Christina Crawford with journalist Tony Phillips/Photo courtesy of Tony Phillips
“It’s me,” Christina Crawford announces, popping her head through a door she opens stage left at Manhattan’s Snapple Theater Center. The adopted daughter of Hollywood legend Joan Crawford was one of the first to market with a celebrity tell-all when she published her memoir Mommie Dearest the year after her mother’s death in 1977. As she takes the stage, briefly interrupting the screening of her new, seventy-one-minute documentary “Surviving Mommie Dearest” with one of the interactive portions of the evening, she recounts her salad days in New York studying acting at Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse and living in a cold-water flat. She details being accidentally locked in the shared hallway bathroom, then jokes, “I had been locked in closets before.”
The line gets a laugh, but for the seventy-three-year-old Crawford, clearing up the legend of her abusive childhood at the hands of an alcoholic mother with what actually went down is serious business and something she’s determined to do. “I want for the truth to be told” – she says a few days after previewing “Surviving Mommie Dearest” for the press – “in my own voice and in my own time and place. That’s my right. And fortunately, I have a producer who believes in me.”
Of course, her main bone of contention is director Frank Perry’s 1981 film adaptation of her memoir, which features an over-the-top Faye Dunaway who, after Anne Bancroft passed on the role of her mother, nabbed it by showing up unannounced to producer Frank Yablans’ house late at night dressed to the nines as Joan.
Christina Crawford is chilly toward the film, and even Dunaway, during the Q&A following the screening, but she opens up about it when we chat a few days later. “First is the viewpoint,” Crawford says, quickly rattling off her top three beefs with the adaptation. “The book is written from the perspective of a child, but the film was told through the vantage point of a lunatic Hollywood star. Second, the truth of the material portrayed in the film is just not accurate and the third thing is, I can say as a filmgoer and now a filmmaker, it’s just not a good film. It’s not well-produced.”
Why, then, do people still watch it, almost religiously? “I am not that audience so I can’t tell you,” Crawford replies. “You need to ask them.” Enter performance artist Joey Arias, who pulled off a letter-perfect Joan in the long-running spoof “Christmas with the Crawfords,” which parodies an actual 1949, Christmas eve radio broadcast with Crawford and her family. “The film is such a cult classic,” Arias says via email, “because it takes her out of the blur of Hollywood and makes it real. Joan had all these secret walls surrounding her and then Christina popped the bubble with her book. We got to see — true or not — a different Joan.”
The thing Christina Crawford is too polite to mention is that she’s never seen a nickel of the film’s almost forty million dollars in receipts and with a production budget of five million, that’s a lot of nickels. When asked why she isn’t participating in the profits, she lets out a long, but not especially bitter laugh. “If I knew that,” she replies, “I would be a nice wealthy lady. It has to do with the way Hollywood keeps their accounting and it’s a minor sore spot, but there’s nothing I can do about it at the moment.”
The Hollywood shuffle is an ironic echo of Joan Crawford Steele’s last will and testament, which, after hashing out payments to her other adoptive daughters, housekeeping staff, and various charities, finally gets around to its tenth point buried just above Crawford’s final wish to be cremated. “It is my intention to make no provision herein for my son Christopher or my daughter Christina,” the will reads, “for reasons which are well known to them.” This final shakedown in effect sets up the financial parameters in which the memoir Mommie Dearest was born.
It’s pointed out that adapting an author’s property without paying a royalty cannot be above board, but Crawford says it’s not a point she’s litigating. “I know it isn’t,” she replies. “It’s just one of those anomalies of Hollywood. Things, as they say in the song, are not what they seem.”
Still, Crawford refuses to admit that celebrity children have one strike against them just by nature of being the child of a celebrity. “It completely depends on the parent and the reason they have children,” she says, “and that’s just a one-by-one-case basis.”
Crawford, in fact, has fond memories of folks who have struggled with the pitfalls of celebrity. Take her turn in the 1961 film “Wild in the Country,” which starred Elvis Presley as a young man who survives a dysfunctional family to pursue a literary career. Crawford doesn’t see the film as foreshadowing so much as divine intervention. “I was twenty-one years old,” she remembers, “and what a miraculous job to land, even if it was the small part I had. Elvis was the king, the most important entertainer of my generation. He was young, healthy, and just back from the army.”
“He was not the Elvis he was ten years later toward the end of his life,” Crawford recalls of the time his marriage fell apart and he bloated up sweaty on barbiturates. “He was great to the people he worked with, had the most beautiful voice, and was very conscious of his roots. When we were all invited to his house for parties, he would sing gospel spirituals because his mentor was Mahalia Jackson. He was a gospel singer in his free time, not in a church, but because of Mahalia he was very spiritually oriented.”
The same could be said of Crawford, who’s grabbed Mother’s Day not as an annual embrace of the camp that’s grown up around her relationship with her own mother, but in recognition that “it can be a pretty rough day, particularly for families who’ve been involved in alcohol or drug abuse and family violence. It’s extremely difficult, whether or not they’ve come to grips with those early childhood experiences. The documentary can stand alone without me, but when I’m there, it’s a whole different dimension of audience participation. I learn a lot from our audiences. I get as much as I give.”
Editor’s Note: “Surviving Mommie Dearest: A One-Woman Multimedia Show Starring Christina Crawford” runs at The Snapple Theater Center, 1627 Broadway/210 W 50th Street on May 9 at 8pm, May 10–11 at 5pm, May 12 at 12pm; $40. Visit survivingmommiedearest.com for more info.