What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is not my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of something called the Fifth So Bad It’s Good Blog-a-thon being hosted by Taking Up Room. Yet again, she’s got some of the best blog-a-thon themes out there. Thankfully, she has yet to realize these events would only go up in quality if she quits having me back 🙂
You can see all the contributors to this blog-a-thon here:
From the jump, you can tell this movie stems from the mother of “tell-all” books; it’s mission is to show you that Hollywood legend Joan Crawford (played by Faye Dunaway) was
batshit crazy emotionally unstable. Viewers are introduced to Dunaway’s Crawford as she’s going through a quasi-neurotic pre-work routine during which she roughly scrubs her face with soap and hot water then plunges it into a bowl of ice-chilled alcohol…ostensibly to close her pores.
This is but one circumstance early in the film intended to show the viewer Crawford’s obsession with cleanliness. But that’s not all; she’s also depicted as a control freak; she expects all around her to follow her expectations to the smallest detail. This is demonstrated in a scene with her newly-hired live-in personal assistant Carol-Ann (played by Rutanya Alda). Crawford goes ballistic on a new maid who believes she has cleaned the house to her stringent expectations, but Crawford finds one tiny detail and the result clearly shows the maid and Carol-Ann are intimidated by her.
Crawford’s steady love interest comes in the form of “big-time” Hollywood lawyer Gregg Savitt (played by Steve Forrest), The problem is that at this time, Crawford’s career is on a cold streak. However, this is the time she tells Gregg that she wants a baby, but she is unable to have one of her own. There were several attempts to have a child during her marriage to actor Franchot Tone; all of them ended in a miscarriage. But when an adoption agency denies her application, she coerces Gregg to get her a baby through other means. Eventually, she gets a blue-eyed, blond baby girl she names Christina.
Then the film jumps ahead to Christina being somewhere around eight years old. In the mean time, Crawford Joan has adopted a boy she named Christopher, but he might as well not exist in this film. Christina Crawford wrote the book upon which this movie is based; therefore she remains the focus.
Now the movie becomes all about how Crawford simultaneously showers Christina (played at this age by Maria Hobel) with the life of luxury, yet enforces a brutally strict line of denial and discipline. For example, Crawford throws an extravagant birthday party for Christina, but then gives all but one of the gifts to an orphanage. Not only that, but Crawford forces Christina to take credit for the gesture so they can garner positive press attention. Naturally, this develops a sense of rebellion within Christina; the guts of this film lives off the conflict between the rebellious daughter and the controlling mother.
But the struggles between mother and daughter aren’t the only ones that drive Mommie Dearest. In a bit of foreshadowing, the scene where Crawford’s relationship with Gregg abruptly ends shows the role her alcoholism will p;lay later in the story.
Given all that, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Crawford’s outbursts become increasingly inexplicable and violent. The real downfall begins when the president of MGM Louis B. Mayer (played by Louis de Silva) essentially fires Crawford. This results in Crawford hacking up her prized rose garden while forcing Carol-Ann, Christina, and Christopher to be part of her rage.
Next comes the film’s most notorious scene; Crawford…her face slathered in cold cream (which only enhances how insane she looks)…storms into Christina’s room in the middle of the night to discover a dress on a forbidden wire hanger. Crawford explodes first into a tirade, then beats Christina with a wire hanger.
Things only get worse when Crawford staggers into Christina’s bathroom and believes she has not scrubbed the floor to her satisfaction. Because Christina doesn’t conform to her standard of cleanliness, Crawford trashes the bathroom and beats Christina again, this time with cans of scouring powder. Afterward, she orders Christina to “clean up this mess.”
Now, there’s another “time jump” ahead to when Christina (now played by Diana Scarwid) is a teen-ager and has been sent away to boarding school. Two things happen at this point. First, Crawford works out a deal with the school where Christina does chores in return for her board and tuition. Crawford is pleading financial hardship, but at the same time, Christina is realizing most of what is wrong with Crawford comes from a bottle.
Christina thrives at school; her grades are excellent and she displays a sense of pride in her work and the young woman she is becoming. However, everything is knocked off kilter when she is caught in the company of a boy. Despite the fact this was little more than two teen-agers doing what teen-agers do, Crawford arrives at the school in full boil. She berates the school’s headmistress Mrs. Chadwick (played by Priscilla Pointer) and calls the school a “den of iniquity,” and takes Christina back home with her.
Upon returning, a reporter from Redbook magazine named Barbara Bennett (played by Jocelyn Brando) is in the house as part of putting together a “puff piece” extolling the virtue’s of Crawford’s “idyllic balance of career and home life.” During these process, Crawford tells Bennett that Christina was expelled from the boarding school, which Christina immediately and angrily denies. Once again, tempers red-line in no time, As such, this is where the proverbial “shit hits the fan.”
Christina accuses Crawford of adopting children only to gain publicity. In response, Crawford calls Christina disrespectful and asks why she treats with her with less reverence than would anybody else. Christina snaps back with a sharp quip about “not being one of her fans;” a comment which sends Crawford into a violent rage. She slaps Christina around before wrestling her to the floor and trying to strangle her. This all unfolds in front of Carol-Ann and Barbara, who break up the fight.
The film jumps ahead one more time; now Christina is an adult and has set out on her own. Meanwhile, Crawford has married Alfred Steele (played by Harry Goz), who is the president CEO of Pepsi Cola. He furnishers her with an extravagant life-style and his seat on Pepsi’s boards of directors after he died. This result in a bitter confrontation with the other board members who unsuccessfully try to force her out. Meanwhile, Crawford and Christina have formed what seems to be a rather amicable adult relationship…until Crawford sabotages her daughter’s budding career as an actress.
The final blow for Christina and Christopher comes after Crawford’s death when they discover they were left out of her will “for reasons that are well known to them.” This leads to the exchange between them in which Christina hints that she’s going to write the tell-all Mommie Dearest as both an act of revenge and to deny Crawford “the final word.”
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
Critics of the book Mommie Dearest have accused it of being a complete work of fiction. I don’t know if that’s true. What I do know is it would be nearly impossible to make up the story that comprised today’s hidden sports analogy.
Let’s start with the common theme; today’s analogy is all about career decisions. Faye Dunaway was on a career arc that seemed to have her headed for the “Boardwalk” side of the Hollywood Monopoly board. After 1976’s Network, it felt like only a matter of time before she joined the exclusive club reserved for multiple Oscar winners.
Then…she decided to make Mommie Dearest. Let’s just be honest…that movie destroyed Faye Dunaway’s career.
Similarly, there was a time when the world of figure skating had a young star on the ascent. Good, bad or indifferent, Americans love an “underdog,” and this woman was every bit of that. On top of that, she was nowhere near the typical “ice princess.” She expanded the fandom of figure skating from the “upper crust” to the “blue collar” crowd. In her time away from the rink, she enjoyed hunting and fishing, knew her way around a wrench as a solid mechanic, smoked cigarettes and drank beer.
In other words, the average viewer more easily identified with her…and that’s why she was an outcast to the traditional, if not overly prissy world of figure skating. However, her sheer athletic ability…she was the first woman to pull off a triple axel in the short program, the first to do two triple axels in a long program, and the first to stick a triple axel combination with a double toe loop…meant she could not be ignored.
Then…Tonya Harding decided to engineer arguably the most infamous criminal conspiracy the sports world had seen since the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. That was the end of Tonya Harding’s career on the ice.
Faye Dunaway may not have knee-capped anybody with a crowbar, but the analogy isn’t in the action. What comes down first had to go up, and that’s the first common thread between the actress and the skater.
Dunaway burst upon the scene with 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. From there, in rapid succession she rattles off a number of star-making performance in legendary films, such as The Thomas Crown Affair, Little Big Man, and Chinatown amongst others…capped off with an Academy Award for Best Actress for Network.
In Harding’s case, her debut to the skating world came in 1987 with a second-place finish at Skate America. That was the first time her jumping ability came into the limelight, Harding’s next big triumph came with a third-place finish at the U.S. Championships in 1989.
From there, the successes started snow-balling. 1990 saw Harding win both Skate America and the Nations Cup. The following year, she captured the U.S. Championships, and added second-place finishes in the World Championships and the NHK Trophy. The 1992 Winter Olympics saw Harding just miss a medal with a fourth-place showing. But since this was the year the International Olympic Committee was moving the Winter Games so as to not have them in the same years as the Summer events, Harding only had two years to wait for her next shot at an Olympic medal.
However, there was one main obstacle keeping Tonya Harding from reaching the top of American figure skating; her main rival Nancy Kerrigan. While Harding’s jumping ability and sheer athleticism gave her an edge in certain aspects, Kerrigan was a far more polished skater, and her “traditional” style made her a favorite of the judges.
That brings us to the heart of today’s hidden sports analogy. While the actions taken by Faye Dunaway and Tonya couldn’t be more different, the sentiment which fueled both of them to make their fateful decisions was identical…the overwhelming desire to reach the “top of the mountain.”
For Dunaway, the decision to make Mommie Dearest was all about winning a second Oscar. The story and the script seemed like it couldn’t miss; not to mention it was from a best-selling book based on the exploits of a Hollywood legend. The problem came in the execution. The movie was panned for being cartoonish and distinctly over the top; the signature “No Wire Hangers” scene which was suppose to be that clip that gets played at the Academy Awards instead became a punch-line.
Harding’s actions were far more sinister. A gold medal at Lillehammer in 1994 would have meant reaching that mountain top, and with it the accompanying fame and fortune. But Nancy Kerrigan stood between that and Harding, and fearing that the proverbial deck was stacked against her, Tonya Harding devised an alternate plan. In short, Harding wouldn’t need to beat her on the ice if she had Kerrigan beaten off of it.
Harding then set about a conspiracy largely directed by her husband at the time, Jeff Gillooly. The conspiracy trickled down to a friend of Gillooly’s named Shawn Eckardt. These two concocted the plan to injure Kerrigan, but didn’t have brains or guts to do it themselves. Eckhardt went to a buddy named Derrick Smith, who eventually hired his nephew Shane Stant to be the actual assailant. Together, they all agreed to time to hatch their scheme was at the U.S. Championships being held in Detroit in advance of the Olympic Games in Lillehammer.
After a training session before the actual competition Shane Stant approached Kerrigan as she exited the ice and struck her just above the knee with a metal baton. The attack had the desired result; Kerrigan could not skate.
With Kerrigan out of the competition, Tonya Harding emerged victorious, and therefore qualified for the 1994 U.S. Olympic Team. However, since the U.S. only had two sports, the powers-that-be in U.S. figure skating held the second spot open for Kerrigan on the chance she could recover in time for the Winter Olympics, which she did.
Harding plot was all for naught; she finished 8th at Lillehammer, while Kerrigan narrowly lost the gold medal to Ukrainian Oksana Baiul. But the end of the Olympics was only the beginning for Harding and her cast of co-conspirators. Even before the Lillehammer games, the Wayne County (Michigan) District Attorney and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were investigating the group’s shenanigans. This wasn’t exactly a tough case to crack, considering Jeff Gillooly turned himself in to the FBI and ratted everybody out; not to mention they were dumb enough to leave a trail of credit card receipts which tied them all together and proved Derrick Smith and Shane Stant were in Detroit the night of the attack.
In the end, Derrick Smith was sentenced to 18 months in prison for driving the getaway car and funneling money into the conspiracy. Jeff Gillooly and Shawn Eckardt pled guilty to racketeering, and got 2-year sentences. Shane Stant cut a deal to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit second-degree assault; he also got 18 months.
As for Harding herself, while prosecutors could not tie her directly to the attack on Kerrigan, the fact she was caught in several lies during the investigation set her up for a fall on a charge of conspiracy to hinder prosecution, for which she was sentenced to three years on probation, 500 hours of community service, and a $100,000 fine. But the death blow to Harding career cam when the United Stats Figure Skating Association issued her a lifetime ban from professional figure skating.
But at least they didn’t use wire hangers.
The Moral of the Story:
Ambition is a double-edged sword…or baton in this case.
P.S. Because this is all about Joan Crawford, I get to use one of my favorite delightfully strange Blue Oyster Cult tracks.
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Loved this post! I loved how you twinned Faye Dunaway’s career with Tonya Harding’s. (Did you ever see the film, I Tonya, perchance?)
I’ve never seen/read Mommie Dearest because the trailer has always struck me as overwrought. But, watching the trailer again after so many years has convinced me to search for this film. It’s time to see the famous wire hanger scene in this Over-The-Top film.
Oh yeah…without any spoilers…it’s definitely “over the top!” The “Wire Hanger” scene is the most infamous, but there’s so much more…
Indeed, Mommie Dearest was the moral equivalent of clubbing Joan Crawford’s reputation with a metal baton. I’m still not quite sure if the fallout for Dunaway’s career was more about the distaste people had for a hit piece about a Hollywood icon, or about her surreal over-the-top performance (it’s probably a mix of both). But that one role almost wiped out all her prior great work in the public mind!
All true. I wonder if she now hates wire hangers too?
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Before anything else, “Joan Crawford” is one of my favorite BOC songs. What’s interesting is that the song came out before the movie did! Anyway, I have to agree Mommie Dearest destroyed Faye Dunaway’s career. She had been on a roll until then, and Mommie Dearest pretty much ended that. I mean, her performance as Joan Crawford is so over the top that she can’t really be taken seriously. Anyway, while their actions were very different (let’s face it, physically injuring someone is a lot worse than bad acting choices), you have a point about Dunaway and Harding. They were both trying to get to the top of the heap and let their ambition get the best of them.
Speaking of screwball mothers, have you caught “I, Tonya” yet?
And thanks. All this Nancy Kerrigan talk made me queue up the Chris Farley ice-skating skit.
For the record…and since you aren’t the first who asked…no, I have not seen I, Tonya.
I recommend, if for nothing else Allison Janney’s performance. As usual, she’s spectacular.
I’m with everyone else–Tonya Harding and “Mommie Dearest” are a natural pair. It’s funny, but I used to own this movie (got it for $5), but when I tried to sell it at GameStop they wouldn’t take it. We finally had to throw it out. Anyway, this was excellent, J-Dub–thanks again for joining! 🙂
I don’t think there is a more damning indictment than “GameStop wouldn’t take it!”
Great article. I do wonder how much of Christina’s story is true. It seems so extreme and cartoonish, especially in the film, that you can’t help but assume it has been embellished. I also seem to recall reading that several people, including two other adopted children of Crawford, have disputed many of the stories. I suspect there is at least some truth to the whole thing but we will never know for certain.
Another great sports analogies article! You do a good job comparing the behind the scenes drama of ‘Mommie Dearest’ and the world of figure skating. A movie that could also be included in this sports analogy is the 1997 Lifetime movie, ‘Crowned and Dangerous’. Based on a true story, the film explores the negative effects of ambition.
By the way, I recently published my editorial for The Pick My Movie Tag! Here’s the link: