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Actober: Faye Dearest – A Defence of Dunaway’s Performance in Mommie Dearest

“Of all the actresses, to me, only Faye Dunaway has the talent and the class and the courage it takes to make a real star.”

Joan Crawford

Apparently, when once asked who she would like to play her in a biopic of her life, Joan Crawford replied back with ‘Faye Dunaway’. Whether this is true or not, it adds another layer to the reputation of Mommie Dearest. And, it has one hell of a reputation.

Based on the 1978 memoir by Joan’s daughter, Christina Crawford — a controversial best-seller — the 1981 film portrayed Joan (Dunaway) as an alcoholic, a compulsive clean freak, and an abusive parent who seemed jealous of her adopted daughter. And Dunaway’s over-the-top performance, was widely ridiculed when the film was released 35 years ago this week, tarnished not only Crawford’s reputation but Dunaway’s as well.

Instead of bombing at the Box Office, Mommie Dearest was actually a hit, though more for its over-the-top theatricality than its true story of abuse and narcissism. In recent years, the film has been garnering a cult following especially with the LGBTQ audience.

Faye Dunaway

Dunaway does an excellent job of revealing the trauma that Joan Crawford went through herself, fighting to outrun a life of poverty. Dunaway manages to convey the anxiety and fears that Crawford faced as single mother, and an actress trying to remain relevant. With her tough exterior, the real Crawford was fragile and broken on the inside. She seems like a sad, lonely woman in desperate need of constant approval from her fans and male admirers.

Despite her claims of pride that Christina may be following in her footsteps, Dunaway’s Joan is triggered into fury when she sees young Christina trying to emulate her by using her hair products or imitating her in front of her dolls. When the adult Christina tries her hand at acting and is forced by illness to temporarily abandon her soap opera, in steps Joan to take her part, killing her daughter’s achievements by turning up drunk and forgetting her lines. Like a proper narcissistic parent, Crawford hates being out of the limelight, and Dunaway manages to capture this unrelenting woman who demands attention.

Apparently, Dunaway got a little too much into character, acting like a diva. She made an enemy of veteran, multiple Oscar-winning costume designer, Irene Sharaff, who came out of retirement to swathe Dunaway in period glamour. Sharaff walked off the film, for the first time in her 45-year career, out of frustration

Dunaway’s performance hints at what the movie could have been, but the film never gets out of being an overlong Soap Opera episode. Her impersonation of Crawford – particularly the Crawford of fiery 1950s melodramas such as Queen Bee (1955) and Autumn Leaves (1956) – is uncanny and captures Crawford’s unusual beauty and her domineering presence on the silver screen.

Dunaway’s Crawford is always performing, whether breaking up from her boyfriend or hosting a birthday party. Crawford was crafted into a star, and had to play one 24/7. Dunaway realises this and goes onto full mode, she never stops because Crawford never stopped.

Faye Dunaway

Crawford thrived on drama. Dunaway’s performance is full of drama and it belongs in a better movie. The film feels a little bloated, too much material, where everything including the kitchen sink is thrown in. However, there are scenes which leave a last impression even if they seem a little over-the-top. The infamous ‘coat hangers’ scene where Crawford, plastered in face cream, throws an extraordinary violent tantrum after discovering her child has wire coat hangers in her closet is alarming and disturbing to say the least. Dunaway looms over the camera like a nightmarish witch, with the audience given a cowering child’s-eye view of an out-of-control parent. Dunaway’s eyes are wide, almost popping out of her skull. She looks truly monstrous and the stuff of nightmares. You truly believe, that this woman is capable of murder. She is a ticking time bomb. An unpredictable woman is a dangerous one.

In this role of the queen of divas, Faye Dunaway gives a very committed performance in which she manages to capture Joan Crawford in her heyday and her fall from grace. We also get the impression that this is someone Dunaway could easily connect with, as she too was on her way out and would never have such a big role again. Of the impact the film had on her reputation, she said, “I think it turned my career in a direction where people would irretrievably have the wrong impression of me, and that’s an awful hard thing to beat. I should have known better, but sometimes you’re vulnerable and you don’t realize what you’re getting into,”

Still, she said, she stood by her acting choices in Mommie Dearest. “You can’t be ashamed of the work you’ve done. You make a decision, and then you have to live with the consequence.” Mommie Dearest, is not Dunaway’s best film but it’s her most entertaining film by a long shot.

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