Actor Joan Crawford started acting in 1925 with the short The Casting Couch and worked her last job in a guest role on the television series The Sixth Sense in 1972, five years before her passing. In addition to acting, she was a producer and an uncredited writer for several of her projects. Most modern audiences, however, know her from director Frank Berry’s (Last Summer) 1981 film Mommie Dearest, itself an adaptation of Christina Crawford’s memoir/exposé centered on her adoptive mother’s private persona. The film is considered camp due to Faye Dunaway’s (The Thomas Crown Affair) exaggerated, almost too-far-reaching performance of Joan, making her seem more Soap Opera-dramatic versus anything grounded in reality. On this, its 40th anniversary, Paramount Pictures welcomes Mommie Dearest onto the Paramount Presents label with a brand-new restoration on a first-time Blu-ray release, as well as two new bonus materials accompanied by previously available special features.
For the unaware, Mommie Dearest isn’t so much a biography of an actor as it is a recreation of events from the perspective of Joan’s daughter Christina. This means that Joan is introduced as an adult in both her private and public-facing personas before she adopts both Christina and her brother Christopher. The film itself excises Christina’s other siblings, twins, entirely, focusing primarily on Christina’s interactions with her mother from early childhood to adulthood. What the film portrays is more than a contentious relationship. It’s a terrifying one in which Christina was gaslit, physically abused, and cast off whenever she failed to meet Joan’s idealized version of parenthood. While it can be easy to see where some see hilarity (Dunaway’s performance could be seen as an impersonation, a caricature, rather than an honest portrayal), there’s literally nothing funny or fun about the film. It is, in many ways, a triggering experience for survivors of childhood trauma. The performance may be exaggerated at times, but Dunaway captures the truly frightening visage and persona that children see when their parent comes for them violently with words or actions. I used to think that “no more wire hangers” was comedic, even knowing the context of the scene, but, within the scope of the film proper, it’s an absolute horror show from which no laughs are earned or gained. That the film ends with an extended shot of Diana Scarwid’s Christina defiantly proclaiming that her mother will not get the last word, even posthumously, confirms for the audience that everything they’ve watched is from a slanted perspective. In this way, Mommie Dearest could be viewed as less of a smear campaign by a grudge-bearing relative, and more as a reclamation of autonomy and personhood by a victim from their abuser. That is, perhaps, the only aspect of the film worth celebrating.
If, however, you’re of the audience who delights in Mommie Dearest, then you’ll remain delighted as you watch this new restoration. For one, according to the press materials, the restoration was made from a 4K film transfer, offering 1080p high definition imaging, as well as a remastered mono audio track. This translates to a much improved audio/video experience for audiences with modern home theaters. It’s worth noting that I did have to turn up the audio a fairly high degree in order to comfortably hear the dialog, but, once set, no more adjustments were necessary until I switched to check out the new Filmmaker Focus featurette. Do make sure to turn down the volume before switching from one to the other as biographer Justin Bozung’s voice came barreling through my speakers, startling awake my 9-month-old viewing companion. The featurette itself is a brief exploration of Perry as an individual, as well as his process of making Mommie Dearest. It makes sense to offer some insight on the director as the rest of the bonus materials delve directly into Joan herself, but the brief 7-minute featurette barely seems to scratch the surface of what we could know about Perry’s experience making the film. If you’re looking for a different way to dive in, you can opt for either the previously available feature commentary from actor/writer/director John Waters (an expert on camp if there ever was one) or a new commentary track from acclaimed drag queen Hedda Lettuce.
Thanks to my own personal history, Mommie Dearest is not a film I’m likely ever to revisit; however, I can recognize and acknowledge how it resonates with so many who can dissociate the reality from the characters. Dunaway gives a soul-rattling performance that’s likely overshadowed Joan’s real personage for the rest of natural time, and the content, as presented by Perry, is truly heartrending. The production and set design convey the opulence someone of Joan’s class would demand, all while presented through a soft lens communicating that perhaps what we’re witnessing is far more dramatic than in reality. It is a film about an actor’s family, so a certain amount of elevated drama makes a certain degree of sense when trying to make the ordinary “cinematic,” though there’s not much that requires elevation if Christina’s memoir holds any water. If this sounds like your type of cinematic tea, you won’t end up disappointed with this new addition to the Paramount Presents label.
Mommie Dearest Special Features
- NEW Commentary By American Drag Queen Hedda Lettuce
- NEW Filmmaker Focus: Biographer Justin Bozung on Director Frank Perry (7:02)
- Commentary by John Waters
- The Revival of Joan
- Life with Joan
- Joan Lives On
- Photo Gallery
- Original Theatrical Trailer
Available on Blu-ray and digital June 1st, 2021.
For more information, head to Paramount Pictures’s official Mommie Dearest website.