When Mommie Dearest was released in 1981, Vincent Canby of The New York Times described it as “a peculiarly engaging film, one that can go from the ridiculous to the sublime and back again within a single scene, sometimes within a single speech.”
“Now and then it’s intentionally funny,” he wrote. “Sometimes it’s unintentionally hilarious, but frequently, especially in the middle parts, it achieves that state of wild, out-of-control melodrama that is both comic and horrifying.”
Nearly 30 years later, the phrase “No more wire hangers” is lexicon for tyrannical mother and clips from the film can been seen on YouTube choreographed to ABBA’s “Mamma Mia.”
Most queers know of the film and have unwittingly quoted it without actually seeing it.
Now, thanks to the Screaming Weenie theatre company in association with the Pride Society and Out on Screen, the uninitiated will have the opportunity to see the film this Mother’s Day, the way it was meant to be seen: on the big screen with a gay audience.
Accurate though Vincent Canby’s description may be, the reasons for how a movie about an abusive mother became an iconic gay film are as varied as the eye of the beholder.
Graham Peat, proprietor of Videomatica, says Mommie Dearest is far too over-the-top to be about child abuse. Peat feels gay audiences are attracted to the largeness of Joan Crawford’s life.
“Female impersonators like Charles Pierce and Craig Russell recognized that about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and made them complete caricatures beyond their own films. By the time female impersonators put those personas out in the public we believed those were their real personas and that Joan was that large,” he says.
“Without them I don’t think this would have existed,” he continues. “The gay community nurtured that. That is what we recognize when we go so see the film; that is the Joan we want now — it’s not the one we see in black and white.”
Peat jokingly adds that there may also be a connection between wire hangers and the closet. “I don’t know, it’s a subtext.”
Volcanic temper and shoulder pad fetish aside, the real Joan Crawford was rumoured to have the sexual appetite of a gay man.
Shaun Considine, author of Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud, reports Bette Davis said Crawford slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie.
A month after its initial release, audiences flocked to see Mommie Dearest armed with cans of Ajax and wire hangers to actively participate with the film in a manner similar to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Paramount, the film’s distributor, seized on its notoriety and promoted it with posters that proclaimed, “Meet the biggest MOTHER of them all!”
Mommie Dearest was by no stretch a flop. Budgeted at $5 million, it grossed $19 million in theatres and another $9 million in video rentals. The film was in the top 30 top grossing films of 1981.
CE Gatchalian, associate artistic director of Screaming Weenie, remembers the visceral connection he had with the film after watching it on TV with his grandmother when he was 12.
Proving Peat’s point, Gatchalian says his introduction to the real Joan Crawford is blurred by his memories of Faye Dunaway and Mommie Dearest.
He agrees with Peat that Mommie Dearest is not about child abuse but about Joan Crawford, otherwise he says it would have been from Christina Crawford’s perspective.
Gatchalian feels gay men’s attraction to the film is an outlet to a world that has not always been fair to them. The Mother’s Day screening may actually serve as suitable antidote to some of the gaybashings that have occurred in the neighbourhood recently.
“We live in a patriarchal world,” Gatchalian says. “Women and gay men don’t traditionally hold positions of power so for a gay man to see a woman refusing to take bullshit from anyone and demanding respect — [it] is exhilarating to watch.
“This movie portrays Joan Crawford as a monster, yes, but who hasn’t wanted to say the things she says in this film? Who hasn’t felt like demanding respect from people? Who hasn’t wanted to strangle people who crossed them? Joan Crawford does all of those things,” he says.
Gatchalian is encouraging people to see Mommie Dearest from a fresh perspective. He feels the film got a bad rap that is not entirely unjustified, but that it begs re-evaluation, particularly the performance at the centre of the film.
“A good movie compels you to see one scene to the next,” he says. “You’re never bored.”
Peat describes it as “an essential film” — the kind of movie that you introduce your friends to and are disappointed when they don’t get it.
“The only real crime in film is to be dull or mediocre,” he says. “This does not fall into that. Good or bad, this one takes you somewhere.”