The Illusion of Perfection

A new diary tells the story of what happened when Faye Dunaway played Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.

Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest.
Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest.

Paramount Pictures

You Must Remember This is the podcast that tells the secret and forgotten history of 20th-century Hollywood. Creator and host Karina Longworth shares some of the research that went into the episodes in an excerpt here on Slate. Listen to the complete Episode 92 on Joan Crawford, Faye Dunaway, and Mommie Dearest, and subscribe to You Must Remember This on iTunes.

The problem with Mommie Dearest, both Christina Crawford’s book and the 1981 movie, is that rather than reveal the real, whole person, they flattened Joan Crawford down into an image. In the case of the movie, this happened in the most literal way possible. The original poster for Mommie Dearest featured a black-and-white headshot of Faye Dunaway as Joan, her eyebrows, cheek bones, and lips wildly exaggerated into a nearly grotesque mask, under the tagline, “The illusion of perfection.” And this was back when the studio and the filmmaker thought they had a serious movie on their hands. As we’ll see, the audience for Mommie Dearest forced them to change their minds—and change the marketing accordingly.

Something that’s often overlooked about Dunaway, perhaps because her reputation as a diva precedes her, is that she’s one of the most successful female students of method acting. In her autobiography, Looking for Gatsby—which, like many movie star autobiographies, including Joan’s, should not be taken at face value as the absolute truth, but at least can be taken as what Dunaway wants us to think is the truth—she gives much credit to what she learned as a member of the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center, where she studied with Bobby Lewis, Anna Sokolow, and Elia Kazan. Through them, and she specifically quotes Kazan in her book, she learned an approach to acting based on personal experience. As Dunaway described it, “The bottom line on Method acting is just that you experience the moment rather than indicate the moment.”

Dunaway was considered for Mommie Dearest after Anne Bancroft passed, and according to her, she accepted the part only after meeting producer Frank Yablans and director Frank Perry, who both assured her that they were seeking a more balanced portrayal of Joan’s life than the one put forward in Christina’s book. Dunaway had spent the past three years trying to have a family with her boyfriend, photographer Terry O’Neill, and had only filmed three movies and a TV miniseries since winning the Oscar for Network. They finally adopted a baby boy, Liam, in the summer of 1980. This gave her something in common with Joan—except that for 23 years, Dunaway kept up a public pretense that Liam was her birth child. But that’s a story for another day.

The point is, when Dunaway began working on Mommie Dearest in late 1980 and early 1981, she was in a vulnerable position. She saw the film as her return to the spotlight after consciously downshifting in the immediate aftermath of an Oscar. She had just adopted a child who was still an infant, which is not an easy age for a parent, whether she gave birth or not. And she was a method actress who was going into playing a woman whose enormous stardom allegedly served as a cover for her secret life as an abusive parent to an adopted child.

In order to play the part of Joan and remain true to her method, Dunaway needed to empathize with Joan, and Dunaway says that her goal was to restore humanity to the caricature put forth by Christina’s book. Though Dunaway never met Christina, the actress set herself up in opposition to the author. Christina’s then-husband David Koontz had been hired as an executive producer on the movie. This would be the first and last producer credit for Koontz, but he was clearly there to represent Christina’s interests. And as shooting was supposed to be getting underway in January 1981, Dunaway decided that she, too, needed a man on the credit sheet to protect her own interests. And so the film’s start date was delayed because Dunaway refused to report to work until her O’Neill was hired as an executive producer. This blackmail worked, and Mommie Dearest became for Dunaway’s boyfriend, just as it was for Christina’s husband, the sole executive producer credit on a life résumé that otherwise included no expertise in the production of movies.

I should note here that this wasn’t atypical. Women in Hollywood of the 1970s and early ’80s with something to protect would sometimes use the men in their romantic lives as a kind of strong man. Jon Peters went from being a hairdresser to one of the defining producers of ’80s blockbusters by being Barbra Streisand’s boyfriend in between. But there were more Koontzes than Peterses, and these executive producer credits had a reputation for being meaningless. But neither man was an absentee producer. Koontz was on set basically daily. And where Dunaway went, O’Neill went, and according to Dunaway’s account, O’Neill had a very important function: He tried to protect her from a system that saw her performative energy as an infinite resource, even as the performance was physically hurting her. “I had two husbands to deal with,” explained actual producer Yablans: “David driving me crazy that Faye was trying to sanitize Joan, and Terry worried we were pushing Faye too far and creating a monster.”

Roger Ebert visited the set, and when he first saw Dunaway in costume, he didn’t recognize her as Faye Dunaway. He exclaimed, “My God, she looks just like Joan Crawford!” But embodying a dead woman was no picnic for Dunaway. There was a physical toll to the part: To make her face look like Crawford’s, Dunaway had to contort the muscles around her mouth just so and hold it, all day long. And then, Dunaway started to feel like she couldn’t clock out when shooting wrapped during the day. As she wrote, “At night I would go home to the house we had rented in Beverly Hills, and felt Crawford in the room with me, this tragic, haunted soul just hanging around. … It was as if she couldn’t rest.”

In the film’s most famous scene, Dunaway certainly performed like a woman possessed.

While shooting this scene, Dunaway collapsed in the closet set in exhaustion. O’Neill threw a tantrum, yelling at Frank Perry, “No more wire hangers”—as in, we’re done here, she can’t shoot anymore today. It turned out that Dunaway had destroyed her vocal cords that day and had to see a specialist recommended by Frank Sinatra before she could speak again. Dunaway admitted that the day she lost her voice, she also lost her passion for the movie. Ultimately, she wrote, the whole crew felt the weight of Joan’s ghost, to the extent that when shooting finished, they didn’t even have a wrap party, because no one felt like it. This doesn’t seem to be at all true: Dunaway’s co-star Rutanya Alda writes about the film’s wrap party at length and notes that Dunaway just didn’t show up. I wonder if maybe by that point no one wanted her there, so they just told the star of the movie that there was no wrap party. Stranger things have happened in Hollywood.

This is where we should probably back up and note that Dunaway’s version of the story of the filming of Mommie Dearest is, much like Christina’s version of Joan, selective in its details and widely disputed. Luckily, we have a counternarrative: the Mommie Dearest Diary of Rutanya Alda.

Alda was, like Dunaway, a New York method-trained actress. They both had worked with some of the great directors of the 1970s—and both had affairs with one of them, Jerry Schatzberg. Their paths had crossed several times before Mommie Dearest, which Alda was well aware of and Dunaway was totally oblivious to.

The major difference between Dunaway and Alda was, despite their similar training, Dunaway had become a movie star essentially with her first major movie, while Alda, who was nearly 40 when Mommie Dearest was filming, had never had a lead role in a film. Eight years after getting what should have been her big break as one of Philip Marlowe’s neighbors in The Long Goodbye, she was still plugging away as a working actress. She played a supporting parts in The Deer Hunter, but even after that film won Best Picture, she still took what she could get, which included an uncredited role as a gynecologist in Rocky II.

Alda’s diary of the making of Mommie Dearest is valuable as an eyewitness account of that movie, but even if you don’t care about Mommie Dearest at all, it’s worth reading as a portrait of what it was like to be in spitting distance from fame in 1981 but to not be able to quite get there and to still have to worry about credit card bills and dressing to impress casting agents. Alda was put up by the production at the Chateau Marmont, where she shared a suite with her cat and Richard Bright, her actor husband. In between call times on the movie, which were often postponed or changed at the last minute due to delays caused by Dunaway’s preparation process, Alda walked her cat around the chateau’s pool on a leash and worried about the whereabouts and well-being of her husband, who was battling an addiction to heroin and cocaine—and spending Alda’s paychecks as fast as she could bring them home.

Alda was playing the one person who loves Joan unconditionally and stays loyal to her to the end. She decided that however difficult Dunaway could be, she would sacrifice her own ego in order to stay on the star’s good side—this was the only way Alda, a method actress, could play Carol Ann. But in her diary, she notes over and over again what an odd position she’s in. Most of the cast and crew around her spends their days gossiping about Dunaway, whose whims and tantrums rule the set. Dunaway has refused to work with the expert period film wig-maker and instead hires Goldie Hawn’s hairdresser from Private Benjamin. According to Alda, Dunaway was constantly forcing changes in her hair and makeup, screaming and yelling at the crew members working on her image. Legendary costume designer Irene Sharaff, who had worked with Judy Garland at MGM in the 1940s, told Alda she had never worked with anyone so selfish and erratic as the actress playing Joan Crawford. Eventually Sharaff walked off the film.

Alda had big ambitions for her part, but over the course of the four-month shoot, she came to understand that no woman in a Dunaway movie could expect to get any decent screen time. Partially because Dunaway manipulated the director to make sure she was the center of attention, but mostly because she required so much attention that by the time they got around to shooting anyone else’s close-ups, there was only time to do one take. Dunaway couldn’t stand to be looked at while she was acting, so not only was Mommie Dearest a closed set, but actors who were supposed to be in scenes with Dunaway would be forced to stand behind the camera with their backs to her, unless they absolutely had to share the shot. In those scenes, Dunaway asked for new blocking to ensure that her co-stars wouldn’t face the camera. In one scene that’s supposed to take place later in Joan’s life, Alda’s Carol Ann wears old-age makeup, but Dunaway refused to wear her own-age makeup that day, so Joan looks inexplicably like she’s time-traveled to the future to hang out with her aged assistant.

By the end of the shoot, people on set were whispering that Dunaway had lost herself in playing Joan Crawford, that she thought she was Joan Crawford. Maybe that was true—it actually aligns with Dunaway’s own version of events—but as Alda noted, the difference was that for much of her career, until vodka and bitterness overwhelmed her, Joan was savvy enough to get exactly what she wanted on a set and have the crew walk away feeling lucky to have met and worked with her. Most members of the cast and crew of Mommie Dearest walked away vowing “never again.” At least, everyone thought, the movie will have been worth it.

When you watch Mommie Dearest today, it’s incredible to imagine that everyone involved with its production—everyone—believed that it was a serious movie. The film was initially promoted as a serious biopic and Dunaway’s performance a tour de force. And then it opened, and it became impossible to ignore the public reaction. Audiences were filling theaters—and howling in laughter at scenes that had been intended to be horrific and deeply dramatic. Within a week, Paramount decided to go with the flow. It pulled the original ad campaign and replaced it with one that highlighted the film’s demonstrated camp appeal. “No wire hangers … ever!” read the new ads. “Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest—the biggest mother of them all.” Producer Yablans was so offended by the change in direction that he filed suit against Paramount for treating his movie like a punch line.

Needless to say, Mommie Dearest was not the career relaunch Dunaway had planned it to be. One of the eight Razzie awards given to the film went to her. She then retreated to Europe. She continued to work as an actress, memorably playing the villain in the very weird Supergirl, but didn’t do the work of being a movie star until 1987, when she separated from O’Neill, moved back to the U.S. with their son, and starred opposite Mickey Rourke in the Charles Bukowski–scripted Barfly. But she forever blamed Mommie Dearest for kneecapping her career. This is something that never could have happened to the real Joan Crawford, because within the studio system, no one movie could have ever had that much impact—and no actress would have been allowed to disappear to Europe to clear her head or whatever. In Joan’s day, when you had a bomb, you got back to work. When you had a hit, you went back to work.

To hear the rest of the story, listen to You Must Remember This Episode 92, “Six Degrees of Joan Crawford: Mommie Dearest.”