Whelp. I finally saw Mommie Dearest, the infamous cult film about Joan Crawford’s poor parenting skills. It slumps horribly in the later chapters, and has all the structural flaws common to most biopics, following the messy course of a life instead of the tidy arc of a narrative. But you know what? I thought it was pretty good–at least for a tell-all-celebrity-memoir.
The story … well, there isn’t much to say. Joan Crawford adopts a child. She has career troubles. She takes it out on her child. This goes on, and on, and on, until Crawford dies. The end.
The meta-story, now that’s something to talk about. Apparently Faye Dunaway was pilloried for her lurid scenery chewing in the title role. I’m not sure what people expected. The whole point of the movie is to make a viewer cringe at Crawford’s lousy behavior, so of course Dunaway’s performance is cringe-inducing. The response to this film reminds me of those people who order the richest dessert on a restaurant menu and go on to wince at every bite, groaning, “God, so sweet!” Well, it’s what you asked for, babe. If you can’t handle humiliating domestic scenes, stay away from tell-all memoirs.
When I became an F. Scott Fitzgerald fanboy, I took in a lot of biographical info about his life, and all of it fell into this same pattern. First a breathless tale of fervid social ascension. Next, a quick montage of bright career highlights. Finally, endless scenes of personal degradation.
The whole genre of trash biography aspires to a kind of sublimity through sadism. We have a curious institution in our society–a vast, pervasive, elaborate system ingeniously engineered to drive ordinary mortals insane. We call it “celebrity culture.” We run ordinary people through this psychological mill, and lo and behold, they go insane. Then we turn their insanity into a grotesque spectacle, and wring from their ruined lives another stimulating dose of sensational entertainment.
The whole affair is something like a morality play turned inside out, in which the moral of the story is that some people deserve to be gawked at and exploited and humiliated, because being gawked at and exploited and humiliated has turned them into just the sort of vain and erratic people who deserve to be gawked at and exploited and humiliated. Hmmmm. We treat actresses as if they’re rotting corpses after they turn fifty, then mock them for getting plastic surgery. We treat minor actors as if a few television spots have made them public property for life, then wonder why they seem ambivalent about public attention. We give people more money than they deserve to have, then resent them for having it.
In a way, it’s a very clever arrangement. Let’s say you’re a sadist who also happens to be a narcissist. You enjoy tormenting people, but you also hate the thought that you’re the sort of person who enjoys it. You want to have your stone and throw it too: jeering at someone who can’t fight back, but also congratulating yourself for being the kind of person who stands up for good old-fashioned virtues.
Well, celebrity culture has you covered. One way to rationalize contempt is to direct at people with unfair advantages: the privileged, the powerful, the elite. But that can be inconvenient when the advantages are based on things like money and power, because it takes so long to build people up and tear them down.
Not in the case of celebrity. When it comes to celebrity, everything comes down to attention. Give someone lots of attention, and she rises in status. Give her an absurd amount of attention, and she rises in status to an absurd degree. Which is totally unfair, right? Why should she have all that attention? Clearly she owes you something, though it’s hard to say exactly what. At any rate, either she relishes your attention or she bridles at it; both reactions smack of ingratitude. What a bitch! She’s the overdog and you’re the underdog, you’ve given her the gift of attention and you didn’t get any attention in return, which means you’re completely justified in hating and attacking her.
Congratulations: you’ve successfully engineered an excuse for guilt-free sadism.
The test of a tell-all celebrity bio is whether, and in what way, it calls attention to this sickly dynamic. For most of the second half of Mommie Dearest, I was bored. But for most of the first half, I hated myself and also humanity. I thought the movie did what it set out to do.