Every actor has had one. A howler of a line that in retrospect might have been better left unsaid. Meryl Streep managed to live down “The dingo’s got my baby!” and Kelly Preston emerged from Battlefield Earth bloodied but unbowed after mouthing “I am going to make you as happy as a baby Psychlo on a straight diet of kerbango,” but not all actors are as lucky.
Take for instance, the example of an Oscar winning actress who went from hero to zero following a bonkers line reading in the movie Mommie Dearest. “It was meant to be a window into a tortured soul,” Faye Dunaway said of her performance as Joan Crawford. “But it was made into camp.”
“No wire hangers ever,” not only sunk Dunaway’s career, but Mommie Dearest fan John Waters adds it “probably really hurt the wire hanger industry” as well.
Based on the controversial 1978 memoir of the same name by Crawford’s daughter Christina, which alleged the movie icon was an abusive mother who adopted her four children for publicity purposes, the movie had the makings of a searing Hollywood tell-all.
Dunaway was a well respected Oscar winner who came with the ultimate seal of approval from Crawford herself. In the early 1970s the actress singled out Dunaway as the only up-and-comer who had “the talent and class and courage it takes to make a real star.” Add to that a hot button subject, a $5,000,000 budget (equal to another 1981 hit Time Bandits) and the prestigious Paramount Pictures, home of The Godfather and Chinatown and Mommie Dearest had all the ingredients to make it an important movie. Instead it was reviled by critics and described by Waters as “the first comedy about child abuse.”
What happened? “I was too good at Crawford,” Dunaway offers by way of explanation. Others suggest otherwise. Variety opined that “Dunaway does not chew scenery. Dunaway starts neatly at each corner of the set in every scene and swallows it whole, costars and all,” while Roger Ebert wrote, “I can’t imagine who would want to subject themselves to this movie.”
The backlash stemmed from not from Dunaway’s rather remarkable physical transformation and overall performance—she almost took home the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Actress of the Year—but for two scenes. Two over-the-top sequences played with such conviction they ruined her career as a leading lady, won her a Razzie for Worst Actress and became camp classics.
First there is the lesser known, but wild scene in a rose garden that culminates with Crawford screeching “Tina! Bring me the axe!” But the campy pièce de résistance, the scene that single handedly earned the movie a place in the hearts of drag queens everywhere is the incredible “no wire hangers EVER” monologue. It’s a terrifying spectacle, Dunaway in white face—actually smeared cold cream—berating her daughter for hanging a $300 dollar dress on a wire coat hanger.
These days Dunaway refuses to talk about the movie, but at the time she said, “It was scary the first time I saw it” and later, in her autobiography blamed inexperienced director Frank Perry for the film’s excesses, suggesting he should have been able to rein in the performances.
Maybe so, but it is hard to rein in the moon and the stars and that’s what Dunaway seems to be shooting for here as she lets loose with a wild eyed tirade that must be seen to be believed. Charles Taylor of the New York Observer called it “one of the most reckless and extreme performances any star has ever dared,” and Dunaway herself admits to screeching herself hoarse while shooting the notorious tantrum.
The infamous line may have damaged both Dunaway’s career and the movie but it has found a second life, being quoted in everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Simpsons (who had an episode titled Mommie Beerest).
Ironically one of the film’s actors, Rutanya Alda (she played Joan Crawford’s personal secretary) reports that the “no wire hangers” outburst, if it did indeed happen in real life, didn’t leave a long term impression on Christina Crawford. The actress once looked inside Crawford’s real closet and there were, indeed, wire hangers.