When an alarm clock sounds at four a.m., actress Joan Crawford scrubs her skin and gets dressed. As Joan is chauffeured to the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studio, she reviews her lines for the picture Ice Follies of 1939 and signs autographs. Later, at home, Joan polishes the floor and reprimands her maid, Helga, for failing to clean underneath a potted tree. Joan warns another housekeeper, Carol Ann, that she must be more vigilant. Joan’s lover, Hollywood lawyer Greg Savitt, arrives and Joan demands that he remove his shoes, then leads him upstairs to her shower. Sometime later, Joan distributes Christmas presents at an orphanage in front of photographers and, afterwards, tells Greg that the only thing missing in her life is a baby. Although Greg suggests Joan is “too vain” to be pregnant, she confesses she miscarried seven times with her former husband and has decided to adopt. Greg explains that adoption agencies do not favor working, divorced women such as Joan, and says that the baby needs a father, but Joan argues that she never had a father of her own. Despite Greg’s quip that a child would provide great publicity for Joan, the actress claims that he is too focused on business and does not understand her womanly needs. After Joan is designated an “unsuitable parent” by an adoption agency, Greg arranges for Joan to receive a two month-old baby girl, and she names the child Christina. Years later, at Christina’s lavish birthday party, Joan and Christina wear matching dresses and are photographed by reporters. Pleased with the attention, Christina calls Joan “Mommie Dearest” and they exchange loving sentiments. After showing off her second child, Christopher, to studio photographers, Joan is troubled by a grass stain on Christina’s dress and orders her to have it cleaned. Later, in Christina’s room, Joan informs her daughter that she can only keep one of her presents and the rest will be donated to orphans. One day, Joan forces Christina to practice diving beyond exhaustion, telling Greg that she wants her daughter to feel a sense of competition despite her privileged upbringing. When Greg excuses himself for a meeting, Joan implores him to pull strings at M-G-M to secure her next role. As Greg leaves, he notices Joan challenging Christina to a swimming race, despite the girl’s fatigue. When Christina tells her mother the contest is unfair and vows never to play with her mother again, Joan spanks the girl and locks her in a pool house. Sometime later, Greg calls to inform Joan that she got the part she wanted, but when Joan runs upstairs to share the news with Christina, she finds her daughter in her dressing room, impersonating her famous mother. Although Christina says she is “play acting,” Joan thinks her daughter is making fun of her and cuts off the girl’s hair in a rage. One evening at Perino’s Restaurant, Joan signs autographs for her fans outside while Greg waits at a table with L. B. Mayer and his banker associates. Although Joan joins them, she later berates Greg for using her as spectacle for the businessmen, and Greg complains that Joan cares too much for her fans. When Joan suggests that Mayer is trying to end her career, Greg says that she has grown too old for the roles that made her famous. Despite their argument, Joan attempts to seduce Greg, but he leaves, ending their relationship. The next morning, Christina and Christopher find their mother cutting Greg’s image out of her photographs. Sometime later, Joan scolds her children for waking her, and when Christina mimics her mother’s anger with her doll, Joan confiscates her toys. After a meeting at M-G-M, where Mayer asks Joan to leave the studio because her pictures are no longer profitable, Joan destroys her rose garden and orders her children to help her. Looking to regain her career, Joan prepares to audition for Midred Pierce and Carol Ann explains to Christina that it is humiliating for Joan to endure a screen test. After winning the role, Joan is nominated for an Academy Award, but on the evening of the award ceremony, Joan feigns pneumonia and listens to a broadcast of the show at home. When she is named Best Actress for her work in Mildred Pierce , Joan greets fans and reporters outside her house with an acceptance speech. Late one night, Joan finds a wire hanger in Christina’s closet, becomes enraged, and beats daughter with it. Joan then forces Christina to scrub the bathroom floor and hits the girl with a can of cleaning powder. However, on Christmas Eve, Joan hosts a radio show at her home and creates the illusion of a perfect family. Sometime later, Christina escorts Joan’s new lover, Ted Gelber, to her mother’s room, but when the child returns, interrupting a moment of intimacy, Joan enrolls her at Chadwick Country Boarding School. Years later, a teenaged Christina joins her mother for dinner and although Christina shows off a near-perfect report card, Joan claims her daughter has become more rebellious and threatens to take her out of Chadwick. Back at the house, Joan explains that she is having financial problems because she lost her contract at Warner Bros. and Christina must enter a work-scholarship program at school. As Joan sobs, Christina consoles her mother and tells her she loves her, but later finds Joan collapsed on a couch, surrounded by boxes of newly purchased shoes. At school, Christina is caught kissing a boy named Tony in the horse stables, and when Joan finds out, she forces Christina to leave. Returning home, Joan tells reporter Barbara Bennett that Christina was expelled, but the girl contradicts her mother’s lie, sending Joan into a frenzy of verbal and physical abuse. Sometime later, Joan sends Christina to a convent and marries Al Steele, the chairman of Pepsi-Cola. Years pass and Christina returns home to meet Al, who she calls “daddy” at Joan’s request. As Joan oversees the construction of her new apartment in New York City, she wishes Christina luck with her acting career, but refuses to lend financial support. Al secretly gives cash to his stepdaughter when she leaves, then warns Joan that the apartment remodel is bankrupting him. After Al’s death, Pepsi-Cola executives try to force Joan into retirement, but she threatens to speak out publically against the company and remains on the Board of Directors. Visiting Christina, Joan learns that her daughter is under consideration for a part in a soap opera and gives her a pearl necklace. When Christina is cast in the role, Joan watches the soap opera every day. However, Christina is hospitalized for an ovarian tumor and is outraged when Joan temporarily takes her place on her show. Sometime later, Joan becomes reclusive and asks Christina to accept a lifetime merit award on her behalf. After Joan’s funeral, Christina and Christopher learn that their mother left them nothing in her will. Although Christopher says that Joan had “the last word,” Christina thinks otherwise.