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Paramount Studios presents
Mommie Dearest (1981)

"Tina! Bring me the ax!"
- Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: July 17, 2001

Stars: Faye Dunaway, Diana Scarwid, Steve Forrest, Howard Da Silva, Mara Hobel
Other Stars: Rutanya Alda, Harry Goz
Director: Frank Perry

MPAA Rating: PG for (violence against children, language)
Run Time: 02h: 08m:42s
Release Date: July 17, 2001
UPC: 097360126341
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+B+A- D+

DVD Review

Maybe it was the eyebrows. Somehow, I knew even before Christina Crawford's tell-all exposé, Mommie Dearest hit the stands, that Joan Crawford just had to be a boozy, screeching harridan. The book shot to the top of the bestseller lists, and the film adaptation was not far behind.

Faye Dunaway turns in a supremely over-the-top performance as the out-of-control Joan Crawford. Wanting desperately to have children, she adopts two orphans, Christina (Mara Hobel) and Christopher. The road to hell being paved with good intentions, she wants to instill in them a sense of self-reliance without privilege, with a desire to win at all costs. A certain amount of parent-child conflict is to be expected, and things start off that way here, with quarrels over such things as the girl not finishing the food on her plate. But as Joan's career takes a downward turn and she takes refuge in the bottle, she becomes more and more enraged, turning from stern disciplinarian to abuser to homicidal maniac, all the while insisting that Christina call her "Mommie Dearest," even as she's being whipped with a coat hanger.

Whether or not the story is told accurately is beside the point, really. Apparently a large segment of the public felt as I did, and wanted to believe the very worst possible of Joan Crawford. The movie delivers in spades, with Joan continuing her abusive ways well past Christina's childhood and being mentally abusive to the adult Christina (Diana Scarwid) in the cruelest ways imaginable. The pathos is heightened by the fact that the producers cast homely girls as the young and adult Christina. Even though they are not particularly attractive, Joan seems to be quite insanely jealous of her adoptive daughter's youth and is determined to destroy her. Brother Christopher is a veritable cipher; we only see that he is strapped into his bed at night, for unexplained reasons. There is little made of this point, causing the viewer's mind to imagine even more horrific scenes than one sees on the screen.

Character actor Howard Da Silva brings tycoon Louis B. Mayer to life nicely, smarmily giving Joan the boot while telling her it's all for her own good. Diana Scarwid is sympathetic, though a little stiff as the grown Christina. While the movie catapults along at a headlong speed for the first two-thirds, things slow down a bit as the children move out of the focus and the picture turns its attention to Joan's seizure of power at Pepsi. This sidetrack not only grinds things to a halt, but distracts us from the central theme. Although it is a good scene and further develops Joan's ruthlessness, the structure would have been far better if this bit had been passed over more quickly. The film does have a highly satisfying conclusion, as Joan attempts to get in the last word with her children from beyond the grave.

There are a number of intriguing details in the visuals here. Joan's belongings all seem to be monogrammed with enormous "JC"s. Her bedroom looks rather like a padded cell, hinting at her mental instability. When Joan catches young Christina imitating her as if she were speaking to her fans, the triple mirror gives a funhouse effect as we see Joan's personality literally shatter and she goes far off the deep end, hacking off Christina's hair.

Joan Crawford made a number of horror films at the very end of her career, but none of them was anywhere near as terrifying as Mommie Dearest. Recommended.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer looks very good. Colors are vivid throughout, particularly the rich and opulent colors of Joan Crawford's clothing and her garish blood-red lipstick. Blacks are excellent, with very good shadow detail. The video bit rates are consistently quite high. The source print unfortunately is somewhat speckled in spots. It's not terrible, but this is a film in need of some restoration.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: In addition to a restored English 2.0 mono track (and a 2.0 mono French track), Paramount also supplies a 5.1 remix. They all sound very good indeed, with nice bass extension, especially during the closing music by Henry Mancini. Dialogue is always clear; the screeches of Joan and Christina's cries are piercing and appropriately chilling. There is no noise or hiss to be heard. Surrounds on the 5.1 version are mostly limited to the musical track. This is a very pleasing audio for a drama of this sort. The 5.1 track is compressed at a 448 kBps rate, helping the quality of the sound reproduction high.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 15 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:09m:04s

Extra Extras:
  1. Still gallery
Extras Review: An anamorphic trailer is provided, as well as a set of 14 stills. Beyond that, there's nothing else. Chaptering is a little thin for a movie of this length.

Extras Grade: D+


Final Comments

A harrowing look at Joan Crawford's child-rearing shortcomings, with plenty of histrionics and a gratifyingly over-the-top performance by Dunaway, given a very good transfer of a spotty print.


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