Friday, March 6, 2009

On the brightside

I watched "Mommie Dearest" with my very own Mommie Dearest last night, I thought it was hilarious. My Mother was sort of open-mouthed at it all and at the climax of this infamous bathroom scene she said; "Well, your bathroom's certainly not clean now, is it you silly cow?"

I personally came away from the film marvelling at Faye Dunaway's skills (Dunaway of course now refuses to speak of her involvement in the film) and the general success of the production design, but barely able to look at the actress playing poor baby Christina (sorry, Christiiiiiiiiiinaaaaa!) She veers between brattish and hideously sanctimonious; the holier than thou attitude she adopts through the second half of the film is enough to drive St Teresa to the bottle, let alone dear old bipolar Joan.

In the making of an icon, a picture such as "Mommie Dearest" is almost necessary, because it edifies around one aspect of a personality and obscures the rest. If a star cannot be parodied then they have made themselves too complex and therefore impermanent, icons are not just a representation but the embodiment of the spirit itself. Like cave paintings, only the simplest renditions can last, can record. The specifics, the details, destroy through overdecoration, over complication. A star can be many things, but an icon can only be one, she must be the boiled down concentrate that everyone in the world recognises instantaneously.

Dietrich is still being spoofed today in much the same way she was in the '30s (and probably by the same people) as an icy, androgyne in a tux puffing on her cigarette and barely able to sing a note. But as for the raucous, complicated, life-long insomniac and ominsexual that was Tallulah Bankhead (once as big as any star in Hollywod) what has become of her legacy? Simply, she was not simple enough to facsimile. A star must become entirely two dimensional in the public eye, if she is to become an icon, for flat is the format of magazines. Thus we have endless caricatures of Hitler (evil personified) and Madonna (unhinged female sexuality) but no Malcolm X or Joan of Arc.

It may seem reductionist, but it remains true, that if it wasn't for her daughter's poison pen memoir, and the scream-a-long catchphrases of the movie adaptation, Crawford would more than likely have been consigned to the collective cultural dustbin alongside Bankhead and Barra.

Like all the fairy tales we tell ourselves, "Mommie Dearest" allows us to reduce and entomb fearful complexities within a cardboard cut out that we can beat up as we please. Crawford becomes an archetype, a stereotype, the eternal bitch Goddess, a repository for all of our own fears, childhood nightmares and inadequacies, in short everything but herself.

Not because of Dunaway's performance (in spite of, I would argue) but rather because of some unabashedly schlocky directorial decisons, a pretty horrible score, and a mise en scene that swerves between soap opera and Hammer Horror, the film gives us a simplistic and overwrought dipsomaniac Medea. In making her Mother a monster, Christina Crawford made her an icon, which no doubt to the proudly determined, defiant, and staunchly independent Crawford (the woman who allegedly yelled to her nurse whilst on her deathbed, "Don't you dare pray for me!") would have been the gravest insult.

And speaking of iconic images:


darian zam said...

One of my all time very favorite movies. For all it's drawbacks, as you say, there are too many good moments to mention. And you are quite right, I was pondering this a couple of weeks ago, there's no way Joan would still be as famous today without Christina's book. She always wanted to be remembered, forever. "The biggest female star he's got..and he's burying me alive!"

Phoebe said...

Interesting! I don't know if I could sit through it again, but have enjoyed many youtube remixes! Have you read Julie Burchill's Girls on Film btw? I look forward to the J.B biopic actually...