At the beginning of “Surviving Mommie Dearest,” an odd show that will run from May 8th to Mother’s Day at the Snapple Theater, Christina Crawford, the 73-year-old adopted daughter of movie star Joan Crawford, explains that when she moved to New York City as a teenager to be an actress, she lived in a rooming house where the tenants of an entire floor shared a single water closet, and that once when she was using the facilities, a visitor parked his bike against the door and effectively locked her in. “I’d been locked in closets before, but never by a stranger…”
It is an awkward joke, based on the (correct) assumption that the audience would know from the get-go about the child abuse by her mother, an experience that she wrote about in a best-selling 1978 memoir, “Mommie Dearest.” The title is what Joan Crawford insisted that Christina call her. “Mommie Dearest” is also the title of a famously campy 1981 movie starring Faye Dunaway that Christina Crawford says she hates.
“Surviving Mommie Dearest: Tears to Triumph” is a hybrid of a live show and a documentary. Christina Crawford comes out to tell that joke, talk about her early love of theater, and introduce the documentary. Every now and then during the showing of the documentary, the live Christina Crawford comes back out and talks over it. Then she takes questions at the end.
The documentary itself has the feel of a homemade production as it tells the story of Joan Crawford’s life and career, dotted with moments that seem motivated by malice and resentment – we hear that the movie star tried to get rid of all copies of a pornographic film she made early in her career, and then see home movies of Joan Crawford cavorting around a Hollywood pool with a very young and naked Christina. The documentary also tells the story of Christina’s life, starting with her adoption as an infant, and then her experience growing up with such a mother (“We were all props in her fantasy”) and what her life has been like as an adult. Christina worked for 14 years as an actress on stage, in film (including a small part in a movie starring Elvis Presley) and on television. One senses she got no help from her mother; quite the opposite: In one memorable incident (familiar to aficionados of “Mommie Dearest”), Christina Crawford had to call in sick to the soap opera “Secret Storm” — and learned that her mother, almost four decades her senior, had volunteered to replace her in the role!
Billed as a one-woman multimedia play, “Surviving Mommie Dearest” has a decidedly campy aspect to it; the audience for the 90-minute show on the press night at the Snapple Theater seemed to be made up of those most likely to buy VIP tickets to a Barbra Streisand concert. The documentary is little more than publicity stills, home movies and Christina Crawford’s talking head; the few attempts at anything else, such as a scene where a bus driver is giving a tour of Hollywood homes, has laughably poor production values. Little of what we learn is new; more information is available from this interview Christina Crawford had with Larry King a dozen years ago. One probably shouldn’t be blamed for wondering if this is yet another, somewhat sad effort at cashing in on celebrity. But, despite all this, by the end, I found Christina Crawford appealing, and much about her show touching — even its very amateurish. It is as if Crawford is reacting against the overly produced films — and life – of the Hollywood in which she grew up.
We get a glimpse into the glamour of that life — Helen Hayes was her godmother, for example – but what we learn more is its ugliness: Helen Hayes was one of the few celebrities to speak out against Joan Crawford’s abuse because, Christina Crawford explains, Hayes made her living in the theater, not in Hollywood, and so was not in danger of losing her job.
Christina Crawford has lived in Idaho for the past 20 years, where she used to run a country inn. She had a stroke in her early 40s. An author of several more books, she has struggled to make ends meet, one reason (as she told us in answer to a question) why she never had children — she feared treating them the way Joan Crawford, provoked in part by her unstable circumstances, wound up treating her.
Why is she doing this show, a member of the audience asked her in the question and answer session. “I’m still alive,” she replied. “It’s important to me to tell my side.”
Performances of “Surviving Mommie Dearest” are on May 8-9th at 8PM, May 10-11th at 5PM and Sunday, May 12th at 12PM at Snapple Theatre Center, 1627 Broadway