Watch: On The EDGE with Hedda Lettuce Talking 'Mommie Dearest'

Thursday May 27, 2021

Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in 'Mommie Dearest.'
Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in 'Mommie Dearest.'  (Source:Paramount Pictures)

When speaking to Hedda Lettuce this week, EDGE's Matthew Wexler mistakenly said the drag icon had been performing in New York for nearly three decades. She promptly corrected him, adding, "I think you're reading Lady Bunny's bio."

Hedda Lettuce, the drag persona of Steven Polito, is from the generation of New York City drag queens — such as Lady Bunny, Sherry Vine, and Varla Jean Merman — who made careers in a time before social media or YouTube makeup tutorials. One of the more ingenious ways Hedda found her audience was by hosting screenings of classic films in a Chelsea movie theatre for years. Called "Hedda Presents the Classics," it featured Hedda introducing and making commentary about a camp Hollywood classic to a packed house of mostly gay men.

By far, one of the most popular titles Hedda showed is "Mommie Dearest," the 1981 biopic of Joan Crawford that starred Faye Dunaway in a performance the actress later said ruined her career. It was so popular that Hedda would present it twice a year — during Pride and at Halloween. So, naturally, when Paramount Pictures was planning the 40th anniversary Blu-ray edition (to be released on June 1), they turned to Hedda to provide a new commentary track. In addition to Hedda's commentary, there is also one by John Waters, along with a feature on the film's director, Frank Perry, by his biographer, Justin Bozung, and additional features about Crawford.

Watch the full interview here:

Hedda Lettuce  

But what defines camp? Hedda explained one factor is how it can happen when actresses delude themselves when making a film. "The lead actress is always the last to know," she explained. "They're so invested in it they don't realize how ridiculous it is. And therefore, that's when you get it. That's when you get really good, true camp."

To make her point, she alluded to another camp classic, "Showgirls," which she has commented on numerous times over the years, and how its lead, Elizabeth Berkley, was clueless about the film she was starring in.

"Gina Gershon, I think knew what was going on, but Elizabeth Berkley had no clue and thought this was going to be her big defining moment." The same, Hedda said, was true of Dunaway: "This was going to be another defining moment in her career and bring her back. And, and, you know, in a way, it did. Maybe not because she wanted."

What made Christina Crawford's memoir and its subsequent film so sensational was its depiction of Crawford as an abusive and neurotic mother who adopted two children in the 1940s only to make their childhoods miserable. The film depicts the abuse in a style similar to that of a horror movie; notably in the film's most famous scene when Dunaway, her face caked in cold cream, discovers a verboten wire hanger in her daughter's closet and explodes with the now-iconic phrase, "No wire hangers!" But how does Hedda address such a sensitive scene in today's volatile climate with humor?

She then broke the scene down: "Some people have a hard time with that scene. It's very challenging because then she gets a little bit more down and dirty and starts beating Christina with the hanger. And then you move on to her going into the bathroom with Christina and then smacking her over the head with some Comet."

Though, as Hedda explained, it isn't so much the behavior but its presentation that turns this into one of filmdom's campiest moments.

"When she says stuff like 'no wire hangers' with such a determined delivery without laughing, I mean, that's a laugh. And audiences treat this like gay church; they're saying these lines out with her as it's happening. We're all saying this together, so in a sense that changes the energy ... it makes it this communal event, and just makes it sort of just camp macabre."

Asked about her favorite moment in the film, Hedda paused. "My favorite moment in 'Mommie Dearest?' It's like picking your favorite child. It's very difficult. But some for some mothers it isn't. And in the case of Joan Crawford, it wasn't difficult for her to pick her favorite... or least favorite."

Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in 'Mommie Dearest.'  

Hedda's choice turned out to be one of the lesser-known ones. "I really love when she's about to seduce this man and she lifts her leg up in like a Pilates move, and she's on this beautiful chaise lounge and she's wearing this gorgeous dress and she just about to get laid. And she's just loving her body and her legs and her shoes, and she's just living through this moment," she recalled. "It's wild. There are a lot of interesting choices that I think made this movie what it is today. She made a lot of interesting choices, and the director didn't stop her because I don't think the director had the courage to."

Hedda also doesn't think that stars like Crawford and her peers exist today. ("Maybe Cate Blanchett, maybe Nicole Kidman, I don't know. I don't think they have, really — Reese Witherspoon? No. Nothing like that.") And why not? Hedda says there is a need for today's stars to be accessible with their fans; the "elegant distance" that so defined stars of Hollywood's Golden Age is missing.

"There's a problem with being people's best friends. People want to talk to you. And I think, I think they had very distinct boundaries in those days, which is very necessary to maintain a sort of legendary persona. I don't want to be your friend. I have a few friends that I like. I know I'm here to make a few jokes and a couple of laughs, that's about it. And I think they really knew that. It adds mystique, and I think that's what creates a long-term career. Too much accessibility. It's like public transportation. Why do I hate it? Because the public is on it."

On the EDGE

This story is part of our special report titled On the EDGE. Want to read more? Here's the full list.