Mommie Dearest in drag

Why would Joan Crawford's daughter embrace the gay cult that thinks her child abuse, detailed in her memoir 'Mommie Dearest,' is one big campy joke?

By Paul Festa
Published July 1, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

When trying to identify the queerest thing about me as an adolescent, I skip over the obvious signs like my doll house and my penchant for nail polish and think instead of this: Throughout much of my boyhood, I entertained the fantasy that I could resurrect Joan Crawford and make her face the world her daughter Christina had created since her death.

Christina Crawford -- actually Joan's adopted daughter -- was catapulted to fame and eventually into my 13-year-old consciousness after writing the memoir "Mommie Dearest," a harrowing chronicle of savage beatings and other less-orthodox punishments for infractions ranging from hanging dresses on wire hangers to refusing to eat steak tartare to falling behind on a couple of thousand thank-you notes every Christmas. The memoir was only the first in a chain of related posthumous PR disasters for Joan Crawford. The second transpired in 1981, when an unspeakably terrible movie based on the book appeared, featuring a career-stunting performance by Faye Dunaway in the title role. And in the third misfortune to beset the late screen legend, the movie "Mommie Dearest" inspired a widespread and durable cult, made up of gay men who to this day derive tremendous amusement from the movie's disastrous portrayal of Joan's disastrous role as a mother.

I've never gotten to the bottom of my fantasy of bringing Joan back from the dead and making her face the world according to "Mommie Dearest." But several months ago I witnessed a spectacle that both reminded me of that fantasy and bore a curious resemblance to it. Christina Crawford, quite literally the author of her dead mother's woes, emerged from the comparative seclusion of her Idaho ranch to introduce the movie "Mommie Dearest" to several thousand of those same gay men -- present company included -- who think the story of her childhood abuse is one big campy joke.

To be fair, we're not totally heartless, and nothing can wipe a smile off my face faster than a few pages of Christina's memoir. But the movie inspires a different moral universe than does the book, and a theater full of gay men watching "Mommie Dearest" is like an arena full of boxing fans on nitrous oxide, egging on the antagonists through hysterical laughter. When Joan lands a punch, we cheer.

So I was somewhat perplexed when I heard that Christina Crawford was coming to town to spend the week before Christmas with this same cult. How could such an encounter take place? I wondered. Would Christina cheer as well? Would she join in the recitation of large sections of lame dialogue and toss coat hangers in the air? Would she join a sizable portion of the audience and dress up as her mother? Why would she even want to acknowledge our existence?

"I thought it was time that we met," answered Crawford, somewhat primly, when I met her last December. We sat in the plush mezzanine lobby of the Castro Theater in San Francisco's gay ghetto, which had spent the week all atwitter in anticipation of Christina's arrival. Beside her sat a pile of her self-published 20th anniversary edition of the memoir, which she's also selling online at -- you guessed it -- The matinee she had just introduced was in progress in the theater, and our interview was punctuated by the movie's bloodcurdling screams and the crowd's raucous ovations.

"I don't see why we can't know each other and share the things we do have in common," continued the author, who noted that it was her first public encounter with the Mommie Dearest cult, "though we do see things differently."

And how. "Mommie Dearest" may be a disastrous movie, but at least its heart was in the right place. I'm not always so sure the same thing can be said of those of us who watch the movie for kicks.

Gay men's attitude toward screen divas has undergone a dramatic shift over the roughly contemporaneous histories of Hollywood and modern gay identity, and over the past 50 years especially, those divas have slipped from being objects of sincere worship to targets of morbid satire. Joan Crawford had as large a gay following as any star throughout her career, and she is representative of the devolution -- from idols to virtual laughingstocks -- screen legends have undergone. This transformation is nowhere more pertinently detailed than in Daniel Harris' book "The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture" (Hyperion, 1997):

Irony was always present in the [gay] subculture's involvement with celebrities, partly because of the homosexual's sly awareness that he was misusing something as naive and wholesome as popular culture, with its Kansas-bred Dorothys and its Norman Rockwell happy endings, to reinforce something as illicit and underground as his solidarity with other homosexuals. As time went on, however, the note of facetiousness implicit in many gay men's treatment of Hollywood became louder and louder, until the wry smile of camp became the cackling shriek of the man who could no longer take seriously the divas he once adored. By the 1980s and '90s, the pantheon of immortals, while still treated reverently by many gay men, had become fair game for ridicule, as when New York drag queens commemorated the 1981 release of "Mommie Dearest" by dressing up as Joan Crawford and kicking life-size effigies of her daughter, Christina, up and down Christopher Street.

Diva worship, the theory goes, served in closeted times as a kind of code, a way of reinforcing gay solidarity and of expressing what was otherwise inexpressible. Is it any surprise that a younger, more liberated generation of gay men should mock that code? Think of older gay men who experienced the closeted era and the Golden Age of cinema as immigrants whose children speak perfect English and make fun of their parents' Old World dialect. In this case, that language carries all the associations of shame and powerlessness, which modern gay rituals are designed to purge. According to Harris:

We accomplish this catharsis by creating through conversations, theater, and even cabaret acts images of the vulgarity and psychological desperation of glamorous actresses, of Joan Crawford clobbering Christina with a can of bathroom cleanser or chopping off the head of her faithless husband in "Strait-Jacket."

So Christina and gay men -- even as we mock her tragic upbringing -- wind up on the same side of this thing called Joan Crawford. While for Christina Joan Crawford was a flesh-and-blood tormentor and for us she was a celluloid lifeline, for both she has come to represent a period when the truth about our lives could not be told. Tearing down the Crawford legend by writing "Mommie Dearest" was the ultimate coming-out experience.

"When people ask me whether I regret having opened this door, having written this book, the answer is absolutely never," said Crawford. "It took courage to stand up and be counted. I was a public person at a very young age. I was utilized in a public relations campaign for another person. Ultimately I got tired of being lied about."

The driving force behind "Mommie Dearest's" gay following derives mostly from the delight of watching a movie with such grandiose pretensions fail so spectacularly. But in the hysteria of the queer response to this movie, there is also more than a seed of identification with young Christina, who, like most queer people, spent her childhood straddling an unbridgable chasm between who she was and what she was expected to be.

Nothing exemplifies this common burden more than a transparently scripted 1944 Christmas radio broadcast from the Crawford household, featured in the book and the movie, in which Christina and her brother are compelled to put aside the inconvenient fact of their hellish home life in order to present a picture-perfect moment for the sake of their mother's never-ending public relations campaign. Closeted gays home for the holidays can relate.

And so "Mommie Dearest" has become something of a Christmas favorite in San Francisco. "Christmas with Christina Crawford," as the event was billed, sold out the 1,500-capacity Castro Theater twice over the weekend before Christmas. (Christina and the movie followed up with a Mother's Day tour that included a show at New York's Town Hall, to a less impressive response.) "Christmas with the Crawfords," a live-singing drag revue portraying the now-notorious 1944 Christmas Eve at the Crawford household, played to full and enthusiastic houses for six weeks for its sixth consecutive year. In San Francisco, the ghost of Joan Crawford has replaced Santa Claus as the most recognizable symbol of Christmas. Jesus Christ is a distant fourth, behind the 68-foot tree at Neiman-Marcus.

But even if Christina Crawford and modern gay men are relieved to put Joan Crawford behind us, can we really hold hands 'round the Christmas tree and relate? After judging a Joan Crawford look-alike contest before the Castro screening, Christina presented to the winner of an audience drawing a coat hanger she had decorated with ribbons, bows and other Christmas trimmings. Is decorating your own coat hanger courageous or just creepy?

"My coat hanger doesn't have anything to do with the original trauma anymore," explains Christina. "Like the film, the gesture steps so far over the line. And also it's an acknowledgment of reality. I've certainly heard the jokes and seen the cards. This is a way of saying that I understand. Far better that my sense of humor should also be engaged."

Even as she speaks, young Christina's latest on-screen beating is whipping the crowd into a frenzy of hoots and guffaws.

"That kind of response is a way of vicariously engaging with the enemy and winning because you laugh," says Christina. "When you laugh, that makes it less scary, and that makes it less of a tragedy."

I asked poet and critic Wayne Koestenbaum, whose camp credentials include having taught a class on the subject at Yale College, what about the disastrous depiction of Christina Crawford's childhood abuse tickles the queer funnybone.

"Part of the pleasure of watching 'Mommie Dearest' is to master through repetition some piece of our own life," says Koestenbaum. "If we cheer when Joan throws Christina across the room or decapitates the rosebush, the repetition makes us the master of that situation and we no longer occupy the Christina position. I wouldn't want to be her," Koestenbaum adds, "but anyone who cares while watching the movie feels a little bit like Christina."

And what of the movie's conflagration of diva presences?

"We know that Faye, who is about Christina's age, is actually the daughter, so when she enacts the mother's part there is a model for our own mastery. The thrill in watching 'Mommie Dearest' is that it reverses maternal sadism. If we cheer when Faye/Joan throws Christina across the room, we're not seeing an eyewitness account. We're seeing the recovery movement triumphant. We're seeing Christina's revenge narrative and Faye Dunaway as daughter doing a Christina on Joan."

Well, OK. But even an interpretation that allies Christina with the cult and the movie (which she refuses to watch a second time) can't spare me the queasy feeling I get thinking about her encounter with both. By facing this rowdy queer mob, is Christina subjecting herself to the public trial and punishment I wished on a resurrected Joan Crawford when I was 13? Or is she dancing on her mother's grave, loitering too gleefully in the ruins of her girlhood?

Little in Christina's public life up until December 1997 suggested glee with regard to her childhood abuse. She cracks barely one smile in her memoir, which in its original edition is a tightly wrought, wrenching book that reeks of emotional honesty. (The 20th anniversary edition is poorly edited and overlong.) Christina in person presents a demeanor of no-nonsense, perfect sanity that comes only to born saints and survivors. Her activities in the past 20 years have been of the utmost seriousness: She was commissioner for children's services in Los Angeles, and she has been involved with the American Adoption Congress. She argues that current adoption law deprives adopted children of their civil rights by withholding from them information on their birth parents; she further believes that her mother -- who was turned down as an unfit parent by every legitimate adoption agency she approached -- purchased her and her three adopted siblings on a black market for children, a black market Christina claims still exists in this country.

Ultimately, I don't think Christina is laughing along with us Mommie Dearest queens because she thinks it, or we, or anything about the whole mess of her abuse and the movie and the cards and the jokes, is very funny. Her own words are proof enough of this: "Far better that my own sense of humor be engaged" is a strategic formula, and laughter by design is empty by nature.

Instead, Christina is laughing for much the same reason that drag queens laugh at themselves. The comedy of drag is partially preemptive: The gay man whom society scorns as a biological mistake, a freak of nature, is immune from laughter that he deliberately provokes. Try calling a drag queen a sissy; as a rhetorical strategy it will fall pretty flat. Likewise, we gay men who tell jokes, make cards, dress up like Joan and wave coat hangers in the air can never intimidate Christina. With a coat hanger of her own making, she has beat us, so to speak, to the punch.

Christina's presence at the Castro Theater was a little creepy. But it was also triumphant. She met a cult on its own terms and disarmed it using its own methods. As a display of tactical brilliance, it was impressive; but it should not have been surprising. After all, Christina was only using the skills she had honed in destroying her mother permanently in the public's estimation -- the public's estimation being the only thing, apart from money, that ever counted for Joan Crawford. According to Christina's narrative, a Hollywood actress had purchased, abused and imprisoned her in the service of a public relations campaign, and Christina mastered that trauma by engineering on her mother's behalf the single worst disaster in the history of PR. In both cases, it was a matter of employing her adversaries' own methods against them. In battling her mother, the weapon was information. In engaging the cult, the weapon was laughter. In both cases, Christina won.

Paul Festa

Paul Festa is the author of and a frequent Salon contributor.

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