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Frank Perry
Faye Dunaway, Diana Scarwid, Steve Forrest, Howard Da Silva, Mara Hobel, Rutanya Alda, Harry Goz, Michael Edwards, Jocelyn Brando
Writing Credits:
Christina Crawford (book), Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, Frank Perry, Frank Yablans

Faye Dunaway is Joan Crawford. A star ... a legend ... and a mother. The illusion of perfection.

The sensationalistic film biography of one of the silver screen's most infamous female stars, Joan Crawford. Based on a tell-all biography by Ms. Crawford's adopted daughter, this movie presents a subjective vision of life behind the closed doors of the Crawford household - a view into the sordid personal life of a narcissistic and domineering mother who sadistically beat her "precious" little children.

Box Office:
$5 million.
Domestic Gross
$19.032 million.

Rated PG

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Monaural
French Monaural

Runtime: 128 min.
Price: $14.99
Release Date: 6/6/2006

• Audio Commentary with Filmmaker John Waters
• “The Revival of Joan” Featurette
• “Life with Joan”  Featurette
• “Joan Lives On” Featurette
• Photo Gallery
• Trailers


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Mommie Dearest: Hollywood Royalty Edition (1981)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 30, 2006)

Movies that become most genuinely embraced by fans of camp don’t start out that way – or do they? For the life of me, I can’t recall whether 1981’s Mommie Dearest attempted to be a serious drama or if it purposefully embraced the kitschy side of things.

Whatever goals it pursued, it clearly wound up on the campy side of the street. Based on her book, Mommie examines the life of Christina Crawford with her adoptive mother, actress Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway). It starts in 1939 with Joan a big star at MGM. We learn that she’s an obsessive neat freak who insists everything be perfectly clean at all times.

Though she has a successful career, Joan wants to be a mother. She miscarried seven times in the past and desires to adopt. Due to her lifestyle, the agencies resist her, but Joan’s lawyer boyfriend Greg Savitt (Steve Forrest) manages to land her an infant daughter.

Joan seeks to compensate for her own rough upbringing and she chooses to give Christina everything she never had. However, she’s also determined that Christina (Mara Hobel) won’t be a “spoiled Hollywood brat”. Joan drives the girl relentlessly and treats her increasingly harshly as the years pass. The movie follows that abusive relationship into Christina’s adulthood (Diana Scarwid) as well as the ups and downs of Joan’s career.

All at once, Dunaway acts as the best and worst thing about Mommie Dearest. On the negative side, she plays Crawford in such an absurdly over the top manner that it becomes absolutely impossible to take any part of the film seriously. Her characterization would fit better on Saturday Night Live or SCTV. Though I don’t think Dunaway played Crawford for laughs, her performance frequently provokes them.

In a perverse way, however, Dunaway’s insane romp is pretty much the only thing that makes Dearest at all entertaining. Dunaway doesn’t chew the scenery – she stomps, chomps and devours it. She appears virtually rabid at times.

All of this adds to the film’s sick camp charm. It boasts a pretty thin psychological portrait summed up by Joan’s chant of “survive, survive, survive!” The obsessive quality Dunaway brings to Crawford makes the attempts at depth even more laughable, as she overplays every quirk of the character.

Somehow this turns a horrific subject into comedy. Dearest really should be harrowing and painful to watch, but it’s so damned over the top that it makes child abuse hilarious. The presence of lines such as “I’m not mad at you – I’m mad at the dirt!” and “Ma changed husbands faster than she changed bed sheets” doesn’t encourage us to take anything else seriously – and that leaves off the famous bit about wire hangers.

While the first half of Dearest prompts unintentional entertainment, the flick runs out of steam after that. Really, once Christina becomes a teen, the movie fizzles. Joan’s rampages lack the same bite, and the story rushes through Christina’s life so rapidly that nothing sticks. The first half focuses on particular periods much better, while the second segment tries too hard to pack in every possible important moment. That just undercuts them and makes things dull.

Except for the ending, perhaps. In arguably the campiest scene in the film, adult Christina and Christopher find out their mother left them nothing in her will. Chris mopes that “as usual, she has the last word”. Christina glares and utters, “Does she? Does she?”

Ah, if only more of Mommie Dearest’s second half lived up to that segment’s cattiness. Unfortunately, it sags too much and ruins a gleefully terrible first hour. The movie clearly entertains those with a taste for over the top absurdity, though its inconsistency makes it tough to stick with at times.

The DVD Grades: Picture C-/ Audio C+/ Bonus B-

Mommie Dearest appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Dearest may be 25 years old, but this erratic transfer often made it look even older.

At times the picture seemed hazy and fuzzy. This softness didn’t appear overwhelming, but much of the film looked worn in this manner, with only sporadic examples of crispness. This improved as the movie progressed, though, and the second half looked better than the first. Problems still emerged, but not with the same frequency. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no significant concerns, but I noticed some moderate edge enhancement.

Print flaws were more significant issue. Grain appeared heavy throughout much of Dearest, and I also saw somewhat frequent occurrences of grit and speckles. A few larger defects such as blotches and scratches appeared as well. Again, this situation got better as the movie went on, though it continued to show defects through its end.

Colors varied. Occasionally the film mustered some reasonably lively and dynamic hues, but much of the time the hues seemed flat and muddy. Skin tones tended to look pinkish. Black levels could appear acceptably dark at times, but shadow detail was often excessively heavy. Low light scenes came across as a bit too thick. The higher quality of the film’s second half helped redeem the transfer somewhat, but this remained a lackluster image.

Reworked from the original monaural audio, Mommie Dearest offered a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. I’m not sure why the DVD’s producers bothered to do so, as the chatty movie did little to span beyond its one-channel origins. Music swelled from the sides and a little environmental material also came from those areas. Nonetheless, the mix stayed focused in the center much of the time and didn’t offer much expansion.

At least the quality was perfectly adequate. Speech could be a little dense, but the lines were usually acceptably natural, and they always remained easily intelligible. The score was somewhat muter but offered decent clarity. Although the music could have boasted greater range, it seemed fairly distinctive. Effects were also clean and relatively accurate, though they lacked much punch. While the mix never excelled, it worked fine given the movie’s subject and its age.

When we head to the extras on this “Hollywood Royalty Edition” of Mommie Dearest, we start with an audio commentary from filmmaker John Waters. He provides a running, screen-specific look at the flick. Waters had nothing to do with Dearest, but he loves camp, so someone figured he was a logical choice to dissect it.

That makes sense, though the end result is less than stellar. Waters talks about the movie’s reception and reputation, the real-life Joan Crawford, differences between Hollywood in Crawford’s era and today, and his take on the flick. He doesn’t think it’s all that campy, and he defends it much of the time. Waters mixes some catty comments with honest insights, and this works at times. However, he just doesn’t have a lot to say, so he repeats some of the same ideas. He apologizes for Crawford’s behavior much of the time and frequently makes similar comments. Waters presents a decent track that moves at an acceptable pace, but if you skip it, you won’t really miss out on anything.

Three featurettes appear. The Revival of Joan runs 14 minutes, 13 seconds as it presents movie clips, archival materials and interviews. We hear from producer/screenwriter Frank Yablans and actors Rutanya Alda and Diana Scarwid.

They discuss how the project moved to the screen, the adaptation of the book, finding a director and a cast, aspects of the characters and performances, sets and wardrobe. Yablans dominates the piece as he tells his vision of the movie and why he wanted to do it. We get a reasonable amount of detail and insight packed into this short program.

For the 13-minute and 42-second Life with Joan, we hear from Yablans, Alda and Scarwid. The show tells us of an alternate opening concept, Faye Dunway’s attitude on the set and her work with the others, other character and performance notes, the film’s over the top elements, and a few scene specifics. “Life” really acts as a companion piece to “Revival”. There’s no narrative reason to separate them, as they’re both quite similar in their presentation and strengths. “Life” provides another informative piece with nice details about the film.

Finally, Joan Lives On lasts 16 minutes and three seconds. It features Yablans, Scarwid, Alda, Waters, and drag actor John “Lypsinka” Epperson. It looks at the film’s reception and its publicity campaign, its afterlife as a camp classic and its popularity with gay audiences, its adaptation as a live drag performance, favorite sequences, Dunaway’s refusal to discuss the film, the way the flick affects the public perception of Crawford, and its legacy.

Again, “Lives” fits in with the other two featurettes. All three could have easily been joined together as one long documentary. It provides a good look at the movie’s enduring notoriety and finishes off the programs well.

A Photo Gallery presents 34 images. These mostly offer shots from the flick, though we also get a few behind the scenes snaps and publicity pictures. None of them seem particularly memorable.

In addition to the film’s theatrical trailer, a few ads open the DVD. We get clips for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Reds, and Titanic. The DVD’s opening also presents a short cartoon called “The Practically True, Almost Factual Sorta Accurate Chronicles of Gay History”. If there was ever any doubt what this release’s target audience is, that eliminates it.

And that target audience will continue to delight in the campy silliness of Mommie Dearest. Though I’m not a big fan of camp, I must admit this film’s many over-the-top moments kept me entertained until it fizzled during its second hour. The DVD offers erratic and less than impressive visuals along with decent audio and some fairly interesting extras.

Overall, this ends up as an erratic DVD. The problematic transfer disappoints but the rest of the disc works acceptably well. At least it comes with a very low list price, so fans of this cult classic probably won’t complain too much about the disc’s negatives.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.9565 Stars Number of Votes: 23
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