'Mommie Dearest': Once More With Wire Hangers

It’s remarkable that we’ve been doing this feature for over a year, and are only now cracking the weathered covers of Christina Crawford’s masterpiece. When I say “weathered,” I mean it: my copy is from 1980 and informs us that said book is “SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOVIE STARRING ANNE BANCROFT AS JOAN CRAWFORD.” Some of you may have missed it, so let’s review:

“…ANNE BANCROFT AS JOAN CRAWFORD.”

What a world that would have been, no? Setting aside the question of how Ms. Bancroft would have tackled the role, can we address the hypothetical arc of Faye Dunaway’s career had she never hacked up a rose bush or strangled a young girl? I mean, this is a woman who was in Chinatown and Network. The sky was the limit. One must conclude that Anne Bancroft took a second look at the script and decided that she would only wear cold cream in the privacy of her own room.

But, of course, the movie is its own magnificent beast. If you want to know more about the movie, I cannot recommend John Waters’ commentary on the 2006 DVD re-release highly enough. The man takes his biopics seriously. Today, however, we are concerning ourselves with the book. Excelsior!

For the recently unfrozen caveman lawyers among you, Mommie Dearest is a lurid first-person account of Christina Crawford’s abusive childhood at the hands of a truly cinematic Joan Crawford. She was not the first and will not be the last celebrity to receive such treatment in print: Bing Crosby, voted “the most admired man alive” in 1948, was the subject of a hair-raising portrayal by his son Gary, and two of his other sons eventually committed suicide, so, generally, our lesson here is: do not abuse your children, if you were considering it, and seek help for your mental illness and substance abuse issues as soon as they become apparent.

Now, the extent to which Christina’s account is completely truthful has always been a little hazy. Joan’s dead, it was years before Kim Basinger could leak your ranting voicemails to the press, and for every acquaintance who was willing to defend her memory publicly, there’s another who said that bitch was even crazier than Christina let on. Let us, therefore, treat Mommie Dearest as the ripping yarn it is, and let the celestial court try Joan Crawford on its own.

SUCH a ripping yarn. It’s frequently described as “Dickensian,” an adjective which has come to mean “super cruel and shitty,” which might have surprised Dickens, as many of his characters had normal, pleasant lives punctuated by large meals ending in plum pudding. Moreover, Crawford’s childhood was certainly not marked by a great deal of privation, so perhaps “Crosbian” would be more apt. “Crosbian”: a childhood in which relative material luxury is coupled with frequent beatings and erratic bursts of rage, directed either at you or plants or your bathroom vanity. That’s pretty much what went down. It sounded pretty grim.

Now, all accounts of being knocked around by your loathsome parents are pretty much the same (I mean, this is not meant to excuse such acts, most bowel obstructions are fairly similar, but no one wants one), so to really stand out, you need to showcase the more bizarre forms your familial abuse took. “Get to the wire hangers,” I hear you saying. Ah, yes, the wire hangers. Now, to be fair to Joan, wire hangers are pretty bad. They can get rust spots on your light-colored clothes, they warp, they have dangerously pointed edges, etc. But, generally, when you are a child, you do not necessarily spend 24/7 policing the things your middy blouses are perched on in your closet. Or, whatever, probably the Brant Brothers did. (Love/hate/obsess over them.) ANYWAY, this is that famous thing where Joan busts into Christina’s room in the middle of the night and goes apeshit because she found a wire hanger in her closet. Many things in life are overhyped, but I can assure you, reading that scene is not. Then again, many things in life would be even better if acted out by Faye Dunaway, and this IS one of those things. Oh, here, let’s type “wire hangers” into YouTube. So many choices! So many tributes. Let’s pick the high-def version. Enjoy!

Most of this book is a little heavy on the “and I was in THIS school, but then something something and she sent me to THIS school instead, something something came home for winter break and there was a rando guy around that I was supposed to call ‘Daddy’ for a week” explication, which, you know, that’s bad and everything, but for true outrage, I have traditionally fixated on the fact that Joan would film the kids delightedly unwrapping their Christmas presents every year, and then once the cameras left would confiscate them and regift them throughout the year at parties. Which is unfair of me, because that’s probably not, like, the worst parenting tactic for super-rich people, really, it’s the SMUGNESS of it, you know? You can’t mess with presents given to others. It’s not cool.

But, the worst part? The worst part of that thing which, even as I am typing it, I realize is not so terrible after all? They still had to write the thank-you notes. Thousands of thank-you notes for gifts they weren’t allowed to keep. The humanity! The humanity. Burn the witch. Burn her.

Okay, let’s dish!

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

• Over the next fifty years, the children of current stars will be publishing their own tell-alls. Which one are you MOST excited for?

• Do you think it will be an obvious suspect (Britney), or will it come completely out of left field (Jennifer Garner)?

• What’s the deal with cold cream, anyway? Is it for removing makeup or is it a moisturizer?

• Did you know there is a Wikipedia page for “Psycho-biddy,” the film genre in which older women go crazy, a la “Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte”?

• Did you know Faye Dunaway turned down Ellen Burstyn’s role in Requiem for a Dream?

• You should keep in mind that Faye Dunaway’s first role after Joan Crawford was as Eva Peron, so she’s never shied away from combat zones. Did anyone else really, really love Madonna’s Evita? No? Just me? Forever alone?

• Seriously, no one else lip-synched in their bedroom to Madonna’s part in “Good Night and Thank You”?

• Did you read Harry Brant on his skincare regimen in Into the Gloss?



Previously in Classic Trash: ‘IT': Seriously, Guys, Get Out Of Maine Before You Die Terribly


Nicole Cliffe is the books editor of The Hairpin and the proprietress of Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews.