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Camp classic
Mommie Dearest reexamined on new DVD

Camp classic
Mommie Dearest reexamined on new DVD

Forget for a moment, if you can, the notorious wire hangers. Paramount Home Entertainment has marked the 25th anniversary of Mommie Dearest by issuing a new DVD, appropriately dubbed the "Hollywood Royalty Edition." And it may finally be time to start to take the film seriously as well.

Certainly, the late director Frank Perry (Diary of a Mad Housewife) and producer Frank Yablans (the former president of Paramount Pictures who had segued into a producing career when he made the movie at Paramount) embarked on the project with the most serious of intentions. Faye Dunaway, who just five years earlier had won the Best Actress Oscar for her rapacious TV executive in Network, didn't shy away from playing Joan Crawford as an embattled screen legend, fearful that her career was slipping away even as she terrorized her adopted children while trying to create a fantasy of the perfect family.

But in 1981 audiences weren't necessarily buying it. Before the movie was released, Paramount conducted small screenings to gauge the movie's likely reception. Recalls one Paramount vet: "The first screening, there was some nervous laughter. The second screening, the laughs began 45 minutes in and didn't stop. The third screening, it started in the first half-hour." Paramount's marketing department, then headed by Gordon Weaver, decided to promote the joke rather than fight it.

While the studio launched the movie with proper ads promising an indelible performance coupled with high drama, by the first weekend, it switched tactics. New ads were hastily ordered that carried such battle-cry slogans as "No wire hangers--ever!"-- cementing the movie's reputation as a camp extravaganza.

"I went berserk," Yablans recalls in one of the DVD's documentaries. Although he says that the movie opened well, it ultimately grossed $19 million, ranking number 38 among 1981's top domestic grossers, according to Box Office Mojo. Critic Roger Ebert called it "unrelentingly depressing." And the Razzie Awards hooted it away as the worst movie of the year.

Dunaway, who felt burned, has barely acknowledged the movie since, and she doesn't appear on the DVD though her costar Diana Scarwid and gay director John Waters--who provides an appreciative commentary--both laud her performance as underappreciated.

In retrospect, a number of factors probably conspired against the movie. Christina Crawford's 1978 memoir was in some respects ahead of its time. It sought to explore child abuse, a subject that was just beginning to seep into the national consciousness. But because it did so within the opulence of a Hollywood setting, it was dismissed by many as a scandalous tell-all.

Similarly, just as Christina Crawford crossed an unspoken line, Dunaway dared to take on a forbidding screen legend, warts and all. When Diana Ross played a figure like Billie Holiday nine years earlier, she won applause. But while resurrecting a singer like Holiday was viewed as a tribute, when Dunaway borrowed Crawford's Kabuki-like eyebrows and exaggerated shoulder pads, many considered it a sacrilege.

To her credit, Dunaway held nothing back. Waters describes her performance as operatic, and it is in the best sense of the word--full of fury, desperation, and genuine pain. Audiences could laugh in the face of such a monster, but at heart the movie was no joke. Today, Yablans concedes that maybe he or Perry should have suggested that Dunaway tone down moments in her performance. But a toned-down Mommie Dearest would have risked losing the Grand Guignol, which is exactly what makes the film so grand. (Reuters)

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