Book Review: Rutanya Alda’s THE MOMMIE DEAREST DIARY

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Actress and author Rutanya Alda’s new confessional book reveals the making of an American cult classic.

Rutanya Alda is a true renaissance woman. Not only has this versatile Latvian born actress appeared in nearly one hundred American feature films (including the gruesome AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION), but she has also played a major role in film preservation by writing a memoir that matches any film historian’s tome on the importance of cinema, the culture of motion pictures as both an accessible art form as well as a social critique and the tell-all “making-of” detailing the production of an American cult classic: the monstrosity that is 1981’s MOMMIE DEAREST.

Written as a journal, Rutanya Alda’s THE MOMMIE DEAREST DIARY is a striking and exhaustive account of one of the most misinterpreted and misunderstood biopics ever put to screen. Frank Perry’s filmic adaptation of Christina Crawford’s autobiography MOMMIE DEAREST was truly an outrageous freakshow that has built a loyal and committed fan base since its initial release. However, it was intended to be a dense and steady re-imagining of the iconic Hollywood superstar Joan Crawford – and her tumultuous relationship with her adopted daughter. What resulted however, was a garish, gleefully grotesque, Grand Guignol variant of a ghoulishly camp melodrama with child abuse, aging, the cruelty of the movie making machine and ruthless ambition as its crooked backbone.

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Alda would play Carol Ann, the long-suffering maid to Joan Crawford who would be bought to life by the equally volatile and controversially “hard to work with” Faye Dunaway. What Alda does with this journal is a perfect realization and materialization of a time in Hollywood when the popcorn junk-pile was bringing in the bucks, but the auteurs still persisted in telling their unique and important stories. Director Frank Perry (who took the reins of such interesting and thought provoking dark pieces such as DAVID AND LISA (1962) and THE SWIMMER (1968)) was one such artist, and he championed Alda with an open heart. This is all bought to the fore in Alda’s honest and gripping book. Her author’s “voice” is endearing, enchanting and loaded with sincerity as we hear stories about her heartbreaking strained relationship with her mother while her childhood was marked by war-torn Latvia. Here we understand Alda’s necessity of escapism – where this young European girl would lose herself in the wonders of cinema, lost in a sea of bewilderment and magic; those precious moments in the dark.

In this incredibly personal account of one woman’s determination and struggle to have the much desired opportunity to work in front of the cinematic camera, we find that it is much more than your average “making-of” book or excursion into “dishing the dirt” – and this is something that Alda could have happily tipped into, with someone as formidable as Faye Dunaway could prove to be such an easy target of ridicule and bitchy banter. Alda is remarkably smart and instead of stepping into that gossipy terrain, she responds to her experiences with a truthful and clear vision – she knows how to tell a story, and boy does this lady have some! As much as the book is primarily about the creation of MOMMIE DEAREST and the insanity that permeated the set and the lengthy and troubled production, Alda sets up this examination with electric anecdotes ranging from her own husband’s struggles with heroin addiction, candid detailing of several affairs, an insight into her own personal insecurities and dilemmas as well as some of the best yarns on some of cinema’s most important films of the 70s including her work in THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (1971).

A stand out story is where Alda writes of working as Barbra Streisand’s stand in on the ill-fated big budget flop HELLO, DOLLY! (1969), a lavish Fox musical that lost a lot of money for the studio and jeopardized Streisand’s career. Here, Alda puts a microscope on the songstress’s ego and insecurities and the results are addictive story telling; sometimes the “voice” shifts into a fabulous Hollywood Babylon-esque flamboyance that is both measured and mesmerizing.

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Alda has a marvelous way of seducing you with her words, which are both poetic and respectfully grounded all at the same time. Another factor from the book that will excite any movie lover is her retelling of her first meeting with John Wayne and the amazing recollection of her saving him from a fire at his apartment. More cinephile-enticing seduction shall be had when Alda discusses being willowy Mia Farrow’s double in some of the scenes for Roman Polanski’s horror smash hit ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), a masterpiece of terror and a superlative landmark in the history of horror. Her work in the genre continued with films such as the grim CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980), as the mother of the doomed children in WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979), George A. Romero’s adaptation of Stephen King’s THE DARK HALF (1993) and of course AMITYVILLE II (1982). Brian De Palma fans will also enjoy the great stories regarding working with the prince of the split screen where Alda worked on films such as GREETINGS (1968) and THE FURY (1978) plus looping Angie Dickinson’s orgasmic yelps in the trans-killer gem DRESSED TO KILL (1980).

THE MOMMIE DEAREST DIARY is a perfect Christmas present for any movie lover, and the fantastic Rutanya Alda has heart secured on sleeve in her writing – as aforementioned, this is more than just a simple retelling of a camp cult hit’s flustered production, instead it is an important and elegant insight into one of the hardest working actresses in the business.

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Weekend: Dec. 13, 2018, Dec. 16, 2018

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