Books on Film: Mommie Dearest

Mommie Dearest was the very first book of its kind, and since it was printed it's been highly debated, studied, quoted and called into question. Depending on where you stand in the argument, it's either the very first non-fiction Book on Film I've featured...or it's not.

The Book

No one knows for certain whether or not the events depicted in Mommie Dearest are true in entirety, embellished for dramatic effect, or fabricated in whole. One person who would know is dead, and has been since before the story was released. The other person swears it's true...but then she would, because she authored it.

Mommie Dearest was the very first tell-all book written by someone close to a celebrity, and relationships don't get closer than this. It was penned by Christina Crawford, daughter to the mega-star Joan Crawford. She was on Hollywood's A-list before it had an A-list, married into its most famous family, and ruled the screen for so long they were still making movies about her after she died. But after you read this book, you might want to add one more item to Joan's resume: abusive mother.

Published shortly after Joan's death in 1978, the book details the day-to-day life of Christina, eldest child to Joan. She, like her brothers and sisters, was adopted by the actress in the 1930s and 40s. At this time, Joan was in the bloom of her lucrative movie career. She was a star's star, and so well-to-do she managed to adopt several children despite being a single woman in a very conservative world.

One scene depicts a tense dinner between mother and daughter. Christina refuses to eat meat that is too undercooked. Joan rages and screams at her, and makes her sit at the table for many, many hours. Another shows Joan returning from a disappointing meeting with her movie studio, and hacking her own garden to pieces with a set of shears in the middle of the night.

The book talks as much about Joan as it does about Christina's own feelings. An extensive beauty routine is detailed, where Joan dips her face in steaming water, then alcohol, then a bowl of ice cubes. A parade of men dance through Joan and Christina's lives, but none can tolerate the volatile star. The book makes it clear that Joan suffers with OCD-like tendencies, going over-the-top in all manners of cleaning and household-running. 

The most famous scene of all, undoubtedly, involves the way Christina keeps her closet. Joan finds a wire hanger in the closet in the middle of the night and shouts down the house, screaming "no more wire hangers!" at Christina and raging like a madwoman.

Needless to say, the brutal portrayal of this much-loved star was incredibly shocking to readers and Crawford fans. But even on its own merits (or lack thereof), the book has drawn criticism. Many reviewers find it poorly written and very poorly edited, though others enjoy the "easy to understand" and "simple" prose style.

The content of the book has also been called into question time and again. Many of Joan's close friends, and at least one ex-husband, came forward to speak out against the book after it was published. Two of Joan's children, a pair of twins who were the youngest, also said they did not witness any abuse in the household. Some critics say that Christina's own actions are proof that she embellished these tales of torture by turning her own words against her.

By her own admission, Christina Crawford continued to spend time with Joan well after she turned eighteen, got finished with her schooling and began her own acting career. At the reading of Joan's will, Christina and her brother Christopher did not inherit. The will stated that the reasons were "known to them." Some suggest that Joan learned Christina was writing her book, and this is why she cut her off. Others point to this and say this is the reason Christina wrote the book in the first place -- she wanted to spite Joan for disinheriting her. To this day, Christina Crawford stands by her words.

The book was a sensation, but never a long-lasting hit or a must-read. It did spawn a movie that has become a can't-miss flick, however, and it really is one you can't miss.

The Film

The film version of Mommie Dearest was made as soon as possible. A story like this is too good to resist, and it involved one of Hollywood's elite. No way was it going to be ignored. So Faye Dunaway was cast as Crawford. Two actresses you aren't likely to recognize played Christina, a child and adult version.

Like the book, it received a lot of mixed reviews. Dunaway's performance has been both acclaimed and highly criticized, and the film won a really jaw-dropping number of Razzie awards. She screeches and rages through the entirety of the movie, and the editing leaves very few coherent or sympathetic moments -- but then, Christina's book didn't give filmmakers much to work with in that regard.

Crawford is still an alcoholic on film, and remains verbally and physically abusive to Christina. In one memorable scene, she strangles the girl in the presence of a magazine reporter. Even after Christina has grown older and won herself a role on a soap opera, Joan remains a constant presence in her life. When Christina becomes ill and cannot perform on the show, Joan even filled in for her -- something which absolutely happened, by the way. But Christina is ultimately fired, and there's an inference that she blames Joan for this, too.

The film ends much as the book does, with Christina learning that she won't inherit any part of Joan Crawford's estate. The lawyer says something to the effect of "well you know Joan. She always had to have the last word."

Christina intones "we'll see" darkly and stares at the camera. It's a clear message: she's going to be the one with the last word this time. And the movie exists, so clearly it was a plan forthrightly followed. But taking an arguably badly written tell-all and turning it into a feature film depicting a Hollywood legend...this is tricky stuff. Some things were altered for the sake of simplicity, so you really have to read the book to find out what you've missed.

What Got Adapted? 

In reality, Joan Crawford raised four children. She adopted five. Crawford originally adopted a little boy and named him Christopher, but his natural parent re-claimed him so she got herself another little boy and he became the Christopher Crawford who was Christina's oldest sibling. Joan also raised a pair of twin girls who were never referenced in the film, truly an oversight. 

And, disappointingly, the wire hanger scene is changed around. Joan did go on a wire hanger rant in the book, but the night she raged at Christina over the bathroom floor with cleaning powder in her hand was a separate incident. On film, the two are shoved together into a long, traumatic rant. Faye Dunaway, by the way, is wearing cold cream on her face throughout the scene. 

The scene where Joan squares off against the Board of Directors at Pepsi Cola did not appear in the book at all, as much of the book focuses on Christina, and Joan, and no one else. 

The MGM scene is riddled with fiction. In the scene, Crawford is disrespected and practically kicked out of L.B. Mayer's office. This didn't happen. She actually asked to be let out of her contract, but didn't expect Mayer to agree. He did, and she was stuck.

The book doesn't skip so many of Christinia's teen years, and provides a great deal of detail about her innermost thoughts and feelings. Christina has been criticized by many, but she's also gained a lot of fans with her book. Many have praised her for coming forward with her tale. 

And in either case, it's an intriguing story. Whether it's all true, part fiction or none of the above, Mommie Dearest is sad, a little bit funny, chilling and all about Joan Crawford. That definitely merits a read, and the film is truly an event. Watch it!

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  1. I remember watching this film years ago. Very chilling, although I had no clue it might have all been made up. Really interesting post, and I'm curious to read the book now.

  2. There's been a lot of talk about the validity of Christina's claims over the years, and it does add another layer of interest to the whole thing I think.