AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Mommie Dearest
Director: Frank Perry (Dir)
Release Date:   1981
Premiere Information:   New York opening: 18 Sep 1981; Los Angeles opening: 25 Sep 1981
Production Date:   began 26 Jan 1981 in Los Angeles
Duration (in mins):   129
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Cast:   Faye Dunaway (Joan Crawford)  
    Diana Scarwid (Christina Crawford [Adult])  
    Steve Forrest (Greg Savitt)  
    Howard Da Silva (L. B. Mayer)  
    Mara Hobel (Christina Crawford [Child])  
  Also Starring Rutanya Alda (Carol Ann)  
  Also Starring Harry Goz (Al Steele)  
  Co-Starring Phillip R. Allen (Pepsi executive #1)  
  Co-Starring Jocelyn Brando (Barbara Bennett)  
  Co-Starring Priscilla Pointer (Mrs. Chadwick)  
    Michael Edwards (Ted Gelber)  
    Joe Abdullah (Captain)  
    Gary Allen (Jimmy [Photographer])  
    Selma Archerd (Connie)  
    Adrian Aron (Wedding guest)  
    Xander Berkeley (Christopher Crawford (Adult))  
    Matthew Campion (Actor in soap [Bill])  
    Carolyn Coates (Mother Superior)  
    Jerry Douglas (Radio interviewer)  
    Margaret Fairchild (Mother Superior [Orphanage])  
    James Kirkwood (Master of ceremonies)  
    Michael D. Gainsborough (Pepsi executive #2)  
    Matthew Faison (Pepsi executive #3)  
    Peter Jason (Pepsi executive #4)  
    Ellen Feldman (Ginny)  
    Robert Harper (David)  
    Cathy Lind Hayes (Nurse)  
    Victoria James (Photographer)  
    Dawn Jeffory (Vera)  
    Virginia Kiser (Beth Simpson)  
    S. John Launer (Pepsi chairman)  
    Russ Marin (Funeral director)  
    Nicholas Mele (Assistant director #2)  
    Belita Moreno (Belinda Rosenberg)  
    Warren Munson (Lawyer)  
    Alice Nunn (Helga)  
    Norman Palmer (Male guest)  
    David F. Price (Tony)  
    Jeremy Scott Reinbolt (Christopher Crawford [5 years])  
    Michael Talbott (Driver)  
    Arthur Taxier (Decorator)  
    Joseph Warren (Mr. Dodd)  
    Erica Wexler (Susan)  
    Dick McGarvin (Tour bus driver)  
  Fans Brent Dunsford    
    Joseph Dypwick    
    Wendy Pitzer    
  [and] David Sanderson    
    Ian Bruce (Assistant director)  
    Peter Eastman (Doctor)  

Summary: 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. 

Production Company: Frank Yablans Presentation, Inc.  
  Dunaway/O'Neill Associates, Inc.  
Production Text: A Frank Yablans Production
A Film by Frank Perry
Distribution Company: Paramount Pictures Corp. (A Gulf + Western Company)
Director: Frank Perry (Dir)
  Neil A. Machlis (Unit prod mgr)
  Michael Daves (Asst dir)
  Alan B. Curtiss (2d asst dir)
  Robert J. Doherty (2d asst dir)
Producer: Frank Yablans (Prod)
  David Koontz (Exec prod)
  Terence O'Neill (Exec prod)
  Neil A. Machlis (Assoc prod)
Writer: Frank Yablans (Scr)
  Frank Perry (Scr)
  Tracy Hotchner (Scr)
  Robert Getchell (Scr)
Photography: Paul Lohmann (Dir of photog)
  Timothy E. Wade (Cam op)
  Leo Napolitano (1st asst cam)
  Fred Feitshans (2d asst cam)
  Guy Polzel (Key grip)
  J. Michael Marlett (Gaffer)
  Douglas J. Campbell (Dolly grip)
  Hal Nelson (Dolly grip)
  Tom Thatcher (Best boy)
  Roger Blauvelt (Paramount best boy)
  Don Farnsworth (Paramount best boy)
  Cordell Boyd (Elec)
  Phillip Marlett (Elec)
  Victor Perez (Elec)
  Jim Pursell (Elec)
  R. Garig (Grip)
  Ralph Nelson (Still photog)
Art Direction: Bill Malley (Prod des)
  Harold Michelson (Art dir)
  Robert Welch, III (Asst art dir)
  David Negron (Prod illustrator)
Film Editor: Peter E. Berger (Ed)
  Greig McRitchie (Asst ed)
Set Decoration: Richard C. Goddard (Set dec)
  Don Woodruff (Set des)
  Joseph Hubbard (Set des)
  Marjorie Stone (Set des)
  Kent H. Johnson (Prop master)
  Matty Azzarone (Asst prop master)
  Tom Crowl (Asst prop master)
  Gene Kelley (Const coord)
  Jim Kelley (Const foreman)
  Randall Berkeley (Leadman)
  John Naruta (Greensman)
  George Naruta (Foreman set painter)
  Hank Giardina (Standby painter)
Costumes: Irene Sharaff (Cost des)
  Eric Seelig (Men's cost supv)
  Andrea Weaver (Women's cost supv)
  Bernadene C. Mann (Ms. Dunaway's cost)
  Bermans & Nathans Ltd. (Ms. Dunaway's costumes made by)
  Frances Klein Estate Jewels Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills (Ms. Dunaway's jewels from)
  Betty Nowell (Cost)
  Theresa Volpe (Cost)
  Buck Skelton (Cost)
Music: Henry Mancini (Mus)
  June Edgerton (Mus ed)
Sound: George Watters, II (Sd eff ed)
  Cecelia Hall (Sd eff ed)
  Denis Dutton (Sd eff ed)
  Sean Hanley (Looping ed)
  John T. Reitz (Re-rec mixer)
  David E. Campbell (Re-rec mixer)
  David J. Hudson (Re-rec mixer)
  Larry Jost (Sd mixer)
  Clint Althouse (Boom)
  Emil Avram (Rec)
Special Effects: Joseph P. Mercurio (Spec eff)
  Modern Film Effects (Titles and opticals by)
Make Up: Charles H. Schram (Make-up artist)
  Lee C. Harman (Ms. Dunaway's make-up artist)
  Vivienne Walker (Hairstylist)
  Kathryn L. Blondell (Ms. Dunaway's hair stylist)
Production Misc: Lynn Stalmaster and Associates (Casting)
  Nancy Klopper (Casting)
  Deborah Brown (New York casting by)
  Marshall I. Schlom (Scr supv)
  Jonathan A. Zimbert (Tech adv)
  Kathy Nelson (Tech adv)
  Ileen Maisel (Asst to Mr. Yablans)
  Christine Quick (Exec secy to Mr. Yablans)
  Mauri Blumenfeld (Secy to Mr. Machlis)
  Robin Sherry (Secy to Mr. Perry)
  Carol Ann Dulian (Secy to Mr. O'Neill)
  Bobbi Kronowitz (Secy)
  Joel Marrow (Transportation coord)
  Tom Baker (Transportation capt)
  Robert Jensen (Transportation cocapt)
  Tim Engel (Prod accountant)
  Alan B. Curtiss (Loc mgr)
  Lewis Stout (Asst dir trainee)
  Martin Brown (Craft service)
  Adria Lichlider (Welfare teacher)
  Bruce Bahrenburg (Unit pub)
MPAA Rating: PG
Country: United States
Language: English

Songs: "I'm Sitting on Top of the World," written by Samuel L. Lewis, Joseph Young and Ray Henderson; "Isn't It Romantic," by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart; "June in January," by Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin; "To Each His Own," by Jay Livingston and Raymond B. Evans; "Tangerine," by John H. Mercer and Victor Schertzinger.
Composer: Raymond B. Evans
  Lorenz Hart
  Ray Henderson
  Samuel M. Lewis
  Jay Livingston
  John H. Mercer
  Ralph Rainger
  Leo Robin
  Richard Rodgers
  Victor Schertzinger
  Joseph Young
Source Text: Based on the book Mommie Dearest by Christina Crawford (New York, 1978).
Authors: Christina Crawford

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Paramount Pictures Corporation 17/11/1981 dd/mm/yyyy PA120510

PCA NO: 26385
Physical Properties: Sd:
  col: Color by Metrocolor®
  Lenses/Prints: Lenses and Panaflex camera by Panavision®

Genre: Biography
Subjects (Major): Battered children
  Mothers and daughters
  Motion picture actors and actresses
Subjects (Minor): Adoption
  Brothers and sisters
  Hollywood (CA)
  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp.
  Motion picture fans
  Single parents
  Unmarried mothers

Note: The summary and note for this entry were completed with participation from the AFI Academic Network. Summary and note were written by participant Katelyn Cooley, a student at Oregon State University, with Jon Lewis as academic advisor.

A 12 Jun 1978 New York news item announced that Christina Crawford sold the screen rights to her biographical book, Mommie Dearest (1978), to Paramount Pictures Corp. for $300,000, and that she was hired for an additional $250,000 to adapt the screenplay. Frank Yablans was set to produce. New York noted that while Crawford also earned $700,000 for the paperback publication of her book, publisher Simon and Schuster planned to issue an alternative and more sympathetic biography of Christina’s mother, Bob Thomas’s Joan Crawford (1978), two months before publishing house W. Morrow released Mommie Dearest .
       On 11 Dec 1979, NYT reported that Yablans, who planned to start production in spring, 1980, was having difficulty acquiring an acceptable script. NYT stated that both Christina Crawford and writer Robert Getchell worked on early versions of the screenplay, and author James Kirkwood had resigned from the project by the time of the news item’s publication. A 12 Nov 1979 Village Voice brief reported that William Goldman also wrote a draft of the script. As noted by various contemporary sources, including NYT and Village Voice , Anne Bancroft was cast in the role of “Joan Crawford” and Franco Zeffirelli was set to direct. On 17 Sep 1980, Var announced that Frank Perry had contracted with Paramount to take over as director and a 26 Jan 1981 HR news item revealed that Faye Dunaway replaced Bancroft.
       According to studio production notes from AMPAS library files, the film’s twelve-week shooting schedule began 26 Jan 1981 in Los Angeles, CA. Crawford’s home was built on two sound stages at the Paramount Pictures studio; Stage 8 housed the bedrooms and Crawford’s dressing room and bathroom while Stage 16 held the set for the living room, with a stairway and foyer, as well as the kitchen. As reported in a 24 Apr 1981 LAT article, the filmmakers toured Crawford’s former home in Brentwood, CA, but found it unsuitable for filming. Production notes added Chadwick School in Palos Verdes Peninsula, CA, the administration building at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and Perino’s Restaurant in Los Angeles as locations. The production began on the beach in Malibu, CA, where scenes between Crawford and her lover, “Greg Savitt,” were filmed over the period of two weeks.
       Production notes also reported that recreating domestic abuse was particularly challenging for the cast and crew. The “most physical scene” between Crawford and her daughter, which depicted the fight that ensues when “Christina” leaves school, was saved for the end of the shooting schedule in case the actresses were injured. The set was restricted to only necessary cast and crew. In an 8 Sep 1981 Gallup Independent article, actress Diana Scarwid, who portrayed the adult Christina, said her fear that the film represented Crawford too sympathetically was dispelled by the scene. The fighting caused her ears to ring “for days.”
       Dunaway noted in a 15 Jun 1981 People news item that the film represented her “most difficult screen role” to date, but she reportedly did not endear herself to the production team, arriving late for her three-hour makeup calls for example, and Paramount executives considered firing her. However, according to the 24 Apr 1981 LAT article, Dunaway spent months researching her role and became an “expert” about Crawford’s iconic image. Fifteen wigs and fifty-three wardrobe changes were custom made for Dunaway’s transformation. Hairstylist Vivienne Walker, as well as make-up artist Charles H. Schram, reportedly worked with Crawford.
       Although the film was initially rated “R” by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Classification and Ratings Appeal Board revised the rating to “PG,” as stated in a 21 Aug 1981 HR news item.
       According to a 17 Sep 1981 LAHExam article, Paramount overestimated the public’s familiarity with Crawford and decided to alter its advertising strategy to focus on mother-daughter relationships and the Golden Age of Hollywood filmmaking rather than the actress. Paramount realized their error when Life contracted photographer George Hurrell to replicate four of his iconic portraits of Crawford, using Dunaway as the sitter. When the images were tested for the cover of Life’s Jul 1981 issue, readers expressed more interest in an article about “dry water holes” and Hurrell’s pictures were bumped from their featured placement. As a result, Paramount, which spent $10 million to produce the film, campaigned for revival movie theaters and television stations to run Crawford films and hoped that Christina Crawford’s best-seller, which had grossed $3 million in paperback sales alone, would draw audiences to its screen adaptation. Yablans, who reportedly “hand-carried” the film to New York City for its first screening so that critics on the East Coast could review the movie first before their counterparts in the West, told LAHExam that Paramount was banking on Dunaway’s performance. He stated that Crawford’s “illusion of a perfection” was a metaphor for the film industry.
       As noted in various contemporary sources, including LAT on 30 Sep 1981 and LAHExam on 11 Oct 1981, Dunaway’s dramatic portrayal of Crawford unintentionally provoked laughter from audiences. Despite its serious subject matter, the film was received as a comedy. However, LAT reported, this was not a deterrent for audiences, and the film grossed $752,462 at its 18 Sep 1981 New York City premiere. According to Paramount, this marked “the biggest September opening in the history of New York.” Box office receipts from the opening weekend nationwide totaled $4,667,761 and after seventeen days, the film grossed $10.5 million. As stated in LAHExam , audiences reportedly talked back to the screen, and many of Dunaway’s lines were quickly inducted into popular culture’s lexicon of “camp phrases,” such as “No wire hangers… ever!”
       In response, Paramount capitalized on the phenomenon and changed its advertising campaign to feature wire hangers instead of a portrait of Dunaway. Underneath the advertisement’s headline, which quoted Dunaway’s line from the film, was the text: “The biggest mother of them all.” Yablans, who described the wording as an offensive racial slur, according to a 14 Oct 1981 LAHExam news item, immediately sued Paramount for $10 million and sought “a temporary restraining order against its future use.” Although Yablan’s request was refused in court, Paramount created a modified version of the advertisement for Los Angeles and New York, but continued to run it in other major cities.
       According to a 25 May 1981 LAHExam article, Christina Crawford was concerned that the film would be too sympathetic toward her mother and wanted to participate in the production, but Yablans asked her to “stay away” from the set because he “felt that she and Dunaway wouldn’t be that copacetic.” On 27 Oct 1981, Crawford told LAHExam that “Dunaway’s portrayal was absolutely ludicrous” and noted that her mother was “a much more complex” person than depicted in the film. However, the film provoked a spike in sales of Crawford’s paperback. As noted in the 25 May 1981 LAHExam , the author’s estranged sister, Cathy Crawford La Londe, disputed Crawford’s account of their mother, calling the actress a “warm person” who never restorted to abuse. La Londe claimed Christina Crawford was jealous of their mother’s success.

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Gallup Independent   8 Sep 1981.   
Hollywood Reporter   26 Jan 1981   p. 14.
Hollywood Reporter   21 Aug 1981.   
Hollywood Reporter   8 Sep 1981   p. 3.
LAHExam   25 May 1981   Section A, p. 2.
LAHExam   17 Sep 1981   Section D, p. 1, 6.
LAHExam   11 Oct 1981   Section E, p. 1, 10.
LAHExam   14 Oct 1981.   
LAHExam   27 Oct 1981.   
Los Angeles Times   24 Apr 1981   Section I, p. 6.
Los Angeles Times   20 Sep 1981   p. 27.
Los Angeles Times   30 Sep 1981   Section VI, p. 1, 5.
Los Angeles Times   9 Dec 1981.   
New York   12 Jun 1978.   
New York Times   11 Dec 1979.   
New York Times   18 Sep 1981   p. 15.
People   15 Jun 1981.   
Variety   17 Sep 1980.   
Variety   9 Sep 1981   p. 18.
Village Voice   12 Nov 1979.   

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