'With Love, Mommie Dearest' - new book examines the cultural phenomenon of the classic film

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Tuesday April 30, 2024
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Author A. Ashley Hoff (photo: Instagram)
Author A. Ashley Hoff (photo: Instagram)

May 7 will see the publication of "With Love, Mommie Dearest: The Making of an Unintentional Camp Classic," a new book that tells the story of the making of, and the aftermath of the now legendary biopic in which movie queen Faye Dunaway played movie queen Joan Crawford. Author A. Ashley Hoff will appear at Fabulosa Books on Castro Street on publication day, where he will talk about the book with drag star Peaches Christ.

When Crawford died in 1977, she was considered an icon, Hollywood royalty. But the following year Crawford's legacy was forever tarnished when daughter Christina published "Mommie Dearest," a scathing memoir in which she chronicled the turbulent, abusive relationship she had with her adoptive mother.

The public was shocked, with some calling Christina an ungrateful child of privilege, while others stood behind Christina and supported her. The book captured the public's imagination and was a bestseller. A movie was inevitable.

Mara Hobel, Jeremy Scott Reinbolt and Faye Dunaway in a press still from the film 'Mommy Dearest' (photo: Paramount Pictures)  

Camp classic
"Mommie Dearest" the 1981 film, while a commercial success, was a critical bomb, with many in the audience laughing for all the wrong reasons. Christina, who had hoped the book and film would open the door to serious discussions about child abuse, found that she had created a camp classic, which, more than forty years later, retains a huge following among gay men.

In "With Love, Mommie Dearest," Hoff goes into great detail about the making of the film, and also delves into Joan and Christina's backstories. An obvious question might be, why is the film considered campy? Isn't the infamous wire hanger scene, in which Joan beats the young Christina with a hanger, really a disturbing portrait of a little girl being abused?

In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Hoff recalled first seeing the film on cable TV.

"What I saw on the small screen, with most of the campy moments edited out, looked more like a horror movie," Hoff said. "So I was always aware of the real issues at the heart of the story, child abuse and how to survive it."

Eventually Hoff got to see "Mommie Dearest" on the big screen, where he found it to be a decidedly different viewing experience.

"The small screen tends to camouflage the flaws," he said. "But on the big screen you can see every ludicrous detail of the shot of Faye-as-Joan holding the baby Christina and carrying her up the staircase, then turning at the landing towards the camera, and posing en tableau like a religious statue. It would be a fantastic image for the movie poster or a magazine pictorial, but on screen it just looks silly."

Cathartic cinema
Hoff explained why gay men are such a big part of the "Mommie Dearest" phenomenon. The gay male community loves old-time Hollywood glamour, and the film is quite lavishly produced. Aesthetically, what with the sumptuous ice palace that Joan and Christina lived in, along with the other period Hollywood settings, "Mommie Dearest" was produced on a grand scale in the old school Hollywood tradition. Today, everything would just get green-screened in. But there's another reason why the film continues to resonate with the community, according to Hoff.

"In a gross generalization, I would say that many LGBTQ people have experienced bullying or abuse in one form or another, so watching the movie becomes a therapeutic or cathartic exercise," he said.

Faye Dunaway and director Frank Perry in a press still from the film 'Mommy Dearest' (photo: Paramount Pictures)  

The book includes quotes from a number of people who worked on the film. Interviewees include Christina, various executives at Paramount Pictures, Mara Hobel, who played Christina as a child in the film, and Belita Moreno, who played Belinda Rosenberg, producer of an unnamed (in the film) soap opera on which Joan subbed for Christina in 1968. This is one of the more notorious incidents in Joan's later career, as the star was in her 60s, playing Christina's 28-year-old character. That soap, "The Secret Storm," is named in the book.

There are numerous quotes from Dunaway in the book, whom Hoff admitted that he never spoke to.

"Faye does not like discussing the movie, and it's easy to see why," he said. "As a method-trained actress, she put her all into the role as well as months of preparation, all to see it made into a big joke. She was very hurt by that, and understandably so."

Hoff's quotes from Dunaway come largely from interviews she gave upon the film's initial release, and from her 1995 memoir, "Looking for Gatsby."

Hoff added that when he was in touch with Christina, she reiterated her disappointment about the way the movie turned out. She felt that it could have been a serious exploration of the relationship between mother and child but instead turned into a melodrama that trivialized the subject.

"While I sent a copy of the unedited manuscript to Christina, I don't know if she read it," Hoff said. "But I'm also sending her a copy of the finished book, as a courtesy."

'With Love, Mommie Dearest: the Making of an Unintentional Camp Classic,' Chicago Review Press, paperback $19.95, Kindle $9.99, Audiobook $15.30 www.chicagoreviewpress.com

Author A. Ashley Hoff in conversation with Peaches Christ. May 7, 7pm, Fabulosa Books, 489 Castro St. www.fabulosabooks.com

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