“The makeup job, of course, is the real star,” critic Stephen Schiff wrote for the Boston Phoenix about Mommie Dearest, which first screened in 1981, and starred Faye Dunaway in broad Joan Crawford drag: “a Frankenstein’s monster that hovers perilously between faces, between personas … There’s something biologically askew here: a makeup man could create that face, but human genes and chromosomes couldn’t.” I agree—I’d also guess that when he says “the makeup job,” he means the mouth, Joan Crawford’s outsized lips being more or less her genius loci. What Max Factor called “the smear” and the general public called “the hunter’s bow,” a casual observer might call “inhospitable” or “hostile.” The red of Crawford’s lips never seems like the red of a rose or a Valentine, but the red of a wound.
Treating the mouth as the sum of the mother is obvious: it’s a mirror for the mother’s other mouth, and a possible site of tenderness. Insensitive to any and all tenderness—and hypersensitive to imperfection—Faye-as-Joan is a perfect bitch and an absolutely flawless lunatic, which makes her as good at being an icon as it makes her awful at being a parent. If the Crawford mouth—a red, Fontana canvas slash of a maw—does not convey the image of a mother or a woman, it may be because Joan Crawford never wanted to be either: only a big, indelible star. To be a star, you also have to be a bit of a monster, which is why “the smear” resembles, variously, the scowl of a clown, the pout of a scheming drag queen, and the bloodied mouth of a bear in a wildlife photograph.
For those of us who did not grow up easily, and did not live with easy mothers—all those women at, in other words, the mercy of their own genetics—Mommie Dearest is a cautionary tale, in deep disguise as horror. It’s also a tragedy. It is not, when one thinks hard about it, very funny. For the uninitiated, it is an adaptation of the schlocky and best-selling memoir of Christina, Joan’s adopted daughter, who lived under daily threat of violence from her film-star mother in their LA manse, and who has no reserve about portraying Crawford as a villain or a bogeywoman. The sites of all this feminine-maternal drama—walk-in closets, backyard swimming pools, and manicured rose gardens—feel a little on the nose, but then domestic warfare rarely veers from cliché.
Crawford, in her real life, loved the lavish and the femme-domestic just as much as she adored her famousness, her feminal, cartoonish image. Motherhood can make a set designer out of a woman; rarely does it make her the star of her life, so that what Plath pithily called, in Lesbos, “viciousness in the kitchen!” often amounts to a plea for a daughter’s lax consideration. This is sometimes dealt out as an unkind word, and sometimes—as with Joan, according to Cristina—as a blow. “The potatoes hiss,” Plath further spits. “It is all Hollywood, windowless.” In the closet, also windowless and very Hollywood in scale, Joan is seen to beat her daughter with a can of scouring powder; in the pool, she beats her far less literally by cheating in a swimming race. Later, in another rage, Joan goes out in an evening gown and tears apart her garden and its perfect roses with a pair of shears, and then an axe. The scene is imbued with the never-undoable terror that comes with fucking up something fragile. Flowers are, in this respect, not unlike children.
Faye Dunaway described her turn in Mommie Dearest as “Kabuki,” which for her meant “basically hysterical.” She claimed that Crawford’s spirit haunted her throughout the whole production. “Late at night,” she wrote afterwards, “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.” The mother is always a specter hovering over the scene. Her absence is reverberant—the more so for a daughter who begins to see herself enacting her mother’s tics, noticing the mother-ghost’s face in the mirror. (I write “herself” in place of “myself,” but you knew that already.) Three or four drops of spilled oil on the countertop equal “oil all over the countertop.” Crooked photographs unnerve to the point of discomfort. There is a line from Roger Ebert’s visit to the Mommie Dearest set, regarding Joan: “She was a very unhappy woman, I said, making it a question.” The same line, I have realized since, could have been said about my mother, also making it a question. There is still no question mark required; the answer is too obvious.
It was not, to me, as obvious when I was eight or nine years old—although two things have, lately, made me think about unhappy mothers. One was watching Mommie Dearest with my own last month; the second was reading Kate Zambreno’s newest novel, Book of Mutter, which is about trying and trying not to write about your mother’s death. It is also partly about Louise Bourgeois, Chicago, Henry Darger, Roland Barthes and the JFK assassination, and is just as sad as Mommie Dearest, and as serious and sharp as Mommie Dearest is allegedly camp. Zambreno’s mother is, or was, a housewife, and resembles—or had once resembled—the actress Hedy Lamarr. She is survived, Zambreno writes, by “a row of Clinique lipsticks in silver cases, all shades of brownish rose, all eroded with her lips’ long absence.” Shortly before she dies from cancer of the lungs, her sanity begins to slip and she is institutionalized. She blames the family. “I have been your slave!” she screams “in front of the mirrored closets.”
Do we tend to forget that our mothers are women? It has taken Kate Zambreno thirteen years to do enough remembering, enough self-preservative forgetting, to flesh out her Book of Mutter. The novel that results is sometimes less than kind, the way most mother-daughter bonds are sometimes less than kind. It also screams her devastation, raw and Barthes-like. “The beast,” she writes. “My mother, my love.” Like Crawford’s monster, who fixated on the transitory and cinematic state of spotlessness, Zambreno’s mother-beast maintains the cleanest lair. “All my childhood I remember my mother cleaning,” she recalls. “To be a housewife, in the old mold, was to live by the rule of erasure. One day’s operating around pretending that nothing occurred, no mark was made … What my mother feared the most as everything spiraled into chaos, was that she had lost control over the house, which she saw as beginning to fall into disorder, although to outside eyes it was immaculate.”
“Sometimes my mouth opens up, and my mother’s laugh jumps out, a parlor trick,” Zambreno says. “My mother is in my memory this glamorous, remote, somewhat tragic woman, yet sometimes when I close my eyes I see flashes of her on her deathbed, mouth wide open like those statues of saints in ecstasy”—or, one presumes, like Hedy Lamarr in Ecstasy. The mother and the movie star converge in the image; so, too, the mother and the mouth. Do I remember reading, somewhere, about Andy Warhol spending two hundred thousand dollars on Crawford’s lipstick tubes after she’d died? The two of them were photographed together at her very last public appearance, looking perversely like mother and son. I do not know if the lipstick tubes were Clinique.
“Nobody ever said that life was fair,” Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford tells her daughter. “I’m bigger and faster and I’m always going to beat you.” Whether the screenwriter intended the double entendre on “beat you,” what remains unsaid is Crawford’s fear that the obverse is true—that every mother ends up, sooner rather than later, being lapped by her daughter. Winning one race does not guarantee them all, which is why when Joan is seen to jog beside a moving car in order to keep in studio-ready shape, she is also whispering survive, survive, survive to herself, an invocation. When the film was first released, it bore the tagline “The Illusion of Perfection.” Later, it was changed to the far more anodyne “Meet the Biggest Mother of Them All,” which trades the lacerating truth of the original for a funny-facetious jab at Joan as a kind of sadistic ur-mother.
“My mother book,” Zambreno dubs her Book of Mutter—and then she corrects herself: “My monster book.” Mothers, as the saying goes, are people, too; people, fallible and fearful, sometimes act like beasts.
Philippa Snow is a writer, living in London.