Character Assassination: Faye Dunaway and Mommie Dearest, 40 Years Later

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While Dunaway, in interviews, criticised the glossy, escapist films of the past in comparison to the emerging message films, it was apparent from the outset that she projected the type of glamour that fitted better into a bygone era than into her own. Even her kind of beauty differed from the healthy, unkempt look that was popular in the late sixties. Her high cheekbones, intense eyes, her sharp well-defined fears evoked memories of Grace Kelly and Deborah Kerr. It was only her inner turmoil that made her different from them—and her contemporaries.

(Mason Wiley in Close-Ups: Intimate Profiles of Movie Stars by their Co-stars, Directors, Screenwriters, and Friends)

Dunaway’s distinctive talent has always been based on how quickly she can go to extremes leaving other players in the dust. Continually looking daggers with her basilisk eyes, pledged to old-fashioned glamour, clothes, and hairstyles, she was a fragile and neurotic figure for the 1970s, but so insistent about her own fragility that she almost seemed to use it as a weapon.

(Dan Callahan in The Art of American Screen Acting 1960 to Today)

The quotes above provide a snapshot of the particular, peculiar qualities and energy that Faye Dunaway possessed in her heyday: a fusion of Old Hollywood glamour, contemporary chic, and the sort of patented 1970s neuroses affectionately parodied in this video, equally capable of conveying elegant nonchalance and the raw vulnerability of an exposed nerve.

As far as heydays go, Dunaway’s is stellar. Over the course of a decade, she headlined three classics in Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown, and Network. While all three are impeachable to varying degrees, very few American actresses of the past fifty years can claim lead roles in three culture-defining, capital C Classic films of that calibre. Can Jane Fonda and Glenn Close? They’ve made plenty of films that were prescient and classics of their moment, but how many are all-timers? Can Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts? They’ve been in popular favourites and genre classics, but again, how many all-timers? Can Meryl Streep? That very question is part of the joke of this Onion article. Can Diane Keaton, if you factor that her roles in The Godfather films are ultimately supporting? The list goes on … Sarandon, Lange, Goldberg, Pfeiffer, Basinger, Foster, Stone, Bullock, Diaz, Davis, Adams, Chastain, Lawrence, etc. I pose this question not to slam those terrific performers, but to highlight Dunaway’s rarefied status among them. Of course, this is also indicative of how the film industry caters to male stars and stories, and how film commentators and fandom—lackeys and lapdogs like myself who in their own way are steered by the industry—deify male stars and male-centred stories and curate the movie ‘canon’ (a term with its own masculine baggage).

Beyond those three classic films, Dunaway added considerable charisma and style to popular mainstream entertainments like The Thomas Crown Affair, The Towering Inferno, The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, and Three Days of the Condor, and heft to interesting if not wholly successful flicks like Little Big Man, Voyage of the Damned, and The Eyes of Laura Mars. Like I said, a heck of a heyday. And yet, Dunaway does not carry the same cachet today as Fonda or Streep or Keaton, or enjoy the same career opportunities. Most news stories and media on Dunaway in recent years are negative tabloid fodder, whether on a lawsuit filed by a belittled former assistant, being fired from a stage production following an altercation with a co-star, or most famously, co-flubbing Moonlight’s Best Picture announcement at the Oscars. Even the nice stories, like Alan Cumming recalling her weighing her food at an awards ceremony, paint a portrait of Dunaway as an eccentric and add fuel to the long-roaring gossip about her as a difficult diva. While I’ve neither knowledge nor means to litigate all the accusations of bad behaviour levelled at Dunaway over the years, I would argue that there is a double standard at work in—it bears repeating—a film industry catering to male stars and stories and its satellite industries serving to deify male stars and stories, and that Dunaway has not been afforded the same level of respect, second chances, opportunity, or benefit of the doubt afforded so many major male stars.

If there is a turning point in Dunaway’s career, it is undoubtedly Mommie Dearest. This year, Mommie Dearest turns 40; Dunaway herself turned 80, meaning that, regrettably, half of her lifetime and almost three quarters of her film career have unfolded in the shadow of this notorious turkey. Adapted from the 1978 memoir by Christina Crawford, the film depicts Christina’s upbringing under her abusive and domineering adopted mother, Hollywood Golden Age star Joan Crawford (who died one year after the memoir’s publication and four years before the film’s release). The film and Dunaway’s performance as Crawford were subsequently lambasted by the memoirist, and the critical community and wider world were no kinder. The film swept the Golden Raspberry Awards (aka the Razzies), “winning” Worst Picture, Screenplay, Actress for Dunaway (tied, to add insult to injury, with Bo Derek for Tarzan, the Ape Man), and Supporting Actress for Diana Scarwid in her role as adult Christina. Lest the Razzies be hailed for their impeccable taste, it’s worth noting they nominated Stanley Kubrick and Michael Cimino for Worst Director the previous year for The Shining and Heaven’s Gate respectively—while the latter film was grossly expensive, badly directed it was not. Lest they be accused of being good sports, they also saw fit to nominate 9-year old Mara Hobel for Worst Supporting Actress and New Star for portraying the younger Christina. Mommie Dearest has never shaken its “bad film” status or attained respectability, instead finding longevity in the LGBT community as a camp classic and, to borrow from Adam White, “catnip for drag queens the world over”. For a level-headed chronicle of the production, reception, and fallout from Mommie Dearest, I’d recommend the Mommie Dearest episode of Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This; the preceding episodes in that particular mini-series are also worth a listen, presenting a comprehensive portrait of Joan Crawford’s life, career, struggles, and achievements.

Here’s the thing … Mommie Dearest is a mediocre film, functionally executed but cinematically uninspired. It is the disjunction between the fairly inert and antiseptic filmmaking on the one hand, and Dunaway’s mega-Method performance on the other, that bequeaths the film its weird cult energy, but at great expense to its lead actress. As author Dan Callahan notes, in his excellent book The Art of American Screen Acting 1960 to Today, director Frank Perry “seems cowed and agog at how far she’s going” and “leaves Dunaway stranded for long scenes that play out like dailies that need some serious editorial finessing and some retakes to tone down her overdone facial and vocal pyrotechnics”. Perry had worked with Dunaway a decade earlier on Doc, a likeable early 70s Western, and his filmography has a few interesting titles, such as The Swimmer with Burt Lancaster. But whatever Perry’s talents, Callahan hits the nail on the head in calling Dunaway utterly stranded by her supposed director. Dunaway makes BIG choices in Mommie Dearest for sure, but that in itself isn’t the problem. Here are some other actors who’ve made big choices over the past forty years: Jack Nicholson in The Shining, Bill Murray in Caddyshack, Al Pacino in Scarface, Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, and Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. All big choices, but all helped immeasurably by being in good films with tonal control and synchronised supporting performances, highlighting the integral role of allies in the creative process. Suffice to say, if Frank Perry had directed Scarface or Blue Velvet, Pacino and Hopper would be left fairly embarrassed too.

There are certainly cases of high profile male actors floundering in major movies. Two examples that spring to mind are Robert De Niro in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar, two performances considerably worse than Dunaway’s work in Mommie Dearest. Both actors perform buried under rough make-up jobs, but De Niro has at least the excuses of playing a villainous reanimated bogeyman and director/co-star Kenneth Branagh’s generally overblown sledgehammer tone, so he more or less blends in. DiCaprio’s case is closer to Dunaway’s in Mommie Dearest, where he attempts to deliver a sincere and shaded performance of a notorious but enigmatic real-life figure, but flails under Clint Eastwood’s expedient, one-take direction. However, any professional damage was negligible: workhorse De Niro had Casino, Heat, and Jackie Brown in his near future, and Di Caprio Django Unchained, The Great Gatsby, and The Wolf of Wall Street. Dunaway, in contrast, had to contend with period romp The Wicked Lady, Agatha Christie whodunit Ordeal by Innocence, and a villainous turn in Supergirl, all in some way perpetuating her caricatured diva status. While personal career stratagem obviously plays a role, and DiCaprio and De Niro had aces in the hole in the persons of Scorsese and Tarantino, the disparity between their cases and Dunaway’s reinforces the level of opportunity and built-in benefit of the doubt afforded major male movie stars.  

In the popular consciousness, the big moments in Mommie Dearestlike the infamous ‘No wire hangers!’ scene—overshadow and erase the subtle work and grace notes of Dunaway’s performance. They also overshadow the fact she delivers a solid approximation of Crawford in manner, speech, and expression—the latter involving considerable contortion of her face muscles for lengthy periods of time. It’s far more textured and nuanced as a recreation of Crawford than, say, Nicole Kidman’s lightweight take on Grace Kelly in Grace of Monaco or Kate Beckinsale’s gentle take on Ava Gardner in The Aviator: if by some incredible circumstance a co-star had flubbed and addressed them as Nicole or Kate in a scene, and that take landed in the film, it wouldn’t have broken any dramatic spell. In his perceptive analysis of Dunaway’s work as Crawford, Dan Callahan writes that “On one level, Dunaway is doing diligent and psychologically probing work … tirelessly searching out specific motivations for all of Crawford’s bad behaviour”, and yet “the detached and aimless quality of the film itself limits and fragments her efforts, and leaves her open to ridicule”.

Paramount Pictures ultimately sold out Mommie Dearest, shifting its advertising to accentuate its histrionic qualities and making a Faustian pact for its camp—and hence a form of commercial—longevity. From a pecuniary position the manoeuvre is difficult to fault, but it turned what could have been just a dramatic whiff into an object of mirth, and did so largely at the expense of its star, doubling down on the ridicule Callahan alludes to and conflating Dunaway with Crawford as a monstrous diva. Again, I’m not interested in litigating the record of Dunaway’s on- and off-set exploits; supporting player Rutanya Alda’s memoir on the making of Mommie Dearest (a tell-all memoir about the adaptation of another tell-all memoir) alludes to some of Dunaway’s demanding on-set behaviour, including yelling at collaborators, obsessing over hair and make-up, forcing actors to look in other directions while she performed, positioning her partner Terry O’Neill as a producer, and believing herself haunted by Crawford. But there are countless stories as well of male stars acting like divas, including her own co-stars. Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, her co-stars in The Towering Inferno, clashed over billing and the number of lines of dialogue delivered on that film. Gene Hackman, her co-star on Bonnie and Clyde, cantankerously told director Wes Anderson to “Pull up your pants and act like a man” on the set of The Royal Tenenbaums. And the Clyde to her Bonnie, Warren Beatty, has a long history of combative collaborations and diva-esque demands. Yet there is a double standard that has served these co-stars well, both within the industry and its orbiting industries of promotion, criticism, and fandom, to the point where such misdemeanours are dismissed as endearingly macho or in admirable pursuit of perfection. Peter Biskind’s entertaining biography of Beatty, Star, is a case in point, where the author fawningly chronicles a litany of acts of hubris and cruelty towards screenwriters, collaborators, and the like in a tone of fawning admiration and wonderment. I’m conscious the song I’m singing—that Hollywood is a boy’s club—is not particularly original or revolutionary in 2021, and in some ways Hollywood has progressed past it. But the last forty years of Dunaway’s film work—again, it bears repeating, half her lifetime and three quarters of her film career—have been lamentably on the outskirts of said club.

Dunaway remained busy in the aftermath of Mommie Dearest, but when the Salkinds (Supergirl) and Golan and Globus (The Wicked Lady) are your financiers, something has shifted. The latter did produce Barfly, in which she delivered one of her best performances alongside a dissolute Mickey Rourke, and in the 1990s Dunaway enjoyed some high-profile supporting roles as elder stateswomen or damaged matriarchs in the likes of Don Juan DeMarco, Albino Alligator, The Chamber, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, and The Yards, as well as appearing in the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair. The films she’s appeared in over the past two decades, however, have had little profile or cachet, especially compared to the output of some of her 70s peers, i.e. Keaton, Fonda, Streep. The “character assassination” of the title of this article, thus, was not an allusion to Joan Crawford: whatever Mommie Dearest’s besmirching in both book and movie form, her oeuvre—boasting Mildred Pierce, Daisy Kenyon, Johnny Guitar, and What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, to name a distinguished handful—remains intact, albeit a little tatty towards the end with titles like Berserk and Trog. Rather, it refers to Dunaway’s raw deal on Mommie Dearest, and the missed opportunities for interesting and exciting roles, material, and collaborations that followed in its wake …

Director: Frank Perry

Cast: Faye Dunaway, Diana Scarwid, Steve Forrest

Writers: Frank Yablans, Frank Perry, Tracy Hotchner, Robert Getchell, (based on the book by Christina Crawford)

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