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Case Number 01288

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Mommie Dearest

Paramount // 1981 // 126 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Magistrate Terry Coli (Retired) // August 6th, 2001

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All Rise...

The Charge

"Faye Dunaway is Joan Crawford. A star…a legend…and a mother. The illusion of perfection."

Opening Statement

Just four years after the death of film icon Joan Crawford, Mommie Dearest hit theaters. Adapted from the best-selling tell-all book by Crawford's daughter Christina, the film effectively destroyed the star's image as a glamorous silver screen goddess. Mommie Dearest makes its DVD debut thanks to Paramount.

Facts of the Case

Film legend Joan Crawford (Dunaway) seems to have it all: a thriving career, a beautiful Brentwood mansion, and a hunky boyfriend. However, Joan is determined to also have a child, so she adopts young Christina (Mara Hobel). However, the obsessive-compulsive actress is not well suited to the task. Joan proceeds to deliver a seminar on how not to raise children: taunting Christina when she loses to her mother in a pool race, starving her because she won't eat raw steak, beating the crap out of her with a wire hanger—all in the name of raising Christina to be a proper young lady. As Joan's career starts to fade, she becomes even more desperate, stealing the now-older Christina's (What Lies Beneath's Diana Scarwid) role on a soap opera. In her final years, Joan descends into a vodka-fueled funk but, despite the years of abuse and histrionics, Christina still loves her "Mommie Dearest."

The Evidence

Mommie Dearest may have just as easily been called "Joan Crawford's Worst Moments." At least this might prepare the viewer for the inevitably one-sided tale that is being told. The film, and the book from which it was adapted, is essentially Christina Crawford's method of getting revenge on her late mother for being cut out of the will. This, and the fact that the film makes little mention of Joan Crawford's three other adopted children, makes me a little suspicious about its accuracy. Cull the worst moments of this reviewer's 26 years into a highlight reel and you'd think I'm a pretty crummy person too. Nevertheless, it does seem clear that Joan Crawford was physically and mentally abusive to Christina, and that she was quite possibly psychotic.

The problem is, the two-hour film chronicles the last forty years of Joan Crawford's life. It is simply too big of a chunk of someone's life history to deal with accurately, and this film doesn't even really try. It hits all the major low points and moves on. Like its subject, this film feels a little schizophrenic, as if it's unsure whose story to tell. It doesn't play as a comprehensive biopic of Joan Crawford, nor does it truly devote itself to Christina's life. As such, it is difficult to understand the bond between these two women, and the intricacies of a dysfunction relationship. Aside from getting Joan to admit she adopted her for the publicity, the adult Christina never confronts Joan about the abuse. Apparently, Christina never did this in real life either, and that may be why this movie exists.

Faye Dunaway practically chews the scenery as Joan Crawford. There is absolutely no restraint to her performance, and sometimes it's difficult not to laugh. Nevertheless, Dunaway's makeup is very convincing, she ages impressively, and she looks uncannily like Crawford. The other performances fade into the background. This is Dunaway's one-woman show. And look out, because she shows it all (relatively speaking).

Paramount has seen fit to give Mommie Dearest an anamorphic widescreen transfer (maintaining its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1), and this film looks probably better than it ever has, short of its initial theatrical run. There is some dirt and grain on the print, but colors are solid and fleshtones are accurate. For a film that is now twenty years old, there is little to complain about.

There are several audio options on this disc. The new Dolby 5.1 surround track doesn't make much use of the rear speakers, but it is an improvement over the restored mono track also offered here. The 5.1 track is more robust with nice movement between the front speakers. Neither track suffered distortion. Another option is a French mono track, as well as English subtitles.

Paramount didn't do much in the way of supplements here, which is no surprise as most of the participants are probably a little embarrassed about their work. What we do get is a photo gallery of about 14 stills from the film and the theatrical trailer, presented in anamorphic widescreen. I do want to note that my favorite aspect of this DVD experience was opening the keep-case to find a truly horrific picture of Joan Crawford staring back at me. It's still giving me nightmares.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Mommie Dearest gets attention for being something of a cult film, loved for its true camp value. I see the humor, especially in the grave overacting and heavy-handed direction. There's plenty to laugh at, if you can stomach your way past the graphic abuse scenes.

Closing Statement

Less balanced than an "E!: True Hollywood Story," no one can take Mommie Dearest very seriously as a true portrait of the great actress. Though Paramount has given the film a decent DVD presentation, avoid it at all costs.

The Verdict

Truly, nobody wins in cases like these.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 85
Audio: 85
Extras: 60
Acting: 65
Story: 60
Judgment: 60

Perp Profile

Studio: Paramount
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
• English
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
• Biographical
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Theatrical Trailer
• Photo Gallery


• IMDb

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Review content copyright © 2001 Terry Coli; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.