The film was a commercial success, grossing $39 million worldwide from a $5 million budget. Despite mixed reviews from film critics for its over-the-top performances and poor dialogue, it has since become an unintentional comedy and cult classic.
Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) is a driven actress and compulsively clean housekeeper who tries to control the lives of those around her as tightly as she controls herself. To prepare for a work day at MGM Studios, she rises at 4:00 a.m. and engages in a strict morning ritual: scrubbing her face and arms with soap and boiling hot water, then plunging her face into a bowl of rubbing alcohol and ice to close the pores. When Helga (Alice Nunn), a new maid, thinks she has Joan's living room in spotless condition, Joan finds one minor detail that she overlooked and loses her temper.
Joan is in a relationship with Hollywood lawyer Gregg Savitt (Steve Forrest), but her career is in a bit of a downswing. Despite desperately wanting a baby, she is unable to get pregnant: seven pregnancies when she was married to actor Franchot Tone have all ended in miscarriages. When she is denied an application for adoption, she enlists Gregg's help to secure a baby. Joan adopts a girl whom she names Christina (Mara Hobel), and later a boy, Christopher (Jeremy Scott Reinholt). Joan sometimes lavishes Christina with attention and luxuries such as an extravagant birthday party, but also enforces a very stern code of denial and discipline. When Christina is showered with gifts, Joan allows her to choose only one she likes best that she can keep, then donates the rest to charity.
As Christina rebels against her mother, confrontations ensue. Joan overtakes Christina in a swimming-pool race and laughs at the child. Joan becomes enraged when Christina reacts with anger and locks her in the pool house. Later, Joan discovers Christina wearing her makeup and imitating her. Even though Christina openly denies it and despite her protests, Joan - thinking that Christina is making fun of her, always rummaging through her drawers, trying to find a way to make people look at her, and always looking at herself in the mirror - hysterically cuts off chunks of Christina's hair to humiliate her.
Joan resents Gregg's allegiance to studio boss Louis B. Mayer (Howard Da Silva) and argues with Gregg after a dinner at Perino's restaurant. Joan guzzles down glasses of vodka and throws a drink in Gregg's face after he tells her she is getting old. A physical altercation ensues and Gregg breaks up with Joan. The next day, Joan cuts Gregg out of the family photos. Joan's tantrums grow more bizarre and violent; when Mayer forces Joan to leave MGM after theater owners brand her "box office poison", she hacks down her prize rose garden with a pair of large gardening shears and an axe.
On another occasion, Joan, her face slathered in cold cream, goes into Christina's bedroom in the middle of the night, meaning to return a dress to her closet, but discovers one of Christina's dresses hanging on a wire hanger. Enraged, she screams at the girl, waking her up in horror, then yanks dresses from Christina's closet, throwing them all over the girl's room and beating her with the hanger. Afterwards, Joan wrecks the bathroom as well. Believing the perfectly clean floor is still dirty, Joan throws cleaning powder all over the bathroom before striking Christina across the back with the can of cleanser and then screams at her to clean it up. Christopher offers to help but Christina tells him to return to his own bed as she fears Joan will kill her if she finds out.
Later, Joan sends Christina to the Chadwick School. Years later, when a teenage Christina (Diana Scarwid) is caught in a compromising position with a boy, Joan brings her home. Barbara Bennett (Jocelyn Brando), a reporter from Redbook magazine, is writing a puff piece on Joan's home life. After Joan lies about Christina being expelled from Chadwick, Christina confronts her in front of the reporter. In the ensuing argument, Joan slaps Christina twice across the face. Christina questions her mother as to why she was adopted, and Joan confesses that it was partially a publicity stunt, but then says that she did not really mean it. After the outraged Christina yells, "I am not one of your fans!" Joan throws her to the floor, then throttles Christina, who pleads with her to stop. Joan's live-in assistant and the reporter pull her away.
Joan sends Christina to Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, demanding stricter discipline than other students, ex. Christina can have no contact with the outside world. Joan then marries Alfred Steele (Harry Goz), CEO of Pepsi Cola, moves to New York City and pressures him to shoulder a great deal of debt to fund their lavish lifestyle. After his death, the all-male board tries to force her to resign, but Joan coerces them into letting her retain her seat by threatening to publicly condemn Pepsi.
After graduating from Flintridge, Christina rents an apartment in Manhattan, where she acts in a soap opera. When Christina is hospitalized for an ovarian tumor, she is temporarily replaced on the show by her visibly drunk mother. Joan dies of cancer in 1977, whereupon Christina and Christopher (Xander Berkeley) learn their mother has disinherited them in her will. When Christopher says their mother has managed to have the last word, Christina questions that.
As of October 2016, the film holds a 55% "rotten" rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 33 film critics. The site's consensus states: "Director Frank Perry's campy melodrama certainly doesn't lack for conviction, and neither does Faye Dunaway's performance in the title role; unfortunately, it does lack enough narrative discipline to offer much more than a guilty pleasure."
Roger Ebert opened his review with "I can't imagine who would want to subject themselves to this movie." About Dunaway's performance, Variety said "Dunaway does not chew scenery. Dunaway starts neatly at each corner of the set in every scene and swallows it whole, costars and all." However, more positive reviews have been published, with Slant Magazine awarding it four stars in the May 31, 2006 edition. Also Dennis Price wrote "Faye Dunaway portrays Joan Crawford in a likeness so chilling it's almost unnatural" in his review of the film.
Roughly a month into release, Paramount realized the film was getting a reputation at the box office as an unintentional comedy, and changed its advertising to reflect its new camp status, proclaiming, "Meet the biggest MOTHER of them all!"
For decades Dunaway was famously reluctant to discuss Mommie Dearest in interviews. In her autobiography, she only makes a brief mention of the film, stating that she wished that director Perry had enough experience to see when actors needed to rein in their performances. More recently, she has expressed her regret over taking the part and blamed it for causing a decline in her Hollywood career. She also claimed that the performance took a heavy emotional toll on her stating that: “At night I would go home to the house we had rented in Beverly Hills, and felt Crawford in the room with me, this tragic, haunted soul just hanging around. … It was as if she couldn’t rest.” By coincidence, Joan Crawford once said in an interview in the early 1970s that of the current young actresses only Faye Dunaway had "what it takes" to be a true star.
In 2015 actress Rutanya Alda (Carol Ann) published a behind-the-scenes memoir detailing the making of the film entitled The Mommie Dearest Diary: Carol Ann Tells All. In it she described the difficulty of working with Dunaway, whose method approach to playing Crawford seemed to absorb her and make her difficult to the cast and crew. Alda described the process of acting opposite Dunaway very unfavorably, claiming that she manipulated the director to deprive the other actors of screen time and required the cast to turn their backs when not in the shot so she wouldn't have an audience.
The film makes several glaring omissions in depicting the period of Joan Crawford's life between 1938 and 1977.Crawford's lawyer boyfriend Gregg Savitt is a fictional character; when the film begins in 1938 she was not single and dating but still married to the actor Franchot Tone.
There is no mention of Crawford's third husband, Phillip Terry, whom she was married to between 1942 and 1946, a period the film covers in detail. The film instead depicts Crawford as dating Savitt then being single.
The existence of Crawford's two other adopted children, Cindy and Cathy, both adopted in 1947, is completely ignored.
'Carol Ann' is also a fictional character; she appears to be based on Betty Barker, who became Crawford's secretary in 1955, after much of the alleged abuse would have occurred and who denied witnessing any abuse.
The film is recognized by the American Film Institute in these lists:2003: AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains:
Joan Crawford – #41 Villain
2005: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
Joan Crawford: "No wire hangers, ever!" – #72