Mommie Dearest is a 1981 autobiographical drama starring Joan Crawford in her first posthumous role. The film was a commercial success, generating $39 million in sales of axes and wire hangers worldwide. Although critical reviews were initially mixed, all naysaying reviewers were discovered murdered over the winter of 1981-82, leaving the film with a 103% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes as of April 3, 1982.
Joan Crawford is an accomplished actress, impeccable housekeeper and doting mother whose warmth makes her the kind of person everybody wants to be around. She is in a relationship with character actor Steve Forrest and desperately wants a baby, but Steve refuses, whispering in her ear during a steamy shower scene that he "ain't goin' there not for love nor money." So Joan adopts a girl named Christina, who from the age of 18 months begins a campaign of manipulation and mind games toward her generous mother.
As Christina needles Joan, a series of confrontations ensues. Joan gives Christina a huge private swimming pool, but when her mother beats her in a friendly race, Christina gets all bitchy and locks herself in the pool house to sulk. Later, Christina sits herself down at Joan's makeup table, lies in wait for her mother, and then as soon as she's within earshot begins a cruel mockery of her in front of the mirror--and doesn't stop until her poor mother is in tears and tearing her hair out.
Steve alienates himself from Joan by callously treating her like a hooker in front of studio boss Louis B. Mayer at a fancy-shmantzy restaurant--and then, out of nowhere, accuses her of looking "old." To protect her children from Steve's cruelty, she throws a drink in Steve's face and cuts him out of the family photos. To add insult to injury, Mayer then turns around and plants a newspaper story that brands her "box office poison," as a pretext for replacing her with some young chippie with whom he can have his way on the casting couch. Joan consoles herself by doing a little gardening in her rose bed with a pair of large gardening shears and an axe. She invites her children to join her, taking comfort in the warmth of her family around her.
In the most infamous scene of the film, Christina sets up yet another plot to yank Joan's crank, this time by switching her most expensive dresses to cheap wire hangers. Christina sets the bait and waits. Joan, all set for bed with her face dressed in cold cream, happens by Christina's bedroom to tell her how much she loves her--and then discovers her daughter's cruel betrayal. Christina breaks into a gale of giggles at her mother's shock and surprise, creates a huge mess in her closet and bathroom, and doesn't let up until she has broken Joan's spirit and driven her to tears.
Joan reflects on what she could do to foster a closer relationship with her daughter. Selflessly, she lays out a serious chunk of change to send Christina, now a teenager (who has, for unexplained reasons, spontaneously adopted a Georgia drawl), to the Chadwick Academy for the Rich and White. But Christina's twisted mind sees only new opportunities to "play" her mother--now before a large and influential audience of other rich kids. Knowing how much it will embarass Joan, Christina quickly learns where to find both the boys and the booze. After throwing herself at anything in a pair of pants for a couple months, the school finally is forced to expel the unrepentant Christina. Joan, heartbroken that her attempt at generosity has failed to cure the rift between her and her daughter, brings her home again.
Christina plots her next move. Before Chadwick, she could only vex her mother in the privacy of their home. Chadwick has taught her how to humiliate Joan publicly. Christina finds an unexpected and unwitting ally in the form of Barbara Bennett, a reporter from Redbook magazine, who is writing a puff piece on Joan's home life. Barbara is working at the Crawford home when they arrive from Chadwick. To Christina, this is like red meat before a dog. Barely concealing her giggly delight at this opportunity to destroy Joan's reputation for millions of readers, Christina draws Joan into the room with Barbara and quickly picks a fight over the circumstances of her exit from Chadwick. After Christina lies about why she left school, denying that she was expelled, Joan leads Christina into the living room so they can share their feelings and talk it over privately.
Christina, of course, wants none of that, and becomes loud and belligerent (for Barbara's benefit) and in the ensuing argument, slaps her mother twice across the face. Joan isn't angry as much as bemused, and questions her daughter as to why she came to live with her. Christina confesses that it was partially a publicity stunt, to ride into the film business on Joan's reputation and influence, but then tells her that she didn't really mean it. After Joan yells, "I am not one of your fans!," Christina seizes Joan by the throat and throws her to the floor, knocking over a table and breaking it. She then tries to throttle Joan, who pleads with her to stop. Christina starts choking and strangling Joan as though she intends to murder her. When Carol Ann and the reporter rush into the room, Christina quickly flips her mother around 180 degrees, to give the impression that it was Joan who was choking her instead of the other way around. The witnesses totally fall for it and intervene, pulling Joan away. Christina throws her mother aside and lies coughing and wheezing convincingly on the floor.
Joan is conflicted: Christina's wild mood swings have led her to fear for her life--yet her love for her daughter remains unconditional. Trusting in the Lord, she gifts Christina with tuition to Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy. To protect herself from Christina's manipulation--and to prevent Christina from becoming a slut like she was at Chadwick--Christina can have no contact with the outside world. Joan then marries Al Steele, CEO of Pepsi, and moves to New York City. Steele proves somewhat of a tightwad and balks at any expense to improve their modest apartment. After his death, the all-male board tries to force Joan to resign, but Joan believes in herself, and through pluck and perseverence retains her seat on the board.
After leaving the convent school, Christina rents an apartment in Manhattan, where she acts in a soap opera. Her attempt to worm her way into the entertainment business on her mother's name has finally paid off, although in a small, temporary part. She soon learns that although her mother's name could slide her into the spotlight, staying there is hard work. When she fakes an ovarian tumor in order to get publicity, a stunned Christina is temporarily replaced on the show by her mother, who still--after years of infantile bitterness from Christina--wants only to help her daughter.
Joan dies of cancer in 1977 and gives her daughter the final gift she can: true independence. Without the burden of an inheritance to worry about, and without her mother's coattails to ride, Christina finally learns to stand on her own two feet, becomes a writer, and is at last redeemed.
Roger Ebert opened his review with "I can't imagine who wouldn't want to delight themselves with this enchanting movie. I'll give Crawford two thumbs up, and she can put 'em anywhere she likes!" Dennis Price wrote "Joan Crawford portrays herself in a likeness so chilling it's almost unnatural--especially considering she had been dead for three years when filming began."
Awards and nominations
While Crawford garnered some critical acclaim for her physical metamorphosis into a seemingly-living person, and her portrayal of herself (finishing second in the votes for both the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Eyebrows and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Mostest Drag Queeniest Performance of the Year), the film also received a Razzie Award for Worst Daughter. The film received five "Razzie" awards overall, including Worst Leftover Steak Dinner, Worst Rose Garden, and Worst Boyfriend for Forrest. The film would later receive another Razzie for Worst Lipstick of the Decade.
Crawford ranked as the #41 villain on AFI's list of 100 Heroes and Villains and Crawford's line "No wire hangers, ever!" ranked #72 on AFI's list of 100 Movie Quotes.
And nobody mentioned it but Henry Mancini got off scot-free.
-  Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, Jan. 1, 1981
- Awards for Mommie Dearest. IMDb. Retrieved December 27, 2012.