Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Mommie Dearest

Go To

"I think you're overreacting, Miss Crawford."

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 led to the equally famous Film of the Book, which starred Faye Dunaway in the role of Joan.

To put it more bluntly (and in more detail), the book pretty much destroyed Crawford's reputation in the eyes of the public due to its 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 would at least acknowledge that signs of abuse were apparent but ignored) and those who decried the book as a revenge plot to ruin her mother's name after being disinherited and raise Christina's profile after her own failed attempts at an acting career.

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

The 1981 film adaptation of the book was an even bigger debacle: Dunaway (whom Crawford had, prior to her death, recommended to play her in the inevitable biopic of her life) was cast and Paramount mounted it as a serious drama. However, thanks to numerous script rewrites and a director (Frank Perry) who had a penchant for hammy melodramas, much of Joan'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 and too focused on Joan at the expense of Christina's personal journey as a child abuse survivor. As such, 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. Despite being savaged by critics and resulting in Golden Raspberry wins and nominations all around, the film was a success at the box office, grossing $39 million worldwide on a $10 million budget, and it also secured itself as a Cult Classic.

Dunaway is now supposedly writing a tell-all memoir of the film's disastrous making (which would make it a book of the film of the book!). Rutanya Alda, who played Carol Ann and has been the cast member most willing to discuss and embrace the film's legacy, published her own diary of the shoot in 2016.


  • Abusive Mom: Joan is portrayed as this.
  • Accent Upon The Wrong Syllable: One of the issues with the "wire hanger" scene in the film is that Dunaway emphasizes every syllable (indeed, every letter) in "wire hangers" when she says it (and she says it a lot), which just adds to its Narm factor.
  • Adaptational Consent: In the book, Christina said that she was sexually assaulted at the boarding school. The film turns the whole event into a consensual affair which her adoptive mother Joan disapproved of.
  • Adaptational Context Change: In the book, Joan hacking down the rose garden was described as a random event, part of Joan’s erratic night raids. In the film, she destroys the garden in response to being let go from MGM as a means of channeling her anger. Christina Crawford heavily disapproved of this change, feeling the cause and effect explanation was too simplistic.
  • Adaptation Distillation:
    • The film condenses many of the characters and scenes from the book.
    • All references to Joan practicing Christian Science were omitted.
  • Adaptation Explanation Extrication: In the film, Crawford's son Christopher is frequently seen strapped to his bed, but the moviegoing audience never gets any explanation why he is subjected to this treatment, thus causing a lot of confusion. Only those who've read the book would know Joan strapped Christopher down to his bed to prevent him from masturbating.
  • Adapted Out:
    • Cathy and Cindy, the twin girls Joan later adopted, were removed entirely.
    • Joan’s mother, Anna Cassin, and brother, Hal LeSueur, do not appear, though her mother is briefly mentioned (albeit not named).
    • Christina’s first husband, Harvey Medlinsky, was omitted.
    • An animal example: none of the dogs Joan had were shown in the film.
  • Age Cut: The film uses one to make the transition from child Christina to grown-up Christina.
  • Always Someone Better: In both the book and the film, Joan takes every opportunity to point out that for Christina, Joan will always be that "someone better" - whether it's at swimming or acting. Indeed, she seems bent on sabotaging Christina's every chance at happiness (especially in the book).
  • Appeal to Worse Problems: In the book, Joan refers to "starving children in Europe" (this is taking place just after World War II) when demanding that her children clean their plates.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The unfilmed scene showing the production of Ice Follies of 1939 would’ve been an example of this had it been shot. As written, Joan injures her ankle during an elaborate skating sequence but perseveres anyway, much to the crew’s admiration. In real life, Joan’s role in the film was that of an inept skater, and very few scenes depicted her on the ice in any significant way.
    • The film portrays Christina's role in the soap opera The Secret Storm as some sort of a romantic ingenue who dreams of having a beautiful wedding. In reality, Christina's character (who was incidentally named "Joan") on the actual soap was a bitchy and spiteful antagonist.
    • Crossing with using Composite Character on real people, Joan also had four husbands, though she was on her third by the time she became a mother. The movie combines third husband Philip Terry with her attorney and on-again, off-again lover Greg Bautzer (renamed 'Greg Savitt' in the film). One early scene has Joan mentioning that she suffered several miscarriages while trying to conceive with a former lover, something that actually happened to Crawford with her second husband Franchot Tone.
    • Christina Crawford later said that the scenes of Joan chopping down a tree in her garden, and the infamous wire hangers scene, were taken out of context and greatly exaggerated in the film.
  • Ax-Crazy: Joan is portrayed as this. Especially when she calls for Christina to give her the ax so she could chop down a tree in her garden to release her pent-up rage against the studio that dropped her for being "box office poison".
  • Background Halo: When Joan holds baby Christina for the first time, the arched French window behind her forms a sort of halo over her head, turning the shot into a twisted perversion of the Blessed Virgin Icon.
  • Berserk Button:
    • Wire hangers strangely sets Joan off in the film. It's been speculated by biographers that she saw them as a reminder of her youth working in a laundromat and lashed out at them as a symbol of the poverty she worked so hard to escape.
    • Any hint of defiance or mischief on Christina's part is a cue for Joan to fly into a blind rage. Her reaction to Christina's telling her (in the film), "I am not one of your fans!", is to nearly choke her to death.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Joan and possibly Christina in real life, indicting that her story was false.
  • Bitch Slap: In the film, Christina says Joan lied when telling that Christina got expelled from school, and receives a slap. And it gets worse from there, culminating in attempted strangulation.
  • Bland-Name Product: A unique example regarding Joan's acting career. Since Paramount owned the rights to very few of her filmsnote , most of Joan's work is left intentionally vague.
  • But Not Too Bi: The book stated that Joan had affairs with women too, but this isn't shown in the film.
  • Camp: The film is often cited as a prime example.
  • Chewing the Scenery: Dunaway mowing down the sets, props and co-stars in every scene she's in. To quote Variety's famous review: "Dunaway does not chew scenery. Dunaway starts neatly at each corner of the set in every scene and swallows it whole, costars and all." According to The Cinema Snob, this is largely because Joan actually behaved this way, citing one quote in particular.
    "I need sex for a clear complexion, but I'd rather do it for love."
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: In the book, during a European vacation, Joan slaps Christina simply for giving stepfather Alfred Steele a goodnight kiss, accusing her daughter of trying to seduce her husband.
  • Composite Character: In the film, Greg is a combination of a few husbands and lovers Joan had, while the housekeeper and Carol Ann are meant to represent several employees in Joan's house.
  • Compressed Adaptation:
    • For the sake of simplification, the film ignores that both Christina and Christopher were originally named Joan and Phillip, respectively, along with the fact that the original Christopher was reclaimed by his birth mother.
    • The wire hangers and bathroom floor meltdowns were two separate events in the book; the film merged them into a single night.
  • Demoted to Extra:
    • Christina’s memoir was naturally written from her point-of-view and chronicles her journey as a domestic abuse survivor. The film adaptation focuses almost entirely on Joan Crawford and downgrades Christina to a supporting character in her own story.
    • Christopher’s role in the film is greatly reduced compared to the book. After Diana Scarwid takes over as Christina, he completely disappears from the story until the very end. No mention is made of his many troubles with Joan, his running away from home to escape her, nor his time at Chadwick.
  • Denser and Wackier: The book is a self-portrait of a now grown woman remembering her adoptive mother and how she could be both loving and abusive at the same time. The film is much more melodramatic, focusing on Joan as a POV character and is full of over-the-top scenes, such as Joan chopping down an orange tree in the middle of the night or throwing a fit when she sees Christina hanging her clothes on wire hangers. Unsurprisingly, it gained a reputation as an unintentional comedy.
  • Department of Child Disservices: In the book. Following the choking incident, Joan calls the police on Christina. The officer sees how badly Christina was beaten, and his response is simply to tell her to try to get along with her mother and that he'll have to take Christina into custody if her mother calls again. It's implied the officer knows Christina wasn't to blame, but lacks the nerve to stand up for her.
  • Determinator: Joan comes off as one in the film, however, thanks to all the shit she has to put up with as a White-Dwarf Starlet.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Joan is a master of this, in both the book and the film. In the film, she catches Christina going through her things and mimicking her, and gives a Traumatic Haircut to punish her for her "vanity." In the book, she shreds Christina's favorite dress and forces her to wear it for a week, all for accidentally ruining a small piece of wallpaper in her bedroom.
  • Emphasize EVERYTHING: Both Joan and Christina in the film. "Why can't you treat me like I would be treated by any STRAAAAAAAANGER ON THE STREET?!" "BE... CAUSE... I... AM... NOT... ONE OF YOUR FAAAAAAAAAAAANS!!!!!!!!"
  • Establishing Character Moment: In the movie, it's the "swimming race" scene, the first time we see Joan yell at and physically abuse Christina. Early on, we see her chew Carol Anne out for not washing the dirt under a potted plant, and get down on her knees to do it herself.
  • Evil Matriarch: Joan, as depicted in both the book and the film.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Joan is shown forcing young Christina into a swimming contest, over and over, until Christina is frustrated and exhausted; Joan then mocks Christina, saying, "I'm bigger and faster than you, and I will always beat you." Later, when Christina goes several days refusing to eat a plate of rare meat, Joan complains that Christina makes everything a contest. Gee, wonder where she learned that from?
    • The final lines of the film, after Christina and her brother find out that their mother had disinherited them, suggest that Christina would truly have "the last word".
  • Fostering for Profit: Christina claims that this was Joan's intention, and her film counterpart chews Joan's film counterpart out for it.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Christina, especially in her younger years before the slew of abuse.
  • Ham-to-Ham Combat: In the film, Christina vs. Joan, before the latter attempts to strangle the former.
  • Hate Sink: Everything about the book and The Film of the Book are all dedicated to make Joan as despicable as possible. The film brought this to up to eleven though, making it Hate Sink: The Movie. Even Christina Crawford herself felt the film went too far in portraying Joan as a monster.
  • Homage: Given, in a back-handed sort of way, by the Blue Öyster Cult in the track "Joan Crawford", which loosely draws on this book as inspiration.
  • Hormone-Addled Teenager: Gets Christina in trouble in the film, when she gets caught making out with a male classmate by the boy's girlfriend, who tattles on them. Joan's response is to yank Christina out of school, and then insist (despite the fact that the headmistress was willing to let it blow over) that Christina was "expelled".
  • 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 film the audience is watching.
  • Hypocrite:
    • In the film at least. Joan is portrayed as being stingy about lending money to Christina when she grows up, telling her "not a cent" when Christina needs help with the rent. At around the same time, Joan married Alfred Steele, the CEO of Pepsi, and is forcing him into debt to finance her larger-than-life Hollywood lifestyle.note 
    • Earlier in the film, Christina lends a sympathetic ear when her mother pours out her sorrow regarding her financial situation - she had to fire the maid, she can't pay Christina's tuition so Christina will have to go on a work scholarship - only to learn that Joan still has money to spend on booze and countless pairs of shoes.
  • Karma Houdini: Joan was rarely convicted for her abuse of Christina.
    • On the other hand, the book and especially the movie became a sort of posthumous Laser-Guided Karma, as Joan Crawford is now remembered primarily for being an unhinged, abusive alcoholic, not for her brilliant film career.
    • More so, with the reporter writing Joan's puff piece would also add her (Joan's) true nature in the movie.
  • Large Ham: And how. Truth in Television too, as the real Crawford was said to be one in Real Life. Also, Dunaway as Crawford in the film version (and Diana Scarwid as teenage/adult Christina in certain scenes).
  • Law of Disproportionate Response: Joan flies into a hysterical rage, because she discovers some wire hangers in her closet, which lead to the infamous yell: "No... wire hangers... ever!"
  • Misery Lit: Arguably one of the best and most influential examples.
  • Muse Abuse: It inspired the Blue Öyster Cult song "Joan Crawford", whose video is a farrago of images from the film.
  • Neat Freak: Joan. In the film, we see her berating a maid for not scrubbing the floor under a potted plant, and refusing to let her boyfriend wear his shoes into the house. It's possible she had OCD, as Christina in the book mentions that Joan hated to get dirty and would shower and brush her teeth several times a day.
  • Never Speak Ill of the Dead: Subverted, as Christina claims she was cut off from Joan's will "for reasons best known to her."
  • Never Trust a Trailer: Diana Scarwid does not appear in the trailer at all while Mara Hobel is featured prominently, giving the impression the film focuses exclusively on Christina’s young childhood.
  • Nice Character, Mean Actor: The book claims that Joan was one of these.
  • No Historical Figures Were Harmed: While the character of Carol Ann is an amalgamation of several servants and assistants that worked for Joan throughout her lifetime, the majority of the character is influenced by Joan's longtime personal secretary, Betty Barker, and Mamacita, a housekeeper she hired during the latter half of her life.
  • Off to Boarding School: As it happened to Christina.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Diana Scarwid is never able to fully shed her natural southern accent.
  • Oscar Bait: Given to be a biopic, it obviously was trying to be this (even Dunaway thought so), the end result turned out to be the complete opposite much to Dunaway's dismay.
  • Please, Don't Leave Me: Played absolutely straight in the movie, as a drunken Joan begs her lover Greg not to leave her after a particularly nasty argument. It fails.
  • Pop Culture Osmosis:
    • The film has become a slang for any abusive stage mom. In Postcards from the Edge, Doris (the Debbie Reynolds stand-in) asks Suzanne (the Carrie Fisher stand-in) if she'd have preferred having Crawford or Lana Turner as a mother instead.
    Suzanne: You or Joan Crawford? These are my options?!
    • The Golden Girls features several references. In the episode "Blanche and the Younger Man," Dorothy (Bea Arthur) remarks that Rose (Betty White), who is smothering and being overprotective of her own mother, is turning into "Mommie Dearest."
  • Precision F-Strike: "DON'T FUCK WITH ME, FELLAS! This ain't my first time at the rodeo." Especially startling as the film is usually labeled with a PG rating. The "F-word" is often censored or replaced with "mess" in TV airings, as are instances of taking the Lord's name in vain (such as using "Jesus Christ" as an exclamation).
  • The Prima Donna: Joan is portrayed as this. Joan, on the other hand, would suggest that this describes Christina more accurately.
    Joan: She negotiates everything like a goddamned Hollywood agent!
  • Psychopathic Woman Child: Joan throws a monstrous tantrum whether her children are out of line or things don't go her way with her career.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!:
    • "Oh Joan, stop 'acting'." "IIIIII'MM! NOOT! ACTINNNNNNNGGGG!!!"
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Many assume Dunaway's performance is campy and over the top, when drunk abusive people have acted that way in reality. Not to mention how over the top the real life Joan was. In fact, Barry Norman's book The Hollywood Greats claims that the real Joan often spoke as if she were reading lines from a script.
  • Retraux: The film very consciously adopts an old fashioned aesthetic with its cinematography, set design, costumes and static shots. It often looks like something that could have been made in The '50s, which makes more modern touches like Joan's Precision F-Strike very jarring.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: In the film at least. Joan is turned down by adoption agencies for being a single woman with a career, so she enlists lawyers to "bend the law" to allow her to adopt.
  • Signature Line: "No wire hangers, ever!" is the most obvious one, although it's only one of a few that have become associated with the film.
  • Title Drop: Christina addresses her mother this way with the film or book title of the same name.
  • Trapped at the Dinner Table: Joan has black market meat at her dinner table, served rare and bloody. When Christina refuses to eat it, claiming it looks raw, Joan tells her she won't be getting off the table until she eats it. Eventually, Christina is allowed to put her plate in the fridge...only to find it in front of her for the next meal. This lasts for three days.
  • Traumatic Haircut: Film!Joan 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."
  • Truth in Television: Some modern audiences are confused at the film where Christina's soap opera, in which Joan was a temporary replacement for Christina, seems to be both performed live and being recorded at the same time. This was a technique called "live tape" where television shows were performed as if live, including timed pauses for commercial breaks, but recorded for later broadcast. Because of how drunk Joan was on set, they often had to rely on editing to make it watchable.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Goes both ways. Many of those close to Joan claim that the abuse described in the book is anything from severe exaggeration to complete fabrication. Still others claims that the book actually tones down the abuse and that in reality, Joan was much, much more volatile and disturbed.
  • Victim-Blaming: A highlight of Joan's relationship with her daughter. In the book, after Christina was sexually assaulted by an upperclassman at Chadwick, Joan blamed Christina for it and slut-shamed her.
  • Writing Around Trademarks: The film goes out of its way to avoid mentioning most of Joan’s filmography.


Video Example(s):


Christina's Haircut

Joan Crawford punishes her daughter for being "spoiled"

How well does it match the trope?

5 (6 votes)

Example of:

Main / TraumaticHaircut

Media sources: