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'Mommie Dearest' (1981)

A Millennial Lens

My name is Nicholas Tanaka. I fell in love with movies and studied film in college, but due to my age, I haven't seen many of the classics. I've decided to go back and watch the films that have formed our movie landscape today, and view them with a modern lens.

Throw out your wire hangers! For Mother's Day, we are reviewing "Mommie Dearest" (directed by Frank Perry). The story tells the true story of Joan Crawford near the end of her career, twice divorced, infertile and lonely. After many attempts, Joan is able to adopt Christina Crawford.

As someone who did not know what Joan Crawford looked like before going into the film, I couldn't fully appreciate Faye Dunaway's transformation into the character. Both her look, and her mannerisms are identical in this film. The other stand out performance is from Mara Hobel as the child Christina Crawford. She sells the fear of a child experiencing the wrath of a parent.

My only gripe with the film's casting is of Diana Scarwid as the adult Christina Crawford. Her acting is understated as someone with this kind of trauma would act, but Diana is only 14 years younger than Faye, unlike the 35 year age difference between Christina and Joan. Diana looks a bit too old to be a teenage daughter. The character aging isn't great. I would say I'm spoiled by modern de-aging techniques, but the aging makeup on Carol Ann is so fantastic in comparison. I think finding a younger actress to play the adult Christina would have gone a long way.

The birthday scene with an army of reporters and video cameras makes it easy to draw comparisons to the family influencers of today. The vapid exploitation of their children reminds me of Lil Tay, the Daddy0Five and Myka Stauffer. I would also say that this film reminds me of a large portion of TLC's programming, including the "Duggar's" and "Toddlers in Tiaras."

Joan pushes herself to be the absolute best in the world and expects the same from her children. When the children fail, Joan feels fit to punish them harshly. The juxtaposition between the caring, generous and beautiful personality and the absolute horror of being in a room alone with Joan is chilling. Joan is introduced almost as a horror villain. She wakes up well before the sun and scrubs her arms violently with steaming hot water. Her face is unseen for an uncomfortably long time. As a child, Christina was awoken in the middle of the night then beaten and forced to clean. The scariest scene is where adult Christina stands up for herself, only for Joan to reply by wrestling her daughter to the ground and strangling her. I thought that this must be the moment where they would send Joan away to an asylum, but instead, we cut to Christina being sent away to a nunnery. To add insult to injury, the nuns believe Christina to be a troublesome girl, purely on the word of her deranged mother.

Where I found Joan to be the most likable was when she was fighting the world. Many times in the film she was beset with poor fortune, like being let go from her studio, or when Pepsi Co. was trying to oust her from their board. She fought them with as much ferocity as she could muster and it was very cathartic to see the wrath laid upon those who deserved it.

What isn't mentioned in the film was that Joan originally named Christina after herself and only later changed her name to Joan. Joan was controlling and wanted to find immortality through her daughter. She got that immortality in the form of this film, but I don't think it's as she expected.

I would recommend this film to those who want to feel lucky about the parents they ended up with. This film will really make you feel thankful for your mom on this Mother's Day. I know I gave mine a hug after watching this one.