I became supremely excited as Mommie Dearest neared on my watch-schedule, because even though a lot of its fame comes from being so over-the-top, it’s a movie that’s definitely been absorbed into the collective pop culture unconscious. I’m always fascinated by movies like this, where I already know most of the plot, the famous scenes, lines, could probably identify it in a police lineup, etc., and yet I haven’t ever seen it. Someone makes a “wire hangers” joke here, a Simpsons spoof episode there, and over time I’ve unwittingly absorbed half the movie.
In this instance, Mommie Dearest was very close to all the spoofs and references I’d been exposed to before (I mean, how do you even go about surpassing the deliciously pure camp of “I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt”?), so it hit on the exact right level I was expecting. I recently watched The French Connection, another good “collective unconscious” film, and was expecting it to be some sort of car chase picture–because that classic chase sequence is typically the one point of reference for casual mentions of the film. So when I was dealt a quiet, ’70s crime drama in its place, I was totally surprised. Not here though–Mommie Dearest is exactly as campy as anticipated, if not more.
I love that, despite the exaggerated nature of some of the later exploits, Joan as a villain still feels real. I’ve definitely known people who are a low-level Joan Crawford type in real life–the scene where she evaluates the maid’s handiwork until she finally finds something that was done wrong so she can convince herself that really only SHE can do it properly… yikes. That certainly rings true enough to me to convince me that Joan really does exist, and lends some authority to the later, more abusive scenes. And that’s part of what makes it all so terrifying. Joan’s not a boogeyman or a slasher or some sort of demonic presence–she could be that one kid’s mom in the neighborhood, your boss, a client, anyone. You just have to hope that you don’t know her well enough that she lets her veneer down around you.
Anyway, this is a classic treasure of trash–it’s so over the top, and I recognize that it’s not high art, but it’s fun. It’s also well-put-together; the opening scene depicting Joan’s daily beauty routine is chilling and a great introduction to the character. The style of the film is also contagiously addictive–from Joan’s great eyebrows to her amazing robe with shoulder pads to the supremely creepy matching fluffy birthday dresses.
It’s a movie made for a lazy Sunday afternoon brunch… as long as there is a steady supply of mimosas, of course.