to survive just long enough to release some manner of bodily fluid on a grandmother’s grave. So, I thank her for that atypical sense of focus.
While my first encounter with Mommie Dearest was far from pure, and in some respects unholy, I have come to see its greatness through the oldest manner possible; sheer repetition. It ranks just below Death Wish 3 on my frequency chart, and depending on mood, weather, or even the cycle of the moon, it just might eclipse that exercise in mindlessly delightful violence for sheer, unvarnished entertainment value. Every stunning slap, every bold eyebrow raised like an Amish barn, every panties-bearing brawl on expensive carpet, resonates then and now as a thunderclap of excess; an orgy of hyperbolic humanity. Edited with all the delicacy and sophistication of a Mengele-led O.R., the narrative becomes less a story than a greatest hits package devised by a mirth-filled sadist. We jump from triumph to tears, survival to sadness, all in the same scene where a meek little boy is told to go strap himself back in bed like he’s preparing for a moon launch. An Oscar win is followed by a drunken monologue so stuffed with hate that it’s a wonder the woman evaded a stroke her entire adult life. She marries a Pepsi magnate only to see him drop dead to escape the piling bills. Christina does laundry while Joan insists, she’s achieved a level of poverty that somehow includes limitless accounts at all the top shops in Hollywood. She’s fired then hired, and fired again, and then she’s having dinner right before forcing a disbelieving child to send every last birthday gift to a charity because, well, mom had a hellish upbringing, so you will too, by God. Entire swaths of time are ignored, then doubled back on each other, and before long, Christina is being spanked for not understanding why an adult has to rub it in that she can swim faster than a child just out of diapers.
Again, this sense of appreciation came reluctantly at first, if only because the film’s first and hardest lesson was that single mothers, rich or poor were the chief source of pain in the modern world. Single dads could handle the trials and tribulations of parenthood, it was assumed, but such theories failed to take into account that Dr. Spock was not in favor of using a smoke-filled race track as a child care center. You see, Miss Joan was, quite simply, like unattached moms everywhere, a whore. The revolving door of her estate was a spider’s web of selfish desire, and all the poor saps who dared enter were treated not to volcanic sex with a legend, but teeth-gnashing, self-pity, and unworthy performances that wouldn’t pass muster in a B-movie. Legend has it that Crawford slept with a good 85% of Hollywood’s suits and talent, an appetite that led to at least twenty-three abortions, five miscarriages, and a womb on par with Hiroshima’s epicenter, but the movie is content to show but a slice, foolishly implying that Joan was simply lonely, rather than a maneater of the first order. Still, I drank in the imagery, and believed that unless women shelved their ambition with their sexuality, they’d be doomed to walk the earth in utter misery. Mommie Dearest, in this sense, is one of the most reactionary cautionary tales ever told, demonstrating as the ultimate maxim that a woman unleashed is a woman in despair, and any and all achievement, be it Oscar or employment outside the home, remains hollow to the core. And trying to have it all? Career and family? Good luck, sister, and don’t even start down that road unless you are safely married to a man who understands the need for deference.
Revisiting the movie in the 90s brought much delight, but in the car after that initial viewing, I can believe that I was also lectured on Joan’s odd sense of morality, where an innocent kiss in the hay became so monumental it transformed an idyllic private school into a cum-soaked brothel. But Crawford, like so many of her ilk, believed institutions that strayed from the path of a medieval dungeon were, at best, coddling the young. Obedience was key, and children were better seen than heard, though best, really, if not even seen. Curious, though, that my own mother was not a disciplinarian, and certainly no fanatic, and later years would prove that it was daddy dearest who preached from a pulpit stained by hypocrisy. This is especially true if the mantra of hard work equals success. This comes from the mouth of America’s one attorney who believed in taking no more than a single case every four years. The propaganda cracked early and often, then, more so when I was required to take Joan’s ultimate meltdown as a warning bell in the night. Is the best way to impress a visiting journalist to strangle your child damn near to death? Maybe, but no hand ever touched my bottom, let alone my neck, so what was all this about? Mere seeds being planted, I gathered, and simply a cause to keep one eye open for signs of the apocalypse.
Without belaboring the point, the ruse failed to work, I did not live with Pops, and by all accounts, I grew up without beatings, disease, or exposure to sadism. That said, the movie itself is instructional in all manner of social commentary, including the riotous conclusion that adoption is the greatest predictor of abuse and neglect. It is certainly not being cut out of any damned Will. I’d tie this trend to Reagan’s election, but it’s fair to say that shooting wrapped well ahead of his November 1980 victory. Still, Mommie Dearest sent shock waves throughout the adoption industry, and kids everywhere slept in abject terror, waiting on pins for the shadows of a brutal parent to darken their lives. Birth parents were holy; those resorting to buying their kids like so much cattle were clearly in the market for experimentation and savagery. Or was something more subversive afoot, where the Reagan era was actually to be feared, and that this movie was the ultimate inside scoop of what actors are really like when the cameras shut down. Doubtful, though the president was the sort of man who railed against the small things in life, while missing the big picture entirely.
Any synopsis of this motion picture massacre must include a memorable quote or two, but why bother when the entire script resonates with ear-popping offenses against good taste? Whatever the lines, none would be possible without Faye Dunaway’s Gibraltar-like performance, a role she was born to play. She was and is Joan, and after Chinatown, Network, and Bonnie and Clyde have faded from view, Mommie Dearest will remain unchallenged as her most lasting work. She towered so effortlessly above her competition that even on her death bed the film avoids any particulars, as if it’s assumed that Madame Crawford simply willed her own demise after the scripts stopped coming. She’s in full make up, looking as if an industry party were just around the corner. Crawford was a woman who never turned it off, and for all time, she’ll be the wire hanger monster who believed a spotless bathroom was more than worth an explosion of homicidal rage. Unfortunately, the movie fails to mention that Joan was so OCD that if someone other than herself went to the bathroom in her house, she’d have the plumbing replaced and the toilet removed. Surely that’s more indicative of deep mental illness than believing a Christmas card list is more vital than good grades, but I won’t fault the screenwriter for not being able to squeeze it all in. Perhaps there was no screenplay at all. Just a portrait in time, and a little bait for a little boy who was led to believe that moms were on the attack, leaving nothing in their wake but violent haircuts, expletive-laden board meetings, and mountains of under-cooked meat.