Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

'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:


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!


• 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.

30 Comments / Post A Comment

I would like to hear the alternate-universe Johnny Cash song that inspired the term "psycho-biddy".

riotnrrd (#840)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose Or the alternate-universe Talking Heads song.

Lcanon (#240,865)

Interesting to compare it to "Haywire," in which no one is mean to Brooke Hayward but she suffers a great deal nevertheless.

@Lcanon : Not to be confused with the Steven Soderbergh movie of the same title, in which any number of people are mean to Gina Carano until she kicks them all in the face.

hockeymom (#143)

Celebrity spawn tell-awls I would read:

Paris Jackson

Blue Ivy

Willow Palin

Chelsea Clinton

laurel (#4,035)

Suri Cruise

Kevin Knox (#4,475)

@hockeymom One of Brad & Angelina's has got to write a tell-all eventually…

skyslang (#11,283)

@hockeymom Ohh…Blue Ivy! I didn't even think of Beyonce. That is going to be killer.

skyslang (#11,283)

@hockeymom My very first thought was: Madonna. But that's so obvious, right? I bet it won't even be by Lourdes, I bet it will be Rocco.

Lyssachelle (#238,845)

@skyslang Definitely Rocco, but what about poor David? Bet his book would be a doozy…

bluebears (#5,902)

What I remember most vividly about the book was how she'd wake them up to weed her garden for hours in the middle of the night. Am I remembering that correctly? But yeah the present thing sucked obviously.

What do you think was wrong with Joan? Just substance abuse or some sort of more severe personality disorder? She seemed crazy paranoid.

Celeb child tell all: Future and current crop of kardashian spawn.

Bittersweet (#765)

@bluebears The Kardashian spawn will certainly be writing tell-alls, but no way am I going to read them. I'd read a book by one of the Beckham offspring, but it might not be as interesting as I imagine.

@bluebears I think the "midnight gardening" consisted of Crawford being drunk and angry in the middle o of the night and then grabbing whatever she found in the tool shed to whack at the trees. She'd be yelling and cursing during all this, which would wake up everyone in the house, and the idea was, "now that you're up, help me clear some of these goddamn branches."

The slightly disingenuous part in Christina's writing is that she doesn't distinguish clearly between stuff than happened once and stuff that happened habitually. Anyone who had a parent who drank to excess has at least a handful of wild stories about strange shit that happened that one time. CC's book, and to a greater extent the movie, makes it seem like Joan was chopping down trees a couple times a week for most of the 1940s, which really wasn't true.

The book (and, again, even more the movie) really skates over Joan's extremely busy professional life up to the early 1950s, when she was making two or three pictures a year, plus doing lots of professional appearances in support of these projects, plus lots of industry entertaining, 200 people over for dinner and dancing, that kind of thing. Little of that is indicated in the book and almost nothing of it in the movie (a restaurant date where Joan has to join Louis B. Mayer at his table), and so the picture is very distorted. All we see is Crawford putting on her stockings and yelling at the maid, like she has nothing else to do with her time.

What Dunaway has on her face is not cold cream but vanishing cream, which is an oily moisturizer you'd slather on and it would sit there looking greasy for a while and then would after a while absorb into the skin. (Cold cream doesn't really absorb that way, so you either had to sit around for a while with the stuff on your face and then wipe it off, or else go to bed and get the goo smeared all over the pillow cases. Going to bed with cold cream was considered a comic thing that vain middle-aged women did, along with the curlers in the hair, and the husband would be like, there's a monster in my bed and all that hilarity.)

edermaz7e (#242,144)

thanks for sharing!!

sophiah (#13,210)

Cold cream is both! And Tim Gunn says he uses it every night. So hopefully that outweighs all the crazy divas wearing it in movies like this.

Olivia2.0 (#1,716)

@marenca Does he order if from 1961? What is cold cream even? Do you wipe it off? Do you wash then apply? Will my husband let me sleep in it?

sophiah (#13,210)

@Olivia2.0 You can still totally buy Pond's Cold Cream, and I have some. It smells like my great-grandmother, but it takes off under-eye mascara pretty well, which is all I require of it. For moisturizing use, I *think* you're supposed to put it on, then wipe it off with something wet that still leaves a bit on your skin, but I just put some on a cotton ball as a makeup remover.

@marenca : Cold cream is, like, the best makeup remover. It's good to your skin and it's super cheap.

skyslang (#11,283)

I've never read the book…but the twins are in it, right?
Cathy and Cynthia? They always said Christina made the whole thing up.

skyslang (#11,283)

@skyslang Also: if anyone wants to kill some time at work (like a WEEK), check out this Joan Crawford encyclopedia. It's everything you ever wanted to know about JC, from A to Z.
Be warned, this is written by a super fan and it is very anti-Christina.


Claire Zulkey (#6,639)

I never read this but I remember vividly watching the movie on TV one night when my parents were out (grandpa was babysitting) and being terrified that my mommie would come home and wire-hanger me.
On re-watch, my favorite line from the movie is "You…FIGURE IT OUT" after Joan freaks out all over Christina and she wants the little girl to clean up all the Comet she's sprinkled everywhere.

Kevin Knox (#4,475)

@Claire Zulkey And the young Christina's despairing "Jesus Christ…" immediately after.

Cait McKay@facebook (#242,155)

Madonna as Evita FOREVER

kentuckienne_80 (#242,159)

I once called my own mother "Mommy Dearest." I was pretty young at the time, so I'd never seen the movie or read the book or even heard of Joan or Christina Crawford. I just liked the sound of it. Ironically, it is the only time I can recall my mother being incoherent with rage.

Olivia2.0 (#1,716)

@kentuckienne_80 We used to call my mom that too and she would call us Olivia2.0 and Sibling DARRRRRRRRRRRLING. It was hilarious and we are sick, sick people.

Further evidence of this: My sister once marched onto our sunporch with a handful of just rinsed scallions, stood in front of me and made a very large sign of the cross while yelling "THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU" in my face. That was also hilarious.

Olivia2.0 (#1,716)

NICOLE!!!!! IMMA LET YOU FINISH, but when I read "lurid first person account" in paragraph #5 I had to come down here and tell you that I find this first person account to be the VERY DEFINITION OF LURID!!!! Also I love that word. AND JOHN WATERS MADE A COMMENTARY WHAT! I HAVEN'T EVEN FINISHED THE ARTICLE YET AND MY TINY MIND IS BLOWN!

@Olivia2.0 : Basically every movie could benefit from John Waters commentary.

(also Henry Rollins, for some reason)

needsmoresalt (#242,163)

Nicole, I just created an Awl account so I could thank you for that ITG link. It made me so happy.

@needsmoresalt That's all I ever wanted from my career.

rametenka (#242,307)

Don’t aim for success if you want it; just do what you love and believe in, and it will come naturally.

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