Hollywood Gothic

I indulged in a viewing of the camp classic Mommie Dearest (dir. Frank Perry, 1981) this week; it’s a film that I’ve seen only three times, but that I greatly enjoy.  (My favorite line?  Joan, to her maid, after discovering a spot of grime on her tile floor: “I’m not mad at you—I’m mad at the dirt.”)  Perhaps it’s that I recently finished re-reading Joyce Carol Oates’ truly horrifying Marilyn Monroe novel Blonde, but on this viewing of Mommie Dearest I was struck by the film as a true Hollywood Gothic tale of the violent, wrenching damage done to a woman in the process of making her into a star.  The film, in its admittedly neat way, pathologizes Joan Crawford by showing that she was ultimately powerless, at the mercy of the all-powerful studio, and that she took out that powerlessness on her children.  It’s a textbook cycle-of-abuse case study, but it’s made grotesquely interesting by virtue of its staging its scenes of abuse as expressionistic horror-movie nightmares.  (John Waters calls it a monster movie—Crawford certainly is one of the scariest movie characters ever.  See above.) 

But perhaps even more pleasurable than the film itself is Waters’ wonderfully sharp commentary track on the DVD.  Some highlights:
“There’s no better movie than this kind of movie if you’re home on a Saturday afternoon with a slight hangover.”

“Do you think any of this film was filmed on location?  I think every single scene was inside a studio somewhere.  I don’t think this movie was ever filmed in the light of real day in the real world, ever.  And I like that about it—it was totally fake.  Everything.”

On the wire hangers scene: “I like wire hangers, because when I travel you can get more clothes to fit in a garment bag that you can carry on board.  If you have thick hangers, you can’t do it.  […]  This is such a famous scene.  If you don’t like this scene, you should never watch a movie, really. […]  I was a little shocked, because you really see her beating this child…but I had already done a scene where Divine beat her daughter with a coat hanger, so to me it was in a tradition of comic child abuse scenes made for insane audiences who thought they had seen everything. […]  This never became like Rocky Horror, where people in the theater were yelling out these lines, and they tried to make that happen.  They passed out wire hangers.  That won’t work!  You have to bring the wire hangers on your own; it has to be the audience’s idea.  You can’t manufacture a cult hit.”

“You can just watch the whole movie and look at [Joan’s] eyebrows from beginning to end and only focus on that, and it becomes a true art film.”

“This is a movie about child abuse that’s a comedy.  There aren’t many, really.  […]  You want her to hit her [daughter] more, actually.”

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