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 18, 1981 (1981-09-18)
Running time
129 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$5 million
Box office$39 million

Mommie Dearest is a 1981 American docudrama film. It depicts the childhood of Christina Crawford and how she was abused as a little girl by her adoptive mother, actress Joan Crawford. Starring Faye Dunaway, Mara Hobel, and Diana Scarwid, the film was directed by Frank Perry and 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 mixed 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.[2] It won the second Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Picture[3] and was also voted the worst picture of the decade.[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 a.m., 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 one 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 she is 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 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, and when Christina reacts angrily, Joan becomes enraged and locks her in the pool house. Later, when Joan discovers Christina wearing her makeup and imitating her, she hysterically 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 prize rose garden with a pair of large gardening shears and an axe.

At night, Joan surprises Christina in her bedroom upon discovering her expensive dresses hanging on a wire hanger. An enraged Joan yanks dresses from Christina's closet, throwing them all over her room, and beating her with the hanger as Christina shrieks and bawls in distress. Stating the clean bathroom floor is dirty, Joan throws cleaning powder all over it before striking Christina across the back with the can and screaming at her to clean it up.

Joan sends Christina to Chadwick School. Years later, when a teenage Christina is caught in a compromising position with a boy, Joan brings her home. Barbara Bennett, a reporter from Redbook magazine, is writing a puff piece on Joan's home life. After Joan lies about Christina being expelled from Chadwick, Christina confronts her in front of the reporter. Joan slaps Christina twice across the face, and Christina questions her mother on why she was adopted. Surprised, Joan fakes the truth only to prompt Christina to angrily betray her mother. Joan throws Christina to the floor and strangles her, and Joan's live-in assistant and the reporter pull Joan away.

Joan sends Christina to Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, demanding stricter discipline than other students, with Christina 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 all-male 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 in her will. When Christopher says their mother has managed to have the last word, Christina questions that.


Critical reception[edit]

As of December 2018, the film had a 53% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 40 film critics. The site's consensus states: "Director Frank Perry's campy melodrama certainly doesn't lack for conviction, and neither does Faye Dunaway's performance in the title role; unfortunately, it does lack enough narrative discipline to offer much more than a guilty pleasure."[5]

Roger Ebert opened his review with "I can't imagine who would want to subject themselves to this movie."[6] 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."[7]

However, more positive reviews have been published, with Slant Magazine awarding it four stars in the May 31, 2006 edition.[8] Also Dennis Price wrote, "Faye Dunaway portrays Joan Crawford in a likeness so chilling it's almost unnatural" in his review of the film.[9]

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!"[10]

Cast response[edit]

For decades, Dunaway was famously reluctant to discuss Mommie Dearest in interviews. In her 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.[11] More recently, she has expressed her regret over taking the part and blamed it for causing a decline in her Hollywood career.[12] She also claimed that the performance took a heavy emotional toll on her[13][14] 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.”[15] 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.[16]

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.[17] 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.[18] 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.[19]

Awards and honors[edit]

At the 2nd Golden Raspberry Awards it won in multiple categories:[3][4]

At the 10th Golden Raspberry Awards it also won the worst picture of the decade.[4]

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

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "MOMMIE DEAREST (AA)". British Board of Film Classification. September 30, 1981. Retrieved January 3, 2013.
  2. ^ QueenB. "MOMMIE DEAREST – Midnight Screening of 1981 Cult Classic! « Long Beach Cinematheque". Archived from the original on December 3, 2013. Retrieved January 12, 2014.
  3. ^ a b Gary Susman. "17 Things You Never Knew About 'Mommie Dearest'". Moviefone. Retrieved May 29, 2018.
  4. ^ a b c "The Golden Raspberry Awards Previous Winners". Archived from the original on December 3, 1998. Retrieved May 29, 2018.
  5. ^ "Mommie Dearest". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved December 10, 2018.
  6. ^ Roger Ebert (January 1, 1981). "Mommie Dearest". Chicago Sun-Times.
  7. ^ "Review: ‘Mommie Dearest’". Variety. January 1, 1981
  8. ^ "Mommie Dearest | Film Review". Slant Magazine. May 30, 2006.
  9. ^ "Mommie Dearest". August 14, 2001. Archived from the original on January 6, 2009.
  10. ^ "Mommie Dearest Movie – The 80s Rewind". September 18, 1981.
  11. ^ Faye Dunaway and Betsy Sharkey (1997). Looking For Gatsby: My Life, Pocket Books. ISBN 978-0-671-67526-4
  12. ^ Lis Mcneil (2016-10-04). "Faye Dunaway Opens Up About Movies, Men, and the Problem with Mommie Dearest". People Magazine. Retrieved 2017-05-25.
  13. ^ Faye Dunaway Promotes 'Mommie Dearest' on Today Show '81. 2016-08-07. Retrieved 2017-05-25.
  14. ^ Faye Dunaway talks about Mommie Dearest. 2014-07-23. Retrieved 2017-05-25.
  15. ^ Karina Longworth (2016-09-16). "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 2017-05-17.
  16. ^ Kurt Andersen (March 23, 1981). "Mpmmie Dearest". Time Magazine.
  17. ^ Leon Acord (2015-12-04). "What's the Most Shocking Thing About Tell-All 'Mommie Dearest Diary'?". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2017-05-17.
  18. ^ Karina Longworth (2016-09-16). "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 2017-05-17.
  19. ^ Karina Longworth (2016-09-16). "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 2017-05-17.
  20. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-08-06.
  21. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-08-06.

External links[edit]

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