Archive | October, 2018

Dressed to Kill: Trick–or Treat?

27 Oct

What Brian De Palma doesn’t know or understand about trans people could fill an Olympic size stadium.

According to graphic designer Stephen Sayadian, he modelled the original Dressed to Kill 1-sheet (aka movie poster) on an iconic image featured in the 1-sheet for 1967’s landmark film offering The Graduate. Notice the figure hovering in the background and the presumably female leg that is either being slipped into, or out of, hosiery in the foreground. For comparison’s sake, please refer to the following: Meanwhile, per this image:

When the super-sly director of such 70s hits as Carrie, Obsession, and The Fury, among others, unleashed audacious psycho-sexual mystery-thriller Dressed to Kill in 1980, the critics’ huzzahs rivaled the feminists’ outcries. The naysayers carped that De Palma, who also wrote the film, trivialized violence against women, at least, and conflated sex and violence, at worst. For example, the film opens with a woman’s fantasy of being sexually attacked in the shower–by someone other than her husband, apparently oblivious from a distance of only 3-4 feet. A few short scenes later, that same lonely woman enjoys a wild romp with a complete stranger–tall dark and handsome per her previous fantasy–she encounters at a museum; however, her sexuality threatens a crazed stalker, and the woman pays a fatal price for so casually abandoning her roles as devoted wife and mom. What a tired trope, right?

Elsewhere, further objections include the recurring idea of depicting women in dangerous scenarios as a means of exciting audiences, and keeping them that way as in the hot shot upscale call-girl (ugh) who discovers the slain woman’s body in an elevator and quickly becomes the target of the killer, lest she be able to make a positive ID.

De Palma probably doesn’t endorse violence against women in his day-to-day life, but his movies certainly illustrate a pronounced fascination with material that leans that way. I believe his defense is something to the effect that audiences, male and female, are more likely to fear for the safety of a woman, especially if she appears helpless, than they are a man–like, say, Rambo (that’s quote from a DVD featurette). That’s debatable. Keeping in mind that, in this case, the call-girl is played by luscious lippy blonde, Nancy Allen–De Palma’s then wife. Make of that what you will. He’s been married–and divorced–three times, btw.

Another slam against Dressed to Kill is the objectification of its leading female, the woman in the shower at the beginning. To clarify, that character, Kate Miller, is portrayed by Angie Dickinson, approaching 50 at the time and a golden-blonde stunner with impeccable bone structure, lovely brown eyes, and a fit and trim body. Even so, her nude shower scene involves De Palma’s sleight-of-hand in that the director hired Victoria Johnson, a well known model, famous for her nude pictorials in skin mag Penthouse, to serve as Dickinson’s body double–for below the neck shots–in the shower scene, a move that made headlines, small ones, even though the plan was to keep quiet about the switch, hoping the audience couldn’t tell the difference between a 20ish body and one well into middle age, no matter how fit.  At any rate, De Palma indulges the viewer, or is that the camera, in shot after shot, close-up after close-up, of breasts as the nude woman caresses her soapy body–and then De Palma points the camera toward the woman’s pubic area.

Again, this is problematic. To begin, Dickinson, to hear her tell the story, wasn’t too keen on filming the shower scene (though she had appeared nude in a movie at least once), feeling that it was not the best move for her at the time, coming off her just-wrapped role as TV’s Police Woman, a role model of sorts. Understandable, yes, but Dickinson’s decision prompted the need for a body double. Fair enough. Plus, did De Palma even look for someone closer to Dickinson’s age? So De Palma lures audiences with the voyeuristic thrill of a sweet, nubile body, one with especially perky breasts, to set-up what? Her bloody demise. That’s what.

On the other hand, I’ve been inclined to give De Palma a pass on the shower scene since the whole episode is revealed to be the character’s fantasy. Don’t we all idealize who we are and how we look in such flights of imagination? Why the hell not?

Still again, De Palma raises the ire of Hitchcock purists with his blatant allusions to, or rip-offs of, the master. What seemed clever in Sisters and Obsession (the latter, a clear throwback to Vertigo) was beginning to tire by the time of Dressed to Kill. For example, the opening sequence, in which Kate fantasizes about being attacked in the shower? An obvious allusion to Psycho (1960). De Palma references Psycho again when Kate is brutally slashed to death with a straight edge razor with the confines of an elevator subbing for the sensation of being likewise trapped in a shower stall. Cornered, nowhere to hide, nowhere to go; moreover, we all know by now, the killer in Psycho is revealed to be a grown man with a mommy fixation whose murderous ritual includes donning mom’s garb. Similarly, even though it might not be quite apparent at first, De Palma clues viewers in on the idea that Dickinson’s stalker is a dangerously conflicted cross-dresser–get it, Dressed to Kill–with delusions of being transsexual. I think.

In De Palma’s twisted logic, the killer is a transsexual who lives a double life with a female personality struggling for domination against a male personality in a male body. Yeah. Another tired–and wildly inaccurate–trope. What De Palma has actually written is a character who functions more as a schizophrenic or a patient with disassociative identity disorder (once known a multiple personality order), but De Palma in all his zealotry is just about the only person who doesn’t seem to recognize how foolish his conceit of “Bobby,” the killer, is.

In interview after interview, both then and recently, De Palma talks a good game about trans women and their ambivalence about their genitalia, but he sounds like such a fool. Again, what De Palma doesn’t know about transgender people could fill an Olympic size stadium.

Back in 1980, on the heels of William Friedkin’s wildly controversial Cruising [1], which gay activists protested due to its lurid depiction of an underground subculture, Dressed to Kill paled in comparison for sheer offensiveness in its portrayal of the trans population–but only because at that time, trans people functioned as a largely invisible segment of society, save for a precious few high profile personalities–Renee Richards, for one–and an occasional episode of Phil Donahue’s talk show, a clip of which De Palma shares in Dressed to Kill–for what purpose I really don’t know. As a primer on all things trans to demonstrate that De Palma had done his research?  It’s not that the trans community was okay with their struggles being so wildly misrepresented, but in the pre-Internet age  there was no real sense of community and certainly no political clout.

Today, of course, everything that seemed problematic with Dressed to Kill back in 1980 is by now magnified. Audiences no longer settle for women being portrayed as mere victims, and we have frank conversations about misogyny, sex workers, transphobia, and the gender binary. Not that such conversations fall on receptive ears consistently because we know they don’t.  Still, we’re moving in the right direction even though the pace never seems to suit many of us who are tired, tired, tired of the old boys club mentality and the way it has shaped society and normalized tropes that should have been retired a long time ago. And, yes, by the way: internalized misogyny is a thing.

I cannot deny that Dressed to Kill reeks of its director’s offensive choices, leaving little to be desired among hosts of moviegoers–and potential moviegoers. That noted, I have no time for people who complain about the politics of any movie without actually seeing it.

That noted, it’s hard to dismiss the film completely.

What I don’t want to do is try to sway, or to be accused of trying to sway, someone who’s most definitely not interested in watching Dressed to Kill that it isn’t as bad as the naysayers suggest because the naysayers make good points. Instead, I want to explain why I think the movie is worth a look to those who’ve never seen it but remain open and intrigued by the possibility.

First and foremost is Angie Dickinson in her greatest film role. The former beauty queen broke into showbiz in the 1950s and began hitting her stride with Rio Bravo (1959), winning a Golden Globe as Female Newcomer of the Year in a film top-lined by the likes of John Wayne, Dean Martin, and pop heart-throb Ricky Nelson. Nicely played, Ms. Dickinson. From there, she continued to work steadily throughout the 1960s before achieving even greater stardom in the 1970s with not only her successful Police Woman series (three Emmy nods, along with a Golden Globe award and two additional GG nominations) but also the racy cult classic Big Bad Mama from schlock-meister Roger Corman. During that time, as well, she and then husband Burt Bacharach, one of the most prolific composers of the times, reigned–briefly but potently–among Hollywood’s golden couples. [Per a recent CBS Sunday Morning interview with Dickinson, the success of Police Woman spiked a surge of female recruits in the nation’s polices academies, with many such aspirants writing Dickinson directly and sharing their stories.] 

Following Hitchcock’s outline for Psycho, in a which a top-billed Hollywood actress (Janet Leigh) gets killed off fairly early, De Palma follows suit with Dickinson’s Kate Miller. She really isn’t in the picture for that long, but De Palma maximizes her presence, and she makes a vivid impression. Kate Miller is frustrated. Sex with her husband has become mechanical, something she endures without much pleasure. She’s at odds with her mother and can’t reconcile those feelings. Her uncertainty about her worth as a woman leads her, in a moment of desperation, to make a pass, a slight one, at her therapist, dryly played by Michael Caine. Naturally, Caine explains why a more intimate relationship is completely out of the question. Of course, patients often develop feelings of affection for their therapists; that much is understood, and Kate snaps to reality.

This is all good stuff. Dickinson’s Kate is extremely likeable in the early scenes, and that’s what the audience needs.  We have to feel that Kate is just like any other comfortably situated woman facing middle age and juggling roles of wife, mother, and daughter. Her son, btw, is a teenager (played by Keith Gordon), a techno whiz in the throes of completing a science fair project. Kate loves her son dearly and tries to keep up with his enthusiasm as he explains the workings of his latest invention, a home-made computer (this, keep in mind, when computers were simply not the everyday household item we take for granted today). Gordon, now more famously known as a director than an actor, was in his late teens when he filmed Dressed to Kill though he’s probably a year or two older than the character, Peter, as De Palma envisioned him. Nonetheless, he and Dickinson evince great rapport as she expresses concern about him staying up too late to work on his project while also playing the ever-supportive parent. The audience has to believe in the bond between Kate and Peter in order for understand everything Peter does after’s his mother’s death. It’s at this point that Peter turns amateur sleuth, jeopardizing both his life and that of Allen’s character.

Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill’s much praised museum sequence. The actress has gone on record with her belief that the 1980 film sensation represents her best work. She won a Saturn Best Actress trophy–per the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films–alas, her only award for such an accomplished effort. A supporting actress nod, from either the Hollywood Foreign Press or the Academy, would not have been unjust. After all, Janet Leigh’s featured turn in Psycho, in every way Dressed to Kill‘s antecedent, attracted the Academy’s attention. Why not Dickinson? Perhaps all the controversy, not the least of which includes the hubbub regarding a nude body double, worked against Dickinson even though, heck, stunt doubles are nothing new in Hollywood AND by that time Sissy Spacek had garnered Academy approval for De Palma’s blood-soaked Carrie. (IMAGE:×10-Photo-N732/372308530823?hash=item56af515687:g:9BcAAOSwrU1a~bhA:rk:40:pf:0)

Back to Dickinson. Her triumph in Dressed to Kill is the famous museum set piece. Kate’s there to meet her mother-in-law and is only mildly enthused about doing so. From a bench, she takes in the sights, including the couples and families strolling amongst the art. She jots reminders to herself in pocket notebook. Then, in an instant, everything changes when a mysterious dark-haired man, sporting dark shades, sits down next to her. Kate clearly feels attracted to the man, and he’s definitely on the prowl, but she’s not necessarily ready to jump into bed either. Yet.

Extravagant filmmaking follows, per De Palma’s assured touch. Kate and her stranger play a curious game throughout the vast art-filled space [2]. Kate is clearly the pursuer, and the pursuant relishes the chase, practically luring her a la the Pied Piper. It’s 5 minutes of winding, ever more dizzying camera work by Ralf D. Bode, precision editing by Jerry Greenberg, and Pino Donaggaio’s thrilling score heightening the emotional pull–sweeping, intense, and frantic. For most of it, the lens focuses solely on Dickinson’s sun-kissed, expressive face as she navigates a host of changes. That she registers her character’s urgency as vividly as she does is even more impressive given that the mechanics of the shoot required Dickson to act while moving toward a camera operator, monitoring her own distance by holding a rope, hidden from the camera’s view, in order to ensure that she remain in focus each and every step along the way. Tricky business, that. Better still, Dickinson registers her character’s plight so strongly that a scripted voiceover, Kate’s interior monologue, which she was to record during post-production, never happened once De Palma saw the rushes and felt satisfied that his star’s performance obviated the need for words. Good job.

Just when Miller resigns herself to yet another disappointment, she’s whisked away in a taxi cab for an orgiastic fully clothed tussle–with a bit of audio enhancement to Kate’s enthusiastic moans via Rutanya Alda [3].  Later, after a tender interlude takes a curdled turn, Kate steps into an elevator, and we know the rest though Dickinson has another great bit when Kate, feeling embarrassed by her transgression, has a stare down with a seemingly over-inquisitive child.

Then, the murder, and it’s shocking, but despite De Palma’s skillful build up, the sequence lacks the visceral charge of Psycho‘s legendary shower scene.

From there, Dressed to Kill offers a few taut thrills, including a multi-layered interrogation scene bathed in suspicion and split screen/split diopter bravado involving the son (Gordon), the hooker (Allen), the psychiatrist (Caine), and a hard-nosed detective (indefatigable Dennis Franz, a frequent De Palma player); elsewhere, De Palma orchestrates a deliberately misleading subway pursuit involving a cop played by Susanna Clemm, and bit of techno-gadgetry orchestrated by Gordon’s whiz kid.

Alas, the movie stumbles toward its anti-climactic conclusion, followed by a tired gimmicky coda.

Despite its controversy, Dressed to Kill turned quite a hefty profit for Filmways Pictures on a relatively cheap budget by 1980 standards–in a season dominated by The Empire Strikes Back–though both the film and its director could do no better than runner-up status in some of the year end-voting, most notably from the New York Film Critics Circle. The film was not entirely overlooked by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films, per the annual Saturn awards. De Palma’s next offering, Blowout, a political thriller that takes off from both Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-up AND the Kennedy assassination along with a definite nod to the Chappaquiddick scandal (involving Ted Kennedy and the late Mary Jo Kopechne) garnered stellar reviews but failed to excite moviegoers en masse in spite of a cast headed by John Travolta, Nancy Allen, and John Lithgow, all of them frequent or former De Palma collaborators.

The director long ago lost his cachet as one Hollywood’s leading filmmakers though certainly The Untouchables (1987), for which superstar Sean Connery won the 1987/88 Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and Mission Impossible (1996) scored big. De Palma’s bombastic revamp of gangster classic Scarface (1983), starring Al Pacino, became iconic later rather than sooner while Bonfire of the Vanities (from Tom Wolfe’s spectacular best seller) failed miserably [4]. Most everything else is hit or miss though the likes of Melanie Griffith (Body Double, 1984), Michael J. Fox (Casualties of War, 1989), John Lithgow (Raising Cain, 1992), Sean Penn (Casualties of War, 1989, and Carlito’s Way, 1993), and Frances Sternhagen (also of Raising Cain) have earned strong notices and awards buzz in works of varying quality.

Per the IMDb, Dickinson hasn’t earned a film or TV credit in almost ten years though she continued to work steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including a Big Bad Mama sequel and such high profile mini-series as Hollywood Wives and Wild Palms. Coincidentally, Dickinson’s Dressed to Kill son, Keith Gordon, directed two installments of the latter.

Halloween season is upon us. Currently, Jamie Lee Curtis is basking in the big screen blockbuster success of yet another entry in the enduring Halloween horror franchise.  Good for her, AND good for director David Gordon Green, a Richardson High School graduate and local fave.  For those inclined to skip the crowds and stay home to watch scary movies, De Palma offers a frightening enough boogey woman, or, rather, a boogey man disguised as a boogey woman, in Dressed to Kill.  Indeed, the trick of Dressed to Kill is that De Palma’s thrilling technique as a visual storyteller comes with the price of his peculiar notions about violence against women and sexuality, not to mention gender identity and gender expression. On the other hand, Angie Dickinson’s vivid portrayal of a woman motivated by longing and contradictory impulses continues to make Dressed to Kill a treat.

Thanks for your consideration.

[1] – Coincidentally, per the Dressed to Kill DVD featurette, De Palma’s frustration with not being able to secure the rights to Cruising’s source material provided the impetus, at least partially, for developing Dressed to Kill.

[2] – Trivia: The museum’s exteriors were filmed at Manhattan’s easily recognizable Metropolitan Museum of Art right smack on bustling Fifth Avenue; however, when an interior shoot at the same location proved infeasible, De Palma and producer George Litto, both of them Philly natives, packed up production and moved–on the sly from studio brass–to the impressive Philadelphia Museum of Art.

[3] – Besides her famous supporting role in 1981’s Mommie Dearest, which I wrote about recently, Alda is a longtime De Palma colleague, logging appearances in some of his earlier, lesser-known films, in addition to 1978’s big budget The Fury.

[4] – Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy (1991) expertly chronicles how just about everything turned sour with the big budget production, headlined by such major players as Tom Hanks,  Melanie Griffith, Bruce Willis, and Morgan Freeman (all of them pretty much cast for all the wrong reasons), the true folly of corporate Hollywood moviemaking.





Committed: Fabulously Faye

7 Oct

In my last post, I lamented Billy Wilder’s unfortunate Fedora, the dud movie adaptation of the late Thomas Tryon’s story of the same name, the leading entry in his Crowned Heads collection.  Within an instant of its publication, reports swirled that Faye Dunaway was being chatted up for the title role, a reclusive movie star whose erratic behavior is as puzzling as are her seemingly ageless good looks.

Ah, Dunaway, the one and only.  Before 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde, she was just another promising hopeful, but she soon became a household name thanks to the box office blockbuster based on the exploits of real-life Depression era bank robbers–from Texas, no less.  She earned an Oscar nomination and helped launch a fashion trend inspired by costume designer Theodora van Runkle’s interpretation of 1930s style. Dunaway soon followed with the sizzling Thomas Crown Affair, opposite Steve McQueen, another hit, but the next several years were marked by at least as many misses as hits; however, by the mid 70s, she was back on top.

As I child, wow, did I ever want to see Bonnie and Clyde and find out what was so cool about Faye Dunaway, but I was only 7, so I had to wait until the film appeared on network TV, cut-up and with commercials, so the experience was different from what I’d imagined. Never mind that I have seen it a few times since that first viewing. On the other hand, as a child, at least, I was mostly confused by The  Thomas Crown Affair, which I saw at the drive-in with my  family.  My favorite Dunaway performance is as mysterious Evelyn Mulwray in 1974’s Chinatown, pictured here, a remarkable blend of cool cunning and messy catharsis. She lost the Oscar to Ellen Burstyn for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which nobody second-guesses, but Chinatown remains  an undeniable classic thanks  in part to Dunaway’s colossal efforts.  (IMAGE:

The turn began in 1973 with the release of Richard Lester’s boisterous, all-star take on Alexandre Dumas’s classic The Three Musketeers, featuring, as well, Richard Chamberlain, Oliver Reed, Michael York, Raquel Welch, and Charlton Heston. 1974 saw the release of the celebrated neo-noir Chinatown with Dunaway as an increasingly suspicious (or suspiciously acting) woman at the center of a confounding mystery. Her efforts earned her a second Oscar nod–one of the film’s 11 Academy nominations, including Best Picture. She also earned star-billing, along with Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and William Holden, in Irwin Allen’s popular disaster epic, The Towering Inferno–which, to clarify, competed against Chinatown for top Academy honors. A rare feat, appearing in two Best Picture contenders in one year. Oh, and she even re-teamed, reluctantly, it seems, with Richard Lester and company for The Four Musketeers. She maintained her high profile in 1975’s The Three Days of the Condor. Her role in the political thriller was clearly secondary to that of Robert Redford–hot, hot, hot, at the time–but audiences flocked to theatres and made the movie a hit. 1976 brought Network and with it, not just another Oscar nod, but the coveted trophy itself.

About that Oscar. At the time, many prognosticators gave a slight edge to Liv Ullman for Ingmar Bergman’s typically somber Face to Face. While acknowledging a close race between Ullman and Dunaway, many critics harrumphed that watching the latter in Network was like watching a very good actress, no matter how exceptionally skilled, “act.” In other words, skeptics charged that her performance was more about performance for the sake of performance, rather than illuminating a character, and didn’t add up to much. I understand the concern, but I also disagree. Somewhat. I happen to love Dunaway in Network. I love her energy as a TV programming executive who thrills to her own power and the power of the medium itself. With those extreme highs come a few lows. In those moments, mostly when she’s face-to-face with co-star William Holden, a married, old-school newsperson in the throes of a mid-life crisis (of which Dunaway’s Diana Christensen is the key player), Dunaway affects a commendable stillness. She hangs on to his every word, not quite comprehending the language he speaks, the language of emotions–of love, indignation, and regret.  Indeed, per director Sidney Lumet in one of the DVD bonuses, Dunaway was so strong in one such exchange that he (Lumet) cut some of Dunaway’s lines–never even shot them–explaining that he got everything he needed in one visual. That’s powerful stuff. (Dunaway corroborates the story in her autobiography.)

At the same time, as much as I enjoy watching Dunaway in Network, I think she’s better, far better, than her material. Yeah, yeah, I know that the late screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky won a third Oscar, among other accolades, for his much ballyhooed Network screenplay, but Christensen isn’t a fully developed character. She’s a type, a stand-in for everything Chayefsky finds–found–lacking or distasteful, beginning with the soullessness of television and, it could be argued, the vapidity of successful business women. Same old tired misogyny, repackaged as cutting edge satire, 1976 style. Remember, Network premiered during a time in which women were feeling newly liberated and campaigning for equal rights, per the ERA. Even Lumet offers that the character has no vulnerability and is somehow less than fully human. Chayefsky shows more care for the characters portrayed by Holden, Best Actor winner Peter Finch (as prophetic anchor Howard Beale), and Best Supporting Actress winner Beatrice Straight (as Holden’s jilted wife). Dunway is tasked with playing the unplayable and making it believable.  That she does. At this point, it’s hard to imagine that any other actress could have risen to the task as authoritatively. Good for her. [Even so, I could have easily cheered, per Danny Peary, an Oscar victory for Sissy Spacek in her breakthrough role as telekinetic teen Carrie, 1976’s supernatural sleeper sensation.]

Commenting on an Academy award winning actress’s wardrobe might seem reductive, but kudos to Network costumer Theoni V. Alredge–who’d won for The Great Gatsby two years previous–for resisting the temptation to outfit the star in mannish suits as if to further underscore her character’s less than suitably feminine disposition. Instead, she’s right in step with the prevailing casual elegance of the 70s, per such designers as Halston and Diana von Furstenberg. At the time, and even for a time afterward, rumours abounded that Dunaway’s character was at least partially based on, or inspired by, Lin Bolen, NBC’s innovative daytime programming executive. Bolen passed away earlier this year. (IMAGE:

Besides her award winning portrayal in Network, Dunaway also appeared in the same season’s Voyage of the Damned, a thrice Oscar nominated entry inspired by the ill-fated Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis as it sailed from Germany to Cuba in 1939. With her Oscar, Dunaway fielded even more offers, starring as a high fashion photographer with psychic gifts in 1978’s suspenseful–if grisly–The Eyes of Laura Mars. The controversial flick turned a tidy profit, and Dunaway segued to Franco Zeffirelli’s lavishly promoted retelling of 1931’s The Champ, the classic weepie for which Wallace Beery won an Oscar [1]. The 1979 update starred Jon Voight, right on the heels of winning an Oscar for Coming Home, and child actor Rick Schroder–billed as Ricky Schroder–in the role made famous by Jackie Cooper. Dunaway had the thankless role of Voight’s ex-wife, but no matter. Audiences bawled their eyes out during the teary finale. And Schroder melted hearts, earned a Golden Globe for Best Debut Performance (along with other tributes), and launched a career of remarkable longevity, including such popular TV shows as Silver Spoons and NYPD Blue, minus the oft typical hazards that occur when child stars are no longer adorable–and easily marketable.

During those years, Dunaway worked as industriously in TV projects as she did in films–not to mention the big screen roles she declined. For example, her TV portrayals included such high profile offerings as Wallis Simpson, aka the Duchess of Windsor (The Woman I Love, 1972), Sister Aimee Simple McPherson (The Disappearance of Aimee, 1976), Eva Peron (Evita Peron, 1981), and a production of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall.  During that prolific period, Dunaway, for whatever reasons, passed on such biggies as 1975’s The Wind and the Lion (the Candice Bergen character, loosely based on an early 20th century international kidnapping crisis), Julia, in the role that ultimately won 1977’s Best Supporting Actress honors for Vanessa Redgrave (so strong is the latter as the elusive title figure, it’s hard to imagine Dunaway in the part),  and Norma Rae (1979), which famously catapulted Sally Field to big screen stardom–after thriving in television for years–and paved the way to Oscar number 1. Coincidentally, Jane Fonda, with whom Dunaway would have played opposite in Julia, also turned down Norma Rae–as did, per Wiley and Bona, Jill Clayburgh. But I digress.

Faye Dunaway absolutely should have portrayed Thomas Tryon’s screen siren, Fedora, an actress trapped by her own beauty, her own allure, and her own legend, as much a burden for her as it is her loved ones. Onscreen, the character is an immortal, a goddess; off-screen, she’s a wreck, increasingly paranoid and seemingly self-destructive.  As no less than Hollywood royalty Joan Crawford once famously opined, Dunaway was the only screen actress of her generation that–at least in Crawford’s eyes–had the makings of a true movie star. And why not? With her penetrating gaze, model-rrific cheekbones, and clotheshorse bod, Dunaway makes a ravishing camera subject, whether icy and remote or sultry and exotic. Plus, as she demonstrated in both Chinatown and Network, she has a fiercely intelligent and indelible talent. Also comparable to Tryon’s creation, she has long had a knack for generating controversy, specifically dividing co-workers on just about any given set [2]. I’m not sure how seriously Dunaway was ever considered for Fedora, really. Director Billy Wilder definitely had her in mind when he began the project (Sikov 553). I also seem to remember an item about it, per one of the syndicated gossip columnists of the times, such as Rona Barrett, Joyce Haber, Dorothy Manners, maybe Rex Reed, or Liz Smith–among a few others.

All of which brings me to Mommie Dearest, speaking of Joan Crawford. At truly the peak of her fame, Dunaway nabbed the role of real-life “Hollywood Royalty,” Miss Crawford, in what looked to be a sure-fire hit.  Published not too long after Crawford’s passing, Mommie Dearest recounted the turbulent relationship between the actress and her adopted daughter Christina–as seen from Christina’s perspective.  The book broke ground in that it was the first of a long-line of “tell all” accounts by children of Hollywood notables, most of whom come off as lousy parents. If such books are to be believed. The Joan Crawford depicted in Christina’s take is a fright, a bully prone to outrageous drunken sprees in the middle of the night, railing against any perceived infraction against her tightly-controlled, picture-perfect, movie star worthy environment. The highlights, or lowlights, if you will, include a prolonged sequence in which young Christina is forced to eat a disgustingly rare piece of meat, a contest of wills that lasts for days. Another episode details Joan’s horror at discovering her daughter has hung an expensive frock on a wire hanger–as opposed to wooden and/or padded–and becomes violently enraged. On and on it goes. Joan’s final slap comes when she makes no provision for Christina in her will. Christina responded in kind by serving Joan’s head on a platter, memoir style, to a public eager to devour every page.

With Dunaway, already known as a Crawford fave (albeit in an entirely different context), eager and available, what could go wrong?

When the movie version of Mommie Dearest premiered in the fall of 1981, critics and audiences didn’t quite know how to respond. Like me, for starters. I read Christina’s book, hot off the press in ’78, and found it especially harrowing. I saw the movie during opening weekend at the old Highland Park Village theater and couldn’t reconcile what unfolded onscreen. Passages in the book that made me squirm in discomfort, fearful for young Christina’s safety and shocked by Joan’s apparent cruelty to a child, played much differently: absurdly comical with Dunaway going full throttle with heightened emotion, sometimes 0-100 in a matter of seconds. The knockdown dragout brawls between Joan and Christina (played as a child by Mara Hobel and as a young adult by Diana Scarwid) are staged so awkwardly, clumsily, as to be, well, laughable. What could have been an insightful, eye-opening account of child abuse devolved into mere camp.

Let’s be frank here. Mommie Dearest is not a great film, but it’s compulsively watchable not unlike, well, say, a train wreck. You know how it is when you just can’t look away even though you squirm the whole time and want to vomit, you know, because you’re as excited by the sheer bloody spectacle as you are repulsed. Even so, what makes Mommie Dearest so damn watchable is Dunaway’s commitment to bringing Crawford back to life.  To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that Dunaway’s performance is so bad that it’s actually good, a guilty pleasure if you will. Instead, I think it’s a masterful performance by a courageous actress in a film that as often as not works against its star player. How can that be?

The key to watching Mommie Dearest and savoring every minute detail in Dunaway’s performance is to focus on the face. No, this is not to say that Dunaway looks astonishingly like the real Crawford, because she doesn’t, even though many critics and fans certainly believe so. Okay, maybe more in some sequences than in others. No matter. Crawford, especially in the 1930s, the era of Grand Hotel and The Women, possessed (per one of her own titles) one of the most ravishing faces in the history of movies. It might not have been perfectly symmetrical, but it was perfect nonetheless, what with Joan’s doe-eyes, regal forehead, and bold slash of a mouth; however, as the 30s faded, and Joan had to reinvent herself to stay relevant–which she did–the face became more like a mask, starting with the exaggerated almost too-easy-to-mock  thick dark eyebrows and severe hairdos. And the ever increasingly absurdity of the drawn-on lips. Even so, was she ever more beautiful than she was in Humoresque, released a year after Oscar winner Mildred Pierce?

Back to Dunaway. In preparing to play Crawford, Dunaway learned after much practice how to compose her face muscles to replicate Crawford’s unmistakably haughty bearing, the mask of protection, to blot out, yes, the shitty life of poverty, despair, and likely abuse that shaped her into a driven, ambitious workaholic for whom nothing less than perfection was acceptable. All of that is in Dunaway’s face, scene after scene, especially the quiet ones, such as the moment when Crawford goes for her morning run with trusty assistant, Carol Ann (the great Rutanya Alda), driving along beside her among the winding roads of Brentwood. Crawford, never mind her adopted children, is her own greatest creation, and her every move, every deed, from exercising to cleaning house, must be punishing in order to hold value and act as a reminder she must never stop fighting to escape the past. For her, everything is business. Even having fun is business.

But a mask is still a mask. As Crawford, Dunaway’s face is rigid, impenetrable, but the eyes are alert–and plotting, plotting, plotting. Plus, again, Crawford, no matter what else she is, is an actress, always performing. Forget the tantrums, the hysteria over wire hangers, Dunaway’s Crawford is at her most cruel when she’s perfectly calm, resting on a swanky chaise lounge while delicately applying cream to her elbows and coolly taunting Christina for playing a childish game that she (Crawford) sees as a betrayal.

Dunaway doesn’t look too much like Joan Crawford in this still from Mommie Dearest though in some sequences she serves a more convincing illusion. This over-sized chaise, btw, is a magnificent piece of furniture and probably my favorite such item in any film. Ever. I can imagine living in it for a lazy weekend. That noted, for all the luxe furnishings in the film’s first  half, mostly Crawford’s lavish, impeccably furnished two storey Brentwood estate, and some of legendary designer Irene Sharaff’s contributions, the latter  portions appear  to have been  shot on a shoestring with sets that clearly look like sets, some likely recycled from  old TV shows. (IMAGE:

Another intriguing scene, which Dunaway plays expertly, begins in Crawford’s basement laundry room. Daughter Christina, by now a teen, is home from her fancy private school, going about the business of washing clothes. Then, Crawford descends, registering shame as she solemnly breaks the news to her daughter that money is tight, so “cutting-back” is the new order. This means that Joan has enrolled her daughter in a work-study program, thereby allowing her to continue at boarding school. This quiet exchange between mother and daughter plays touchingly as both Christina and Joan try to shrug the recent turn as a mere minor setback; after all, Joan toiled in a similar program when she was a girl–which we know to be true, actually. With Crawford ever the worker-bee, Dunaway plays much of the scene folding laundry.  Director Frank Perry, in one of his smart moves, thrusts the camera right into Dunaway’s face as she reveals how frightened she is at the thought of being cut loose, yet again, from a Hollywood studio contract–after her triumphant comeback with Oscar winner Mildred Pierce at Warners, once she and MGM parted ways–in another tautly played scene–in light of her being labelled “box office poison” by theatre owners [3].

Of course, by this point, we’ve just seen Crawford dripping in jewelry, throwing back cocktails, and explaining how she had to let go the housekeeper. So how can she afford all that jewelry? Everything comes together in the scene that follows the laundry encounter when Christina walks into Joan’s dressing room and finds her mother, passed-out drunk, surrounded by newly delivered shoe boxes, hat boxes and more–all freshly purchased; this, in spite of all the anguish over no longer earning a steady paycheck. Chilling stuff.

Mommie Dearest‘s reputation as a campy howler stems from a few ineptly staged scenes in which Dunaway comes across as frighteningly unhinged. No denying she goes over the top–way, way, over the top. One such offender is the infamous “No wire hangers” meltdown, which culminates with Crawford dragging her daughter into the bathroom and attacking her mercilessly with a can of Old Dutch cleanser–yep, it’s as bad as it sounds–with Dunaway freakishly ghoul-like thanks to a heavy layer of white face cream. Why add that ostentatious element to an already shocking scene? The last straw is a knockdown brawl between Crawford and teenage Christina that results in overturned furniture and Crawford choking the child until Carol Ann and a visitor intervene. It’s an ugly scene, and based on an actual incident. But the fault isn’t Dunaway’s.  As unfortunate as these missteps are, she never comes across as “hammy,” of over-acting like a rank amateur. Instead, she is frighteningly real, caught up in the moment, having tapped into some deep-rooted rage that must be unleashed. I get that.

No, much of the fault lies with the director, the late Frank Perry. Hear me out. Contrary to lore, Faye Dunaway has actually addressed the making of Mommie Dearest in multiple forums, such as her own book, in which she devotes a whole chapter to the movie, and an episode of Inside the Actors Studio w/James Lipton. Even so, the so-called talk is that she refuses to discuss the film. Not so. The essence of Dunaway’s account is that she was so consumed by the enormity and the complexity of the character, that is, Joan Crawford, that she kind of got lost in the process, and that a stronger director would have worked harder to rein her in a bit, to tell her when she’d gone too far–such as the scene in which Crawford goes ballistic and savagely cuts Christina’s hair–and help her modulate or shape the performance. To clarify, if the script dictates that Crawford take out her frustration by whacking her daughter’s hair, or choking her, then that is what it is. What Dunaway needed was someone to coach her so that Crawford’s reaction was believable. Instead, as noted, Dunaway often goes from 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds, and the effect is bizarrely comical when it should be heartbreaking.

Is Dunaway being too easy on herself and too hard on a director who is unable to defend himself? After all, Perry died in 1995–just as Dunaway published her book. Maybe Perry tried but never got through to his star. Perhaps. Even so, I’m inclined to agree with Dunaway based on some of the awkward staging and general ineptitude throughout the flick’s entirety.  Much of the time, the director seems to fail his star. What was Perry doing when he was supposed to be in charge of the set?  After all, what’s up with those shots, more than one, in which the camera fixates on teenage Christina’s white underpants? It demeans actress Diana Scarwid and robs the character of her dignity–on top of the abuse she suffers at her mother’s hands.

This is not to say that Perry fails time after time, but he seems to struggle with the bigger, emotionally elevated sequences. It’s in those instances, such as a blowout between Joan and her steady, Greg (played stiffly by Steve Forrest [4]), that everything goes haywire: not just acting, and not just Dunaway, but also staging and editing.  Perry lets the “big” scenes get away from him, but Dunaway suffers all the blame.

That noted, one scene in the last half of the movie plays extraordinarily well, demonstrating how sharp the rest of the film could have been if Perry had exercised just a little more diligence, a little more care. To backtrack, in the mid 1950s Crawford met and married Alfred Steele, the dynamic CEO of Pepsi Cola. Was it a marriage of convenience, given the fact that 50ish Crawford no longer had the security of a long-term studio contract and had to hustle for gigs, or was Steele the great love of her life as she often proclaimed? Maybe a bit of both. Nonetheless, Crawford relished her role as Pepsi’s Goodwill Ambassador but when Steele passed away suddenly in 1959, he left his widow with a pile of debt that effectively put Crawford at odds with Pepsi’s board of directors. (Once again, simplified for the sake of the movie.)

In a magnificently tense confrontation between indomitable Crawford and a roomful of hardened Pepsi execs determined to vanquish her, Dunaway takes charge. Seething with contempt, not just for the men across the table but the entirety of the male dominated establishment under which she has long toiled,  Dunaway’s Crawford is cagey, calculating. She’s not there to lose her cool though. If Pepsi wants a fight, she’ll fight–but not without a warning that she’s nobody’s pushover. The emotional ante builds and builds until there’s no holding back, and the eruption comes as a needed release. The scene has nothing to do with Crawford’s tumultuous relationship with her daughter, but it’s just about the only time in the movie in which Crawford’s anger is delayed, and the audience can savor every nuance in Dunaway’s tightly wound performance. Plus, again, notice how Perry frames the action: Crawford on one end, smug Pepsi execs on the other, cutting back and forth, bringing the camera closer and closer to Dunaway, looking every bit the well turned-out movie star who knows the value of putting on a “costume” in order to make a statement. The scene’s climax comes as Dunaway’s Crawford bellows at the suits, the fellas, not to “fuck” with her, and then hisses the reminder that I have memorialized as the tag line for this blog.

Again, if only other scenes had been consistently well-modulated. Certainly, with David and Lisa (for which he was Oscar nominated), Diary of a Mad Housewife (both, to clarify, Oscar nominated in multiple categories) and other prestige titles to his credit, Perry was hardly a lightweight, but his efforts on Mommie Dearest are uneven, to say the least, but I don’t think Perry had to pay for Mommie Dearest‘s miscalculations to the degree that Dunaway did. That noted, Perry’s follow-up, 1982’s bloated Monsignor, starring Christopher Reeve (and at least co-produced by Frank Yablans, also of Mommie Dearest, and clearly holding no grudge) tanked–and deservedly so. Still, Perry notched a minor comeback with 1985’s smart and sassy mystery-comedy Compromising Positions, toplined by Susan Sarandon in a cast that also included Judith Ivey, Raul Julia, Edward Herrmann, Anne De Salvo and a few others. It was the light success that Perry needed.

It took Dunaway a bit longer to recover, and that’s unfortunate, but not uncommon in an industry which measures success and failure differently for women than for men. It’s fair to say that the offers of quality material for Dunaway dwindled in the aftermath, which is not to say that she wasn’t offered variations of Mommie Dearest that would have relied on camp appeal. At the same time, Dunaway is at least partially responsible for the downturn, as she made a conscious choice to be less visible among Hollywood’s deal makers by moving to England to be with her husband (photographer Terry O’Neill) and begin raising a family, working only selectively–notably a couple of Agatha Christie adaptations. The feature films she actually completed during that era were mostly duds.

The rebound came with 1987’s Barfly, a low budget offering, surprisingly via exploitation masters Cannon Films, co-starring Mickey Rourke, penned by no less than renegade pulpy poet Charles Bukowski [5] (with Francis Ford Coppola earning a producer’s credit). Dunaway’s boozy hardluck case warranted a shout-out from Premiere, then in its infancy, as the comeback of the year. No Oscar nod, alas, but the Hollywood Foreign Press came through with a Golden Globe nomination–in a most competitive season. In the years that followed, Dunaway, well into her 40s by that point, worked pretty steadily, earning a Cable ACE nomination for Cold Sassy Tree (a project she developed) and an Emmy for an installment of the Columbo series, among other nominations and/or awards. She even made a cameo appearance in 1999’s reboot of The Thomas Crown Affair starring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo.

So, what about Oscar consideration for Dunaway in Mommie Dearest? In spite of the film’s controversy, Dunaway eked out runner-up status in the tallies for awards from the National Society of Film Critics (with Pauline Kael, rhapsodic about Dunaway in print, rallying votes) and the New York Film Critics Circle; however, the Academy looked elsewhere for honorees. What about that? Here’s what. Do I think Dunaway deserved an Oscar nomination for Mommie Dearest? Yes, though I probably was less convinced at the time; nonetheless, I certainly would not have been surprised if the nod had materialized, all things considered. I definitely remember feeling that way at the time. There were three sure-things that year, no questions asked: Katherine Hepburn (On Golden Pond, the victor [6] ), Diane Keaton (Reds, the most nominated flick in more than a decade), and Meryl Streep (The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Streep’s first starring vehicle, in double roles no less, since winning supporting honors for Kramer vs. Kramer).  Next, Susan Sarandon in Atlantic City. Good for her. I loved Atlantic City, and I loved Sarandon in it. I was glad to see her land in the big leagues after appreciating her work in the likes of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and King of the Gypsies (a seriously under-valued performance). Famously, Paramount, Atlantic City‘s distributor, had positioned Sarandon as a supporting hopeful, but the Academy saw otherwise, and, again, good for Sarandon.

The fifth nominee is the one that has always struck me as anti-climactic. That would be Marsha Mason in Only When I Laugh, her fourth and–so far–final nod. Her first came with 1973’s Cinderella Liberty when she was a relative newcomer whose breakthrough season included not only her nominated flick but also critical fave Blume in Love. Mason’s next two nods were for films penned by her then husband, popular playwright Neil Simon (who passed away while I was writing this piece): The Goodbye Girl (1978) and the semi-autobiographical Chapter Two, playing her own fictional counterpart opposite James Caan (with whom she’d co-starred in Cinderella Liberty).  Only When I Laugh was another Simon collaboration. C’mon, three Oscar nominations for movies penned by her husband in less than 5 years? Really? This is not to say Mason isn’t worth watching–though I only have faint memories of seeing Only When I Laugh when it first appeared on cable–but somehow the nod just seemed rote, uninspired. Plus, the nod smacks of, what, cronyism [7]. That noted, Only When I Laugh was a hit, and the wealth was spread around as supporting players Joan Hackett and James Coco also earned Academy nods. Indeed, Hackett even won the Golden Globe in her category. (< The respected actress passed away in 1983, barely more than a year after her sole Oscar nomination.)

Mason was the safe choice, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but I’ve long thought that her slot would have, could have, and should have been better served by the inclusion of either Jessica Lange in The Postman Always Rings Twice, or, yes, Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. Now, that would’ve been a race like no other.

Yes, Mommie Dearest is stupefyingly, howlingly, berserk (another Crawford title) at times, but that’s largely the director’s fault, and, sure, it’s hardly typical Academy fare (certainly not at that point in Hollywood’s timeline). Yes, Dunaway’s instincts sometimes veer to outlandish extremes but the good outweighs the bad. Upon close inspection, those moments are relatively fleeting and certainly do not represent the entirety of Dunaway’s efforts in Mommie Dearest, which are otherwise masterful, impassioned, and committed.

Thanks for your consideration.

[1] Beery actually tied with Frederic March (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) for that year’s Best Actor award.

[2] Without going into a lot of detail, let me add that reports of Dunaway’s–alleged–conduct have always made good copy. She feuded with Chinatown director Roman Polanski though he also professed quite a row with top-billed Jack Nicholson, yet, unsurprisingly, that outburst was later laughed off as just guys being guys. Double-standard much? Meanwhile, consider that in her self-published account of filming Mommie Dearest, actress Rutanya Alda (as Carol Ann, Joan Crawford’s star-struck fan turned personal assistant), describes a production fraught with delays thanks to its temperamental star. Alda also points the finger at interference from Terry O’Neil, Dunaway’s then boyfriend (and soon husband), a famous photographer in his own right who snagged an executive producer’s credit on the film. In her book, Dunaway writes that O’Neill made her feel protected during a demanding project with a director who was clearly in over his head. Still again, on the DVD commentary, producer Frank Yablans hails Dunaway as mostly pleasant and professional, save for a misstep on the first day of shooting. Who knows the truth at this point, except to say that even though Alda spares Dunaway almost nothing in her book, she nonetheless praises the star’s performance, effusively, in the finished film, per the DVD featurette.

[3] Crawford’s departure from MGM was reportedly more mutual than the cold dismissal depicted in the film though props to Howard Da Silva for slyly seizing the moment as MGM boss Louie B. Mayer.

[4] Forrest’s character, Greg Savitt, stands-in for multiple men in Crawford’s life, particularly show-biz lawyer Greg Bautzer, whose relationship with Crawford was reported to be quite volatile. Bautzer was still alive in the early 80s, so not using his real name might have been a move to avoid legal complications. That noted, pages 153 through 157 of Bob Thomas’s Crawford bio suggest a reasonable correlation between real-life Bautzer and fictional Savitt.

[5] Paraphrase from 2005 New Yorker article by Adam Kirsch quoted in  Wikipedia entry on Bukowski:

[6] Hepburn’s 12th nod, a record at the time, and her fourth win, a feat still unmatched by any performer, that is, any performer, male or female, in any category, leading or supporting.

[7] Tellingly, Mason’s profile, that is, her marketability, slipped almost the instant she and Simon split in 1983. Yes, she recovered but certainly not with the same luster as in the Simon years.

Works Cited

Alda, Rutanya. The Mommie Dearest Diaries: Carol Ann Tells All. Ed. Jeremy Bright. Self-Published, 2013. Updated in 2015.

Dunaway, Faye, and  Besty Sharkey. Looking for Gatsby: My Life. Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Peary, Danny. Alternate Oscars: One Critic’s Defiant Choices for Best Picture, Actor, and Actress–From 1927 to the Present. Delta, 1993, pp. 233-234.

Sikov, Ed. On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. Hyperion, 1998.

Thomas, Bob. Joan Crawford: A Biography. Simon and Schuster, 1978.

^ Note: I read Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest when she first published it in 1978; however, I long ago lost track of my copy. I remember giving, yes, giving, it to a friend who passed away years ago. At any rate, Thomas’s book, also published in 1978, of which I read excerpts at the time, and now own, corroborates at least some of Christina’s details about growing up in the Crawford household in the 1940s and 1950s, besides providing key details about the overall Crawford trajectory.

Wiley, Mason and Damien Bona. Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, 10th Anniversary Edition. Ed. Gail MacColl. Ballantine Books, 1996. pp. 569; 599-606.