Saturday, December 9, 2017

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Mommie Dearest" (1981)

Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Mommie Dearest (1981)
Directed By: Frank Perry
Written By: Christina Crawford (Book), Frank Yablans & Frank Perry & Tracy Hotchner & Robert Getchell (Screenplay)
Starring: Faye Dunaway, Diana Scarwid, Steve Forrest
Genre: Biography, Drama
Running Time: 129 minutes
Summary: The abusive and traumatic adoptive upbringing of Christina Crawford at the hands of her mother, screen queen Joan Crawford, is depicted.

The Movie

With the release of The Disaster Artist, it only feels right that Failed Oscar Campaigns would take this moment to recognize other movies from the coveted "So bad it's good" category. For many, The Room is the quintessential bad movie and having James Franco create a movie on its production only seems right. But what about another turkey, this time about a bad movie that made it to Oscar glory on screen, but not in real life? Director Frank Perry's Mommie Dearest is a special film, and one that has captured the zeitgeist again in light of the recent drama series Feud, which dedicates a small time to exploring the struggles of Joan Crawford's career. Played in the movie by Faye Dunaway, Mommie Dearest is like The Room in every way, save for the professional, Oscar-winning talent on screen and behind the scenes bringing the story to life in notorious fashion.

The story was based off of a memoir of Crawford's daughter, Christina. The story was horrific, depicting a perfectionist actress from the Golden Age of Hollywood as a less than pleasant parent. It's the type of hot gossip that trashy fiction envies. The Crawford of "Mommie Dearest" was in control to an abusive degree, finding her career threatened by anyone who was too chummy. In some ways, she was paranoid in a way that was impossible not to depict as comical. She was an actress with a fading career, an unfortunate side effect of Hollywood sexism. It was ironic then that Dunaway would suffer the same fate following Mommie Dearest, which remains one of her career's biggest regrets; marking a real turning point for an actress fresh off of an Oscar win for Network.

But if one thing was true, Hollywood loved Hollywood even at the expense of making someone a martyr first. Mommie Dearest was convincingly sold as Dunaway's return to glory. She would win an Oscar for a harrowing tale of a figure chewed up and spit out. She even had Crawford's blessing as a bright new star. However, the road to the movie going from Oscar hopeful to new camp classic is paved with sadness among laughter. It's a film deserving of its "so bad it's good" title, and one that probably will haunt Dunaway for the rest of her life. Much like The Room, it's a film that defies common sense, and thus becomes eternal in the pop culture lexicon. Many may never see a Crawford movie, but they will likely be talking about her wire hangers forever and ever.

- The Campaign -

In 1977, Faye Dunaway won an Oscar for her performance in Network. It marked the culmination of an impressive career ascension that included iconic films like Bonnie & Clyde and Chinatown. It was her decision to go small following this win, performing in smaller movies that gave her some lenience. However, she was drawn to drawn to Mommie Dearest, in part because of her relationship with Crawford. She had a vision of turning Christina Crawford's juicy memoir into a reverent drama of a woman scorned by Hollywood. She even beat out Anne Bancroft, who dropped out of the project due to finding it a bit insensitive. Dunaway was so primed to play the role that she famously showed up to a producer's house dressed as Crawford and scared him. It was only the start of the production. Roger Ebert would one day go to set and find Dunaway unrecognizable.

It was because she was so dedicated to looking the part. She not only looked like Crawford, but did her best to physically morph into her. She claimed to have altered her jaw during filming in order to create the look of Crawford more accurately. It became so problematic for her that she complained about having to maintain the physicality even when she wasn't filming. It's the type of stories that Oscar bait is made of, and in every sense Dunaway was giving her all. The only issues came from director Frank Perry and crew, whom Dunaway claimed never had control of the actors, or even the tone of the production. What should've been serious felt manic and uncontrolled. The production was doomed, even as everyone was convinced that it would be the big Oscar prestige movie.

Early advertisements emphasized this. It was the return of Dunaway in a dramatic role, and one that pushed her dramatic potential. She embodied Crawford, and it would prove to be iconic. The early advertisements for the film embraced its Oscar chances, believing that they had a hit. There were a few issues however. The critics panned the movie, including Ebert's belief that it was tonally inconsistent. The movie was seen as bad, even as critics made it a box office hit. Why was this? Everything that was perceived to be serious was in fact very silly in execution. Dunaway's commitment was too surreal and made it absurd. This wasn't a dynamic portrait of Crawford. It was entirely one dimensional, even painting her as a villain worth of what the film would become: a camp classic.

As a result, the film rebranded itself. It wasn't a serious drama. In fact, it wasn't even gunning for Oscars anymore. If it was going to be seen by camp audiences, then it would be sold as such. The posters reflected this the best, emphasizing puns and the iconic line "No more wire hangers!" in its advertisement. Future trailers also reflected this, making the film into something silly. Co-writer Frank Yablans notoriously hated this decision and decided to sue the studio for this move. Dunaway would also rally against the movie, believing that it was an embarrassing trainwreck. What should've restarted her career painted her as an actress not unlike the Crawford on screen: giving great performances in critically panned drivel as he career faded into obscurity. 

The notoriety of Mommie Dearest was too strong. The Oscar campaign was gone. In its place was a reputation that would divide audiences, even actors of the movie. The film was perceived as an embarrassment, and one that would become a black mark on Dunaway's career. Many embraced her performance as a camp classic while others called it just bad. It was synonymous with camp, of which drew the conversation away from all of the effort that Dunaway gave to make her friend appear like a sympathetic character. It was trashy. It was disturbing. It was everything that it didn't set out to be. As a result, its failed Oscar campaign failed before Oscar nomination day even arrived. Mommie Dearest was kaput, and Dunaway's career was in a bigger hole than ever.

- The Payoff -

As one could guess after its reputation was established, the film failed to earn any Oscar nomination. Instead, it became the reigning champion for the Razzies, which would go on to nominate and honor the film over the next three decades. In its premiere year, it earned nine nominations, winning five of them including Worst Picture and Worst Actress. In 1990, it won the Worst Film of the Decade. In 2005, it won Worst Drama of Our First 25 years, losing to From Justin to Kelly. The film wasn't going to go away, and in fact it took a toll on Dunaway's career following what should've been her comeback role. She would go on to star in more maligned movies, like Supergirl where she played another campy villain. If nothing else, the American Film Institute listed her portrayal of Crawford as one of the Top 100 Villains in cinematic history.

Rutanya Alda would eventually write a memoir chronicling the production of Mommie Dearest. It would detail Dunaway's process of how she got into character, as well as various conflicts on set. As a whole, it reflected her disappointment with how the film was produced. This would become so understood by the general public that she eventually developed a rider that included a clause requesting interviewers to not discuss Mommie Dearest in any way. Her regrets were implied, but made officially public in September of 2016. "I should have known better." She claimed. While she has had a full career since, her reputation took a big hit. As of 2017, she has yet to receive another Oscar nomination following Network. Her career has continued to fluctuate in the smaller work that she initially took following her 1976 hit, and it's helped to rebuild her reputation.

Mommie Dearest was a failure to sympathize Crawford in any significant way. Much like The Room, it was a film that gained a reputation for being awful. It was a far stretch from the initial intent, which was to be a loving ode to a tragic figure. Instead, it was chocked full of lines perceived as campy and nonsensical. It's the perfect example of how Oscar bait projects can go wrong, and how The Disaster Artist could have possibly learned a few lessons about how not to fail. It's still too early to know if James Franco will succeed where Dunaway failed, but there's already press suggesting that he's bound for a Best Actor statue. Mommie Dearest was misguided, and as such suffered to understand its subject. If it's the only way that you know Crawford, please change that. She was a far more perplexing talent than a woman in shoulder-padded bathing suits and bawdy face cream. 

1 comment:

  1. The Cinema Snob's review for Mommie Dearest is one of my favorite videos to watch on the internet. He came to truly appreciate the film, decades removed from its original release.