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|“Why must everything be a contest with her?” Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford wonders to her
sycophantic secretary Carol Ann about peevish, adopted daughter Christina early on in the 1981
biopic/camp masterpiece Mommie Dearest. This line just about perfectly sums up why gay men love
over the top rotten mother-darling daughter movies so much. They’re delicious endurance contests
in which the controlling, egomaniacal Alpha Female mom continually gets the better of the meek,
goodie two shoes, martyred daughter until the cow eyed one grows a spine and the juicy bitch fest
begins. Justice finally, finally prevails when either a truce is called or best, mom sees the error of her
ways and love springs eternal at last.
What queer audience member (of all genders) hasn’t projected themselves on some level into the
role of the innocent, put upon daughter? Especially those of us who were emotionally tortured for
being all those variations on “different” (read: gay)? The off kilter relationship between these larger
than life mother and daughter movies can be read at their essence as a metaphoric version of the
straight community versus the gay community. It’s “Us” vs. “Them” Writ Large, making the
experience of these movies feel like a subconscious triumph in which we have won the love of those
who previously feared and hated us at the fade out – due to our tenacity, our insistence on love and,
when that has failed, gone mano a mano with our more tenacious progenitor until, come Hell and
usually high water, the message has gotten through.
Setting aside this analysis for the moment (something many would regard as typical film critic
psychological hooey), there’s a base appeal to mother-daughter movies that’s much more immediate
which helps to explain their enduring popularity: these bitch fests are the equivalent of watching two
greaser chicks fight it out after school behind the bowling alley. In other words, it’s a lot of fun to roll
around in the dirt and do it safely from the sidelines. And the more rancid the picture, the more
down and dirty the fighting gets once the Debbie Do Right daughter gives it to Mean ‘Ole momma,
the more satisfying the guilty pleasure.
As mom’s yearly holiday approaches and my alter ego Dick O’Day prepares to host the third annual
edition of Mother’s Day with Mommie Dearest at the Music Box (details below), I’ve been reflecting on
the large number of mom-daughter films that are beloved by the queer community. There are so
many, in fact, that they constitute their own genre.
The familiar titles in this canon would include, of course, Mommie Dearest, the crem de la crap of
these movies. Then we have Joan Crawford herself playing to the back row, crying those horse sized
tears in her Oscar winning role in 1945’s Mildred Pierce in which the roles are reversed
(waitress/restaurant owner mother sacrifices for rotten, sluttish daughter played with aplomb by Ann
Blyth), Carrie from 1976 with Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek in their Oscar nominated roles as religious
fanatic mother and revenge seeking, scapegoat daughter, and Ellyn Burstyn fighting the very Devil for
daughter Linda Blair’s soul in 1973’s The Exorcist.
Midnight movie maven John Waters gave us the hilarious camp mother-daughter battle between
white trash Divine and bratty offspring Mink Stole in 1977’s Female Trouble while for classic fans there's
Bette Davis playing Charlotte Vale, the former ugly duckling turned swan reviled by Gladys Cooper as
her hideous, society snob of a mother in 1942’s Now, Voyager or perfect 1950s princess Sandra Dee
chafing at the lack of attention from her glamorous, yet egotistical celebrity mother Lana Turner in
Douglas Sirk’s melodramatic masterpiece Imitation of Life circa 1959.
Turner’s real life drama which involved the accidental killing of her mobster lover by daughter Cheryl
Crane (who later came out as lesbian) inspired 1964’s junky pleasure Where Love Has Gone? in which
Susan Hayward is driven to desperate acts thanks to Bette Davis as her snobbish, purse string
controlling mother. Other less known but equally dishy films with memorable mother-daughter
battles would include Tuesday Weld and Lola Albright as cheerleading daughter vs. drunken mom in
1965’s Lord Love a Duck, Tuesday Weld as a small town high school beauty queen masking a
psychotic disorder battling mother Beverly Garland in 1968’s Pretty Poison (until she uses innocent
dupe Anthony Perkins as the instrument of her revenge), Brenda Blethyn as another barfly ignoring
Jane Horrocks, her socially disturbed (though eerily talented) daughter in 1998’s Little Voice.
Then we have town tramp Cher as a hot mama vs. plain Jane daughter, Catholic religion obsessed
Winona Ryder in the underrated 1990 comedy Mermaids, One True Friend from 1998 with Renee
Zellweger fighting mom Meryl Streep as she fights cancer, 2002’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
with Sandra Bullock vs. Ellyn Burstyn, and the guilty pleasure that is 1987’s Flowers in the Attic with
Louise Fletcher and Victoria Tenant, who both prove to be equally treacherous (and the film also has
features a terrific music score by Christopher Young).
I’m not forgetting the horrific mother-daughter contests that have won or almost won Oscars – Jessica
Lange and Kim Stanley in 1982’s Frances, Shelley Winters blinding her daughter Elizabeth Hartman in
1965’s A Patch of Blue or the recent Gaboury Sidibe and Mo’Nique, both devastatingly good in
Precious. As noted, there are more mother-daughter movies than fans can shake their Old Dutch
cleanser cans at (Mommie Dearest fans, congratulate yourselves for not needing to be clued in about
Which brings us back to the third annual Mother’s Day with Mommie Dearest this Sunday, May 9 at the
Music Box theatre (3733 N. Southport) hosted by Dick O’Day, the alter ego of yours truly and abetted
by David Cerda and Ed Jones as Joan and Christina, both renowned locally for the theatrical Hand Bag
Productions and The Joans rock band. The festivities will kick off with photos of Joan and Christina in
the lobby (with a portion of the proceeds helping Hand Bag) followed by a 1pm pre-show featuring a
mother-daughter costume contest, prizes, and a screening of the “Mad at the Dirt” music video by
The Joans all leading to the 1:30pm screening of Mommie Dearest, complete with audience interactive
screening guide and running commentary by yours truly, Cerda and Jones. Tickets are $12.