What if Bette Davis had played Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest instead of Faye Dunaway? What if the Bette of All About Eve, in 1950, still brilliant, but near the end of her beauty, around the same age as Joan at the start of Mommie Dearest, had done the job? Or the Bette of a decade later from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? That film was the first time Bette met Joan even after all their years in Hollywood and they didn’t get on well at all. Joan was a priss and a fusspot and Bette was pretty much how you imagine she’d be. What if the Bette Davis of 1981 had played Joan Crawford in the film? By then Bette was in full crone mode and I think that would have been something. That version might have been the best film of all time. Still, we should deal with what we have not what might have been. Alas, that’s Faye wigging out, not Bette.
Does anyone under the age of, say, 35 know who Faye Dunaway is? I’m going to explain Joan Crawford soon for those that don’t know her, but let’s start with Faye. Faye was considered one of the great actresses of her time, at the time. More like an overactress for me. I've never been able to relax watching her. She always seems so tense. The shadows from her cheekbones were something, though. They could put her shoulders in the shade. Faye’s star burned brightly from the release of Bonnie and Clyde, in 1967. Faye was Bonnie. The film changed American cinema. Its ironic distance, its punky attitude, its jumpy cuts, its naturalism, its sexiness and its violence all felt like something new to America. The America that hadn’t seen, say, A Bout de Souffle (Breathless), made a few years earlier, or anything else from the French nouvelle vague, that is.
She spoiled some of the best films of the seventies. She’s the worst part of Chinatown and Three Days of the Condor, both great. I’ve never watched Network because she’s in it. I know someone who is obsessed by The Eyes of Laura Mars. Faye plays a photographer who can see future murders through her viewfinder. Apparently she can’t see herself murdering scripts, but you can’t have everything. It’s worse than I’ve made it sound, but my friend watches it at least once a month and loves it all over again every time. I don’t think we can learn anything from my friend; The Eyes of Laura Mars is a terrible film.
Joan Crawford was a huge movie star from the twenties until the fifties. She was always a shop girl who makes her way up in the world, usually with blow jobs. Sex, anyway. I assume they mean blow jobs. What do I know? In Humoresque she starts off rich and falls in love with a poor, handsome, younger violinist who makes his way up in the world by being Joan’s boyfriend. It’s one way, I suppose, and not the worst, either. In Mildred Pierce, for which she won an Oscar, she works her way up by baking pies. That’s another.
Mommie Dearest starts from when Joan’s fortyish and worrying about her career. Joan’s obviously insane; she has servants yet still gets on her hands and knees and scrubs until the floor is as clean as she wants it to be. She adopts Aryan orphans for publicity and who would have guessed that could go wrong? She now has two white-haired, plain-faced children to harsh her vibe. She makes the boy, Christopher, sleep strapped to his bed. I don’t know why. And the girl, Christina, really gets the rough edge of Joan’s tongue. In a famous scene Joan, in kabuki white-face night cream, discovers that Christina has used a wire coat hanger to hang a dress instead of a padded, pink, beribboned, satin one. Joan, I’m sure we would all agree, overreacts to her discovery. The next day Christina has coat hanger-shaped welts all over her body.
It may not surprise you that Christina, after all this and much more, including being left out of Joan’s will, goes on to write the world’s first celebrity dish-the-dirt tell-all. Let me tell you, jelly and ice cream is a dish best served cold; revenge is good anytime. The book was a big seller and then became this film. When it came out gay men in New York, who, of course, loved it, walked around with wire coat hangers in their back pockets. They often put coloured hankies there to indicate what they were interested in sexually. I’ve never really known what the different colours signified, and I can’t even guess what a wire coat hanger means, sex-wise. It may remain a mystery.
Faye has a new do in every scene and her wardrobe is beautiful. It’s like she’s entered a Joan Crawford look-a-like contest. She’d probably win second prize. First would go to a seven-foot tall black drag queen. The diary of the woman who plays her assistant has recently been published. Faye was demanding and made people cry or something. Life’s too short for that. The film, though enjoyable in its way, isn’t any sort of a classic except a camp one. It’s not good, whatever good means. Mostly you watch it with your jaw hitting the snow-white, four inch-deep, shag pile. Not unenjoyable at all.
Faye, I discover, refuses to talk about the film anymore because she thinks it’s being mocked. She’s probably right. And that’s why I love Mommie Dearest
If you’ve never seen All About Eve, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, A Bout de Souffle, Chinatown or Three Days of the Condor then allow me to urge you to do so. All brilliant in their own brilliant ways. The Eyes of Laura Mars is for people with more esoteric tastes, maybe, as is Mommie Dearest.
If you’re interested in the auteurs of 1970s American cinema then I highly recommend Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, by Peter Biskind.
And if you’re intrigued by the hanky code of the 1980s gay community, Wiki, of course, has a page here.
Here’s the the wire coat hanger scene. Poor sound quality, but you’ll get the idea. Scary.