Sunday, September 18, 2016

What Was the Truth?

"No ... wire ... hangers! What's wire hangers doing in this closet when I told you no wire hangers ever? I work and work 'til I'm half dead, and I hear people say, 'She's getting old.' And what do I get? A daughter ... who cares as much about the beautiful dresses I give her ... as she cares about me! What's wire hangers doing in this closet? Answer me! I buy you beautiful dresses, and you treat them like they were some dishrag! You do! Three hundred–dollar dress on a wire hanger? We'll see how many you've got, if they're hidden somewhere! We'll see! We'll see! Get out of that bed. All of this is coming out! Out ... out ... out ... out! You got any more? We're gonna see how many wire hangers you've got in your closet! A wi ... wire hanger! Why? Why? Christina, get out of that bed. Get out of that bed! You live in the most beautiful house in Brentwood ... and you don't care if your clothes get stretched out from wire hangers? And your room looks like some $2–a–week furnished room in some two–bit back street town in Oklahoma! Get up! Clean up this mess!"

Faye Dunaway (Joan Crawford)

Faye Dunaway has had many memorable roles in her career, but her performance in "Mommie Dearest," which premiered on this date in 1981, may have been her most memorable.

By the time she made "Mommie Dearest," Dunaway was no stranger to controversy, but the movie was controversial in a way that was unique in Dunaway's experience. Dunaway was portraying not a fictional character but a real–life actress, Joan Crawford, who had died less than four years earlier and was still well remembered by many of her fans — and Crawford had an image that many of her friends in Hollywood wished to protect.

"Mommie Dearest" was based on a book by Christina Crawford, Joan Crawford's adopted daughter, who had been specifically mentioned in the actress' will as not being a recipient of any portion of her mother's estate. Christina alleged that Crawford had been abusive to her and her brother Christopher — and some folks in Hollywood were willing to back her up on that. Essentially, Christina accused her adopted mother of caring more about fame than being a parent and used the children as props to further her career.

Some people believed — and continue to believe — that Christina was motivated by a desire to get even with her mother. If that was indeed the objective, she seemed to accomplish it. My feeling at the time — and still is — that both the book, which sold well, and the movie, which did pretty well at the box office, were probably guilty pleasures for a voyeuristic public. Was Christina Crawford telling the truth? Did Joan Crawford abuse her children behind closed doors then parade them in public as examples of what a fine mother she was?

And certainly there was curiosity about how this conflict between Joan Crawford (Dunaway) and Christina (played as an adult by Diana Scarwid, as a child by Mara Hobel) would come across on the big screen.

The dispute lives on nearly 40 years after the book's publication.

I don't know what the truth is; I suspect that this story is a combination of truths with no single version being the whole truth. Having been a child when these alleged abuses occurred, it is possible Christina's version of events is completely accurate — from a child's perspective.

Events in a child's life can be magnified and exaggerated out of proportion, though. Adults don't tend to give them much credibility until they have had enough time to mature.

It is equally possible that, from an adult's perspective, the abuse could be seen as parental discipline that was not nearly as frequent as Christina perceived it to be — just as it is also possible that other adults witnessed almost nothing but abuse in their interactions with Joan and her children.

Especially the part where Dunaway went ballistic upon discovering one of her daughter's dresses hanging from a wire hanger in the closet. That scene spawned the somewhat iconic line in which an obsessive Crawford ranted about wire hangers — "No wire hangers!" The American Film Institute ranked it #72 on its list of the top 100 movie lines of all time.

(Whenever I have watched this movie in recent years, the wire hangers scene always reminds me of an evening when I worked on the sports copy desk at the Arkansas Gazette. On that particular occasion, I was in charge of putting out the next morning's sports section. One of the copy editors asked me how we were doing — since we had three deadlines each night, it was important to stay on schedule. I replied that we were still waiting for color art from the wire services covering whichever sports event was in the spotlight that day — I think it was one of the golf majors, but I don't remember which one. The copy editor wrinkled up his face like Dunaway in this movie and snarled, "No ... wire ... color!" I couldn't help laughing.)

Undoubtedly it was the very absence of collaborating accounts that encouraged the mixed reviews the movie received. In the three–plus decades that have passed, "Mommie Dearest" has become something of an underground favorite, a cult classic — but it was not particularly well received when it made the rounds of the nation's movie theaters 35 years ago.

Despite its problems with the critics, the movie was, as I mentioned earlier, reasonably successful at the box office, earning $39 million. That wasn't enough to land the movie in the Top 10 moneymakers for the year, but it was only a few million off the pace.