ORLANDO – Christina Crawford’s new documentary, “Surviving Mommie Dearest: Tears to Triumph,” has an epic feel, covering the 74-year-old author’s life from when she was just a baby to present day.
As the author of the 1978 best-selling autobiographical book “Mommie Dearest,” the documentary naturally looks back at her childhood as the adopted daughter of movie legend Joan Crawford. Christina Crawford, who wrote and narrates the documentary, includes home movies and old film clips, and does a masterful job of recounting the abuse that she endured. She’s downright chilling when she describes how her mother often made decisions about her adopted children by deciding that she had to “punish them for being such bad babies.”
But if there’s one thing that seems odd about the documentary, once you’ve seen it, it may be the title. “Surviving Mommie Dearest” seems to imply that the movie will be about not only Christina Crawford’s childhood in Hollywood, but also the years after her mother’s death in 1977. It does cover that, but it all feels rushed, all too quick to sum up her later years as if it were an introductory piece to a television interview.
The movie spends a lot more time, and gets into far more detail, about what she endured as a child than as an adult. And in some ways that’s unfortunate, because the second half of the movie suggests Christina Crawford may have had a much more interesting number of adult years than she assumes.
“Surviving Mommie Dearest” was produced by Crawford and Jerry Rosenberg, the Jacksonville businessman and co-owner of the Metro Night Club, and it’s nothing if not a documentary that understands the allure of some good Hollywood behind-the-scenes dirt and gossip.
“Our journey starts in early Hollywood,” the narrator Crawford says in the movie’s opening, “but Hollywood is not the story – it’s the backdrop to the story.”
Perhaps, but it does feel like a Hollywood insider documentary, the kind that entertainment news channels on cable are so proficient at.
The documentary even opens with a Hollywood tour guide taking guests along a tour of the homes of the great celebrities – including, of course, Joan Crawford, the small town girl whose talent for dancing brought her to Hollywood, where she landed roles in some of the earliest cinematic hits, like 1932’s Best Picture winner “Grand Hotel,” making her a star.
It moves on, of course, to catty talk about Joan Crawford’s failed marriages, the years when her career sagged, and how this led her to drink and made her both manic depressive and paranoid about the motives of others.
All of this is fairly average stuff for a Hollywood bio, although Christina Crawford gets a bit past what makes it onto Entertainment Tonight by describing her mother’s efforts to cover up a porn film she had made in her early years, and includes home movies of Joan cavorting naked on the roof of a penthouse suite with a married man.
Much harder to watch are Christina Crawford descriptions of getting sent to a boarding school for seemingly unwanted Hollywood children — and then even worse — or the physical abuse she endured during her mother’s rages. You can even feel the pain in Christina Crawford’s voice when she talks about how she was “required to call her Mommie Dearest.”
The journey, as she put it, is not always downbeat or depressing. As can be expected for a Hollywood documentary, there are humorous moments, including Christina Crawford’s description of how she panicked as a child when a bare-chested Yul Brenner showed up at the door, and she had no clue the “King And I” star was her mother’s date for the night.
She also has some fun recounting her own efforts to become an actress, doing Neil Simon on stage in “Barefoot in the Park,” and then finding even greater success in 1968 in the TV soap opera “The Secret Storm.” Christina was doing fine until she needed emergency surgery and had to take a leave of absence from the show, and guess who volunteered to fill in the role that the 28-year-old had been playing? None other than mother and arch rival, Joan, now in her 60s.
Christina Crawford confronts the fact that her mother, who died in 1977 of liver cancer, had written her out of the family will, and how a year later she published “Mommie Dearest.” So far, so good.
And yet her later years, removed from Hollywood, seem in some ways more interesting than when she was either living amidst the Hollywood glamour with Joan, pursuing her own acting career or becoming the well publicized author of a controversial book.
Not long after her second book was published, Christina suffered a near fatal stroke, and had a long, five year rehabilitation – she couldn’t even speak at first. She eventually would move to Idaho, where she set up a successful bed and breakfast – Seven Springs Farm in Sanders, Idaho – nestled amidst that state’s rural beauty. She went to work as a special events manager at a casino in Coeur d’Alene, hosted a local cable show on the great Northwest, and became an advocate for child abuse victims.
All quite interesting – and yet the second half of the documentary rushes through these chapters of her life with amazing speed. I would have liked to have seen more of Christina working with other abuse victims, turning her home into a bed and breakfast, and finding more happiness in an area far removed from the glitz of Hollywood. But it’s still Hollywood that dominates most of the documentary’s scenes.
The movie clocks in under 90 minutes, and at a time when even the Batman movies run past two and a half hours long, this one seems woefully short and wouldn’t lose much by adding footage from Crawford’s more recent years.
“Surviving Mommie Dearest” is never less than interesting to watch, and Crawford is an engaging and passionate narrator. She has said the final cut was completed just before its premiere in Orlando, and that she and Rosenberg would now decide what they wanted to do with the film.
A second look at the footage of Crawford’s later years might be a good place to start.
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