Few have marked this milestone, but thirty years have passed since the Mommie Dearest, the contrived biopic about Joan Crawford’smelodramatic life, hit the theaters. Universally panned by critics and still often dismissed as yet another camp classic, the movie based on Christina Crawford’s tell-all biography was a career wrecker.
Faye Dunaway, who WAS Joan Crawford in the film, still resents the movie. Other actors in the film watched their careers stall as the critics recoiled. Confidants of Joan Crawford, who already rushed to defend her when the eponymous book hit bookstores in 1978, expressed even more intense feelings that they had shared about the book. A Hollywood flop, Mommie Dearest offers little accuracy about the life and times of one of the twentieth century’s greatest movie stars.Yet when you see past the larger-than-life portrayal of Joan Crawford, Mommie Dearestoffers some compelling lessons on corporate governance. In the 1950s, Ms. Crawford married Al Steele (with whom she’s pictured above left, click to expand), the CEO of Pepsi-Cola who built the company from a regional soft drink bottler to that giant that today rivals Coca-Cola. The actions of Steele and Crawford, however, outline the tensions in which corporate executives, boards of directors, and shareholders often tangle to this day.As any Crawford fan or Mommie Dearest cult devotee knows, Steele and Crawford took out a huge loan from what is now PepsiCo to revamp and redecorate an ostentatious Manhattan apartment that was more suitable for the movie star’s tastes. Contrary to the ridiculous scene in the 1981 film, the loan was paid off before Steele suddenly died of a heart attack in 1959. But a disclosure about the loan in a 1958 Pepsi-Cola proxy statement raised the ire of some of the firm’s stockholders. Crawford’s reluctance to disclose her Pepsi-Cola belie how some activist shareholders were already nervous about the vast sums of money the couple had spent to remodel their showcase home. Shareholders undoubtedly were also concerned about the costs involved to send Crawford and Steele around the world to promote Pepsi. Of course, questions about transparency and corporate governance were more muted back then as electronic securities filings and social media were not available tools 50 years ago
“This ain’t my first time at the rodeo” – Best quote Joan Crawford never said
And yet another lesson of Mommie Dearest, once you get past the absurdity and over-acting, is how women are still underrepresented on corporate boards of directors. The movie’s finest scene(contrived, I’m sure, and of course we’re not embedding it as this is a family-friendly site), show the barriers professional women have faced in achieving nominations to corporate boards–and challenges once they are on them. While some may have originally doubted the wisdom of Joan Crawford’s eventual appointment as the first woman to Pepsi-Cola’s board of directors, the fact was that she was an asset to the company during the 1960s until her forced retirement a few years before she died in 1977. Business-savvy and with a fierce work ethic, Crawford traveled the world as Pepsi-Cola’s spokeswoman, enhancing Pepsi’s brand the way few celebrities could today. Over the years plenty of men were appointed to corporate boards thanks to their connections; few toiled as hard as Joan Crawford after receiving such an appointment.True, Mommie Dearest will not be shown in seminars about corporate governance ortransparency anytime soon. Nevertheless, the indulgences of Joan Crawford, and indignities she suffered later during her career on the “board of directors of this lousy company” (as quoted in the movie), are still with us today as women on boards of directors continue to chip away at that glass ceiling.