Blast-Off Burlesque’s TABOO-LA-LA and the Plaza Theatre Ask: Have You Visited Your MOMMIE DEAREST Lately?

Blast-Off Burlesque’s TABOO-LA-LA Presents MOMMIE DEAREST (1981); Dir. Frank Perry; Starring Faye Dunaway and Diana Scarwid; Saturday, April 6 @ 9:00 p.m.; Ages 18+ only; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

The historic Plaza Theatre and Blast-Off Burlesque have joined forces once again for another round of TABOO-LA-LA! This time, take a trip to the Golden Age of Hollywood via the excesses of the early ‘80s, and watch as Faye Dunaway goes gloriously over the top in the role of Joan Crawford in MOMMIE DEAREST!

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE

In 1978, Christina Crawford published her memoir MOMMIE DEAREST, in which she revealed the private face of her mother: Tinseltown legend Joan Crawford. Rather than the standard glowing Hollywood biography, Christina’s told a sordid tale of alcoholism and abuse that few suspected lurked behind the carefully stylized façade of Joan Crawford’s public image.

While many of Joan’s closest friends called Christina’s claims into question—that though her mother’s alcoholism was undeniable, the abusive acts chronicled by Christina were embellishments—other long-time friends of Joan’s said that they had witnessed some of the events of abuse and supported Christina’s side of the story. Whichever side is closest to the truth, though, the fact remains that the enormous success of Christina’s book created an entirely new public perception of Joan Crawford, helped to usher in the phenomenon of the “celebrity tell-all” biography and resulted in a film that quickly became known as a high camp classic.

Now, I’ve long held a particular philosophy when it comes to film: the most important question that should be asked when evaluating a movie’s worth is “was it entertaining?” By typical standards, it’s hard to make the case that MOMMIE DEAREST is a good movie. The tone is pitched far too high for it to be taken seriously as a biopic. Faye Dunaway somehow manages to overact before even speaking a word. (In fact, the only real reference she makes to the movie in her autobiography is to say that she wished that director Frank Perry knew how to rein in his actors’ performances.) But despite all of this, the movie works and has gained a cult following because it’s just so giddily entertaining.

Faye Dunaway in one of the more crazed moments in her performance as Joan Crawford in MOMMIE DEAREST. Paramount Pictures, 1981

Because MOMMIE DEAREST draws from the classic Hollywood film and the made-for-TV movie, the movie feels more like an exaggerated melodrama than a traditional biopic. Characters are abstracted to fit into particular stereotypes (the repressive and tyrannical family head, the resolute and self-sacrificing heroine). Themes center on familial turmoil and emotional struggle. Emotions within the film are heightened to an almost surreal point. However, when you’re dealing with a persona as tightly wound and stylized as Joan Crawford, to abstract what is already something of an abstraction of a “real person”—while wildly amping up emotional levels to the John Waters setting—results in something close to (if not smack dab in the middle of) caricature. And while caricature is likely not what Frank Perry or Faye Dunaway was intending, the resulting cartoon is 10 times more captivating than a realistic depiction.

For instance, it requires a facile skill and considerable contemplation to film scenarios that turn a harrowing depiction of child abuse into something hilarious. It’s a fine line to tread between hysterical tastelessness and offensive tastelessness. But in the celebrated “no more wire hangers!” scene—a fractal-like smaller moment that perfectly captures and represents the larger whole—Frank Perry falls bass-ackwards into hilarity without even trying. He’s like the Fool in the Tarot deck: blissfully stepping off a precipice into the jaws of a grand journey while his attention is drawn elsewhere, unwittingly creating a sublime parody of the melodrama without even thinking about it.

Meanwhile, what can be said about Faye Dunaway? She’s one of the great actresses, whose performance in 1967’s BONNIE AND CLYDE helped define the “new Hollywood” of the late 1960s and ‘70s, portraying one of the defining actresses of the “old Hollywood.” And she physically transforms herself into…not Joan Crawford, but the idea of a Joan Crawford. A concept of what a Joan Crawford might be. She’s all eyebrows, lips, nostrils and shoulder pads, fueled by viciousness and liquor. A ranting, raging simulacrum of a human being. It’s a role that Divine was practically born to play, but somehow I doubt that even the divine Divine could pull off the required over-the-top theatrics of the part while maintaining the gravitas that comes with an actress like Dunaway in the role. It’s the only thing that keeps the performance from flying through the ceiling as it is.

Christina Crawford (Diane Scarwid) and her MOMMIE DEAREST put on a cheery public face. Paramount Pictures, 1981

Shortly after the film was released, Paramount realized that nobody was seeing this film because of the story’s real-life compelling drama; they were seeing it for the unintentional comedy it had become. A month into its release, they changed promotional tactics, telling audiences to “meet the biggest MOTHER of them all!” Even that same year, rock band Blue Öyster Cult took advantage of the inherent comedy of MOMMIE DEAREST and released their single Joan Crawford from the album FIRE OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN. The song details the resurrection of Joan Crawford as a harbinger of the apocalypse and features the voice of a zombified Joan calling out “Christina, Mother’s home! Come to Mother!”

Blast-Off Burlesque brings the inadvertent work of genius that is MOMMIE DEAREST to the Plaza’s big screen in a celebratory bash as gloriously over the top as the film itself. DJ Westwood-A-GoGo will be spinning tunes in the lobby, where patrons can enjoy complimentary cocktails and mingle before the show begins. Once seated, the audience will be treated to a riotous performance by Blast-Off Burlesque, with guest performers Kristiva Diva, Poly Sorbate, Chico Nunez, and the Baphomettes. Audience members are encouraged to dress like their favorite character, and to enter contests to win prizes provided by Libertine and Cherry Blossom Salon.

So get dolled up in your old-school finery and get down to the Plaza on Saturday, April 6. You wouldn’t want to get on this Mommie’s bad side.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog atdoctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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