There's something unnerving about the cult infamy of Mommie Dearest, a harrowing fact-based account of horrific child abuse that has developed a reputation as a camp giggle-fest of the "so-bad-it's-good" variety. Paramount's deeply schizophrenic new "Hollywood Royalty Edition" of the Joan Crawford biopic tries to have it both ways, as a serious drama and as a zany kitsch extravaganza. This contradictory take on the film is epitomized by John Waters' audio commentary: Waters was undoubtedly tapped for the gig due to his standing as the high priest of camp, but he uses the opportunity to semi-successfully defend both the film and Faye Dunaway's spookily committed performance.
Less a conventional biopic than a Hollywood horror psychodrama, the film casts Dunaway as Crawford, a brittle, abusive alcoholic who terrorizes her two adopted children as she enters a steep professional decline. In Mommie Dearest, celebrity and glamorous femininity function as painfully artificial constructs that must be rigorously maintained at all costs, lest ugly truths bubble to the surface. The film echoes Joseph Ruben's masterful thriller The Stepfather in its portrayal of a domineering monster intent on projecting the image of the perfect family, even if that means destroying it.
Director Frank Perry stresses the hard work and layers of artifice that go into maintaining the impossible image of an ideal mother and the ultimate glamour queen. It's tempting to imagine what Todd Haynes would do with this material, because Perry only partially realizes the story's subversive feminist undercurrents. A handful of notorious scenes make it hard to take the film completely seriously, but the sour, claustrophobic intensity of Perry's direction and Dunaway's volcanic performance make it equally hard to dismiss as pure camp. Dunaway attains a strange spiritual communion with her signature role; in a way, she becomes Crawford, which may explain why her career never recovered. Like a true horror-movie villain, Crawford reached out from beyond the grave and claimed Dunaway's once-thriving career as her last victim.
Key features: Three featurettes on Crawford, plus Waters' commentary.