Mommie Dearest is a 1981 biographical drama film about Joan Crawford, starring Faye Dunaway. The film was directed by Frank Perry. The story was adapted for the screen by Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, Frank Perry, and Frank Yablans, based on the 1978 autobiography of the same name by Christina Crawford. The executive producers were Christina's husband, David Koontz, and Terrence O'Neill, Dunaway's then-boyfriend and soon-to-be husband. The film was distributed by Paramount Pictures, the only one of the "Big 8" film studios for which Crawford had never appeared in a feature film.
The film was a commercial success, grossing $39 million worldwide. Although critical reviews were initially mixed, it has since become a cult classic.
Joan Crawford is a driven actress and compulsively clean housekeeper who tries to control the lives of those around her as tightly as she controls herself. To prepare for a work day at MGM Studios, she rises at 4:00 am and engages in a strict morning ritual: scrubbing her face with soap and boiling hot water, then plunging her head into a vat of distilled water and ice to close the pores. When Helga, a new maid, thinks she has Joan's living room in spotless condition, Joan finds one minute detail that she overlooked and loses her temper, intimidating the maid as well as her live-in personal assistant, Carol Ann.
Joan is in a relationship with Hollywood lawyer Gregg Savitt, but her career is in a bit of a downswing. She desperately wants a baby, but is unable to get pregnant; seven pregnancies when she was married to actor Franchot Tone ended in miscarriages. When she is denied an application for adoption, she enlists Gregg's help to secure a baby. Joan adopts a girl whom she names Christina, and later a boy, Christopher. Joan lavishes Christina with attention and luxuries such as an extravagant birthday party, but also enforces a code of denial and discipline. When Christina is showered with gifts, Joan asks which she likes best, then donates the other gifts to charity.
As Christina rebels against her mother's demands, a series of confrontations ensues. Joan overtakes Christina in a swimming-pool race and proclaims her victory by crowing to the child, "You lost again!" Joan becomes enraged when Christina reacts with disappointment, locking her in the pool house. When Joan discovers her daughter putting on makeup and imitating her, she hysterically hacks off Christina's hair.
Her relationship with Gregg becomes a dismal failure; Joan resents Gregg's allegiance to studio boss Louis B. Mayer and argues with him after a dinner at Perrino's restaurant. Joan guzzles down glasses of vodka and throws a drink in Gregg's face after he tells her she is getting old. A physical altercation develops and Gregg breaks up with Joan. The next day, Joan cuts Gregg out of the family photos. Joan's tantrums grow more bizarre and violent; When Mayer forces Joan to leave MGM after theater owners brand her "box office poison," she hacks down her prize rose garden with a pair of large gardening shears and an axe.
In the most infamous scene of the film, Joan, with her face slathered in cold cream, stalks into Christina's bedroom in the middle of the night and discovers one of the child's dresses hanging on a wire hanger. She launches into a tirade, screaming at the girl, "I told you! No wire hangers, ever!" She yanks dresses from Christina's closet, throws them all over the girl's room and beats the screaming girl with the hanger. Joan wrecks the bathroom as well, throwing cleaning powder all over the already spotless bathroom, striking Christina with the tin and screaming at her to clean it up.
Joan sends Christina, now a teenager, to the Chadwick School. When Christina is caught in a compromising position with a boy, however, Joan brings her home. Barbara Bennett, a reporter from Redbook magazine, is writing a puff piece on Joan's home life. After Joan lies about why her daughter left school, saying that she was expelled, Christina confronts her in front of the reporter. Joan furiously leads Christina into the living room. In the ensuing argument, Joan slaps her twice across the face. Christina questions her mother as to why she was adopted, and Joan confesses that it was partially a publicity stunt, but then tells that she didn't really mean it. After Christina yells, "I am not one of your fans!," Joan seizes Christina by the throat and throws her to the floor, knocking over a table and breaking it. She then tries to throttle Christina, who pleads with her to stop. Joan starts choking and strangling Christina as though she intends to murder her. Carol Ann and the reporter witness the attack and intervene, pulling Joan away. Christina throws her mother aside and lays coughing on the floor.
Joan sends Christina to Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy to punish her; under the academy's strict rules, Christina can have no contact with the outside world. Joan then marries Alfred Steele, CEO of Pepsi Cola, moves to New York City and pressures him to shoulder a great deal of debt to fund their lavish lifestyle. After his death, the all-male board tries to force her to resign, but Joan intimidates them into letting her retain her seat by threatening to publicly condemn Pepsi.
After leaving the convent school, Christina rents an apartment in Manhattan, where she acts in a soap opera. When she suffers from an ovarian tumor, a stunned Christina is temporarily replaced on the show by her mother. Joan dies of cancer in 1977, whereupon Christina and Christopher learn their mother has completely disinherited them in her will. When a resigned Christopher says their mother has managed to have the last word, Christina questions that, hinting at the much-publicized book she would write, Mommie Dearest.
- Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford
- Diana Scarwid as Christina Crawford
- Mara Hobel as young Christina
- Steve Forrest as Greg Savitt
- Howard Da Silva as Louis B. Mayer
- Rutanya Alda as Carol Ann
- Harry Goz as Alfred Steele
- Michael Edwards as Ted Gelber
- Jocelyn Brando as Barbara Bennett
- Priscilla Pointer as Mrs. Chadwick
- Xander Berkeley as Christopher Crawford (adult)
- Jeremy Scott Reinholt as young Christopher
- Carolyn Coates as Mother Superior (Flintridge Sacred Heart)
- Margaret Fairchild as Mother Superior (orphanage)
- Belita Moreno as Belinda Rosenberg
- Alice Nunn as Helga