"She goes over the top, discovers higher peaks waiting, and shoots over them, too. Has any movie queen ever gone this far before?" -- Pauline Kael
“Faye Dunaway gives a startling, ferocious performance in Mommie Dearest. It's deeper than an impersonation; she turns herself into Joan Crawford, all right, but she's more Faye Dunaway than ever. She digs into herself and gets inside 'Joan Crawford' in a way that only another torn, driven actress could. (She may have created a new form of folie a deux.) With her icy features, her nervous affectations, her honeyed emotionalism, Dunaway has been a vividly neurotic star; she has always seemed to be racing--breathless and flustered--right on the edge of collapse. In Mommie Dearest, she slows herself down in order to incarnate the bulldozer styles in neurosis of an earlier movie era; her Joan Crawford is more deliberate and calculating--and much stronger--than other Dunaway characters. As Joan the martinet, a fanatical believer in discipline, cleanliness, order, Dunaway lets loose with a fury that she may not have known was in her. She goes over the top, discovers higher peaks waiting, and shoots over them, too. Has any movie queen ever gone this far before? Alone and self-mesmerized, she plays the entire film on emotion. Her performance is extravagant--it's operatic and full of primal anger; she's grabbing the world by the short hairs....
"...Dunaway takes this star-machine Joan Crawford and shows you that she isn't evil or inhuman--she's frighteningly human.
".... Dunaway sees a grandeur in Joan Crawford, and by the size and severity of the torments she acts out she makes Crawford seem tragic. After Michael Redgrave played the insane ventriloquist in Dead of Night, bits of the character's paranoia kept turning up in his other performances; it could be hair-raising if Faye Dunaway were to have trouble shaking off the gorgon Joan.”
Pauline Kael, New Yorker, October 12, 1981
“Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford? You've got to be kidding. When will these mod types learn that they can't mimic the old glamour queens? At least that's what I thought my lead sentences would be before I saw the film version of Mommie Dearest. After all, I had been forced to witness such woeful waxworks impressions as Gable and Lombard and the many deservedly forgotten travesties on the life of Jean Harlow. Faye Dunaway is something else again as Joan Crawford. Somehow she has forced herself deep inside the tormented psyche of the star and the repressive ethos of the old studio system. She consequently makes the alleged cruelties of Joan Crawford, model Hollywood mother to her adoring public, both credible and comprehensible.
“I have never fully understood the wide-spread skepticism and ridicule that greeted Christina Crawford's pathetic memoir….
“Why were most people in Hollywood and the book world so eager to believe the worst about Margaret Sullavan [in her daughter's account of their life, Haywire] and not about Joan Crawford?….
“My love for Maggie may have made me unjust to Joan, but I cannot believe that anyone has ever had any illusions about the extent to which Crawford was power-mad and ego-oriented. That was part of her fascination on the screen. That was the essence of the message projected by those mesmerizing eyes, so nakedly ruthless and ambitious. Her publicity, however, took a different tack….
“…. It was Christina's misfortune that she grew up with her stepmother when Norma Desmond time had come for the Crawford career. The private rages erupting away from the prying eyes of the press in a home that was pathologically scrubbed and shiny to fit in with the Norma Desmond syndrome….
“…. The image of Crawford as a hard-bitten, increasingly mannish survivor of the ferocious Hollywood wars have endeared her to many people who would not for a moment have fantasized wishfully about being stepchildren under her powerful thumb. In a sense, Crawford reflected the monstrous obsession with power and status that was the legacy of the old Hollywood. One could admire Crawford without loving her or even liking her. She had spent her whole life making herself into an image that would enable her to succeed within an evil system….
“Fortunately, Faye Dunaway has softened what could have been a pure gargoyle into a complex creature of conditioning and compulsion. There were rumors from the set that Dunaway insisted on making Crawford more sympathetic than was the original intention. I cannot evaluate these rumors, or consider the possible alternatives. I think Diana Scarwid's marvelously controlled and dignified protrayal of Christina maintains a balance with Dunaway's somewhat more humanized "Mommie dearest."….
“Ultimately, Mommie Dearest is an engrossing drama not because it makes us hate Joan Crawford, or even see her in a new and unfamiliar light, but because in acknowledging her gallantry and courage it completes the exorcism of a monstrous chapter in her life . . . It is a story, unfortunately, that is more common than we would like to believe, and it spans the generations. Crawford herself once spoke of her intense hatred of her own mother and brother. Is it possible not to be sympathetic even to a monster who had to come so far and rise so high in the dangerous jungle known as the 'American Dream'? The scars of Joan Crawford's struggles can be seen in all her films--not just in A Woman's Face. No makeup man could ever remove them….”
Andrew Sarris, Village Voice, September 16-22, 1981
“Strangely, it was a better year for actresses than for actors. I tend to agree with Arthur Bell that Faye Dunaway deserved best actress over Glenda Jackson. No disrespect intended to Glenda, but Faye transformed the material for a campy horror show into something else and something more, and forget the squeals of the Spocklings over the hangers….”
Sarris, Dec 30-Jan 5, 1982
David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, Third Edition, p. 154
“In the eighties, Dunaway slipped out of leading actress parts, though not before her magnificent impersonation of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest…, a performance that deserved a more humane approach. As it was, Dunaway was herself touched by the grotesqueness of Crawford (she might have been more at ease in the 1930s) and the film may have made her unpopular in Hollywood--or added to her own reputation for being difficult….”
Thomson, p. 214
“…. [I]t's Sunset Boulevard meets The Shining. Joan Crawford may well have been the gorgon her adopted daughter depicts. Certainly her performances in movies like Queen Bee and Harriet Craig and in her Grand Guignol-style horror pictures (Straight-Jacket, Berserk, and so forth) make it easy to imagine her stalking her Brentwood manse in a cold fury, ferreting out stains and dustballs, and hissing lines like, "I'm not mad at you, I'm mad at the dirt!" But that's the Joan Crawford that lovers of camp have long clasped to their bosoms. The ferocity, the selfishness, and the Nietzschean will to power--all these are part of her joke, her legend, her tragicomedy. And so in some essential way, seeing them on the screen--again--is not so much shocking as it is smirkily funny….
“…. If you haven't already, you soon will hear about the Wire Hanger Scene …. Why, the very idea [of wire hangers] throws Joan into a rage that makes Othello look like Mr. Greenjeans. Looming over Christina, her blood-red lipstick and her mustardy teeth setting off her white mask, Joan pummels her daughter with the offending hanger and then whacks her a few more times for good measure with a can of Bon Ami. 'Jesus Christ,' whimpers little Tina, as Perry's camera jumps around excitedly, eager for a better view. Better views are always forthcoming…. [Schiff also cites the 'Hair-Cutting Scene' and the 'Choking Scene.'] These scenes are so outlandish and so lurid--and Dunaway overacts so egregiously in them--that the audience may begin to take a sort of hilarious pleasure in the violence, the way one does watching a bloody but unbelievably stylized kung-fu or horror movie. When Joan finally dies and Christina views the open coffin, I half expected to see the movie-star's eyes fly open and her gnarled hand leap to her daughter's throat.
“…. Still, around the edges of the plot, one discerns another, more interesting story: the story of a woman intent on doing her job, and who knows that her job isn't to act, it's to be a star…. Mommie Dearest comes alive when it's most sympathetic to Joan Crawford, when it sees her not merely as Medusa in cold cream, but as a haunted professional trying to make her life work.
“Faye Dunaway is attracted to these female-gladiator roles. We've seen her undertake them in Network, Eyes of Laura Mars, and, on TV, Evita Peron. And because she sympathizes with her ambitious professionals, even when they turn out to be harpies (she says she admires Crawford), she gives them a lot of conviction. Certainly she's the only forceful presence on the screen in Mommie Dearest….
“One's eyes keep returning to Dunaway, but not because this is anything like a good performance. It's a startling example of that shtick which has regrettably come to be known as 'impressionism.' As recently as 15 years ago, I don't think anyone would have made a movie like this one…. But in our celebrity-crazy culture, doing an 'impression' strikes a lot of people as a statement, even if it has no real content; it's a reference to an individual who has turned into an icon and so has come to mean more than any individual can. Impressions have an almost obscene fascination. They are what drag shows are based on, and much of the old Saturday Night Live humor (remember John Belushi's eerie version of Joe Cocker?) And now we have Dunaway's version of Crawford. Lee C. Harman, the makeup man, and Kathryn Blondell, the hairstylist, have got it right--the crescent eyebrows, the flat '40s hairdo that looks so much like a graduation cap, the red, red lips. And Dunaway is impeccable, tensing her mouth around the corners, stiffening her shoulders, making her eyes wide and bright and piercing; her voice captures Crawford's dropped g's, the husky dips and peremptory arcs, and the surprising variations in speed. It's an accurate impression, but that's all it is; there's not much character in it. We can see that Dunaway wants to bring out the confusion between acting and real life in Crawford, but she's so busy with the look, the gestures, the walk, that she only compounds the confusion. There's a vagueness at the center of this performance. It's as if Dunaway really understood Crawford solely during the mad scenes--as if in some perverse way, she believed that in those frenzies of cruelty lay the essence, even the magnificence, of the movie-star's character. And, oddly, the rest of the film supports that view. If Joan Crawford isn't spinning in her grave, she's probably out hacking up more rose bushes.”
Stephen Schiff, Boston Phoenix,
when did this get printed? (LO little)
“…. [W]hatever Faye Dunaway, campaigning for an Oscar, may say to interviewers about her admiration for Joan Crawford, only the most gullible could believe she feels much sympathy for that lady. Acting high on the hog, she plays Crawford as a grotesque harpy--a monster….
“…. Here and there the film makes a few perfunctory attempts to understand Joan Crawford's cruelties, but the emphasis is on Grand Guignol spectacle, with Dunaway shrieking, thrashing, groveling, wielding an ax or a gigantic set of pruning shears--carrying on, in fact, much as Joan Crawford did at the end of her career, when she became a parody of herself in pictures like Strait-Jacket.
“Here and there Dunaway captures something ghastly about Joan Crawford--the sheer strength of will that went into those squared shoulders, upraised face, and devouring smile; the grand-style phoniness that made Crawford, after her vivacious early performances, almost unbearably irritating, even laughable. Dunaway's re-creation of Crawford (at times the physical resemblance is amazing) suggests that nothing about the star was genuine but a drive for power. Certainly she doesn't indicate any respect for Crawford as an actress, and she overplays even the smallest domestic scenes, as if to suggest that Crawford, always performing, had lost all sense of what a human being was. No, there's no admiration for Crawford here….”
David Denby, New York, September 28, 1981