|Directed by||Frank Perry|
|Based on||Mommie Dearest|
by Christina Crawford
|Produced by||Frank Yablans|
|Edited by||Peter E. Berger|
|Music by||Henry Mancini|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Box office||$25 million|
Mommie Dearest is a 1981 American biographical psychological drama film directed by Frank Perry and starring Faye Dunaway, Steve Forrest, Mara Hobel, and Diana Scarwid, with supporting performances from Xander Berkeley in his feature film debut along with Rutanya Alda and Jocelyn Brando. Adapted from Christina Crawford's 1978 autobiography of the same name, the film follows her and her brother Christopher's upbringing under their adoptive mother, actress Joan Crawford, depicting her as abusive, controlling, and manipulative, prioritizing her Hollywood career over her family.
The executive producers were Christina's husband, David Koontz, and Terry O'Neill, Dunaway's then-boyfriend and soon-to-be husband. The film was distributed by Paramount Pictures, the only one of the Big Eight film studios for which Crawford had never appeared in a feature film.
Released in September 1981, Mommie Dearest swiftly garnered a reputation among audiences for its highly-charged performances and melodramatic style, leading Paramount to retool their marketing campaign, presenting the film as an unintentional comedy despite its dark subject matter. The film grossed $25 million internationally against a $10 million budget. Despite receiving mostly negative reviews from critics, the film's perceived bizarre script and performances, particularly Dunaway's, have brought a cult following to the film.
Often considered to be one of the worst films ever made, it was nominated for nine Razzies at the 2nd Golden Raspberry Awards, and won five, including Worst Picture and Worst Actress for Faye Dunaway.
The film's plot is loosely based upon Christina Crawford's memoir of the same title. Joan Crawford is a dedicated and career-driven actress at MGM Studios. Despite having achieved success in her career, she longs to have a child, however, she is unable to conceive, and suffers a series of miscarriages. Joan applies to adopt a child, but is denied due to the fact she is a single woman, therefore, she enlists the help of her love interest, Hollywood attorney Greg Savitt (played by Forrest). Joan adopts a baby girl and names her Christina, then later adopts a boy, naming him Christopher. In reality, Joan had four adopted children, however, her other daughters, Cathy and Cindy, are not portrayed or mentioned in the film. Joan lavishes Christina with attention and luxury, such as an extravagant birthday party, but also enforces a strict code of discipline. When Christina later rebels against her mother, confrontations ensue. Meanwhile, Joan resents Greg's allegiance to studio boss Louis B. Mayer, and after a quarrel between the two, they end their stormy relationship. Shortly thereafter, Joan is asked to leave MGM.
Soon, Joan's career is on an upswing when she obtains the title role in the film "Mildred Pierce," and wins the Best Actress Academy Award. Shortly afterward, Joan sends Christina to Chadwick School boarding school. A period of time passes, and teenage Christina has developed an interest in acting. When Christina is caught being intimate with a male classmate, Joan withdraws her from the school. After a fight at home, Joan sends Christina to Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy. Another short period of time passes, and Joan has met and married Alfred Steele, president of Pepsi Cola, and moves to New York City. Shortly thereafter, Steele suddenly passes away from a heart attack, and Joan remains with Pepsi.
After graduating from Flintridge, Christina rents an apartment in Manhattan, and begins professional acting. Joan and adult Christina maintain a polite, yet strained, relationship as they lead their separate lives. When Christina is hospitalized for an ovarian tumor, she is temporarily replaced on the soap opera she is working on by Joan, who is decades older than the character. Though tensions still exist between the two, Christina believes that they have put the past behind them and that, in her way, her mother does love her. Years later, when Joan dies of cancer in 1977, Christina and Christopher attend the reading of her will and learn that Joan has disinherited them both.
Christina Crawford, the writer of the memoir from which the book is based, claims to have seen the film only once, and has repeatedly stated that she had no involvement with the making of the film. Christina has categorically denounced the film as "grotesque" and a work of fiction, saying, “It’s not a very good movie”.  Christina has repeatedly stated that the film is highly inaccurate, and that the portrayal of her mother in the film is nothing like the real Joan Crawford, emphasizing that she never wrote in her book that Joan chopped down a tree with an axe, or beat her with a wire hanger as depicted in the film. 
According to Faye Dunaway, producer Frank Yablans promised her during the casting process that he wished to portray Joan Crawford in a more moderate way than how she was portrayed in Christina Crawford's book. In securing the rights to the book, Christina's husband David Koontz was given an executive producer credit, though he had no experience producing films. Dunaway likewise demanded that her own husband, photographer Terry O'Neill, be given a producer credit. According to Yablans, the two husbands jostled over Dunaway's portrayal of Crawford: "I had two husbands to deal with, David driving me crazy that Faye was trying to sanitize Joan, and Terry worried we were pushing Faye too far and creating a monster." In an interview with The New York Times, Dunaway stated she prepared for the film by studying photographs of Crawford, and exercised her jaw muscles in an attempt to replicate the distinctive shape of Crawford's mouth.
In 2015, actress Rutanya Alda (Carol Ann) published a behind-the-scenes memoir, detailing the making of the film, The Mommie Dearest Diary: Carol Ann Tells All. In it, she describes the difficulty of working with Dunaway, whose method approach to playing Joan seemed to absorb her and make her difficult to the cast and crew. In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Alda stated, "People despised Faye...because she was rude to people. Everyone was on pins and needles when she worked, and relaxed when she didn't." Alda described the process of acting opposite Dunaway very unfavorably by claiming that she manipulated the director to deprive the other actors of screen time and required the members of the cast to turn their backs when not in the shot so she would have no audience. She also claimed that Dunaway was "out of control" while filming the scene where Joan attacks Christina (Diana Scarwid) in front of a reporter (Jocelyn Brando) and Carol Ann has to pull her off. Alda was hit hard in the chest and knocked over several times, while Brando, who was scripted to help Alda pull Dunaway off of Scarwid, refused to get near her for fear of being injured.
The film opened in New York City on September 16, 1981, before the release expanded on September 18, 1981, opening in 85 theaters. It earned $905,920 during its opening weekend, accounting for approximately 4% of its budget. It expanded the following week to 930 theaters, and grossed a further $4,667,761. It earned an additional $3,208,436 during its third week of release, and another $2,009,548 during its fourth.
Roughly a month into release, Paramount executives realized the film was getting a reputation at the box office as an unintentional comedy and changed its advertising to reflect its new camp status, proclaiming, "Meet the biggest mother of them all!" Advertisements featured hanging wire hangers, a reference to the abuse sequences depicted in the film, but these were withdrawn after attorneys representing the film's producers, among them Yablans, sued the film studio.
The film ultimately grossed $19,032,000 in the United States, with an additional $6,000,000 in international markets, making for a worldwide gross of $25,032,000.
Roger Ebert opened his one-star review with, "I can't imagine who would want to subject themselves to this movie," calling it "unremittingly depressing, not to any purpose of drama or entertainment, but just to depress. It left me feeling creepy."
About Dunaway's performance, Variety said, "Dunaway does not chew scenery. Dunaway starts neatly at each corner of the set in every scene and swallows it whole, costars and all."
Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it "an extremely strange movie" yet "a peculiarly engaging film, one that can go from the ridiculous to the sublime and back again within a single scene, sometimes within a single speech."
Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film two and a half stars out of four and wrote, "Mommie Dearest isn't a bad film, it's more of an incomplete story," because the script "doesn't care enough to attempt a thoughtful answer to the most obvious question of all—why? Why did Joan Crawford punish her adopted daughter with beatings and isolation? Why did Joan Crawford force her adopted son to wear, in effect, a harness to strap him in bed? I don't think you can show such extraordinary behavior in a film about a famous person and not offer some answers. It's simply not responsible filmmaking, both intellectually and dramatically."
Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Faye Dunaway "is a terrific Joan Crawford," but the film "plays like a limp parody of a bad Crawford movie. When Dunaway's Crawford, who's a seething volcano of emotions, finally erupts, the effect is laughable, rather than terrifying or pathetic, so pallid is the picture. 'Mommie Dearest' is at best campy, and at worst, merely plodding."
Pauline Kael declared that Faye Dunaway gave "a startling, ferocious performance," adding, "Dunaway brings off these camp horror scenes—howling 'No wire hangers!' and weeping while inflecting 'Tina, bring me the axe' with the beyond-the-crypt chest tones of a basso profundo—but she also invests the part with so much power and suffering that these scenes transcend camp."
Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote, "one doesn't envy screen writers obliged to hack a playable, coherent continuity out of the complicated chronology and simple-minded psychoanalysis that clogs the book. It's a booby-trapped source, and there are intermittent signs of both skill and wariness in the filmmakers ... But once the ugly stuff begins, all that methodical preparation and desire to be fair becomes meaningless. The movie is committed to a prolonged, exhibitionistic wallow and can't escape the trashy consequences."
|Golden Raspberry Awards (1981)||Worst Picture||Frank Yablans||Won|
|Worst Director||Frank Perry||Nominated|
|Worst Actress||Faye Dunaway||Won[a]|
|Worst Supporting Actor||Steve Forrest||Won|
|Worst Supporting Actress||Rutanya Alda||Nominated|
|Worst Screenplay||Frank Yablans, Frank Perry, Tracy Hotchner and Robert Getchell;
Based on the memoir by Christina Crawford
|Worst New Star||Mara Hobel||Nominated|
|Golden Raspberry Awards (1989)||Worst Picture of the Decade||Frank Yablans||Won|
|Worst Actress of the Decade||Faye Dunaway||Nominated|
|Worst New Star of the Decade||Diana Scarwid||Nominated|
|Golden Raspberry Awards (2004)||Worst "Drama" of Our First 25 Years||Nominated|
|National Society of Film Critics Awards||Best Actress||Faye Dunaway||Runner-up|
|New York Film Critics Circle Awards||Best Actress||Runner-up|
|Stinkers Bad Movie Awards||Worst Picture||Frank Yablans||Won|
|Worst Director||Frank Perry||Nominated|
|Worst Actress||Faye Dunaway||Won|
|Worst Supporting Actress||Diana Scarwid||Nominated|
|Worst Screenplay||Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchne, Frank Perry and Frank Yablans;
Based on the memoir by Christina Crawford
|Young Artist Awards||Best Motion Picture – Family Enjoyment||Nominated|
|Best Young Motion Picture Actress||Mara Hobel||Nominated|
Among retrospective reviews, Slant Magazine awarded the film four stars in the May 31, 2006 edition. Also, Dennis Price wrote, "Faye Dunaway portrays Joan Crawford in a likeness so chilling it's almost unnatural" in his assessment of the film for DVD Review. The British Film Institute's Alex Davidson similarly praised Dunaway's performance, writing in 2017 that it is "uncanny and captures Crawford's unusual beauty and slightly wobbly smile. Her Crawford is never not performing, whether breaking up from her boyfriend or curating a cheesily flawless family Christmas for a radio show. She thrives on drama. It's an operatic performance that belongs in a better movie."
Guy Lodge of The Guardian, reviewing the film following a retrospective 40th-anniversary screening, was disturbed by it, noting: "Each time I've seen Mommie Dearest, its most violent scenes startle me anew: I find the harsh physical vigour of Dunaway's performance, combined with the piercing, uncontrolled-sounding pitch of young actor Mara Hobel's screams, profoundly uncomfortable to watch, and hear. Can I be alone in this discomfort? Or have audiences, over the years, collectively decided to override the film's gaze, making a joke of these scenes so as to make them easier to endure?" Les Brathwaite of Out evaluated the film in 2016, noting that, "if you look at Mommie Dearest as what it is—not a biographical film about one of the most captivating and complicated female stars of the 20th century, but as a gothic horror film in the mode of Crawford's own What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, where the vultures of celebrity have picked clean the bones of a creature it created—you can truly appreciate the film and Dunaway's performance."
Writing for Collider, Luna Guthrie praised Dunaway's performance, but was critical of the film's pacing, noting that it "is not really structured like a real movie, but in a style that all too frequently permeates the biopic, rushes to condense decades of a notable person's life into two hours. It is arranged like a children's book, with an overabundance of three-page chapters that give the impression that content has been consumed. Don't look for a through-line, or any sort of linearity."
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 47% based on 47 reviews, with an average rating of 5.5/10. The website's critics consensus states: "Mommie Dearest certainly doesn't lack for conviction, and neither does Faye Dunaway's legendary performance as a wire-wielding monster; unfortunately, the movie is too campy and undisciplined to transcend guilty pleasure." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 55 out of 100, based on 13 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
Mommie Dearest was released by Paramount Home Video on VHS in the 1990s. In 2006, a "Hollywood Royalty" bilingual Special Collector's Edition was released on DVD through Warner Home Video. Subsequent Blu-ray releases of the film have existed since 2017, facilitated through Paramount Pictures, while Amazon Prime and Paramount Plus both control the film's streaming format.
Paramount released the film on Blu-ray from a newly restored 4K film transfer for its 40th anniversary on June 1, 2021.
Christina Crawford, the writer of the memoir on which the film is based, had no involvement with the making of the film, and denounced the film as "grotesque" and a work of fiction, specifically stating that Joan never chopped down a tree with an ax, or beat her with a wire hanger as depicted in the film.
For decades, Dunaway was famously reluctant to discuss Mommie Dearest in interviews. In her 1997 autobiography, she only briefly mentions the film by stating that she wished that director Perry had enough experience to see when actors needed to rein in their performances. She also felt the film negatively impacted her career, telling People magazine in 2016: "I think it turned my career in a direction where people would irretrievably have the wrong impression of me, and that's an awful hard thing to beat. I should have known better, but sometimes you're vulnerable and you don't realize what you're getting into."
She also claimed that the performance took a heavy emotional toll on her stating: "At night, I would go home to the house we had rented in Beverly Hills, and felt Crawford in the room with me, this tragic, haunted soul just hanging around...It was as if she couldn't rest."
The film has had an enduring reputation as a cult film, particularly heralded by gay male audiences, owing to its over-the-top camp style. Writing for the British Film Institute, Alex Davidson observed that the film "has been savagely embraced by queer audiences since its cinema release in 1981. Drag queens outdo each other for the fiercest impersonation of Faye Dunaway in Crawford mode. And who doesn't want to be part of a 'whiplash' audience, whatever that is? Well, possibly Christina Crawford, who has seen her harrowing history of child abuse transformed into a gay pantomime. Watching audiences howl with laughter as your avatar is beaten and throttled must be a sobering experience."
The film is recognized by the American Film Institute in these lists: