I’ve spent the last few days cleaning my house like a demon. This is an activity I enjoy on any day of the week, but currently, to my great satisfaction, it counts as two categories of work since I’m also writing a book on the subject. I’m in my kitchen making up batches of natural cleaning products, trying them out, writing about them, then going back to my kitchen to tinker some more. I’m getting my book finished and my house smells gorgeous. Honestly, it’s pure bliss, but I have to chuckle about just how much I enjoy putting my house in order. It’s a little demented. I can’t help but think of one of my favorite lines from one of my all-time favorite movies, Mommie Dearest. “I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt!” Faye Dunaway, playing Joan Crawford, sing-shouts this in an attempt to seem cheerful toward the poor hapless housekeeper she’s just read to filth for neglecting to mop the floor under a potted plant. I relate to this. I’m not mad (or sad, or anxious, or confused, or hopeless, or doomed)—I’M CLEANING!!!
Yesterday I watched the movie for the 200th time and laughed out loud all by myself, as I always do. It made me want to share this piece of writing with you again. I posted it on this blog a few years ago, and it originally ran in a food-themed zine put out by The Soapbox. The portrait of Faye Dunaway from that famous wire hanger scene was made by Joe Carlough of Displaced Snail. Enjoy it, folks, and remember, I would rather be here with you than anywhere else in the world.
When we were kids, my little sister and I watched Mommie Dearest on a regular basis. We had a VHS tape of it that we’d recorded off theTV a few minutes in, so we never got to see the very beginning, when Joan Crawford wakes up at four a.m. to begin her meticulous morning routine. In that scene, with the swirling, corny score playing in the background, we see Joan scrub her face with steaming water—literally scrub it, with a brush—and then plunge it into ice, a strange ritual that I didn’t really understand but knew had something to do with making and keeping yourself beautiful. There was something so incredibly satisfying to us about watching that movie. There were the terrible, overacting extras, who make me hoot with laughter when I watch them now; the cathartic, crazy screaming; the hush of melodrama that settled over the whole thing like snow. Even the way the word mommie was spelled was weird. It was wonderful.
I don’t know how much Joan’s rage and loneliness really registered with me back then, and as kids Liz and I certainly didn’t have the life experience to appreciate the subtleties of “camp.” I think what we were responding to instead was the childishness of Christina’s complaint, the outrage that every kid feels, at one time or another, however lucky they are: This isn’t fair! No one gets to choose their family, and it doesn’t matter how enviable it looks from the outside—there’s something scary and sad that lives in every household. Liz and I were no strangers to the way a parent’s mood could shift like the weather, responding to nothing but itself, the air dense with gathering storm clouds. And so we screamed along with Christina, and Joan too, since the anger of every person in the movie thrilled us equally. “Tina!” my sister would cry out, just before the rose bushes were about to really get it. The sob in her voice was just right. “Bring me the ax!”
The sumptuousness of the setting was a big part of the movie’s appeal too, of course. Joan puts on these floor-length gowns and glides down her art deco staircase like she’s in a movie, even when she’s just hanging out around the house. She goes out to dinner dripping with diamonds. And the dinners themselves? Nothin’ but steak. Whether she’s at home or cradling a vodka tonic at Perino’s, Joan always orders hers rare.
One of several baroque punishments Mommie hands out to her daughter has to do with the steak. They all sit down to lunch at home one day—Christina, Joan, little brother Christopher, and that lackey of a nanny, Carol Ann—but Christina balks, calling the meat on her plate “raw” in a babyish voice. She presses down on it with her fork and watery blood runs out. Mommie won’t let Christina eat anything else for the next several meals. Instead she sets out the same cold steak every morning and evening and waits for the girl to break down and eat it, but she never does.
The thought of eating steak for lunch (a rare one, no less) made a big, sickening impression on me back then. There was something so queasily grown-up about it, not unlike Mommie’s spooky sex appeal, or the very female rage that fills the movie. Christina wins that battle, just like she wins the war in the end. But that’s not what you remember, is it? It’s Joan’s anger and ego, larger than life, that matter to this story. She so often seems to want to kill the daughter she loves, but there’s that one moment, when she finally relents and lets Christina scrape the disgusting food into the trash, that a tiny smile plays at the corners of her mouth.
“Why must everything be a contest!” she hisses, but you can tell she’s kind of proud.