Mommie Dearest (film)

Mommie Dearest is a 1981 American docudrama film. It depicts Christina Crawford's adoptive mother, actress Joan Crawford as a criminal and how she abused her adopted children for fame and her career. Starring Faye Dunaway, Mara Hobel, and Diana Scarwid, the film was directed by Frank Perry and adapted for the screen by Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, Frank Perry, and Frank Yablans from the 1978 autobiography of the same name by Christina. The executive producers were Christina's husband, David Koontz, and Terry O'Neill, Dunaway's then-boyfriend and soon-to-be husband. The film was distributed by Paramount Pictures, the only one of the Big Eight film studios for which Crawford had never appeared in a feature film.

Mommie Dearest
Theatrical release poster
Directed byFrank Perry
Produced byFrank Yablans
Screenplay by
Based onMommie Dearest
by Christina Crawford
Music byHenry Mancini
CinematographyPaul Lohmann
Edited byPeter E. Berger
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • September 18, 1981 (1981-09-18)
Running time
129 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$5 million
Box office$39 million

The film was a commercial success, grossing $39 million worldwide from a $5 million budget. Despite mixed reviews from critics, the film's bizarre script and highly charged acting, particularly on the part of Dunaway, have brought a cult following to the film as an unintentional comedy.[2] It won the second Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Picture.[3]


Joan Crawford is a driven actress and compulsively clean housekeeper who tries controlling the lives of those around her as tightly as she controls herself. To prepare to work at MGM Studios, she rises at 4:00 a.m., scrubbing her face and arms with soap and boiling water before plunging her face into a bowl of witch hazel and ice to close the pores. When Helga, a new maid, thinks Joan's living room is spotless, Joan finds a minor detail she overlooked and loses her temper.

Joan is in a relationship with Hollywood lawyer Gregg Savitt, but her career is in a downswing. Despite wanting a baby, she cannot get pregnant: seven pregnancies when she was married to actor Franchot Tone ended in miscarriages. When denied an application for adoption, she enlists Gregg's help to secure a baby. Joan adopts a girl, Christina, and then a boy, Christopher. Joan lavishes Christina with attention and luxuries such as an extravagant birthday party, but also enforces a code of denial and discipline. When Christina is showered with birthday gifts, Joan allows her to choose one to keep and donates the rest to charity.

When Christina rebels against her mother, confrontations ensue. Joan overtakes Christina in a swimming pool race and laughs at the child; when Christina reacts angrily, Joan becomes enraged and locks her in the pool house. Later, when Joan discovers Christina wearing her makeup and imitating her, she hysterically cuts off chunks of Christina's hair to humiliate her.

Joan resents Gregg's allegiance to studio boss Louis B. Mayer and argues with Gregg after a dinner at Perino's restaurant. Joan guzzles down glasses of vodka and throws a drink in Gregg's face after he tells her she is getting old. After Gregg breaks up with Joan, she cuts him out of photos. When Mayer forces Joan to leave MGM after theater owners brand her "box office poison", she hacks down her prize rose garden with a pair of large gardening shears and an axe.

Joan finds Christina's expensive dresses hanging from wire hangers. Enraged, Joan yanks dresses from Christina's closet, throwing them all over her room, and thrashes Christina as she shrieks and bawls. Declaring the clean bathroom floor dirty, Joan throws cleaning powder over it before striking Christina across the back with the can and screaming at her to clean it.

Joan sends Christina to Chadwick School. Years later, when a teenage Christina is caught in a compromising position with a boy, Joan brings her home. Barbara Bennett, a reporter from Redbook magazine, is writing a puff piece on Joan's home life. After Joan lies about Christina, Christina confronts her in front of the reporter. Joan slaps Christina twice in the face. Christina realizes that Joan adopted her as a publicity stunt and shouts that she was never Joan's fan. Joan tackles Christina to the floor and throttles her, and Joan's live-in assistant and the reporter pull Joan away.

Joan sends Christina to Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, with Christina allowed no contact with the outside world. Joan marries Alfred Steele, CEO of Pepsi Cola, moves to New York City and pressures him to shoulder a great deal of debt to fund their lavish lifestyle. After his death, the all-male board tries to force her to resign, but Joan coerces them into letting her retain her seat by threatening to publicly condemn Pepsi.

After graduating from Flintridge, Christina rents an apartment in Manhattan, where she acts in a soap opera. When Christina is hospitalized for an ovarian tumor, she is temporarily replaced on the show by her visibly drunk mother. Joan dies of cancer in 1977, whereupon Christina and Christopher learn their mother disinherited them. When Christopher says their mother has managed to have the last word, Christina questions that.



According to Dunaway, producer Frank Yablans promised her in the casting process that he wished to portray Joan Crawford in a more moderate way than she was portrayed in Christina Crawford's book. In securing the rights to the book, Christina's husband David Koontz was given an Executive Producer credit, though he had no experience producing films. Dunaway likewise demanded that her own husband, the photographer Terry O'Neill, be given a producer credit so that he could advocate for her on set. According to Yablans, the two husbands jostled over Dunaway's portrayal of Crawford: “I had two husbands to deal with, David driving me crazy that Faye was trying to sanitize Joan, and Terry worried we were pushing Faye too far and creating a monster.”[4]

In 2015, actress Rutanya Alda (Carol Ann) published a behind-the-scenes memoir, detailing the making of the film, The Mommie Dearest Diary: Carol Ann Tells All.[5] In it, she describes the difficulty of working with Dunaway, whose method approach to playing Joan seemed to absorb her and make her difficult to the cast and crew.[6] In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Alda stated that "People despised Faye...because she was rude to people. Everyone was on pins and needles when she worked, and relaxed when she didn't."[7] Alda described the process of acting opposite Dunaway very unfavorably by claiming that she manipulated the director to deprive the other actors of screen time and required the members of the cast to turn their backs when not in the shot so she would have no audience.[8] She also claimed that Dunaway was "out of control" while filming the scene where Joan attacks Christina in front of a reporter (Jocelyn Brando) and Carol Ann has to pull her off. Alda was hit hard in the chest and knocked over several times, while Jocelyn Brando, who was scripted to help Alda pull Dunaway off of Diana Scarwid, refused to get near her for fear of being injured.[7]

Critical reception

As of August 2019, the film had a 49% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 43 film critics. The site's consensus states: "Mommie Dearest certainly doesn't lack for conviction, and neither does Faye Dunaway's legendary performance as a wire-wielding monster; unfortunately, the movie is too campy and undisciplined to transcend guilty pleasure."[9]

Roger Ebert opened his review with "I can't imagine who would want to subject themselves to this movie."[10] About Dunaway's performance, Variety said, "Dunaway does not chew scenery. Dunaway starts neatly at each corner of the set in every scene and swallows it whole, costars and all."[11]

However, more positive reviews have been published, with Slant Magazine awarding it four stars in the May 31, 2006 edition.[12] Also Dennis Price wrote, "Faye Dunaway portrays Joan Crawford in a likeness so chilling it's almost unnatural" in his review of the film.[13]

Roughly a month into release, Paramount realized the film was getting a reputation at the box office as an unintentional comedy and changed its advertising to reflect its new camp status, proclaiming, "Meet the biggest MOTHER of them all!"[14]

Dunaway's response

For decades, Dunaway was famously reluctant to discuss Mommie Dearest in interviews. In her autobiography, she only briefly mentions the film by stating that she wished that director Perry had had enough experience to see when actors needed to rein in their performances.[15] More recently, she has expressed her regret over taking the part and blamed it for causing a decline in her Hollywood career.[16] She also claimed that the performance took a heavy emotional toll on her[17][18] stating: “At night I would go home to the house we had rented in Beverly Hills, and felt Crawford in the room with me, this tragic, haunted soul just hanging around.… It was as if she couldn’t rest.”[19] By coincidence, Joan once said in an interview in the early 1970s that of the current young actresses, only Faye Dunaway had "what it takes" to be a true star.[20]

Awards and honors

At the 2nd Golden Raspberry Awards it won in multiple categories:[3][21]

At the 10th Golden Raspberry Awards it also won the worst picture of the decade.[21]

While the film was a mere dishonourable mention for Worst Picture in the original ballot for the 1981 Stinkers Bad Movie Awards, the revised ballot released in 2007 gave it the following nominations and wins:

  • Worst Picture - Won
  • Worst Director (Frank Perry) - Nominee
  • Worst Actress (Faye Dunaway) - Won
  • Worst Supporting Actress (Diana Scarwid) - Nominee
  • Worst Screenplay - Won[22]

The film is recognized by the American Film Institute in the following lists:

See also


  1. "MOMMIE DEAREST (AA)". British Board of Film Classification. September 30, 1981. Retrieved January 3, 2013.
  2. QueenB. "MOMMIE DEAREST – Midnight Screening of 1981 Cult Classic! « Long Beach Cinematheque". Archived from the original on December 3, 2013. Retrieved January 12, 2014.
  3. Gary Susman. "17 Things You Never Knew About 'Mommie Dearest'". Moviefone. Retrieved May 29, 2018. and is also considered the worst film of the 1980s decade.}}
  4. Karina Longworth (September 16, 2016). "The Illusion of Perfection: A new diary tells the story of what happened when Faye Dunaway played Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest". Slate Magazine. Retrieved May 17, 2017.
  5. Leon Acord (December 4, 2015). "What's the Most Shocking Thing About Tell-All 'Mommie Dearest Diary'?". Huffington Post. Retrieved May 17, 2017.
  6. Karina Longworth (September 16, 2016). "The Illusion of Perfection:A new diary tells the story of what happened when Faye Dunaway played Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest". Slate Magazine. Retrieved May 17, 2017.
  7. Tara Aquino (February 21, 2016). "12 Over-the-Top Facts About Mommie Dearest". Retrieved August 19, 2019.
  8. Karina Longworth (September 16, 2016). "The Illusion of Perfection:A new diary tells the story of what happened when Faye Dunaway played Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest". Slate Magazine. Retrieved May 17, 2017.
  9. "Mommie Dearest". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved August 26, 2019.
  10. Roger Ebert (January 1, 1981). "Mommie Dearest". Chicago Sun-Times.
  11. "Review: ‘Mommie Dearest’". Variety. January 1, 1981
  12. "Mommie Dearest | Film Review". Slant Magazine. May 30, 2006.
  13. "Mommie Dearest". August 14, 2001. Archived from the original on January 6, 2009.
  14. "Mommie Dearest Movie – The 80s Rewind". September 18, 1981.
  15. Faye Dunaway and Betsy Sharkey (1997). Looking For Gatsby: My Life, Pocket Books. ISBN 978-0-671-67526-4
  16. Lis Mcneil (October 4, 2016). "Faye Dunaway Opens Up About Movies, Men, and the Problem with Mommie Dearest". People Magazine. Retrieved May 25, 2017.
  17. Faye Dunaway Promotes 'Mommie Dearest' on Today Show '81. August 7, 2016. Retrieved May 25, 2017.
  18. Faye Dunaway talks about Mommie Dearest. July 23, 2014. Retrieved May 25, 2017.
  19. Karina Longworth (September 16, 2016). "The Illusion of Perfection:A new diary tells the story of what happened when Faye Dunaway played Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest". Slate Magazine. Retrieved May 17, 2017.
  20. Kurt Andersen (March 23, 1981). "Mommie Dearest". Time Magazine.
  21. "The Golden Raspberry Awards Previous Winners". Archived from the original on December 3, 1998. Retrieved May 29, 2018.
  23. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved August 6, 2016.
  24. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved August 6, 2016.
Preceded by
Can't Stop the Music
Razzie Award for Worst Picture
2nd Golden Raspberry Awards
Succeeded by
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