Two Joan Crawford films on Midnight Screenings this week.
Camp is a gas pedal for a gas of a film, but it doesn’t go the philosophical distance to explaining Mommie Dearest, a sincere expression of the personal trauma of a performative lifestyle refracted through a film where performance and life are visually and tonally so inextricably intertwined that cop-out compartments like camp and drama only continue to falsify dichotomies where they ought not exist. Is this adaptation of Christina Crawford’s tell-all excoriation of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother, Hollywood mega-star Joan Crawford, actually campy? Only if we consider camp as drama in the first place, not as a leper to be embraced only through the lens of irony but as a style that simultaneously acclimatizes us to its own lenses and resigns others, namely the naturalist lens, to the garbage heap.
The term “camp” is sometimes little more than a husk carted out to pacify the mind of the need to consider a film on its aesthetic merits. Although “camp” is a term of value, its frequent use also elides the camp atmosphere’s knotted-up dismissal of naturalism and embracement of fragmented eccentricity. The term reduces a film to enemy-of-art equations like “unrealistic = accidentally funny” without bothering to analyze just why a film might choose to bend the typically metalized girders of human nature into more flamboyant or expressive realms. Mommie Dearest is an outré attempt to reconcile, and complicate, Hollywood pageantry with dour reality. The film erects a mirror that refracts the Hollywood glamour impulse into a demented freakshow not by pulling back the “artifice” lens but by diving so deeply into it that it throws into disarray our ability to disconnect Joan Crawford the starlet, Joan Crawford the person, and Joan Crawford the mythic corpse exhumed by her daughter’s book. Calling it “camp” and having a field day giggling with a non-representation of reality isn’t fair. But insofar as “camp“ is a serious lens through which to reflect performative lifestyles which conform to a different throng of affectations than we’re used to, then Mommie Dearest is camp after a fashion.
But that’s beside the point. Unrealistic cinema can comment very deeply on reality, and it can even ask us to consider that what we consider to be “realistic” in a film is in fact a limited, ascetic perspective constructed by ideological norms about how “rational” people ought to act in the world. Certainly, Joan Crawford’s actions in Mommie Dearest aren’t rational, but it doesn’t follow that they aren’t real, or aren’t a version of reality to her. Which is what, after all, camp truly is, a bent reality that can channel outré impulses, but a serious reality nonetheless. Mommie Dearest isn’t a circumstantially fanciful exercise in hysterical melodrama; it’s a devoutly purposeful one, a study in Old Hollywood melodrama filtered through a woman who, as depicted, was so hysterically terrified of a lifestyle outside of the Hollywood machine that she embodied Hollywood’s melodramatic impulses and outré temperaments personally, ultimately to her doom. Introduced in a free-associative flotilla of eye, make-up, and shoe shots that reveal Crawford as she may have wanted to see herself (as a tableaux of iconography) the film also immediately paves its way to explore how those same visuals, glimpsed through a cracked-view mirror, also abstract Crawford from her humanity and warp her underneath the crooked Hollywood glamour construct.
Ironically for its unhinged reputation, Mommie Dearest is actually quite judicious and scrupulous in its deployment of imagery, especially in a glorious scene early on where a doll-faced, death-caked, made-up Crawford bends into a broken smile when her daughter stains her dress with glass. The kicker is that Crawford immediately snaps back into her rictus, fractured gorgon grin, arched to Hollywood perfection, sliding back into a bent, broken facsimile of a genuine smile meant for the camera in front of her, perhaps, but also for her own self-confidence, so inextricably stitched to her performativie edifice of Old Hollywood glamour.
In this shot, the diegetic camera (photographing her here) only peeks in the bottom of the frame like a shark, severed by the camera frame the film takes place within (our frame, rather than hers). The way the film projects its “frame” onto the camera within the frame but cannot do so completely stokes the mind to consider the assertive power of Mommie Dearest’s camera over the camera within the frame in the narrative. Crawford’s artifice-caked smile is nominally for the latter camera, the one watching her. But the variegated layers of the shot also attest to the thorny blending of the film we’re watching, nominally a “tell-all” peek behind the Hollywood fiction, and the film’s subsistence within that very melodramatic Hollywood frission we’re told is being unpacked here. More bluntly, Mommie Dearest is a film that investigates its own Hollywood icon status by suffusing itself in the shrouded haze of Old Hollywood, descending into a self-conscious “Hollywood film as critique of Hollywood films” murk. Because the camera photographing Crawford is only partially visible in the film’s frame, rather than being fully enclosed by it, Mommie Dearest ultimately insinuates that even its own field of view, its own perspective, can’t completely glimpse everything in the world. The camera that “peeks beyond” the public frame of the Hollywood melodrama is ultimately an obelisk within the very melodramatic world it depicts, a camera that will itself be subsumed by the melodrama it pines to undercut with New Hollywood “realism”.
Which is perhaps the very murk that frightened audiences so in 1981, forcing them crystallize their opinions on the film as “camp” and distance themselves from its barbed-wire gestures by approaching it “ironically”. In reality, though, Mommie Dearest is a devout exercise in polymorphous playacting where the boundaries of fiction and reality evaporate before our eyes, most inextricably at the formal level where melodramatic hysteria and New Hollywood jaundice get into bed and spend the film in a row together. A perversion of Old Hollywood melodrama (the style Crawford would have preferred) at the ever-plucking hands of New Hollywood style grisly, but still illusory, realism, Mommie Dearest nominally thrives on the rebellious tonal fissure between the two, with both styles acrimoniously inflaming one another to the high heavens. It’s not an envious match-up to attempt, but the bracing threat of the New School intensity jabs into the imperious melodrama like a torpedo, and the unyielding stylistic multiple-personality disorder is enough to exert hostility onto even the most battle-hardened filmgoer.
Thankfully, Mommie Dearest positively fawns for Faye Dunaway in Crawford’s stilettos, this famously temperamental actress playing a famously temperamental actress in a temperamental film and ultimately serving as its vanguard to brave the fragmented passages of the style and tone. Marionetting the film like Crawford marionettes her daughter within, she’s the morbid tyrant of a bedraggled freakshow, channeling and even marshalling the film’s rhythms with maladroit theatrics estranged from reality. Every part of her body comes into play in a gargoyle variant of Old Hollywood melodramatic acting, lifeblood drawn from the vein of Crawford’s signature style in a film that disrupts that style with grisly New Hollywood anger but pointedly, cannot completely hide from the impulse to be a melodrama all the same. In attempting to “peer beyond the stage” and more or less failing to do so, the film insinuates Crawford’s whole life to be maddeningly infatuated with her cardinal vision of an “on-stage” lifestyle. A lifestyle fraught with her paranoia that she will reveal to herself how pitiful she is underneath the Hollywood Royalty walk and talk that double as a ghoulish pantomime of loneliness and self-isolation in personal fantasy.
Intaking the nitrous oxide of irony is one way to stand your ground, essentially by absolving yourself of having to seriously consider the film’s fractured-mirror take on fragmented minds stitching themselves together with gauze of Old Hollywood mystique. But irony also elides the film’s stalwart commitment to folding styles into one another as a lens through which to explore the mental subjectivity of a main character who exists in a liminal state between styles and worlds. Disinheriting naturalism is a siphon through which to reflect a tortured psyche, and this film pawing for attention in every scene is a backalley through which to exude the narcissistic atmosphere of that same psyche. And, preferably, a backalley with Dunaway in the background stalking like a creeper, Norma Desmonding up and down staircases, rousting herself from the throngs of naturalism, and boisterously refusing to economize.
That it is “funny” I cannot say, but the lingering scent is a prodigious sadness of not only a woman but a Hollywood style – the melodrama – investigating itself, tweaking all its buttons until it can’t but emerge scathed and self-tortured. That the film is a critique of melodrama doomed to be just another melodrama is itself the film’s main character incarnate, a woman desperately trying to “find” herself amidst the gross menagerie of Hollywood gargoyles and ghouls and materializing only as the greatest monster of them all. Whether it is camp or not, Mommie Dearest’s brand of hysteria is impossibly tragic and self-excavating.
So, although the cinematic adaptation of Christina Crawford’s text is hardly a letter-of-the-law conversion, the written word doesn’t elude screen translation largely because it treats the text as a throng of tools or a wide-set alleyway for new art rather than a waxwork show to be calcified before our eyes. For a film recalling Nicholas Ray’s experiments in crashing haughty melodrama and astringent terror, the real-world Christina’s oddly, accidentally beautiful retort that “they turned it into a Joan Crawford movie”, all waterworks and unchained stylistic emotion, is oddly apt. Here, though, the Hollywood fragrances mutate into dying animals. And for Dunaway, a meaty role curdled into rotted meat as well when it essentially killed her career, despite her generous act of granting Joan one of her most indomitable box office successes in spirit if not in the flesh. Released four years after her death, Joan Crawford’s legend crawls into not only Dunaway’s theatrics but the film’s own flamboyant energy.
Maybe that’s a cruel joke, but if Crawford was a fiendish, bloodthirsty being, it seems appropriate that the film intended to burn her to the ground instead plants new shrubbery on the scorched-earth trauma she left in her wake. Mommie Dearest is an act of necromancy, an implicit Hollywood grotesque incarnate, and an example of how Christina’s personal trauma was, in commercialized form, always partially a hell-raising, melodramatic attempt to take a bat to a woman who, according to the author, was battier and more melodramatic than anyone. Ironically then, Mommie Dearest is a statement to the magnetic pull of Joan Crawford, the nominal goddess churned for sacrifice under the film’s threshing rhythms. Crawford possesses Dunaway, giving a performance-as-séance, and takes control of the film. Her buggy, sunken-eyed Old Hollywood glamour only kindled by the myths around her, the book that was meant to destroy her reputation, or at least turn Hollywood ghouls into a gilded money-making venture, was capitalized by Crawford herself. Always an actress prone to personal abuse in her abused-women roles, if in fact her psychologically-damaged characters were manifestations of, or marshals toward, her own psychological profile, then this may her greatest public-private identity conflict ever.
Indeed, if this film hadn’t warped into a Crawford-esque melodrama (much like how Ed Wood, another cult classic, is an Ed Wood film about Ed Wood), it would never have the temerity to bleed private mental structures and public identities so mouth-wateringly. In its very formal caliber as a film that critiques Crawford’s private life while also doggedly stylizing itself through her public identity as a melodrama star, Mommie Dearest incarnates the nagging suspicion that one’s public identity is, in fact, inextricably in dialectic heat with one’s private mind, both predating and shaping each other’s contours and existing as prey to the other. Drawing fire from beyond the grave, and in a wicked witticism, Crawford herself drew blood from her enraged, estranged daughter even in her own attempt to excoriate mother. This isn’t simply a good film, but a very good Joan Crawford film, with everything that entails. Mommie Demented strikes again.