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Visiting Mommie Dearest at home

This is the sort of Irony that Hollywood understands: Joan Crawford spent her entire life in the painstaking construction of an image, only to have a movie reveal the things she tried to hide behind the image. The film is named “Mommie Dearest”. It is currently in production at Paramount, and it will be released sometime this autumn. In it, the glamorous perfectionist Crawford is por­trayed as an egomaniacal alcoholic who ter­rorized her adopted daughter, Christina.

The movie is being made on "closed sets" on the back lot at Paramount. In Hollywood, a "closed set" usually signifies a movie with a controversial subject or a temperamental star. This movie has both (Crawford is being played by the touchy Faye Dunaway), but on “Mommie Dearest” the sets themselves are what are closed.

They are amazing. They're the most opu­lent, fantastically lavish sets Crawford could ever have dreamed of inhabiting in real life or in the movies. They are supposed to represent the Hollywood mansion Crawford occupied during the period of her greatest stardom and early decline. No doubt she did live in great luxury. But with the sets he has built for “Mommie Dearest” at Paramount, producer Frank Yablans seems to have been intent on stripping away the false tinsel to expose the real tinsel underneath.

One recent morning, I stood with Yablans in the middle of the set representing Craw­ford's living room. The room is 50 feet long. It contains a grand piano, oversized and overstuffed sofas, love seats and armchairs and a collection of antique lamps, tables and accessories. At one end, up three steps, is a curved and padded white imitation leather bar with a mirrored ceiling. Out in the entrance hall, you can see the grand staircase curving upstairs from the marble foyer.

"Every time I walk through this room, I feel like a real estate salesman," Yablans said. "I should be quoting a price. Five, six million, and there's room for a tennis court if you want to build one."

Yablans, a wiry, balding man with an excess of energy, used to be the studio head at Paramount before he left to become an independent producer. He averages about one film every two years, and his credits range from “The Other Side of Midnight” to “North Dallas Forty”. He thinks “Mommie Dearest” is the sort of movie that the big Hollywood studios were born to make.

"What we have here," he said "is about $480,000 worth of sets. That includes the bed­rooms upstairs for Joan and Christina, the breakfast room, the bathrooms, the dressing rooms, the sun porch and the rose garden. You might ask why we didn't just find a great Hollywood mansion and go shoot on location. The answer is that I'm saving $15,000 a day in transportation, per diems and other location costs by staying right here on the back lot at Paramount. The sets pay for themselves. A 46-day shooting schedule times $15,000 and I'm actually out in front."

He led the way up an enormous curving staircase, which paused briefly for a floating landing that seemed large enough for Capt. Ahab.

"A lot of the furnishings in these rooms look priceless," he said. "One of the advan­tages of having once been the head of produc­tion here is that I knew what Paramount had in storage, in its warehouses. Look at this chair, for example."

He paused before an ornate monstrosity in Crawford's dressing room.

"This chair was originally built as a throne chair for Cecil B. DeMille for “The Ten Commandments”. What did we do? We paint­ed it white. It looks perfect in this situation."

It did. When “Mommie Dearest” opens, I want to be in the audience to hear the sharp intake of breath from the women in the theater when they see Crawford's dressing room. One entire wall holds 400 pairs of shoes, behind glass. ("She loved those big platform shoes," Yablans said. "Hooker shoes.") There are also room-sized walk-in closets, one for furs, one for gowns, one just for blouses.

"In one scene," Yablans said, "Joan comes in here and discovers baby Christina doing a parody of her, wearing mother's shoes. All hell breaks loose. Now… this is a nice touch," he said, strolling into the bathroom next door. "Joan's shower stall has a seven­-directional spray system. She could stand in the middle and be sprayed from every angle. You notice the shower is large enough to hold two or three."

Two or three?

"Two or three. There's also a whirlpool bath, all in marble, of course. Across the hallway from Joan's room is baby Christina's room, with its shelves of toys and school­books. Joan Crawford was a rigid perfection­ist, and one of the most harrowing scenes in the film occurs when she finds an ordinary wire coat hanger in Christina's room. Nothing but silk padded coat hangers should have been on the shelves, of course, and so she flies into a rage at the child.

"One of the things we did in designing these sets was to make it so that Crawford domi­nates every aspect, every vista. From baby Christina's point of view, her mother is framed by every room. It's like a set. And the baby is never out of mother's line of sight."

We walked back downstairs and outdoors, where the rose garden was torn and tram­pled.

"We shot this scene a few days ago," Yablans said. "Joan doesn't get a job she wants, she's fired from Metro, and then someone actually has the nerve to ask her to do a screen test, after years of stardom, and she comes out here one night, drunk, and tears up a newly planted citrus tree and, tramples all the rose bushes."

She was a very unhappy woman, I said, making it a question.

"She had a lot of problems. We have one scene where, at the age of 62, she replaces her daughter on a TV soap opera. Her daughter was the ingénue. Joan turns up visibly under the influ­ence and thinks that, at the age of 62, she can play the ingénue, too. She had a bad drinking problem, which she denied until the end of her life."

We walked through the rose garden and out through the giant double doors of the sound stage and onto one of the streets of the Paramount back lot. Yab­lans knew his way around, knew a lot of people by name, received the defer­ence due a former studio chief.

"My thinking on this picture," he said, "is that we are selling glamour, fantasy and tragedy. We have these sets, we have Faye Dunaway in 57 costume changes by Irene Sharaff, we show one of the greatest Hollywood stars over a period of 38 years. This is a $9.4 million picture, and the money is in the costumes and the sets.

"Frankly, what I'm after is a Photo­play image. I want to give the audience what they perceive to be the scale of Joan's life. That's more important than the reality. Audiences imagine that stars live in rooms the size of movie sets, of movie ballrooms. Nobody lives like that anymore. But that was the Crawford image, in a cross between Art Moderne and Art Deco, with ev­erything compulsively perfect.”

We arrived at another sound stage, where shooting was about to begin on a scene where Crawford is remodeling a Park Avenue penthouse apartment in New York. Dunaway had not yet ar­rived on the set. She wasn't doing interviews: She recently had a child and was spending all her free time in a mobile home being a mother. The film's director, Frank (“Diary of a Mad Housewife”) Perry, wandered over and said hello. Yablans got on the tele­phone.

"This scene," Perry said, "has Joan's lover complaining that a wall is in his way. It's a load-bearing wall. What does Joan say? Tear down the frigging wall!"

Is this movie going to alter forever our image of Crawford?

"For most people, it will just add detail to an image that already exists. She came across as the compulsive, obsessive perfectionist. Although the movie is based on Mommie Dearest, a book that is very definitely from the adopted daughter's point of view, we've also used a book named Conver­sations with Crawford as a source. We're trying to tell the story right down the middle. To me, it's a story of how love missed its object in both directions."

Perry paged through his copy of the script. "And another thing," he said. "When you're a big star and you survive as a big star for 40 years, you can't do that without having some admirable qualities, like tenacity and courage."

Just then, across the room from us, a women walked onto the set, She had the big red mouth, the, bold black eyebrows, the ankle-length fur, the platform shoes and the severe hairdo, and “My god," I said, "she looks just like Joan Crawford."

"Dunaway?" Perry said, and his voice lowered. "I know. Exactly. It's a little scary, isn't it?"

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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