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Mommie Dearest: Hollywood Royalty Edition

History is written by the survivors, and Christina Crawford — the adopted daughter of Joan Crawford — survived her mother to ensure that when the world thought about Joan, they also thought about wire coat hangers. With the 1978 release of Christina's poison-penned Mommie Dearest (published just one year after her mother's death), Christina forever marked her mother as a she-bitch of monstrous proportions, as the book — one of the first in a series of hugely successful Hollywood familial tell-alls — purported to show the alcoholic, manic depressive, obsessive-compulsive side of one of Hollywood's greats. Though later refuted by friends and family, the book enjoyed 42 weeks on the best-seller list. It wasn't long before Hollywood came knocking and Paramount turned the book into a film, only to find the prestige picture box-office poison (Oscar-winning Faye Dunaway's career was both defined and ruined with her performance, directed by Frank Perry). Briefly it was decided that the only way to sell the film was as camp, and it had the tag line "the biggest mother of them all" added. The campaign was reneged out deference to the filmmakers, but that didn't stop Mommie Dearest from becoming a camp classic since its release. Joan Crawford (Dunaway), left barren from multiple miscarriages, pulls strings to adopt a child, but as a workaholic more concerned with her looks and fans, she isn't good at being a nurturing mother and wants daughter Christina (Mara Hobel as a child, Diana Scarwid as an adult) — living in a house of privilege — to understand that life is unfair. Cristina and Joan have an antagonistic relationship because Joan never wants Tina to steal her spotlight, and as Joan goes through men and a tumultuous career, Tina becomes the main observer of Crawford's insanity, with ups (winning an Oscar for Mildred Pierce) and downs (that same night berating Tina for having dresses on wire coat hangers and not cleaning her bathroom properly) that are as melodramatic as her films. Joan wants the best for her daughter and to be understood by her, but "mommie dearest" (as Joan wants to be called) puts Tina in boarding schools, treats her violently, and finally leaves her out of the will. The episodic Mommie Dearest acts much like an inverse Pierce, with long-suffering daughter Tina taking the abuses of the wayward mother who never truly loves her. Shot like a Douglas Sirk movie of the week, the film is loaded with high-pitched emotions rarely grounded by the action, and often it's too busy trying to get from one awful abuse story to the next (from Crawford strangling her daughter to filling in for her on a soap when she's sick). But it's made brilliant by Faye Dunaway's performance as Joan Crawford: Looking uncannily like her at times, Dunaway's performance is one of the rare instances of a female star playing a drag queen. The actress plays the role like a man impersonating a woman, and one gets the feeling the only film she watched to get ready for the role was What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, making much of her dialogue quote-ready ("I'm not mad at you Helga, I'm mad at the dirt.") It's this high-pitched absurdity that makes Mommie Dearest so entertaining, and though it's probably a work of fiction (any film that leaves out Crawford's two other adopted children can't be regarded as exactly factually accurate), it is never less than fascinating.

Paramount's double-dipped "Hollywood Royalty Edition" of Mommie Dearest is handsomely presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) with audio available in a restored original mono soundtrack or remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 (with a French mono track and English subtitles as well). Extras for this new version include a demure commentary by John Waters, who offers a slightly twisted appreciation of the film (he likes it but admits its camp moments), the featurettes "The Revival of Joan" (14 min.) and "Life with Joan" (14 min.), with comments from Frank Yablans and actresses Diana Scarwid and Ruthanya Alda, and "Joan Lives On" with the aforementioned interviewees, Waters and drag queen Lipsynka (16 min.). A photo gallery and theatrical trailer are also on board. Keep-case.
—DSH



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