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Literature: Mommie Dearest

In a nutshell, Mommie Dearest (1978) was a memoir written by Christina Crawford, depicting her physical and mental abuse at the hands of her adoptive mother, famed actress Joan Crawford. It had spawned the equally famous Film of the Book, with Faye Dunaway in the role of Joan Crawford.

To put it more bluntly and in more detail, the book pretty much destroyed the reputation of Joan Crawford in the eyes of the public, as far as the book's revelations about her systematic abuse of her children, Christina in particular. The book's vivid recounting of Joan's psychotic behavior and abuse of her children polarized Hollywood into camps of those who confirmed Christina's story (or acknowledge that the signs of the abuse were there and that no one said anything about it) and those who proclaimed that the novel was a revenge plot, designed by Christina to ruin her mother's name after finding out that she was being cut out of her mother's will and as a means to gain fame, as her own attempt to launch an acting career had fallen short.

The book can be seen as one of the first (and arguably most successful) of the genre of nasty tell-all biographies of stars, mostly from the Golden Age of Hollywood, told by their children. The kids of Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Henry Fonda, Loretta Young, Bing Crosby, Bette Davis, and Peter Sellers all tried to replicate its success with varying results (the Bette Davis book flopped and was debunked, for example, but the books that Marlene Dietrich's and Bing Crosby's respective broods wrote did quite well).

The 1981 movie version of the book was an even bigger debacle: Faye Dunaway (who ironically had been praised by Crawford in print prior to her death and who even suggested that she should play her in the inevitable bio-film of Joan's life) was cast and Paramount mounted it as a serious bio-film. Sadly though, after numerous re-writes and an incompetent director whose previous directing experience was a handful of hammy melodramas, much of Joan Crawford's character development ended up missing, which turned her into a deranged cartoon character, and the abuse segments took on larger than life sadistic tones. By the end, even Christina Crawford (whose husband had a hand in producing the film) thought the film was too over-the-top. As such, Faye Dunaway came off as a Large Ham—her acting career never really recovered—and the film picked up a huge word-of-mouth regarding it as an unintentional comedy. This forced the studio to retool the marketing to focus on the over-the-top abuse. Sadly, it failed to save the box office take, though it secured itself as a Cult Classic.

Mommie Dearest provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: No mention of Christina and Christopher's other siblings in the film version.
  • Abusive Parents: Three guesses, no prizes.
  • Ax-Crazy: Joan is portrayed as this.
  • Berserk Button: Wire hangers strangely sets Joan Crawford off in the movie adaptation.
    • The root of her hatred for wire hangers is most likely the fact that Joan Crawford grew up dirt poor, and wire coat hangers were a reminder of the past and her struggles being poor.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Joan and possibly Christina.
  • Bland-Name Product: A unique example regarding Joan's acting career. Since Paramount owned the rights to very few of her films, most of Joan's work is left intentionally vague.
  • Chewing the Scenery: Faye Dunaway mowing down the sets, props and co-stars in every scene she's in.
  • Composite Character: In the movie, Greg is a combination of the various husbands and lovers Joan Crawford had, while the housekeeper is meant to represent several employees in Joan's house.
  • Cute and Psycho: Joan Crawford, if Mommie Dearest is to be believed.
  • Evil Matriarch: Joan Crawford, as depicted in both the book and the movie.
  • Foreshadowing: The final lines of the movie, after Christina and her brother find out that their mother had disinherited them, suggest that Christina would truly have "the last word".
  • Genre Popularizer: As mentioned, Christina Crawford's book started a slew of mean-spirited books written by children of famous actors about their parents' alleged abusive and loose behavior.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Christina, especially in her younger years before the slew of abuse.
  • Ham-to-Ham Combat: Christina vs. Joan before the latter attempts to strangle the former.
  • How We Got Here: An almost metaphysical example; the film ends with Christina's decision to write a tell-all book about her mother, which in turn gets adapted into the very same movie the audience is watching.
  • Large Ham: And how. Truth in Television too, as the real Crawford was said to be one in Real Life. Also, Faye Dunaway as Crawford in the film version.
  • Law of Disproportionate Response: Joan Crawford flies into a hysterical rage, because she discovers some wire hangers in her closet, which lead to the infamous yell: "No... wire hangers... ever!" Even more disturbing: this anecdote was taken directly from her daughter's autobiography about the famous actress!
  • Misery Lit: Arguably one of the best and most influential examples.
  • Muse Abuse: It inspired the Blue Oyster Cult song Joan Crawford Has Risen From The Grave, whose video is a farrago of images from the film.
  • Never Speak Ill of the Dead: Subverted, as Christina claims she was cut off from Joan's will "for reasons best known to her."
  • Nice Character, Mean Actor: The book claims that Joan was one of these.
  • Off to Boarding School: As it happened to Christina Crawford.
  • Panty Shot: A somewhat jarring one from Christina, when Joan attacks and chokes her.
  • Parody Retcon: The movie started being advertised as a parody a few weeks after its release. Posters were changed to read, "Meet the biggest MOTHER of them all!"
  • Precision F-Strike: "DON'T FUCK WITH ME, FELLAS! This ain't my first time at the rodeo."
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: "NO! WIRE! HANGERS! EVEEEEEER!!!"
    • Also, "I AM NOT! ONE OF YOUR FAAAAAAAAAAAANS!!!"
      • "Oh Joan, stop 'acting'." "IIIIII'MM! NOOT! ACTINNNNNNNGGGG!!!"
  • Signature Line: "No wire hangers, ever!"
  • Title Drop: Christina addresses her mom this way with the movie or book title of the same name.
  • Traumatic Haircut: Joan in the movie forcibly cuts Christina's hair (while screaming at her) after catching her preening in Joan's mirror. "You spoiled it, just like I spoiled you."


MarnieDanny Peary Cult Movies ListMonty Python and the Holy Grail
Moment in PekingLit FicMotherless Brooklyn
A Midsummer TempestLiterature of the 1970sMomo
Moab Is My WashpotNon-Fiction LiteratureThe Mouse Betrayed
LookerFilms of the 1980sMs 45

alternative title(s): Mommie Dearest; Mommie Dearest
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