In 1981, I caught a screening of Mommie Dearest, with Faye Dunaway as aging Hollywood gorgon Joan Crawford in all her penciled-eyebrowed neuroses, and I was perhaps bizarrely impressed. I promptly called a friend to tell him I’d just seen something that works on every level, and I felt that no one could have made a better Joan than plucky, problematic Faye. After all, Joan herself had declared Faye the best of the new breed, and as if in preparation for playing this role, Faye had even battled with Joan’s nemesis, Bette Davis. They clashed while making a 1976 TV movie called The Disappearance of Aimee, after which costar James Woods told me: “Faye Dunaway needs a step ladder to sniff Bette Davis’s ass!”
I gaily assumed that all sorts of accolades awaited Faye and Mommie, but half-empty theaters led to a desperately campy ad campaign and Dunaway was suitably horrified. The film impacted her career, one reason being that Hollywood always protects its own legends, even when they’re nightmares, and another being that many observers found Dunaway’s work far from award-caliber, especially when gossip about her divaesque antics started getting passed along like soggy popcorn.
Interestingly, Faye was voted the first runner up for Best Actress at the New York Film Critics Awards that year and she was simultaneously awarded the Golden Razzie for the same performance. But whatever people think of her and this film, I’ve long felt that she should embrace it rather than constantly act mortified and try to run away from its power. The truth is, it’s never going to go away, especially for the gays. And word has leaked that Dunaway is finally addressing the movie in a book, and she even reached out to Rutanya Alda, who so ably played Joan’s trusty assistant, Carol Ann, for help remembering things. But Rutanya advised Faye to simply read her own book—the extremely readable The Mommie Dearest Diary: Carol Ann Tells All, detailing Rutanya’s experiences with one troubled Oscar winner playing another one. And if Faye does read it, I bet she’ll be mad at the dirt!
There are occasional views of a relaxed and almost sympathetic Faye in this Diary, but that’s not the main gist, since the star is more often found in a “Don’t fuck with me, fellas!” mode. Here are some of the book’s more telling tidbits:
*Faye staged a key scene so Rutanya was made to face away from the camera (a familiar trick imposed by insecure stars.) Rutanya had no one to complain to about this—director Frank Perry would have sided with Faye since he was afraid of being fired by her—so she did what Carol Ann would do and bit the bullet. Later on, Rutanya was told to just be an off-camera voice in a scene she had with Faye. Not even the back of her head was seen!
*Academy Award winning costumer Irene Sharaff walked off the set, horrified by some of Faye’s outfit decisions. The wardrobe lady was reduced to tears by Faye. And an exec’s assistant had fun entertaining the crew with mocking shrieks of “Clear the set!” Faye wasn’t around to hear this wicked imitation or heads would have surely rolled.
*Faye reportedly wouldn’t do the movie unless her then-boyfriend Terry O‘Neill got producing credit, even though he didn’t do any producing. As usual, Faye got her way—though Faye eventually started wondering if Terry just might have been using her.
*At one point, Faye told Rutanya that she couldn’t ever direct! How wryly ironic is that? Alas, when Faye was given the actual title of director—for the more recent Master Class movie—it languished, unfinished, so maybe she was right.
*As I mentioned, there are also some snapshots of Faye being quite human, like when she talked to Rutanya about the importance of good lighting, and when she was nice to Rutanya’s on-set visitors (whom she’d pre-approved). In these moments, Faye is capable of coming off rather lovely in between horrible, competitive flareups during the actual filming.
*Faye thought she’d be Oscar nominated, but wouldn’t win because the film was too controversial. They cut to the chase by not even nominating her—but that’s not why she distanced herself from the film. Rutanya feels it’s because Faye never wanted to be a second banana to Joan Crawford—she needs to be number one at all times.
There’s tons more stuff in the book, but giving it all away would be as misguided as putting an expensive dress on a wire hanger. Let me just leave you with Rutanya’s observation about another of her costars:
“Little Mara Hobel, playing young Christina, seems like an adult in miniature, a bleached blonde, 45-year-old dwarf….She keeps grilling me to list more of my credits. It’s frustrating to be challenged to a pissing contest by anyone, but especially by a nine-year-old.”
By the way, Mommie Dearest will be featured very soon in the next season of Logo’s Cocktails & Classics movie show, featuring…well, you’ll see!
DEAF POETRY JAM
Misunderstood youth made for another classic: Spring Awakening, the 2007 Tony winner that took Frank Wedekind’s banned 1891 play about hormonal students at odds with misguided adults and made it throb with a stunning score by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, ripely delivered by a cast of newbies. As the melodramatic plot bubbled into suicide, pregnancy and gay love, the show’s catch phrases (“the bitch of living”, “My junk is you,” “I’m gonna be your wound”) instantly entered the musical theater lexicon with their blistering bouts of casual frankness and poetic pain.
And now, the show’s been given new life by Deaf West Theatre, which has some actors signing their lines while their counterparts talk and sing for them; some signing with subtitles; and yet others (who are hearing) doing all three. The use of hearing and deaf actors—which was extraordinary when the company revived Big River in 2003—works well again, especially since all that movement is coordinated into choreography (at times, it almost comes off like voguing) and besides, it’s a show about masturbation, and obviously that requires a lot of hand action! In all seriousness, the use of deafness to echo the play’s themes about outcasts and nonconformity are moving, and the production--directed by Michael Arden and choreographed by Spencer Liff and featuring Marlee Matlin and Camryn Manheim among the grownups--makes a re-awakening out of this pulsing, rocking work. Hear, hear.
“I’VE WRITTEN A LETTER TO DADDY”
Another reinterpretation is Daddy Long Legs, an intimate chamber musical about an orphan girl who develops the attention of an anonymous donor who finances her education, as feelings simmer through her monthly letters to him. For the off-Broadway show—which has music and lyrics by Paul Gordon and book and direction by John Caird—they’ve ignored the relatively splashy 1955 Fred Astaire/Leslie Caron movie and gone back to the original Jean Webster novel instead. The two-character show has benefactor Jervis and schoolgirl Jerusha reciting their letters to each other, usually in song, which could be a limiting premise, especially considering the frustrating contrivance that “Daddy” won’t reveal himself. But, with echoes of both She Loves Me and Love Letters, the result is sweet and charming, with pretty songs (“The Secret of Happiness” is a standout) and top-notch performances. Paul Alexander Nolan is strong as the conflicted rich guy with a crush, and Megan McGinnis—a leading lady in the Judy Kuhn mode—is a knockout as the evolving young lady who’s getting her eyes pinned open by the minute. By the way, this is the third Leslie Caron movie in a row to be made into a stage musical. (There was already Gigi and An American in Paris.) When they sing and dance to the abortion drama The L-Shaped Room, we’ll definitely have a trend. In any case, this Daddy definitely seems nicer than Mommie.