She was a legendary presence on the silver screen, a pioneering businesswoman who insisted on getting a seat on Pepsi’s board after her husband passed away, the personification of Hollywood glamour and so much more. After her death, however, the public’s view of Joan Crawford would be forever informed by her estranged daughter’s best selling book- Mommie Dearest, which depicted her as a monstrous perfectionist who used her children as props to sell the idea that she was a warm, beloved mother.
The book was a controversial sensation, selling millions of copies to a public that had become eager to tear down its legends in a post-Watergate world. While many took the book at face value and lowered their esteem for Ms. Crawford, others questioned her daughter’s motives. Even if Joan was guilty of some of these offenses, why wait until she was dead and couldn’t defend herself? Wasn’t this just a tacky hit piece from a disgruntled child who was written out of her mother’s will? Paramount Pictures entered the fray by buying the film rights, pledging to make an Oscar caliber picture. Some of Joan’s legendary friends and “frenemies” sprang to her defense, expressing disappointment in Paramount.
One of Paramount’s biggest mistakes was hiring Faye Dunaway to play Ms. Crawford. Faye had gotten a reputation around Hollywood for being difficult to work with, so she was eager to be in another Oscar caliber film after winning the award a few years earlier. If Faye could win another Oscar from a prestigious picture she would ascend to Hollywood’s permanent A-List. As a result, she planned to utilize all of her acting skills to bring Joan Crawford back to life. Rather than becoming a legendary performance, however, Dunaway’s Crawford would become a case study for reigning in your actors. (As fellow Hall of Infamy inductee Gotti illustrates, this is a lesson that Hollywood still hasn’t learned.)
Dunaway portrays Joan Crawford like a cartoon villainess, an exaggerated monster who never appears to be a living, breathing person. Every still of her from the film looks like it could be from a satire. That Dunaway thought this performance would garner anything more than derisive laughs is astonishing. We see her yelling, wielding wire hangers, shouting and slapping. It’s more like a community theater performance than that of an Oscar winning actress on a big budget film.
Although the film’s intent was to depict Joan as a monstrous woman whose reputation deserved to go down several notches, it actually has the opposite effect. Could any real human being be this cartoonishly villainous? Most viewers left theaters firmly believing the answer to be ‘no’. The film was a box office disaster, eliciting more laughs than plaudits. Paramount quickly changed its marketing literally over night, trying to salvage the film by depicting it as purposely comedic. It was too little, too late. Faye’s career would come crashing down and the film would be laughed out of theaters.