Few things are creepier than Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford in “Mommie Dearest,” the movie based on the book of the same name. “Mommie Dearest” was written by Christina Crawford, the adopted daughter of the legendary 1940s actress; the book is the scathing tell-all of Joan Crawford’s alcoholism, abusive behavior, and general instability.
In the movie, Faye Dunaway’s performance is spot-on: she is the evil, vindictive, unstable woman detailed in Christina’s book. Crawford would supposedly wake Christina in the middle of the night to scream at her for putting her clothes on wire hangers, and then destroy the room and order Christina to rearrange it, a scene that became infamous on film. Dunaway’s face, lit by the moon and covered in a nighttime medicinal mask of cold cream, is harrowingly pale and lumpy.
“No…wire…hangers…in my house!” she shrills, her voice rising higher and higher in a crescendo of fury as she rips Christina’s expensive dresses from the wire hangers and hurls them around the bedroom before proceeding to the bathroom, where she smashes glass jars. Christina recalls being forced to spend the wee hours of the morning following the “night raids” on her hands and knees, scrubbing at powder caked between tiles of her bathroom floor.
I love a good tell-all, so I’ve read “Mommie Dearest” maybe twelve times. There’s something so juicy about being privy to private information and something so thrilling in learning the reality behind posed pictures and “candid” interviews. “Mommie Dearest” reigns supreme in the world of divulgence (drag queens routinely perform it at San Francisco’s Castro Theater), but since its publication the genre has really taken off. My personal favorite contemporary imitation is “Through the Storm: A Real Story of Fame and Family in a Tabloid World,” by Lynne Spears, mother of Britney.
“It’s bad enough when it’s a family member doing the tell-all, but being a mother and doing it is probably about as low as one can go,” the Amazon list author said in a ringing endorsement.
However, when “Mommie Dearest” was published in 1978, telling all was fairly unheard of, and at first, few people believed Christina’s claims. Part of the reason was probably the novelty of the tell-all, but another part was probably the naïve innocence that people maintained about celebrities. In her prime, Joan Crawford was adored by millions around the world who saw her as not only a magnificent and glamorous actress, but also a selfless mother (though she was a single woman, Crawford adopted four children, an extraordinary feat in the late 1930s and early 1940s).
Saint Joan could do no wrong. She looked perfect: Crawford is considered one of the most classically beautiful stars of all time. She acted perfect: Crawford’s performance in “Mildred Pierce” won her a 1946 Academy Award, which she accepted from a faux sickbed for fear that she would lose. She sounded perfect: one of the most chilling scenes in the book version of “Mommie Dearest” is the careful construction of a stray-from-this-or-I’ll-beat-you script for a 1949 Christmas special radio interview with the “idyllic,” quintessentially American Crawford family.
At first, everyone jumped to Joan Crawford’s defense. Christina’s younger sisters originally denied that their mother was abusive. Crawford’s Hollywood pals asserted that they surely would have picked up on any inappropriate behavior, and that Christina, a spoiled and entitled brat, had published her book out of spite (the book opens with Christina and her brother learning that they’ve been disinherited from Crawford’s will “for reasons well known to them”).
It’s hard to imagine today’s fans coming out of the woodwork to defend their stars as Crawford’s fans did for her. These days, it’s more profitable to be messy and have a mental breakdown. Today’s consumers of popular culture aren’t interested in perfection anymore, and for good reason: it’s boring.
Joan Crawford’s fans’ undying devotion was proof that they adored her, and their inability to accept her failure as a parent suggests their unconditional love. Today we love our stars on many conditions, the most important being that they make spectacles of themselves, typically by falling apart. Consciously or not, we root for them to fail: it’s more fun for us to see a train wreck of a life than a perfect one. Have we stumbled upon a process of reverse role modeling? Do we look to our stars as examples of what not to do rather than what to do and be? Or does witnessing the faults in our stars give us some sort of cathartic release?
In any event, I’m waiting with bated breath for the day that Blue Ivy Carter publishes her memoir. What on earth could Beyoncé be hiding?
Jenny Davis is a member of the class of 2017.