Christina Crawford Recalls ’Mommie Dearest’
Over thirty years ago, Christina Crawford wrote "Mommie Dearest," a book about her adopted mother Joan Crawford, and it has been a point of contention and controversy ever since. After the release of the 1981 film version starring Faye Dunaway, the saga of Joan versus Christina became a campy and also genuinely frightening touchstone for a lot of people, particularly gay men who are fans of Crawford and who identify both with her and with Christina's struggle against her.
In the years since the publication of "Mommie Dearest," Christina has written several other books and she has also run a bed and breakfast in Idaho, where she now lives. She will be in New York the week of Mother's Day to perform Surviving Mommie Dearest, a show that will include a 72-minute documentary that features home movies from the 1940s.
"I'm still in Idaho right now," Crawford tells me, when I reach her by phone. "I'll be in New York in a week. I'm very thrilled to be bringing this show to Manhattan!" When I ask her about the documentary, she says, "It covers a long period of time. It starts out being about show business and becomes a story about identity and about the abuse of power. It isn't just about my childhood. It's about surviving. And I think everybody, Dan, has something that they have to survive."
Did Joan know?
Crawford, who is now 73, speaks to me in an energetic, childlike voice filled with nervous enthusiasm. She seems eager to please, and she makes certain to say my first name and connect with me personally as we talk, a publicity technique that may be one of the few things she has cared to retain from childhood observation of her movie star mother, who was a master of Hollywood publicity and spin. "I’m on stage in the show about a third of the time," she says. "The home movies from the 1940s have really fascinating glimpses of our backyard, and all the hairstyles and costumes of that time." Crawford is not the owner of these childhood home movies. They come from a Canadian production company that had worked with her on a TV series called "The Will." Joan Crawford notoriously disinherited Christina and her son Christopher from her will "for reasons which are well known to them."
There have been several writers recently who have asserted that Joan Crawford was aware that Christina was writing "Mommie Dearest" in the 1970s and that that is why she disinherited her. "That is a piece of fiction," says Crawford. "I never started to write anything that I thought might be a book until after she died. The only kernel of truth there is that I participated in but did not write a piece for Redbook when I was starting my career as an actress. The piece was called "The Revolt of Joan Crawford’s Daughter," and it used interviews with me and with my mother."
Working with John Cassavetes
That article, which was published in 1960, is a surprisingly frank accounting of the troubles that had gone on between mother and daughter. In this article, Joan Crawford says that she always had a "warm and friendly" relationship with the Chadwicks, a couple that ran a boarding school that Christina had attended. The Chadwicks’ response, as quoted in the article: "From experience with Christina’s mother, we consider it unwise to involve Chadwick by making any public comment. Very sorry."
While she was acting in the 1960s, Christina worked with John Cassavetes on his classic independent film "Faces" (1968), and though her scene set in a bar was cut, it can be seen in full on the Criterion DVD. "No one has ever asked me about that before!" Christina cries, and she is delighted to talk about working with Cassavetes. "It was really fabulous. I really loved working with John, and with Gena Rowlands also, because she was around, too, when we were shooting. He would get a group of people together, and if the group were not friends to begin with, they would be friends by the time they were done. I had admired John’s work as an actor, of course." When asked about his working method, Christina says, "He would give you a script, but it was character descriptions with the basic outline of what he wanted to accomplish. We would rehearse and discuss things and most of it was improvised. I had trained as an actress, so I could do that. John would just keep the camera rolling the whole time until we were really done."
A national conversation
Childrearing, at least in America, has changed drastically since the publication of "Mommie Dearest." Corporal punishment is now frowned upon. "It started a national conversation," Christina says of her book. "It was never acceptable to talk about before. Not in public. Millions had suffered, and they kept it to themselves. Sometimes having a role model can be helpful. I know that the book did help to change things."
"Mommie Dearest" is written from the perspective of a hurt child and an enraged, bewildered teenager, and it still carries a sting far removed from the camp film version, where Dunaway labors mightily and sometimes insightfully to find psychological reasons for Joan Crawford’s bad behavior. Just what was wrong with Joan Crawford on a clinical level, aside from her alcohol abuse?
Certainly she had a whopping case of what would now be termed obsessive-compulsive disorder. When I ask Christina what she thinks might have been wrong, she says, "She refused any kind of counseling or help that was suggested, and she was behaving in a truly outrageous way. The last few years of her public life, she would show up to events drunk, and it would be disastrous. She was an extreme narcissist, and when she didn’t get what she wanted, the rage factor...people who are perceived to be powerful can get very deluded. The world in which she lived in provided her with no checks and balances."
Performances of Surviving Mommie Dearest are May 8-12, 2013 at the Snapple Theater Center is located at 1627 Broadway / 210 W. 50th St, New York, New York. For more information visit the "Surviving Mommie Dearest" website.