12 Over-the-Top Facts About Mommie Dearest
By Tara Aquino
It has been over 35 years since Frank Perry’s cult classic Mommie Dearest came out and rocked Hollywood and audiences alike. The film—an adaptation of Christina Crawford’s book about her abusive upbringing with her adoptive mother, iconic actress Joan Crawford—was annihilated by critics, but fully embraced by fans. It also became a point of contention among everyone involved in its making, from the source novel’s author to the film’s reportedly difficult star, Faye Dunaway.
1. ANNE BANCROFT WAS ORIGINALLY ATTACHED TO STAR.
According to TCM, The Graduate’s Mrs. Robinson was set to play Joan Crawford, until she read Frank Perry and his co-writers’ script, which prompted her to drop out.
2. FAYE DUNAWAY CALLED FRANK SINATRA FOR HELP WHEN SHE LOST HER VOICE SCREAMING, “NO MORE WIRE HANGERS!”
A 1981 clip in The Southeast Missourian reported that Faye Dunaway received vocal coaching from Ol’ Blue Eyes himself when she lost her voice during the film’s most infamous scene. According to the New York Post, Sinatra rushed to her Hollywood trailer and spent 15 minutes with Dunaway, rehabilitating her voice.
3. “MOMMIE DEAREST” WAS A TERM OF ENSLAVEMENT FOR CHRISTINA CRAWFORD.
In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Christina Crawford opened up about the film’s famous title, saying that, “‘Mommie dearest’ was a term of enslavement. If we just called her ‘Mother’ or ‘Mommy,’ she corrected us over and over and over again.”
4. THE CREW STRUGGLED TO WORK WITH FAYE DUNAWAY.
One of the most frequently reported rumors from the set of Mommie Dearest was that Faye Dunaway was a bit of a nightmare. “People despised Faye,” Rutanya Alda, who played Joan’s assistant Carol Ann, told the Bay Area Reporter. “Joan got her way in a ladylike way. Faye was despised because she was so rude to people. Everyone was on pins and needles when she worked, and everyone relaxed when she didn’t. I wish Faye had learned from Joan.”
5. CRAWFORD WAS A FAN OF DUNAWAY.
Regardless of what the film’s cast and crew thought of Dunaway, the woman she embodied loved her. According to Inside the Actors Studio, Crawford once said, “Only Faye Dunaway has the talent, class, and courage to be a real star.”
6. DUNAWAY GOT PHYSICAL WITH RUTANYA ALDA ON SET.
In an interview with Gay City News, Rutanya Alda recounted her uncomfortable experience with Dunaway. “When [Jocelyn Brando, who played the journalist] saw me go down after Faye hit me, she said, ‘I can’t afford to be injured, [I] just spent six months in the hospital,’” Alda recalled. “Initially, Frank wanted both me and Jocelyn to pull her off Diana [Scarwid, who played Christina], but she saw Faye was out of control and said, ‘No way.’ We did maybe 10 takes and Frank had to deal with it because Faye wasn’t gonna change what she was doing. I got knocked down maybe twice—she hit me hard in the chest.”
7. DUNAWAY HATED HOW MOMMIE DEAREST TURNED OUT.
As reported by The Guardian, Dunaway couldn’t stand by the movie: “It was meant to be a window into a tortured soul,” she said. “But it was made into camp.” She later said on Inside the Actors Studio that, “I feel uncomfortable with the persona that’s out there as a result of the Crawford picture. It was kind of a Kabuki performance.”
8. CHRISTINA CRAWFORD WANTED TO WRITE THE FILM, BUT HER SCRIPT WAS REJECTED.
Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, Frank Perry, and Frank Yablans were the film’s credited writers. According to Vanity Fair, Christina Crawford’s memoir, on which the film was based, outraged those closest to Joan. Even Cathy Crawford, Christina’s sister, noted: “It makes me very sad. Every time Mommie’s name is mentioned, that book is mentioned. I don’t want to give it any more publicity than it’s already had. Even when people say or write good things about my mother, that book gets linked to her name. It’s so unfair.”
9. THE IDEA OF FREAKING OUT OVER WIRE HANGERS STEMMED FROM JOAN’S CHILDHOOD.
In the documentary Mommie Dearest: Joan Lives On, interviewees recalled the story about where that infamous line came from. Apparently, Crawford’s mother worked at a dry cleaner during a very difficult time in Crawford’s life growing up, thus triggering bad memories. Crawford’s thought process: Why have them in her home if she could afford better?
10. COSTUMER IRENE SHARAFF WALKED OFF THE SET.
In 2015, Rutanya Alda wrote The Mommie Dearest Diary: Carol Ann Tells All, a memoir about the making of the film, which recalled how costume designer Irene Sharaff was reduced to tears—and walked off the set—because she was so “horrified by some of Faye’s outfit decisions.” When Sharaff left, an assistant mocked Faye’s constant screaming of, “Clear the set!”
11. A CHAIR IN CRAWFORD’S ON-SCREEN HOME CAME FROM THE SET OF THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.
In a 1981 interview with Roger Ebert, producer/writer Frank Yablans took the famed critic on a tour of the film’s set, which he said cost $480,000. During the visit, he made sure to single out one particular piece of furniture. “This chair was originally built as a throne chair for Cecil B. DeMille for The Ten Commandments,” he told Ebert. “What did we do? We painted it white. It looks perfect in this situation.”
12. TO LAND THE ROLE, DUNAWAY SHOWED UP AT PRODUCER FRANK YABLANS’ HOME DRESSED AS CRAWFORD.
According to The Village Voice, the star decked herself out head to toe to look like the actress in order to impress Yablans. “When Yablans saw what looked like back-from-the-dead Joan standing before his eyes, he almost had a heart attack and plotzed,” Michael Musto reported.