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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA



Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT


Mommie Dearest

Director: Frank Perry
Producer: Frank Yablans
Screenwriters: Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, Frank Perry, Frank Yablans
Cast: Faye Dunaway, Diana Scarwid, Steve Forrest, Howard Da Silva, Mara Hobel, Rutanya Alda
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1981


Mommie Dearest is based on - but deviates substantially - from Christina Crawford's best-selling memoir of the same title about her love-hate relationship with Joan Crawford, the 1930/40s movie star. It is controversial whether Christina told the complete truth in her book.

The film portrays Joan Crawford as a driven actress who is obsessed with cleanliness and insists that those around her follow all her instructions exactly. She desperately wants to adopt a baby after seven pregnancies ended in miscarriages. When Joan is denied an application for adoption through a legal agency, she enlists her boyfriend Gregg's help.

Finally, Joan gets what she wants: first a blonde, blue-eyed baby girl, whom she names Christina, and later Christopher. Because of her emotionally barren life and the neglect she experienced during her own childhood, Crawford wants to be a loving mother yet is totally unprepared for what real motherhood entails.

Joan lavishes Christina with attention and luxuries such as an extravagant birthday party, but she also enforces a strict code of denial and discipline. For example, Christina is showered with gifts at the party in front of reporters. Later, in private, the actress asks the girl which gift she likes best. When Christina picks it, she announces to her disappointed daughter that all the other gifts will be donated to charity.

Christina must remain at her mother's beck and call to impress the fans. First the girl tries to please her mommy. As the she begins to rebel against her mother's stringent demands, a series of confrontations emerges. The actress takes out her personal and professional frustration, fear and helplessness on her daughter.

In one scene Joan easily overtakes Christina in a swimming-pool race and then proclaims her victory by telling the child that she "lost again". Crawford then becomes enraged when the girl reacts with "childish disappointment". Three meals in a row she tries to make her daughter eat a bloody steak. When Joan discovers the girl putting on makeup and imitating her, she hysterically cuts off Christina's hair.

In another scene Joan throws a drink at Gregg after he told her that she is getting old. Following a physical altercation, he breaks up with her. The next day, Joan cuts him out of all the family photos. Several boyfriends follow. The movie shows Christina mixing a drink for one of them and telling him that she does this for all her "uncles".

Joan Crawford's tantrums grow more bizarre and violent when her studio boss fires her from MGM after theater owners brand her "box office poison". In the middle of the night and forcing her children to watch her, she flies into a bitter rage, hacks down her prize rose garden, and chops down a tree while dressed in a ball gown.

In the film's most notorious scene, slathered in facial cream, the actress stalks into Christina's bedroom in the middle of the night and discovers one of the child's dresses hanging on a wire hanger. She launches into a tirade, screaming at the girl, "I told you! No wire hangers, ever!" Crawford demolishes the closet and beats the girl with the hanger. Then she decides that Christina's bathroom is not spotlessly clean and throws scouring powder everywhere, demanding that she clean it up. Christopher gets out of bed wanting to help. But traumatized Christina tells him to go back to bed, or mom will kill her.

As a young adolescent, Christina continues to be subjected to a pattern of humiliation and punishment. In response to her daughter's rebellion, Joan sends the distraught girl to a boarding school. Although she receives excellent grades, Crawford pulls the teenager out of the school a couple of years later because she is caught in a seemingly compromising position with a boy during an innocent encounter.

Christina arrives at home, where a reporter is writing a piece on Crawford's home life. When Joan lies about the reason her daughter left school, Christina contradicts her. Subsequently she accuses her mother of adopting her as a publicity stunt. Now Joan becomes completely unhinged, lunging at the teenager, hurling her to the carpet, banging her head against the floor, and trying to choke her to death. Crawford's personal assistant and the reporter intervene to stop the attack. After this incident, the actress sends her daughter to Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy against her will where the mother superior promises to reform her.

After graduating from the convent school, Christina rents an apartment in Manhattan, where she acts in a daytime soap opera. While she is recovering from the removal of a benign ovarian tumor in the hospital, the stunned Christina watches on TV how Joan ruins her character on the show by temporarily filling in for her while drunk.

Eventually Joan Crawford tries to connect with her daughter during Christina's early adulthood by giving her a present. The young woman takes care of her moody mother when she is dying from cancer. After her death, Christina and Christopher are both shocked to learn that their adopted mom had cut them out of an estate estimated at about $2 million "for reasons, which are well known to them". Christopher comments that their mother has managed to have the last word as usual. But Christina disagrees, hinting at her plans to write the book, Mommie Dearest .

The viewer gets the impression that Christina's book and this film might have, finally, provided the young woman with the means to work through the past and come to terms with her anger.

Cinema Alchemy

I treated 54-year-old Rosemary for anxiety and panic attacks. She complained that her husband of many years was emotionally abusive and manipulative. My client told me that her anxiety usually subsided during work hours and resurfaced back at home. Professionally, Rosemary was successful and earned significantly more money than her husband, Stephen. Because her career had always been her priority, the couple didn't have children.

When I asked my client about her childhood, she responded by asking me whether I had seen Mommie Dearest . She thought that I would be able to understand her best if I knew what Christina went through in the movie. Rosemary seemed relieved when I recalled that I had seen this film over 20 years ago and promised to watch it again before our next session.

At the beginning of our subsequent meeting, my client looked at me with much anticipation. I asked her about her experience with Mommie Dearest. Rosemary explained that watching the movie as a young adult and several times after that helped her understand that she was not the only one who had suffered from severe abuse as a child. Mommie Dearest became a sort of trusted companion for her. My client had always kept her affinity to this motion picture a secret because she knew that many film critics considered it mediocre.

Rosemary proceeded by recalling the movie plot scene by scene. She emphasized that she felt exactly like Christina in some of these scenes although her circumstances were not exactly the same. Her mother had been an out-of-control alcoholic who was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. She had showered my client with affection one day and attacked her verbally and physically on the next.

During this process, something in Rosemary started to shift. She felt deeply touched because she felt seen, as we talked about the similarities between Christina's and her experiences. When I mirrored back her affect, she told me that our exploration - using the movie - seemed like "opening a window through which you really get what I went through like nobody else before".

Soon after this session, Rosemary drew comparisons between the anxiety she experienced in childhood and the panic attacks that were triggered when she was around her husband. Concentrated trauma work helped her recover from her childhood trauma, become less anxious, and strengthen her sense of self. She began to confront her husband about his abusive behavior. Because Stephen was afraid of losing her, he agreed to start individual and couples therapy.

Theoretical Contemplations

Film critics have called Mommie Dearest a "depressive" movie. Depressive and violent films should be used carefully in therapy because they can be re-traumatizing if they reactivate previous psychological trauma.

On the other hand, using movies in therapy that can trigger fear, anger, or sadness might help clients become more conscious of these emotions if they have been repressed. In work with psychological trauma, this is one of several treatment methods that help clients process trauma within a so-called "therapeutic window". Interventions are done within this "window" when they create enough therapeutic challenge but don't lead to an overwhelming internal experience. Emotional overwhelm needs to be avoided because it can create an avoidance response, like dissociation, etc.

When characters are portrayed who seem depressed, a film can - almost like a support group - help clients feel less isolated with their challenging experiences or they can serve as a psycho-educational tool in cognitive work. If the character's depression is a result of grief, this kind of movie helps normalize grief.

Guidelines for Questions and Suggestions

• What did you feel when you watched Christina being abused?

•  Have you had similar experiences?

•  What helped Christina survive emotionally?  

•  What inner or outer resources are available to you?

Birgit Wolz wrote the following continuing education online courses:

Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.

Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.

Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.

Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)

Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.

DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.

Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy