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Literature / Mommie Dearest

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"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 had spawned the equally famous Film of the Book, with 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, 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 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) 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, Lana Turner, and Peter Sellers all tried to replicate its success with varying results (the Davis book flopped and was debunked, for example, 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 (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 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. 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. 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, published her own diary of the shoot in 2016.


  • 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 mother Joan disapproved of.
  • Adapted Out: No mention of Christina and Christopher's other siblings in the film version.
  • Abusive Parents: 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 in "wire hangers" when she says it (and she says it a lot), which just adds to its Narm factor.
  • 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 film gets two things related to the soap opera The Secret Storm, in which Joan was a temporary replacement for Christina, different from how they happened in reality:
      • The film shows Joan's performance being taped live. In reality, because of how drunk she was on set, they often had to rely on editing to make it watchable.
      • The film portrays Christina getting cast 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 the three first husbands into one character Greg (though one scene has Joan mentioning Greg that she suffered several miscarriages while trying to conceive with a former partner, something that actually happened to Crawford with her second husband Franchot Tone).
  • 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 top French window behind her forms a sort of halo over her head, turning the shot into some sort of a perversion of a Blessed Virgin Icon.
  • Berserk Button:
    • Wire hangers strangely sets Joan off in the film.
    • In the film at least, 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, "I am not one of your fans!" is to nearly choke her to death.
  • Big Bad: Joan Crawford, she was even ranked #41 Villain on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains.
  • 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,note  most of Joan's work is left intentionally vague.
  • 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."
  • Composite Character: In the film, Greg is a combination of the various husbands and lovers Joan had, while the housekeeper and Carol Ann are meant to represent several employees in Joan's house.
  • Cute and Psycho: Joan, if Mommie Dearest is to be believed.
  • 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.
  • Evil Matriarch: Joan, as depicted in both the book and the film.
  • Foreshadowing: 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".
  • 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.
  • Hate Sink: Everything about the book and The Movie 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.
  • 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 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.
    • 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 never convicted for her abuse of Christina.
  • 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!"
  • Left Hanging: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Panty Shot: A somewhat jarring one from Christina, when Joan attacks and chokes her.
  • 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?!
  • 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 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!
  • 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!"
  • Title Drop: Christina addresses her mother this way with the film or book title of the same name.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.


Video Example(s):


No Wire Hangers Ever

Where did Christina get wire hangers anyway?

How well does it match the trope?

5 (2 votes)

Example of:

Main / AbusiveParents

Media sources:

Main / AbusiveParents