The following is an excerpt from the new book With Love, Mommie Dearest: The Making of an Unintentional Camp Classic by Hollywood historian A. Ashley Hoff, available now through Chicago Review Press.

When she died in 1977, Joan Crawford was remembered as an icon of Hollywood’s Golden Age—until publication the following year of her daughter’s memoir, Mommie Dearest.

Based on new interviews with people connected to the book and the film, Hoff explores the phenomenon, the camp, and the very real social issues addressed by the book and the film.


Producer Frank Yablans knew he had gold, absolute cinematic gold. Yablans was hand-carrying a print of Mommie Dearest across the country for a pair of special advance screenings he arranged for New York critics and “influencers,” the East Coast columnists and opinion makers who might recognize and promote the movie’s importance.

Film critic Roger Ebert described him thus: “Yablans, a wiry, balding man with an excess of energy, used to be the studio head at Paramount before he left to become an independent producer. He averages about one film every two years, and his credits range from The Other Side of Midnight to North Dallas Forty. He thinks Mommie Dearest is the sort of movie that the big Hollywood studios were born to make.”

He began in film distribution, a scrappy guy with nothing but plain old chutzpah and a drive to succeed, delivering cans of film from movie house to movie house, and here he was all these years later, doing the exact same thing. At least now he was better paid, garnered respect, and felt like a real part of the process.

The previous year, Robert Redford made his directorial debut with Ordinary People, a movie exploring the tenuous family dynamic between a brittle mother, played by former sitcom actress Mary Tyler Moore, and her troubled young son, played by Timothy Hutton. The quiet, family-driven story was well received by critics and audiences alike, garnering four Oscars and a host of other awards.

Yablans felt Mommie Dearest, the story of a similarly tense relationship between a daughter and a mother—with an added veneer of glam- our because the mother in his movie was film legend Joan Crawford—had the chance to be even bigger.

He believed in this product, so much so that he convinced the studio, Paramount Pictures, to open the movie one week earlier in New York than originally planned, to avoid conflicting with the New York Film Festival.

“Frank Yablans was a major force, and smart and savvy,” recalled one former Paramount studio executive (quoted throughout this book, who shall remain nameless). “He might have been a bit of a bull in a china shop, but sometimes that’s what you have to be. I think he was an absolutely well- respected, major producer at that time.”

For months the press had been speculating about how a big-screen adaptation of Christina Crawford’s memoir would play, what it would look like, and who would be able to play the role of her mother, the glamorous movie star Joan Crawford.

After winning the film rights from Christina Crawford, author of Mommie Dearest, Yablans spent the next four years trying to get the movie made. Directors were chosen, then dropped, then replaced. Same with the lead actress.

The director who finally ended up with the job was Frank Perry. In a profile of the filmmaker, columnist Rex Reed wrote:

Mommie Dearest is Frank Perry’s first film in five years. Before that, he had a string of flops. He knows that a lot is riding on this one. An early success, he became a leading American film director with his very first effort, the low-budgeted David and Lisa. Several hit films followed, in collaboration with his wife, Eleanor Perry. When their marriage ended in 1970, neither of them ever regained the prominence they had experienced as a team.

But in the past few years, he’s been rewriting his life. Eleanor died, he married writer Barbara (Little Gloria, Happy at Last) Goldsmith, went on a rigid self-improvement kick, watched his weight drop from 260 to 200 pounds and now insists he’s “never been happier or more focused—and thank God, because if I had been unhealthy or confused I would never have had the strength to finish Mommie Dearest.” At 51, he says he’s in command of his tools, his trade and his life.

And since everything else seemed to be on the upswing, Frank Perry knew this picture was going to be a hit. It just had to be.

Actress Faye Dunaway holding her Best Actress Oscar for the film 'Network', at the 49th Academy Awards, Los Angeles, March 28th 1977. (Photo by Fotos International/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Faye Dunaway was one of the biggest stars around. She was beautiful and fierce, with a subdued sexiness.

If you’re lucky, you get one. One classic. One iconic role or film. Had she dropped dead after Bonnie and Clyde premiered, she’d still be in the history books. But not only had she starred in that—her breakout role—she went on to make Chinatown, Roman Polanski’s neo-noir thriller, and Network, for which she received the Oscar.

But she, too, needed another hit. Her last few movies did nothing to enhance her reputation. And she had just turned forty, a precarious moment in any actress’s life and career. On top of that, Dunaway had a reputation for being “difficult.” The press labeled her temperamental. She saw herself as a perfectionist.

But when Faye Dunaway entered a room, you knew it. The air crackled with tension and excitement. When she appeared on-screen, audiences snapped to attention. The Franks knew that. Working with her on Mommie Dearest was tough, but both Yablans and Perry admitted they’d do it again in a heartbeat because they believed the results were spectacular. And they were convinced Dunaway would win a second Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as actress Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.

Making Mommie Dearest was an uphill battle from the start, not only because of the multiple writers hired to draft the screenplay or the long search for just the right director or even the lead actress who dropped out at the last minute, only to be replaced by Dunaway.

Barry Diller, the executive heading Paramount at the time (to whom Yablans had to answer) pulled a last-minute stunt, demanding Yablans trim the budget by $300,000 or the picture would be canceled.

Why would he do that? Yablans asked himself and anyone listening, ignoring the bad blood running for years between them.

No matter. Yablans solved the problem by eliminating a key scene early in the movie—an important but expensive one to film. Because Yablans wanted the picture made, out it went. And once he made the budget changes Diller wanted, he was never bothered again.

At least during filming.

It was a Hollywood movie produced by a Hollywood studio taking on a Hollywood legend, with most of the reviews and reviewers emanating from Hollywood.

Hence Frank Yablans’s trip to New York. Out of Hollywood. Away from the West Coast critics who might have an axe to grind against the film, the star, or Yablans himself.

This was an unprecedented movie event. A glamorous deglamorization of glamour.

A demystification of the Hollywood mystique.

And on some, perhaps subliminal, level it was Yablans coming to terms with his own horrible relationship with his mother. Among his colleagues, Yablans discussed winning the rights to Christina Crawford’s book in crass terms, as a story he could exploit and make a buck on. But the truth was, he came from an abusive childhood, and he felt a kinship to the story. It was a selling point he used in winning over Crawford, when she was unsure who should film her memoir.

Yablans and Crawford weren’t the only ones abused as children. Frank Perry had a similar experience. “His father was a violent drunk who beat the shit out of him whenever he did anything wrong, or [stood] up for his brothers,” explained Justin Bozung, Frank Perry’s official biographer.

Maybe Crawford was right. Maybe it was a national epidemic, one not widely discussed, at least not until her book was published. Making her book into a film would really give the topic some exposure. So, Mommie Dearest was more than just crass commercialization. It was “a message picture,” but one so eye-poppingly glamorous it contained the best of everything movies have to offer.

It was sure to be a hit.

“The Franks” (as producer Frank Yablans and director Frank Perry came to be known while working as a team) knew how to guarantee a full house: by offering their guests an exclusive invitation to a special, industry-only screening of a highly anticipated new movie. Oh, yes, and free food. The screenings both nights were followed by a light supper.

This was the approach The Franks used to introduce Mommie Dearest to some two hundred influential New Yorkers. They held their first private screening and supper on Wednesday night, August 26, 1981, on the twenty-ninth floor of the Gulf and Western Building at 15 Columbus Circle in New York City, a forty-four-story black-and-silver-striped skyscraper, and did the same thing the following night with a different guest list.

“It was just very informal,” remembered Michael Musto, invited to one of the screenings. “It wasn’t the way they do things now, where it’s all very regimented.”

Musto was a freelance journalist at the time. “Can I just start blabbin’ about this?” he practically gushed with excitement at the thought of sharing this memory. He continued:

I went to a press screening of it, the year it came out, 1981. And I was so excited about this movie, which I felt worked on every level, that I couldn’t even wait to get home to call a friend.

After the screening, I found this working phone booth—this is how long ago this was, we’re talking phone booths—and I called my friend and I said, “I’ve just seen the best movie I have ever seen. It works on every level. It’s a hagiography, it’s a cautionary tale, it’s a horror story, it’s a fashion show. It’s camp. It’s funny. It’s harrowing.”

I just thought it worked like gangbusters, and I was so excited about it. Some of the lines just popped off the screen, like, “What is this, an institution of learning, or a teenage brothel?” or “I think you’re under-reacting, Mrs. Chadwick!” But beyond that I actually thought Faye threw herself into the role with such commitment that she had become Joan Crawford.

Loads of people took the movie seriously.

At least, in the beginning.

But John Wilson, creator of the Razzies (the awards gleefully celebrating the best of Hollywood’s worst), wondered, “How did Frank Perry watch these seminal scenes that everyone remembers, the wire hangers, the scrubbing the bathroom floor, the taking the axe to the rosebushes, the ‘Don’t fuck with me, fellas!’ I mean, that movie is just chockablock with scenes that anyone in their right mind stumbling on the set would have been . . . I wonder if there are any takes they couldn’t use because the crew were laughing.”

One person who did not attend the screenings, either in New York or later in Los Angeles, was Christina Crawford, the author of the book Mommie Dearest, on which the movie was based.

A few weeks earlier, on August 3, 1981, while getting ready for publication of her second book and the grueling book tour likely to follow, Crawford, at the age of forty-one, suffered a massive stroke on the left side of her brain. Three days later, Dr. Milton Heifetz performed a cranial bypass, and when the surgery was complete, her husband, David Koontz, was informed his wife had a 1 percent chance of survival.

But Christina Crawford was always a survivor.

So while Christina fought for her life in a hospital, a movie about her life was about to open nationwide. In the meantime, her husband went on her behalf to one of the studio screenings. “Her husband, David Koontz, is her eyes and ears,” Frank Perry told reporters. “He was delighted with the film.”

That wasn’t remotely true. Instead, as Crawford wrote, “He came home depressed and discouraged. The film tried to justify the bizarre behavior of Joan Crawford by blaming it on exterior events or the misdoings of her daughter.”

She continued,

David tried at first to keep the bad news about the film from me. I had been home from the hospital less than a month. He was under doctor’s orders not to allow any stress or emotional upset to reach me. My condition, though temporarily stable, was nevertheless still precarious. There was absolutely no way for the medical team to predict whether or not the hospital treatment would continue to function adequately. So, for the moment, David had to bear the brunt of all the disappointment, frustration and remorse over the way in which the film had been made.

The movie opened after months of being touted as an awards-worthy, blockbuster motion picture. It had every credential: based on a bestselling book, Oscar-winning actress, acclaimed director.

Everyone expected a good movie. But the reviews were not what The Franks or Christina Crawford or Faye Dunaway quite expected. Instead of a serious drama or an awards contender, the movie was considered melodrama, and critics lampooned what they called Dunaway’s overacting.

Newspaper articles claimed moviegoers at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood howled with laughter. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner reported that audiences talked back to the screen and pranksters showed up to screen- ings with wire hangers, hoping to “participate” in the movie as if it were a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

But was it true, or were these stories planted by someone to discredit the movie? The initial newspaper ads featured an elegant Faye Dunaway dressed in a formal gown, a jeweled necklace at her throat, looking every inch a Golden Age Hollywood star. A week later, the ad campaign was changed to something emphasizing the camp factor.

As Jonathan Zimbert, one of Frank Yablans’s assistants, explained,

All that came about during the opening weekend because the marketing campaign was orienting it to what The Franks and the studio thought they had, which was a serious drama, this Academy Award– winning great American tragedy. And it wasn’t until Saturday or Sunday when it was clear, based on the studio feedback they were getting.

People were already showing up in costume and screaming, “Drop the baby! Throw the baby!” when she’s up cuddling it on the stairs, like they knew ahead of time, within days, because the word was out that this was a hoot.

So, yeah, there was a certain crowd that was there, and Para- mount said, the regular people we thought were gonna go, they’re not going. So—fuck it. And they changed the ad campaign and they leaned into it, and it worked. The Franks weren’t happy with it at all, but it worked.

It did indeed seem to work. The box-office receipts from the opening weekend nationwide totaled $4,667,761, and after seventeen days, the film grossed $10.5 million, already making its money back. Mommie Dearest may well have been critically panned, but it was not a commercial failure.

In late October, husband by her side, Christina Crawford summoned the courage to see the movie version of her memoir.

“I had talked with people and read the reviews, so I was prepared,” she remembered. As the movie unfolded, she told herself that this was not her, this was not her mother, this was not her story. “When I finally saw the picture with David in a small neighborhood theatre that was nearly empty, my heart broke,” she continued.

“What an incredible opportunity they had lost. This picture could have been a milestone. It could have been the very first film to delve into the problem of family violence from the point of view of a child. It could have explained the complex personal interactions of the mother and daughter, giving insights into the larger problem of child abuse. But it didn’t. It was a series of hysterical scenes without explanation or relationship development.”

If there was one saving grace from Crawford’s perspective, it was that during filming she heard that Faye Dunaway had promised reporters the end result would protect Joan Crawford’s image as a loving, doting mother. Chris- tina Crawford was afraid the movie would whitewash her mother’s character, but the exact opposite happened. The woman Dunaway portrayed on-screen was a gorgon.

Forty years after the release of Mommie Dearest, this author placed a phone call to a former Paramount executive and, surprisingly, the call was returned.

“This will be a short phone call,” the executive stated emphatically, “because I don’t want my name in any way associated with this movie, because I don’t want to get an angry phone call from Faye Dunaway! That’s a call I would rather avoid, actually.”

As it turned out, our phone call wasn’t all that short, and an hour later the conversation ended on an upbeat note, with the executive wishing this book great success. “Like it or not, love it or leave it, it’s certainly a memorable film,” admitted the executive. “And it has stood the test of time!”

So many good intentions went into the making of Mommie Dearest. And it wasn’t like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, where sheer incompetence was to blame from the start. But instead of the cinematic masterpiece the filmmakers hoped for, the end result was one of the most notorious camp classics in Hollywood history.

A. Ashley Hoff is the author of With Love, Mommie Dearest: The Making of an Unintentional Camp Classic (May 7, 2024; Chicago Review Press), as well as Match Game 101: A Backstage History of Match Game and My Huckleberry Friend: Holly Golightly and the Untold History of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He previously worked for talent agencies in Chicago and Los Angeles and has written articles on Hollywood for The Advocate and Films in Review. He has been interviewed on numerous pop culture subjects on The Nick Digilio Show on WGN Radio, The Frank DeCaro Show on Sirius XM, Feast of Fun on iTunes, in magazines such as Closer Weekly, and on various local talk shows and podcasts.

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