Friday, May 10, 2024

Q&A with A. Ashley Hoff


Photo by Atila Sikora



A. Ashley Hoff is the author of the new book With Love, Mommie Dearest: The Making of an Unintentional Camp Classic. It focuses on the film that was based on Christina Crawford's memoir about her mother, film star Joan Crawford. Hoff's other books include Match Game 101, and he has worked for talent agencies in Los Angeles and Chicago.


Q: What inspired you to write With Love, Mommie Dearest?


A: Years ago I met Christina Crawford at an event and we talked about her book and the movie. While she isn't exactly thrilled with the way the big-screen adaptation turned out, she recognized how its popularity brought the topic of child abuse out into the open. This was long before I ever thought about writing a book on the subject.


Years later, I pitched the idea to my literary agent, and he said he already knew three or four editors who would be interested. 


Remembering my conversation with Christina, I knew I had to maintain a respectful tone. I didn't want a book simply making fun of the whole thing.


Moreover, I had worked for years in talent agencies in Chicago and Los Angeles, and knew how hard the cast, crew and production members worked to make that picture a success--it had an A-list star, A-list director, A-list budget, top-flight set and costume design--and yet, for a variety of reasons I detail in With Love, Mommie Dearest, was not received as it was intended.


And that's tough on the people who put so much time, effort, and creativity into their work. They could have been nominated for Academy Awards, and instead, they won Razzies! 


And yet, it was impossible to ignore the camp elements, or why the movie is seen by so many people that way. So I set out to explain what went into the crafting of Mommie Dearest, and how and why it turned out the way it did. 


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I started with the movie's original production files, kept at the Margaret Herrick Library at the Motion Picture Academy. The original cast and crew lists helped, allowing me to track down many of the production and crew members, and actors in smaller roles. 


Many of them had never spoken before about their experiences working on Mommie Dearest. They shared some great stories and their thoughts on why the movie turned out the way it did. 


What surprised me?


For one thing, I realized the filming of Mommie Dearest signaled the end of two great eras in Hollywood moviemaking. The end of Golden Age Hollywood--because so many great stars and filmmakers of that period were starting to pass away, and of course, Mommie Dearest is the iconoclastic tale about one of the greatest of those Golden Age stars.


And a number of the people working on the film had known or worked with Joan Crawford, and on other Hollywood classics. Makeup artist Charlie Schram, who worked on Mommie Dearest, had worked at MGM on The Wizard of Oz!

But it also, arguably, marked the end of the American New Wave of cinema that began with the release of Bonnie and Clyde, starring Faye Dunaway, reached its heights with Chinatown and Network, starring Faye Dunaway, and now ended with Mommie Dearest, starring--you guessed it!--Faye Dunaway.


That period between 1967 and 1981 saw the release of some great, character-driven movies that could not have been made earlier, largely due to censorship issues, and wouldn't be made today because with rising production costs, studios take fewer risks. 


Mommie Dearest was released in September of 1981, and a few months earlier Steven Spielberg released Raiders of the Lost Ark. The following year, E.T. hit theatres. And so began the rise of the special effects-laden cineplex blockbusters we see today.


With today's CGI and AI, there is no need to spend a percentage of a movie budget on the marble flooring and lavish, Art Deco sets they built for Mommie Dearest. Today, they would just greenscreen it in.  


Q: What do you see as the film’s legacy today?


A: For one thing, the movie helped bring the topics of child abuse and how to survive it into the mainstream. Since the publication of Christina Crawford's memoir and the release of its big-screen adaptation, laws have been passed and strengthened to better protect children. There is a greater awareness of the subject, and there are distinctions made between discipline and overt bullying. In previous generations there was no real distinction made. 


There are essentially three types of people watching Mommie Dearest: those watching it as a campy melodrama, a sort of over-the-top telenovela set in Hollywood; those watching it for cathartic or therapeutic reasons; and those watching the movie as a straight drama or as a bio-pic. And, judging by the film's continued popularity, I'd say each of those reasons to watch the movie is valid. 


Q: What do you hope people take away from the book?


A: Among the takeaways: Mommie Dearest has often been derided as a "flop," and an easy target for jokes. While it was critically panned, it was never a financial failure. In fact, while award-winning movies made the same year have fallen into obscurity, Mommie Dearest remains a fan-favorite. It makes one reassess one's definitions of "success" and "failure." 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I've been researching a couple of biographies and art books--books concerning the lives of artists, and cataloguing their artwork. And I'm researching and writing another book about a particular cult classic film. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: While I am not originally from New Orleans, I've spent some time there and have a lot of New Orleanian friends--and make a damn good jambalaya!


Also, I should add that I wrote an earlier book, published in 2019, titled "Match Game 101: A Backstage History of Match Game," about the popular ‘70s TV game show still airing in reruns. So, my goal is obviously to corner the market in Pop Culture!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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