If you read my Biopic Theatre review of Mommie Dearest (1981), then you’re aware of my undying affection for the 1980s camp classic/loose examination of the life of Joan Crawford. The film’s troubled production has been discussed in numerous forms, but Rutanya Alda’s book, The Mommie Dearest Diary touts a first-hand account of working on the film.
The Mommie Dearest Diary has the secondary title Carol Ann Tells All in the vein of something like Jaws: The Revenge. Advertised as the actual diary Alda kept during the film’s production, the slim volume doesn’t necessarily scream “Raging Tell-All” so much as truly showing how stressful the day-to-day filmmaking process is in general, let alone a production where the director feels he’ll be fired by the leading lady at any minute. Alda recounts the minutiae of waiting around to film her scenes, many requiring full makeup that took time to both apply and remove.
Some days she mentions not even going to set, as her services aren’t required. With so much downtime, the true meat of the diary comes from Alda’s complicated marriage to Richard Bright, a tortured actor struggling with drug addiction. The moments involving Alda’s questioning of whether her husband is high, the fear that her work and success might be doing him more harm than good, allows Alda to become consumed by doing good work on Mommie Dearest despite the tempestuous environment there. At one point, she mentions her neutrality as a means of finding some ray of stability in her life, and one of the predominant reasons she never spoke out against the production’s problems during filming. Alda also mentions her desire to be method, and inhabit the skin of Carol Ann, as a reason for her desire to be neutral regarding Dunaway.
This provides proper context on how much hearsay the Diary relies on. Alda does mention star Faye Dunaway’s tendency to leave after her close-ups were filmed, leaving Alda and the rest of the cast to film their close-ups with script people, as one of the big moments of acrimony between them but, for the most part, Dunaway doesn’t come off as particularly nasty to her. (She alludes to her general amiability with the director and crew, as well as being prettier than Dunaway, as the reason most of Carol Ann’s scenes were cut, but you have to wonder how much of that might have been director/studio interference as well.)
Most of Alda’s stories about Dunaway’s problematic demeanor is second-hand from those who directly interacted with her and give the diary its scandalous nature. There’s accusations from designer Irene Sharaff that Dunaway did heroin in the past; there’s questions regarding Dunaway’s Svengali-like husband, Terry O’Neill, etc. All of these revelations aren’t particularly shocking if you’ve read anything regarding Dunaway in the past, even Alda makes sure to include comments from classic film stars who cited the actress as the worst one to work with, so really the fun comes from the fly-on-the-wall perspective. Though Alda was on-set the entire shoot – a rarity for most actors – there’s still a staccato quality to her anecdotes due to her lack of interaction with all the actors, so if you want details about stars like Steve Forrest or Diana Scarwid, they’re few and far between since Alda didn’t work with them daily.
Really, the meat of the book comes from Alda simply talking about herself. Her husband and their relationship is troubling stuff, but the opening chapter detailing Alda’s childhood deserves a proper biography in itself. Raised by a “Mommie Dearest” of her own – “it’s terrible when a parent doesn’t love you” – Alda was a refugee whose father was thrown in a gulag. Abandoned on a sinking ship, Alda grew up mopping blood and grue from suicides on the crossing to America. By the time you’re done reading this dealing with Faye Dunaway sounds like small potatoes, a testament to Alda’s patience and resilience. When Alda received the role of Carol Ann, she did more research on Crawford than anyone – meeting the star as a child when Crawford filmed Johnny Guitar (1954) – and she appreciates the classic film icons that came together to make a picture they all assumed would sweep the Oscars…little did they know.
The Mommie Dearest Diary serves better as the autobiography of a woman struggling up the ladder of stardom during the sea-change that was the heady 1970s into the more conservative 1980s. Her personal struggles far outweigh the film’s, and because Alda remained neutral on-set it does make for questions of exaggeration. Alda’s voice shines brighter than the film, and while the book’s existence stems from one movie, Alda’s story is far more interesting.
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