It’s me,” Christina Crawford announces, popping her head through a door she opens stage left at Manhattan’s Snapple Theater Center. The adopted daughter of Hollywood legend Joan Crawford was one of the first to market with a celebrity tell-all when she published her memoir Mommie Dearest the year after her mother’s death in 1977. As she takes the stage, briefly interrupting the screening of her new, seventy-one-minute documentary “Surviving Mommie Dearest” with one of the interactive portions of the evening, she recounts her salad days in New York studying acting at Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse and living in a cold-water flat. She details being accidentally locked in the shared hallway bathroom, then jokes, “I had been locked in closets before.”
The line gets a laugh, but for the seventy-three-year-old Crawford, clearing up the legend of her abusive childhood at the hands of an alcoholic mother with what actually went down is serious business and something she’s determined to do. “I want for the truth to be told” – she says a few days after previewing “Surviving Mommie Dearest” for the press – “in my own voice and in my own time and place. That’s my right. And fortunately, I have a producer who believes in me.”
Of course, her main bone of contention is director Frank Perry’s 1981 film adaptation of her memoir, which features an over-the-top Faye Dunaway who, after Anne Bancroft passed on the role of her mother, nabbed it by showing up unannounced to producer Frank Yablans’ house late at night dressed to the nines as Joan.
Christina Crawford is chilly toward the film, and even Dunaway, during the Q&A following the screening, but she opens up about it when we chat a few days later. “First is the viewpoint,” Crawford says, quickly rattling off her top three beefs with the adaptation. “The book is written from the perspective of a child, but the film was told through the vantage point of a lunatic Hollywood star. Second, the truth of the material portrayed in the film is just not accurate and the third thing is, I can say as a filmgoer and now a filmmaker, it’s just not a good film. It’s not well-produced.”
Why, then, do people still watch it, almost religiously? “I am not that audience so I can’t tell you,” Crawford replies. “You need to ask them.” Enter performance artist Joey Arias, who pulled off a letter-perfect Joan in the long-running spoof “Christmas with the Crawfords,” which parodies an actual 1949, Christmas eve radio broadcast with Crawford and her family. “The film is such a cult classic,” Arias says via email, “because it takes her out of the blur of Hollywood and makes it real. Joan had all these secret walls surrounding her and then Christina popped the bubble with her book. We got to see — true or not — a different Joan.”
The thing Christina Crawford is too polite to mention is that she’s never seen a nickel of the film’s almost forty million dollars in receipts and with a production budget of five million, that’s a lot of nickels. When asked why she isn’t participating in the profits, she lets out a long, but not especially bitter laugh. “If I knew that,” she replies, “I would be a nice wealthy lady. It has to do with the way Hollywood keeps their accounting and it’s a minor sore spot, but there’s nothing I can do about it at the moment.”