Monday, April 26, 2010

Hatchet Job?

Faye Dunaway once said (prior to her slamming the lid on the topic forever) that she believed that only God, Joan Crawford and Christina truly know what went on between the legendary movie star and her adopted child, referring to the sensational topics covered in the book (and resultant film, in which she starred) Mommie Dearest. I’m inclined to think she was right. Joan never got a chance to defend herself and too many people doubt Christina for her side to be taken at 100% value.
When Joan died in 1977, she famously left out of her will the two oldest of her four children (all adopted – a fifth one was returned early on when the family of the birth mother claimed him.) Her stated position in the document was “for reasons which are well known to them.” It has been written that Joan knew about her daughter’s forthcoming book as early as 1976 and that Christopher was supporting it and so that is why she took this action. She had been estranged from both of them for a varying number of years. Joan could never have imagined, however, the utter sensation that would arise from the book’s publication a year and a half after her death.

Literally, term papers could be written on the complex relationship between Joan and Christina. There is all sorts of evidence on both sides regarding the character of these two women and much dispute over the validity of Christina’s account, some in her favor and some not. Anything written in this post is my take on the matter based on much reading on the subject in books or interviews (or from watching filmed documentaries) and my own perceptions. As I said, I don’t think anyone outside the actual participants will ever know the whole truth.

What I can say is that if Joan knew that Christina was writing a tell-all book (really the first of its kind, exposing the tears behind the staged familial happiness of Tinseltown), one can’t blame her for excising her from the will, though if she’d had better advice, she would have left the pair a nominal sum to prevent them from contesting (which they did, earning them $22,500 apiece.) I mean, why leave money to someone who is sharpening his or her knives as you’re on the verge of succumbing to cancer?

I also have no doubt whatsoever that Joan was a person who believed in discipline and order. That much is obvious from studying her own life and the two younger children Cathy and Cindy have acknowledged that much themselves, though they stringently denied practically everything Christina wrote about in Mommie Dearest. Even though these two ladies only received around $77,500 themselves, they always staunchly defended their adoptive mother and, in fact, never spoke to either Christopher or Christina again following the publication of the book. The surviving sister Cathy won’t even refer to the book by name.

It’s easy to suggest that things could have been different amongst the siblings due to age difference, but that sort of falls apart when one realizes that Christina is only seven years older than the youngest children and Christopher was merely three years their senior! Only so much could have gone on without their knowledge when the ages were that close. I do suspect that there was a difference in the way Joan felt about her children because of their personality differences. It seems as if the younger two children were far more appreciative and compliant than the older two. (A cynic may suggest that they were that way because they saw what happened to you if you were the opposite!) Christina, on the other hand, has often been described by people who knew her as a willful, spoiled, bratty child and Christopher, likewise, as an unruly and difficult one. Christopher eventually had tangles with the law as a juvenile and was placed in a military academy.

Christina made much about being sent away to school, but all four children were. It was practically a given in Hollywood at that time for children to be boarded at a private school. Along the same lines, it was far more typical in those days for a parent to strike a child. My mother certainly spanked me (with a small oar, meant to be a souvenir, but giving me mementos of a different kind!) though after a while all she had to do was indicate my punishment and I straightened up quickly! Another time she gave me a royal tongue-lashing and even had her hair in a towel for that one. My father was far worse, chasing my sisters around and spanking and slapping them, but I was far too obedient with him to ever warrant any of that. I’m not condoning any of it, just saying that it was more common (and accepted/expected) in the past. I also realize that there is a difference between corporal punishment and abuse. The punishment I received as a kid taught me a sort of personal discipline and respect for authority that I tend to find sorely lacking in many of those younger than me. Considering the background Joan came from, it’s possible that any number of horrors occurred in her own childhood and equally possible that she utilized some severe methods in childrearing.

That said, she desperately wanted children of her own (once she was ready! She had aborted several fetuses early on.) I can’t believe that they were solely for the publicity. Joan Crawford was an astonishingly generous person. Countless stories, many of which will never be told because the participants are dead now, exist of her helping various crewmembers with bills and medical expenses, often anonymously. For many years she kept a hospital room (eventually two) available solely for those in need to use and all at her own expense. Her kindness extended even to her ex-husbands. When Franchot Tone was old and in a wheelchair, she helped care for and support him despite having had a tumultuous past with him. Her devotion to her fans, of course, was otherworldy. I feel like, no matter the end result, her heart was in the right place when she adopted her children. (Her youngest daughters described an idyllic childhood filled with many memorable experiences and travels and an abundance of love and caring physical contact, though they were not free of responsibilities and chores.)

When I first saw the movie Mommie Dearest, I was about 15. I didn’t find it campy at all that time and thought it was thoroughly horrifying! I couldn’t believe the fury I saw onscreen. The impromptu haircut, the raging, maniacal reaction to wire hangers and the near-strangulation in front of the Redbook reporter were all very vivid, shocking and gut-wrenching things to me. A few years later, after I’d been desensitized by this cruel world and developed my wicked sense of humor, I started to see the unintentional hilarity that many others had seen all along. Even so, no one can deny the volcanic intensity that Dunaway brought to those and other scenes. Ironically, I don't think that Joan on her best (worst?) day could have ever been as astronomically unhinged as Faye is here. It’s an endlessly fascinating specimen of screen performance. I realized that it most likely didn’t play out exactly like this in real life but, like many, assumed that the truth wasn’t too far off!

Later, I read the book, expecting to find even more mania and horror that there wasn’t room for in the movie. To my surprise, I found myself understanding some of Joan’s actions more than I had when I watched the film. For example, in the movie, Joan makes Christina eat rare meat for lunch and when she doesn’t finish it, she gets it for dinner and then for breakfast the next day. However, the movie never bothered to explain that Joan had obtained the prime rib on the black market (during WWII rationing) at great expense and was insulted and hurt that Christina then turned her nose up at it. No, this doesn’t make the incident any less horrible, but it at least sheds a grain of light on why Joan would feel so strongly about it.

This led me to feel that many other sequences in the film were either exaggerated or one-sided in their delivery. Even the night raid, a section of the film that is every bit as scary as it is funny, didn’t play out the way it was depicted. The movie combines two different alleged instances into one marathon of horror. In the book, the wire hangers tirade and the bathroom tirade were on separate nights. Again, this doesn’t condone the behavior, it just illustrates the way things were intensified and/or manipulated for the film for maximum impact. To top it all off, the book didn’t even include any beating with wire hangers! Joan’s entire life and reputation is now forever associated with something that didn’t occur the way the film suggests! Even Christina herself admitted that the movie was ramped up and inaccurate. See the attached article from Entertainment Weekly (click to enlarge.)

Christina wanted to write the movie, herself, but could never get any of her scripts green-lit. She, for some reason, seemed surprised that Hollywood producers didn’t want to make a movie that was mostly about her and not her more famous mother. She kept emphasizing that this was not a Hollywood story, but one of abuse, but how, with Joan as the villain, could it be anything else? Crawford lived and breathed stardom out of every pore. What ended up happening was that the makers whipped together and released a “Joan Crawford Movie” in the vein of Queen Bee, Harriet Craig, Berserk! and others. In other words, the movie became less about the real Joan and Christina and instead became an exploitive, inaccurate and (very) over-the-top motion picture that felt like a souped-up version of one of Joan’s own films!

Initially, Anne Bancroft was signed to star before backing out suddenly. She, to my mind, would have resembled the real Joan a lot more than Faye did. She had a similarly structured face and, most importantly, large eyes. Joan’s eyes were gargantuan. Dunaway’s not so much. Much ballyhoo was given to the “incredible” and “uncanny” makeover Dunaway was given in order to look the part, but, to me, she only looks like Joan for fleeting seconds at a time. I’ve never been happy with the way her eyebrows were handled. Yes, Joan had major eyebrows, but they were thick and real whereas Faye’s just look like they were drawn on with a Crayola marker. They were even shiny when the light hit them, as if there was no hair, but just colored skin!
The movie serves as interesting bridge for me as my favorite pre-1970 actress is Joan Crawford and my favorite post-1970 actress is Dunaway. I know that Joan may not be the very best ACTRESS who ever lived. I just find her unendingly captivating to watch and listen to. Same with Dunaway. I can watch her say and do almost anything, she’s that fascinating to me. I’m not alone in my thinking. In a bizarre bit of irony, when Crawford was quizzed in the latter part of her life about which up and coming actresses she thought highly of (a species she rarely took much of a cotton to in the first place!), she remarked, “Of all the actresses ... to me, only Faye Dunaway has the talent and the class and the courage it takes to make a real star.” I’ll say it for her. This is the thanks I get?? Ha ha!

Dunaway, who had become a mother to her son Liam close to the time of filming Mommie Dearest, was horrified at some of the things the script required her to say and do, though she certainly managed to overcome those fears and deliver a blistering performance. She felt haunted by Crawford during and, for a while, after the filming. When her work was received with cackles of hilarity and a Razzie award (when she believed that Oscar was going to be calling), her humiliation festered until finally she decided not to ever discuss the role again. It’s a shame she can’t borrow a page from Patty Duke (and her Valley of the Dolls fiasco) and embrace the fact that, regardless of the way things were, she has an army of fans who want her to talk about it and revel in it. No chance.

Anyway, back to Christina (and I do apologize that this posting is such a garbled mishmash!), in the wake of the publishing of the book and the publicity it engendered, along with the various hurdles of getting the movie (of which her then-husband was Executive Producer) made, she suffered a debilitating stroke. Her recovery from that, and the long and unusual journey of self-discovery that sprung from it, were detailed in a follow-up book called Survivor. It was in reading this book that I really began to feel that the first book was an exaggerated and (more importantly) self-obsessed hatchet job on her mother.

In Survivor, everything is always someone else’s fault. She comes across to me as a perpetual victim even though so many things that took place in her life were self-initiated. She speaks about contesting the will solely for her brother’s sake due to his being disabled and in financial difficulty, but after the initial mention of him, he is scarcely, if ever, referred to again. No one made her write the book or produce the film or go on the lecture tours (at which she was sometimes treated with hostility) unless you believe, as some do, that her husband did. It’s always the world against her. She seems never to have done any wrong.

Herman Cohen, who produced Joan’s last two feature films, claimed that Joan was generous to Christina around the time of her first marriage, giving her $5000 (at the time, a very decent sum) in his presence to do with what she pleased on her honeymoon. He recalled that her first husband knew nothing of the alleged mistreatment and had never heard the stories later told in Mommie Dearest, but that Christina’s second husband coerced her into writing it for the money. Joan also, despite wanting Christina to be able to stand on her own as an actress, arranged auditions and, in some cases, parts for her, such as in Wild in the Country, (that one through her close friend Jerry Wald.) Unfortunately, Christina did not only lack the striking looks of her adoptive mother, but she also didn’t possess her screen charisma (or even that which would be required of a steadily working actress.) It just wasn’t going to happen.

I think Joan was probably guilty of excessively strict discipline and discipline that had a sometimes cruel bent to it. For example, June Allyson told of witnessing Christina being shunned and disallowed to attend a party because of some infraction of the rules. She had to sit quietly with the present at her side for the same duration of time as the party. Christina also claimed that she was forced to wear a shredded dress around the house once because she absentmindedly ruined the wallpaper by her bed and if anyone asked her about her dress, she was instructed to answer, “I don’t like pretty things.” Again, I think Joan would become appalled if the expensive things she provided for her children were not, in her eyes, properly appreciated.

I, and I emphasize, I, do not believe a lot of the rest. Christina’s younger sisters claimed that after Joan died and Christina was shut out of the will, she went back over her book and peppered it with more and more horror stories and embellished the ones that were already there in an effort to bury Joan’s carefully structured and maintained reputation. On that count, it worked! Here’s what I found most callous, no matter what the truth is. One side claims that Christina had been working on the book prior to Joan’s death. She says no. She claims she didn’t begin writing it until afterwards. However, she says she started writing it barely one month after her mother’s death! A month and a half, tops. What sort of perspective could that allow?! Seriously… Your mother is buried about a month and you decide to write a reputation-killer that will forever stomp her memory into the ground? I don’t see how that’s any more admirable than having planned it before she passed away. At least Bette Davis’s equally selfish daughter fought the dragon while she was still alive to defend herself (and she did!) Christina also walked out on her corporate job the month her mother died, perhaps anticipating an inheritance that never materialized, and was in dire financial straits.

Faye Dunaway summed it up as the unavoidable clash that occurs when you put a “Child of Need” (Joan) up against a “Child of Want” (Christina.) Joan expected a level of gratitude that simply wasn’t there and never would be. She probably did some rotten things as a parent. Many parents did (and do) and yet the children grow up able to understand that people aren’t perfect, especially when they were younger and under various pressures, including career ones. In fact, regardless of any of this, if I have a message to anyone on this subject, it is to try to remember that our parents are people and, as such, they make mistakes. I made a choice to let go of some of the controversial things my mother said and did (and, for a brief time, that included several face-slappings!) over the years and it has resulted in a far closer relationship as adults than I once thought was possible. One reason I could do this is that I know that I am not perfect and in some cases my own behavior was not acceptable. I sometimes wonder if such a notion ever crossed Christina’s mind.


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