(director/writer: Frank Perry; screenwriters: Frank Yablans/Tracy Hotchner/Robert Getchell/based on the book by Christina Crawford; cinematographer: Paul Lohmann; editor: Peter E. Berger; music: Henry Mancini; cast: Howard da Silva(L.B. Mayer), Jocelyn Brando(Barbara Bennett), Diana Scarwid(Christina Crawford as Adult), Mara Hobel (Christina Crawford as Child), Michael Edwards(Ted Gelber ), Faye Dunaway(Joan Crawford), Steve Forrest (Greg Savitt), Rutanya Alda (Carol Ann), Harry Goz (Alfred Steele), Xander Berkeley (Christopher Crawford as adult), Jeremy Scott Reinbolt (Christopher Crawford as child), Carolyn Coates (Mother Superior); Runtime: 129; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Frank Yablans; Paramount Pictures; 1981)

“Trashy soap opera drama on the private life of screen queen Joan Crawford.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Frank Perry (“Diary of a Mad Housewife”/”The Swimmer”/”David and Lisa”) directs this trashy soap opera drama on the private life of screen queen Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway), a reigning member of Hollywood royalty, that’s based on the 1978 memoir by her abused adopted daughter Christina Crawford. It’s an unflattering portrait of Joan, who died in 1977, that shows her as self-centered, vain, insecure, a screaming witch and pressured star worried because of aging she is losing her star status. The pic is so poorly helmed it turns into an unintentional silly comedy, that became a camp cult classic as written as gloss by Frank Yablans, Tracy Hotchner and Robert Getchell. Hollywood insiders claim the damaging book was written as revenge because Joan left her two adopted children out of her will rather than that she was such an abusive parent. The movie couldn’t convey the book’s themes and instead made the star seem like a pitiful comical figure.

Faye Dunaway nails the Crawford role through her make-up application, intensity in capturing Joan’s domineering behavior, and the way she imitated her compulsions until it became parody. But Faye never got rewarded for her effort, as the pic was received negatively by the critics and the public never took the pic seriously. So her career sort of died after the pic. It shows the twice divorced, at the time, in the early 1940s, Joan as a cleanliness freak, who tells Hollywood powerhouse lawyer boyfriend Greg Savitt (Steve Forrest) that she has risen to the top from the bottom but is unfulfilled because she can’t have children. Greg arranges the adoption of Christina and later of her young brother Christopher, when an orphanage agency turns down her request.

Notable demented scenes of Joan losing it in tirades as she goes into a professional decline, include an enraged Joan destroying her rose garden by chopping down a tree with an axe in a fit of temper after being fired by MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (Howard da Silva), for being “box-office poison;” clipping off young Christina’s hair with a scissors after her daughter mocks her; and, the most memorable and audience favorite tirade, in which a cold-creamed Crawford maniacally screeches to the young Christina about her use of wire hangers in her wardrobe, “No wire hangers, EVER!”

It’s a bad film that’s poorly helmed, but entertaining in a creepy sort of horror pic way. It results in a perverse Joan Crawford movie that shows her failure as a parent because she could never offer her children real affection or love. The pic puts the Crawford family secrets out to the public so that it can have a good laugh and brings down the respectable name of the generous charity giving iconic actress by depicting her as a monstrous mother.

Christina is played as a child by Mara Hobel and as an adult by Diana Scarwid, and the adult Christina is a sullen and whiny character who doesn’t gain the sympathy the young Christina deserved to get; and indeed, makes Joan appear more sympathetic than the memoir writer wanted.