Mommie Dearest (film)

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Mommie Dearest
Mommie Dearest-HR Edition cover.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byFrank Perry
Produced byFrank Yablans
Screenplay by
Based onMommie Dearest
by Christina Crawford
Music byHenry Mancini
CinematographyPaul Lohmann
Edited byPeter E. Berger
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • September 16, 1981 (1981-09-16) (New York City)
  • September 18, 1981 (1981-09-18) (United States)
Running time
129 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$5 million
Box office$39 million

Mommie Dearest is a 1981 American biographical drama[2] film directed by Frank Perry. The film depicts Christina Crawford's adoptive mother, actress Joan Crawford, as an abusive and manipulative mother who hurt her adopted children.

Starring Faye Dunaway, Mara Hobel, and Diana Scarwid, the film was adapted for the screen by Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, Frank Perry, and Frank Yablans from the 1978 autobiography of the same name by Christina. The executive producers were Christina's husband, David Koontz, and Terry O'Neill, Dunaway's then-boyfriend and soon-to-be husband. The film was distributed by Paramount Pictures, the only one of the Big Eight film studios for which Crawford had never appeared in a feature film.

The film was a commercial success, grossing $39 million worldwide from a $5 million budget. Despite receiving mostly negative reviews from critics, the film's bizarre script and highly charged acting, particularly on the part of Dunaway, have brought a cult following to the film as an "unintentional comedy".[3] It won the second Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Picture.[4]


Joan Crawford is a driven actress and compulsively clean housekeeper who tries controlling the lives of those around her as tightly as she controls herself. To prepare to work at MGM Studios, she rises at 4:00 am, scrubbing her face and arms with soap and boiling water before plunging her face into a bowl of witch hazel and ice to close the pores. When Helga, a new maid, thinks Joan's living room is spotless, Joan finds a minor detail she overlooked and loses her temper.

Joan is in a relationship with Hollywood lawyer Gregg Savitt, but her career is in a downswing. Despite wanting a baby, she cannot get pregnant; seven pregnancies when she was married to actor Franchot Tone ended in miscarriages. When denied an application for adoption, she enlists Gregg's help to secure a baby. Joan adopts a girl, Christina, and then a boy, Christopher. Joan lavishes Christina with attention and luxuries such as an extravagant birthday party, but also enforces a code of denial and discipline. When Christina is showered with birthday gifts, Joan allows her to choose just one to keep and donates the rest to charity.

When Christina rebels against her mother, confrontations ensue. Joan overtakes Christina in a swimming pool race and laughs at the child; when Christina reacts angrily, Joan becomes enraged and locks the child in the pool house. Later, when Joan discovers Christina wearing her makeup and imitating her, she takes offence and cruelly cuts off chunks of Christina's hair to humiliate her.

Joan resents Gregg's allegiance to studio boss Louis B. Mayer and argues with Gregg after a dinner at Perino's restaurant. Joan guzzles down glasses of vodka and throws a drink in Gregg's face after he tells her she is getting old. After Gregg breaks up with Joan, she cuts him out of photos. When Mayer forces Joan to leave MGM after theater owners brand her "box-office poison", she hacks down her prized rose garden with a pair of large gardening shears and an axe.

Joan finds Christina's expensive dresses hanging from wire hangers, which Joan gratingly prohibits. Enraged, Joan yanks dresses from Christina's closet, throwing them all over her room, and beats Christina with the metal hanger as she squeals. Declaring the sparkling clean bathroom floor as dirty, Joan throws cleaning powder all over it before striking Christina across the back with the can and screaming at her to clean it.

Joan sends Christina to Chadwick School. Years later, when a teenaged Christina is caught in a compromising position with a boy, Joan brings her home. Barbara Bennett, a reporter from Redbook, is writing a puff piece on Joan's home life. After Joan lies about Christina, Christina confronts her in front of the reporter. Joan slaps Christina twice in the face. After Joan questions Christina about why she never complimented Joan as a mother, Christina realizes that Joan adopted her as a publicity stunt and shouts that she is not one of Joan's fans. Joan tackles Christina to the floor and chokes her, knocking over a lamp in the process, causing Christina to thrash around hopelessly until Joan's live-in assistant and the reporter pull her away.

Joan sends Christina to Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, where she is allowed no contact with the outside world. Joan marries Alfred Steele, CEO of Pepsi Cola, moves to New York City, and pressures him to shoulder a great deal of debt to fund their lavish lifestyle. After his death, the board tries to force her to resign, but Joan coerces them into letting her retain her seat by threatening to publicly condemn Pepsi.

After graduating from Flintridge, Christina rents an apartment in Manhattan, where she acts in a soap opera. When Christina is hospitalized for an ovarian tumor, she is temporarily replaced on the show by her visibly drunk mother. Joan dies of cancer in 1977, whereupon Christina and Christopher learn their mother disinherited them both. When Christopher says their mother has managed to have the last word, Christina questions that.



According to Dunaway, producer Frank Yablans promised her in the casting process that he wished to portray Joan Crawford in a more moderate way than she was portrayed in Christina Crawford's book. In securing the rights to the book, Christina's husband David Koontz was given an executive producer credit, though he had no experience producing films. Dunaway likewise demanded that her own husband, photographer Terry O'Neill, be given a producer credit so he could advocate for her on set. According to Yablans, the two husbands jostled over Dunaway's portrayal of Crawford: “I had two husbands to deal with, David driving me crazy that Faye was trying to sanitize Joan, and Terry worried we were pushing Faye too far and creating a monster.”[5]

In 2015, actress Rutanya Alda (Carol Ann) published a behind-the-scenes memoir, detailing the making of the film, The Mommie Dearest Diary: Carol Ann Tells All.[6] In it, she describes the difficulty of working with Dunaway, whose method approach to playing Joan seemed to absorb her and make her difficult to the cast and crew.[7] In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Alda stated, "People despised Faye...because she was rude to people. Everyone was on pins and needles when she worked, and relaxed when she didn't."[8] Alda described the process of acting opposite Dunaway very unfavorably by claiming that she manipulated the director to deprive the other actors of screen time and required the members of the cast to turn their backs when not in the shot so she would have no audience.[7] She also claimed that Dunaway was "out of control" while filming the scene where Joan attacks Christina in front of a reporter (Jocelyn Brando) and Carol Ann has to pull her off. Alda was hit hard in the chest and knocked over several times, while Jocelyn Brando, who was scripted to help Alda pull Dunaway off of Diana Scarwid, refused to get near her for fear of being injured.[8]

Critical reception[edit]

As of August 2019, the film had a 49% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 43 film critics. The site's consensus states: "Mommie Dearest certainly doesn't lack for conviction, and neither does Faye Dunaway's legendary performance as a wire-wielding monster; unfortunately, the movie is too campy and undisciplined to transcend guilty pleasure."[9]

Roger Ebert opened his one-star review with, "I can't imagine who would want to subject themselves to this movie," calling it "unremittingly depressing, not to any purpose of drama or entertainment, but just to depress. It left me feeling creepy."[10] About Dunaway's performance, Variety said, "Dunaway does not chew scenery. Dunaway starts neatly at each corner of the set in every scene and swallows it whole, costars and all."[11] Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it "an extremely strange movie" yet "a peculiarly engaging film, one that can go from the ridiculous to the sublime and back again within a single scene, sometimes within a single speech."[12] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "'Mommie Dearest' isn't a bad film, it's more of an incomplete story," because the script "doesn't care enough to attempt a thoughtful answer to the most obvious question of all—why? Why did Joan Crawford punish her adopted daughter with beatings and isolation? Why did Joan Crawford force her adopted son to wear, in effect, a harness to strap him in bed? I don't think you can show such extraordinary behavior in a film about a famous person and not offer some answers. It's simply not responsible filmmaking, both intellectually and dramatically."[13] Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Faye Dunaway "is a terrific Joan Crawford," but the film "plays like a limp parody of a bad Crawford movie. When Dunaway's Crawford, who's a seething volcano of emotions, finally erupts, the effect is laughable, rather than terrifying or pathetic, so pallid is the picture. 'Mommie Dearest' is at best campy, and at worst, merely plodding."[14] Pauline Kael declared that Faye Dunaway gave "a startling, ferocious performance," adding, "Dunaway brings off these camp horror scenes—howling 'No wire hangers!' and weeping while inflecting 'Tina, bring me the axe' with the beyond-the-crypt chest tones of a basso profundo—but she also invests the part with so much power and suffering that these scenes transcend camp."[15] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote, "one doesn't envy screen writers obliged to hack a playable, coherent continuity out of the complicated chronology and simple-minded psychoanalysis that clogs the book. It's a booby-trapped source, and there are intermittent signs of both skill and wariness in the filmmakers ... But once the ugly stuff begins, all that methodical preparation and desire to be fair becomes meaningless. The movie is committed to a prolonged, exhibitionistic wallow and can't escape the trashy consequences."[16]

Among retrospective reviews, Slant Magazine awarded the film four stars in the May 31, 2006 edition.[17] Also, Dennis Price wrote, "Faye Dunaway portrays Joan Crawford in a likeness so chilling it's almost unnatural" in his assessment of the film for DVD Review.[18]

Roughly a month into release, Paramount realized the film was getting a reputation at the box office as an unintentional comedy and changed its advertising to reflect its new camp status, proclaiming, "Meet the biggest MOTHER of them all!"[19]

Dunaway's response[edit]

For decades, Dunaway was famously reluctant to discuss Mommie Dearest in interviews.[citation needed] In her 1997 autobiography, she only briefly mentions the film by stating that she wished that director Perry had had enough experience to see when actors needed to rein in their performances.[20] In 2016, Dunaway expressed regret over taking the part and blamed it for causing a decline in her Hollywood career.[21] She also claimed that the performance took a heavy emotional toll on her[22][23] stating: “At night, I would go home to the house we had rented in Beverly Hills, and felt Crawford in the room with me, this tragic, haunted soul just hanging around.… It was as if she couldn’t rest.”[24]

By coincidence, Joan once said in an interview in the early 1970s that of the current young actresses, only Faye Dunaway had "what it takes" to be a true star.[25][relevant? ]

Awards and honors[edit]

At the 2nd Golden Raspberry Awards it won in multiple categories:[4][26]

At the 10th Golden Raspberry Awards, it also won the worst picture of the decade.[26]

While the film was a mere dishonorable mention for Worst Picture in the original ballot for the 1981 Stinkers Bad Movie Awards, the revised ballot released in 2007 gave it these nominations and wins:

  • Worst Picture - won
  • Worst Director (Frank Perry) - nominee
  • Worst Actress (Faye Dunaway) - won
  • Worst Supporting Actress (Diana Scarwid) - nominee
  • Worst Screenplay - won[27]

The film is recognized by the American Film Institute in these lists:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "MOMMIE DEAREST (AA)". British Board of Film Classification. September 30, 1981. Retrieved January 3, 2013.
  2. ^ "Mommie Dearest (1981) - Frank Perry | Synopsis, Characteristics, Moods, Themes and Related | AllMovie". Retrieved July 3, 2020.
  3. ^ QueenB. "MOMMIE DEAREST – Midnight Screening of 1981 Cult Classic! « Long-standing Beach Cinematheque". Archived from the original on December 3, 2013. Retrieved January 12, 2014.
  4. ^ a b Gary Susman. "17 Things You Never Knew About 'Mommie Dearest'". Moviefone. Retrieved May 29, 2018. and is also considered the worst film of the 1980s.}}
  5. ^ Karina Longworth (September 16, 2016). "The Illusion of Perfection: A new diary tells the story of what happened when Faye Dunaway played Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest". Slate Magazine. Retrieved May 17, 2017.
  6. ^ Leon Acord (December 4, 2015). "What's the Most Shocking Thing About Tell-All 'Mommie Dearest Diary'?". Huffington Post. Retrieved May 17, 2017.
  7. ^ a b Karina Longworth (September 16, 2016). "The Illusion of Perfection:A new diary tells the story of what happened when Faye Dunaway played Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest". Slate Magazine. Retrieved May 17, 2017.
  8. ^ a b Tara Aquino (February 21, 2016). "12 Over-the-Top Facts About Mommie Dearest". Retrieved August 19, 2019.
  9. ^ "Mommie Dearest". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved August 26, 2019.
  10. ^ Roger Ebert (January 1, 1981). "Mommie Dearest". Chicago Sun-Times.
  11. ^ "Review: ‘Mommie Dearest’". Variety. January 1, 1981
  12. ^ Canby, Vincent (November 8, 1981). "'Mommie'— A Guilt-Edged Caricature". The New York Times. D13.
  13. ^ Siskel, Gene (September 25, 1981). "Answers are a crying need in 'Mommie'". Chicago Tribune. Section 4, p. 3.
  14. ^ Thomas, Kevin (September 20, 1981). "Dunaway As Crawford In 'Mommie'". Los Angeles Times. Calendar, p. 27.
  15. ^ Kael, Pauline (October 12, 1981). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. 150.
  16. ^ Arnold, Gary (September 25, 1981). "Crawford's Legend". The Washington Post. C1, C10.
  17. ^ "Mommie Dearest | Film Review". Slant Magazine. May 30, 2006.
  18. ^ "Mommie Dearest". August 14, 2001. Archived from the original on January 6, 2009.
  19. ^ "Mommie Dearest Movie – The 80s Rewind". September 18, 1981.
  20. ^ Faye Dunaway and Betsy Sharkey (1997). Looking For Gatsby: My Life, Pocket Books. ISBN 978-0-671-67526-4
  21. ^ Lis Mcneil (October 4, 2016). "Faye Dunaway Opens Up About Movies, Men, and the Problem with Mommie Dearest". People Magazine. Retrieved May 25, 2017.
  22. ^ Faye Dunaway Promotes 'Mommie Dearest' on Today Show '81. August 7, 2016. Retrieved May 25, 2017.
  23. ^ Faye Dunaway talks about Mommie Dearest. July 23, 2014. Retrieved May 25, 2017.
  24. ^ Karina Longworth (September 16, 2016). "The Illusion of Perfection:A new diary tells the story of what happened when Faye Dunaway played Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest". Slate Magazine. Retrieved May 17, 2017.
  25. ^ Kurt Andersen (March 23, 1981). "Mommie Dearest". Time Magazine.
  26. ^ a b "The Golden Raspberry Awards Previous Winners". Archived from the original on December 3, 1998. Retrieved May 29, 2018.
  27. ^ "Past Winners Database". August 15, 2007. Archived from the original on August 15, 2007.
  28. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved August 6, 2016.
  29. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved August 6, 2016.

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Can't Stop the Music
Razzie Award for Worst Picture
2nd Golden Raspberry Awards
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Stinker Award for Worst Picture

(replaced Tarzan, the Ape Man)
1981 Stinkers Bad Movie Awards

Succeeded by