Surviving Mommie Dearest
The junkies down in Brooklyn are going crazy,
they’re laughing just like hungry dogs in the street.
Policemen are hiding behind the skirts of little girls,
their eyes have turned the color of frozen meat.
No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,
Joan Crawford has risen from the grave!
Joan Crawford – Blue Oyster Cult. From the 1981 album Fire of Unknown Origin and inspired by the recently released film adaptation of Christina Crawford’s book Mommie Dearest.
I have to admit that I, like many people, first became aware of the traumatic childhood of Joan Crawford’s daughter Christina thanks to the incredibly campy movie version of her book Mommie Dearest starring the scenery chewing Faye Dunaway. I had heard of the best selling novel that appeared on shelves in 1978, less than a year after Joan’s death, but it was not until the film version came out in 1981 that I became fully aware of the extent of its story. After two plus hours of sordid Hollywood history and over the top histrionics, the movie had me hooked and I never looked at a wire coat hanger the same way again.
Critics panned the film just like many associates of Joan Crawford disputed the events in the book when it was published but, in spite of the delicate subject matter of child abuse, I appreciated it for the exploitation marvel it truly was at heart. Over the years this lead me to research the underlying facts further but I never went as far as to read the actual source material. It turns out that was probably for the best because Christina Crawford’s new one woman show, Surviving Mommie Dearest, puts everything in a much more somber light. I was fortunate enough recently to catch an early performace of the show in Jacksonville at the historic Five Points Theater.
Surviving Mommie Dearest is billed as “a One Woman Multi-Media Show Written by and Starring Christina Crawford” and, as you might imagine from that description, there is a lot happening on the stage and the screen behind it. The show is constructed around roughly two hours of documentary video comprised of rare photos, home movies, and film footage surrounding the life and career of Joan Crawford and her tumultuous relationship with her first of four adopted children, Christina. While the story deals with many sordid details such as mob connections, alcoholism, mental illness, and, of course, child abuse, it is conducted in a serious and factual manner that does a commendable job of keeping the exploitation to a minimum.
For anyone not familiar with the book or film, Joan Crawford adopted her first child, Christina, in 1940 shortly after her second divorce. Because single mothers were prevented from adopting in California at the time, Joan arranged for the adoption to take place in Las Vegas, Nevada, supposedly with the help of some organized crime connections she had made earlier in her career. As a long devotee of self promotion, it has been widely speculated that the move was a calculated ploy for publicity rather than any aspirations of motherhood. Ploy or not, it did get Joan a lot of press and she would go on to adopt a son, Christopher, in 1943 and a set of twins a few years later. According to Christina, Joan suffered from a host of undiagnosed mental disorders and she and Christopher were mistreated as a result. The facts do support that Christina was shipped off to boarding schools and ignored by her mother for long periods of time. In later years, it is obvious Joan went to great lengths to sabotage her daughter’s acting career and wrote her out of her will for reasons that have never been disclosed. Regardless of what anyone believes of the behind the scenes story, family life was clearly not happy in the Crawford home.
After an informative overview of Joan Crawford’s early life and career, the first act of Surviving Mommie Dearest delves into the years covered in the book. At various points throughout the presentation, Christina Crawford takes the stage to explain certain portions of her life in person before returning to the documentary on the screen. This style works fine but one audience member at the presentation I intended described the live segments as so staged they could have just gone with all video. I would preface this observation by saying that this was a very early performance of a work in progress and many elements are still being developed. Act two begins in 1957 with Christina on the verge of adulthood and already ostracized by Joan. She discusses how she spent the next twenty years trying to reconcile with her mother because she felt that even in spite of her problems she still loved her in her own warped way. Following Joan’s death in 1977, Christina’s book caused a major uproar in Hollywood and paved the way for many other tell all publications that revealed many celebrities hidden lives. She also goes on to point out how differently the allegations of child abuse which were quickly swept under the carpet in her youth would be dealt with today.
The final portion of the show takes a jarring left turn away from the factual and into the metaphysical as Christina describes the mental changes she went through following a severe stroke she suffered in 1981. These segments include a visual representation of her stroke and a dramatized conversation she had between herself and her inner child. After the preceding ninety minutes of pseudo-documentary facts and footage, the show ended on a rather bizarre note.
Aside from the last few minutes, I found Surviving Mommie Dearest to be both entertaining and informative. Christina Crawford manages to convey her tragic story in a factual manner that emphasizes how she managed to live through it and make it to the other side with her sanity intact. Regardless of if, or how much, you believe the allegations of the personal information, the public record still displays enough problems to keep a team of psychiatrist busy for years. For anyone who enjoys the Golden Age of Hollywood, I would recommend this account of someone who saw it from outside but still up close and personal. For anyone looking for sordid details or exploitation fare, I would recommend they try elsewhere. Early publicity material for the show promised “never-before-seen home movies of the screen legend in the nude” and “blue movies — naked home videos that [Christina] cannot believe the controlling star never destroyed”. Sorry to spoil any imagined surprises but these supposed shocks amount to no more than a few seconds of Joan sunbathing in the nude face down on a rooftop. All this recovered footage does is verify what every red-bloodied World War II era American male already suspected – Joan Crawford had a nice can!