“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. Read More