Wednesday, December 23, 2015

LIZ SMITH: Telling all on "Mommie Dearest"

Faye Dunaway as "Hollywood royalty" Joan Crawford.
 
by Liz Smith

"Carol Ann" Tells All on "Mommie Dearest." But Don't Get Too Excited — There are Are No Wire Hangers — EVER!!!!!

"IF YOUR career is in trouble it has nothing to do with Mayer."

"Then what is it?"

"You were always the shop girl who fought her way to the top, made a great success. Well, you're not a little shop girl any more ... the truth is, you're getting old."

"Yeah? You're nothing but a rotten crooked lawyer, supplying the grease that makes this shitty movie industry work. You think your life is a mystery? There isn't a dirty coverup in this entire business that I don't know about and your hand is in every one of them. You reek of it!"

So it went between Steve Forrest and Faye Dunaway in 1981's "Mommie Dearest." Normally I might say, "One of the great scenes in "MD" but let's face it, this movie is one great scene after another. It's like an acid trip at the old Studio 54, without the inevitable come-down into reality. It just keeps on peaking.
Faye and Steve Forrest.
"MOMMIE Dearest" is one of the most famous "camp" movies of all time, although that is not what it was intended to be. Or so insisted all connected to the project. It was based on Christina Crawford's sensational book about the agonies she (and her brother Christopher) suffered at the hands of their adoptive mother, movie queen Joan Crawford. (Two other adoptees claimed they never had the same rough treatment from Joan.)
A seemingly happy moment for mother and daughter Crawford.
And a rare moment of joy between Joan and Christina in "Mommie Dearest."
The book effectively destroyed Crawford's reputation — conveniently dead, she could not fight back. Although I had my own experience with Joan and her children, and they certainly didn't seem like carefree youngsters, I have always thought Christina more than gilded the lily, so to speak, in the portrayal of her mother. She claimed to have been "appalled" by the movie, but I remember at the time wondering what she or anyone could have expected? It was Faye Dunaway — not known for under-emoting — playing Joan Crawford, for heaven's sakes. I wrote then: "Did they think it was going to be "Autumn Sonata?" (The distinguished Ingmar Bergman movie about a famous mother and a neglected daughter, starring Liv Ullman and Ingrid Bergman.) Faye Dunaway rarely talks about the movie, and has said on several occasions she blames it for a downturn in her career. Over the years, tales of what went on, on set, have trickled out. Most of them unkind to the star.
Art imitates ... life?
Click to order "The Mommie Dearest Diary: Carol Ann Tells All."
NOW another country has been heard from. A new book is out, "The Mommie Dearest Diary: Carol Ann Tells All." This is written by actress Rutanya Alda, who played Crawford's devoted maid/assistant Carol Ann in "Mommie" (Carol Ann was a fictional mix of several Crawford helpers.) If you don't know Rutanya's name, you are not alone. But you'd know her if you saw her; she has been working since 1968, often in small roles, often on TV. She is an excellent actress.

Her book is not what I expected. It is not a relentless bashing tell-all on Miss Dunaway, although the famous star does not escape unscathed. The most interesting aspect of Rutanya's book is that it is a real diary. And so we learn quite a bit about the woman herself — the Latvian-born actress had her very own "mommie dearest." She also had a long incredibly stressful marriage to actor Richard Bright, a drug addict.

A two-year affair with director Robert Altman ("His daily schedule included cocaine for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a lot of booze in-between") and a burning desire to be an actress. She met everybody who was anybody and worked with quite a few, too. Her book is something of a primer on working and surviving in a business that is brutal, unsentimental and sometimes unforgiving. She is nothing if not candid.

But the juice of the book, the filming of "Mommie Dearest," takes us not so much into the madness of a star, but more into the grinding, unglamorous minutiae of movie-making. The waiting, the anxieties, the long hours, the politics, the particulars of emoting for the screen — close shots, medium, blocking, hitting your light, etc.
Rutanya Alda as Carol Ann.
Rutanya was offered and won the role of Carol Ann — from the start, she was told that she would not and could not, look "too good." Ominously, she was informed, "Or, else, Faye will have you fired!" So, a great deal of preparation went into transforming the attractive Rutanya into a dowdy assistant-to-the-star. (Miss Alda is attractive, and goes to some pains to point this out throughout the book, but she had accepted this role. Even if she'd looked ten times better as Carol Ann, she still wouldn't have looked as striking as Dunaway, done up as Crawford.)
Faye Dunaway and Rutanya Alda.
What we get from Rutanya's on-set recollections is a lot of gossip from other people. The hairdresser (Vivienne Walker) the cameraman, the costume designer (Irene Sharaff) co-stars (such as Diana Scarwid) the director (Frank Perry) all come to Rutanya to complain about what a beast Faye is, but Miss Alda herself does not recount one beastly moment with the star. She accounts for this, partially, in that she was always "in Carol Ann mode" protecting and admiring Joan Crawford and by osmosis, Dunaway. She admits to being irked by the constant warnings about her looks, that Dunaway rarely if ever "covered" for her (sticking around to work with Rutanya when "Carol Ann" had her close-ups) and feeling that Faye insisted she look even older as the "old" Carol Ann than was necessary. Rutanya also records her feelings about Diana Scarwid at the time, resenting all the Oscar nomination talk around her performance and writing, "to her, crying is acting."
Diana Scarwid as Christina — "I Am Not One of Your Fans!"
But, but — where is the monster of legend, in Miss Dunaway? She seems to me, at least in Rutanya's diary, as no more self-absorbed and occasionally annoying than most other big stars upon whose shoulders fall the weight of an entire production. Maybe that level of self-absorption isn't nice to be around, but others apparently suffered far more than Rutanya — at least that's what they told her. (Look — Elizabeth Taylor never worked with another gorgeous brunette, and always wanted "perks" ... Marilyn kept the attractive blondes away and drove everybody crazy with her tardiness. Miriam Hopkins would try to upstage a lamp! No hot red-heads competed on-set with Rita Hayworth or Susan Hayward. Bette Davis had to make everybody hate her before she felt comfortable. Dunaway did not invent diva-dom. Even if, according to rumor, she put a fine point to it.)
" ... a $300 dress on a wire hanger?!"
IN A way, "The Mommie Dearest Diary" is a book about power. Who wants it, who has it, what people who have it do with it, and what people who don't have it, think about the people who do. (And of course how much nicer they'd be if they were in the cosseted position of Star.)

Rutanya writes toward the end that she thinks the reason Faye won't acknowledge the movie, or attend any "events" surrounding it, is that she knows fans really adore Joan, not Faye, and "she cannot subject herself to be second banana to Joan Crawford." Interesting, but if that were the case, why accept such a role in the first place? (Maybe Faye considers the camp vibe around "Mommie" — which Christina Crawford has embraced, the better to undermine her mother's long, glorious career — as poor taste?)
Joan through the years.
Rutanya thinks Faye's performance as Joan was "memorable ... with bold choices. I just wish she hadn't boldly treated it like a one-woman show." Really? I repeat — Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford. How could it be anything but a one-woman show?

She also roughly refers to Faye and Barbra Streisand (the latter she observed on several movies) as "abusers, not the perfectionists they say they are." Rutanya is no mild-mannered Carol Ann! Although I can't see her as being especially "abused" by Faye.
"Then don't push on it!"
Rutanya still works regularly, and this book is generating a lot of interest. Again, it is a fascinating work. But don't expect "real-life" tales of wire hangers or axes or cold-creamed viragos.

The Faye vibe here is more like the famous "steak" scene in "Mommie." Little Christina says, grimacing: "When I push on it, all this red stuff comes out."

"Then don't push on it," replies Joan/Faye with a thin smile and an arched eyebrow.
 
Contact Liz Smith here.