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Directed by Frank Perry for Paramount Studios in 1981 and based on the tell-all book of the same name by Christina Crawford, Mommie Dearest. The book, and subsequently the movie, tells the story of Joan Crawford (played by Faye Dunaway), the famous actress from the golden age of Hollywood and equally famous control freak. We see her, in the film's opening sequence, wake up at 4am and scrub herself clean before dunking her face in a bowl of ice water to close the pores of her face, before heading off to make a movie that same day. In addition to being a control freak, Joan is also a neat freak. She becomes very upset when she notices that her maid, Helga (Alice Nunn), missed a spot.
When the movie begins, we learn that Joan is involved romantically with Gregg Savitt (Steve Forrest), a very successful lawyer. On top of this, we learn that Joan has always wanted a child, but after multiple miscarriages in her last marriage, it stands to reason that she is infertile. She decides to adopt but is initially declined until she gets Gregg involved. A short time later, and she's adopted Christopher (Xander Berkeley) and Christina (played by Mara Hobel as a child and Diana Scarwid as an adult). Joan is instantly taken with Christina, spoiling her at first but also almost immediately showing some rather strange disciplinary tactics. Christina is happy initially but soon starts to push back as Joan's domineering personality bulldozes the poor kid. As the relationship between Joan and Christina becomes increasingly intense, Joan's career at MGM ends as does her relationship with Gregg, which causes her behavior to become increasingly erratic. As Christina becomes a teenager and then an adult, her relationship with her adopted mother doesn't seem to get any better. Joan continues to bombard her with all manner of abuse, going so far as to choke her in front of Redbook reporter Barbara Bennett (Jocelyn Brando). Things only get worse from there…
Mommie Dearest is a hard film to take seriously, despite the fact that it basically deals with child abuse, a topic that we should always take seriously. There's no character depth here, we never learn why Crawford is the way that she is, the film never bothers to really try and explain that. We see her drink a fair bit in her later years but she's clearly bonkers well before that becomes a problem in the storyline. As such, the movie plays more like a series of absurd, melodramatic set pieces than it does as any sort of proper biopic, but then, that's where a lot of the movie's appeal comes from. Widely, and rightly regarded as a camp classic, and that's because it's really more of an exercise in melodramatic insanity than it is anything else, a parade of histrionics and rage.
In the center of this perfect storm is Faye Dunaway who, by all accounts, went full method while working on this film and basically ‘became' Joan Crawford. In a performance that takes scenery chewing to a whole new level, she goes from zero to sixty not just in the same scene, but sometimes in the same sentence, starting calm and ending in a furry of physical and verbal abuse taking on anyone in earshot. It's a mesmerizing turn that is, like a car crash on the side of the highway, impossible to look away from. The rest of the cast do legitimately fine work here but Dunaway is so completely dominant here that it is, fairly or not, almost irrelevant to the proceedings.
The direction is fine even if the screenplay is weak. The sets look great and the costume work is impressive. The makeup, particularly on Dunaway, is legitimately excellent and the cinematography quite nice. But this is all about Dunaway as Crawford. She's so intense and insane here that you almost wonder if the film was meant to be a parody. It wasn't.
Mommie Dearest is presented in AVC encoded 1080p 1.85:1 widescreen. The transfer takes up 37.4Gbs of space on the 50GB disc. Taken from a new 4k restoration, the picture quality here is very good. There's plenty of detail to take in throughout the movie, which lets you really appreciate the sets and wardrobe more than you would in standard definition. Colors are reproduced nice and accurately without looking boosted at all and black levels are strong if maybe a step away from reference quality. The film is given plenty of breathing room and moves at a nice, solid bit rate. As such, there are no noticeable issues with compression artifacts. The transfer is also free of any obvious noise reduction or edge enhancement issues. Everything looks nice and naturally filmic here.
The English language 24-bit DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track sounds good. Optional subtitles are provided in English, French and German. English language Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks are also included in English, French and German. Audio quality is solid on the 5.1 mix, with the rear channels used mostly for the score and with the bulk of the dialogue up front in the mix. The levels are balanced well and the track is free of any hiss or distortion.
Extras start off with a new commentary track by American Drag Queen Hedda Lettuce. This isn't a factual or historical track, it's really mostly Lettuce describing a lot of what happens in the movie as it happens. It's amusing enough, sometimes quite funny, and meant to ‘enhance the camp ferocity' of the film. The original commentary track with John Waters is also included here, and it's a lot of fun. It's a bit more informative than the Hedda Lettuce track, though still not particularly scholarly, but also very funny, as most of Waters' commentary tracks are.
The disc also includes a new featurette called Filmmaker Focus that is a piece with biographer Justin Bozung going over the life and times of director Frank Perry. He spends seven minutes talking about what Perry wanted out of his career, his eye for discovering actresses, getting his start in the 1920s, meeting producer Frank Yablans and getting connected to Paramount and then going on to make Mommie Dearest based on Christina Crawford's tell all book.
There are some archival features carried over from the old DVD here as well. The Revival Of Joan is a fourteen-minute piece with Yablans, Rutanya Alda and Diana Scarwid, who talks about his fascination with the book, getting the rights to make the film with Paramount, the 'tell all book' phenomena, thoughts on Crawford's acting and legacy, casting the film, the screenplay, working with Frank Perry and quite a bit more. Life With Joan is a fourteen minute piece that again interviews Yablans, Alda and Scarwid. He talks about the one scene he wishes they'd included in the movie but didn't, working with Faye Dunaway and how committed she was to the part (it sounds like she stayed in character during the entire shoot), getting slapped on film, scenes from the book that were left out of the movie, thoughts on whether the movie portrays Crawford as a caricature or a character, the challenges involved in cutting down a tree on camera and other details from the shoot and the production. Joan Lives On is a sixteen minute piece with the same interviewees, this time with John Waters and drag queen John Epperson thrown into the mix, that goes over how the film was received and the cult following that has grown around not only Mommie Dearest but a lot of Crawford's work in general. They also go over the gay community's embracing of the film, the influence on the drag scene.
Rounding out the extras on the disc is a theatrical trailer for the feature, a still gallery, menus and chapter selection options.
Paramount packages this release with a nice slip cover with a flap on the front that folds open and shows off the film's original one-sheet artwork. An insert card with a code that can be redeemed for a digital HD version of the movie is also included alongside the disc inside the clear keepcase.
Mommie Dearest is considered a camp classic for a reason, Crawford's work here is mesmerizingly over the top and just a blast to watch. She dominates the film, and we're all the better for it. Paramount's Blu-ray release adds a few extras to the mix and carries over everything from the special edition DVD release. More importantly, it presents the film in a very nice high definition presentation with strong picture quality and very nice audio. Highly recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.