“No ... wire ... hangers ... ever!” If that quote doesn’t either scare the hell out of you or make you laugh hysterically, you’ve obviously never seen the film Mommie Dearest. The twisted biopic is based on the book by the oldest daughter of legendary actress Joan Crawford—and infamously paints Crawford as a Golden-
Faye Dunaway’s over-the-top performance as Crawford made the film a cult classic, and true or not, ensured that Joan Crawford’s legacy was that of a crazy child abuser who took out her alcoholic rage and fear of aging on Christina. It also helped make Crawford one of the gay community’s most famous icons, revered for her talent, uber-dramatic persona and impeccable style in the face of personal adversity.
The latest show by Albuquerque’s popular drag troupe The Dolls pays tribute to the complicated star. The world premiere of their original production, The Gospel According to Joan, runs May 9 through June 1 at Aux Dog Theatre (3011 Monte Vista NE). It’s an homage to Crawford that may just make her seem a little less terrifying.
“I’ve always found Joan such a fascinating character, partly based on the Mommie Dearest persona,” says Dolls founder Ken Ansloan. “Her career was unbelievable. She started in silent films and was one of the very few that made the transition to talkies.”
Don’t worry—this show is full of the Dolls’ signature campy style and the sexual innuendo that fans eagerly expect. But it also has some serious moments to remind you that Crawford was, indeed, human.
The Dolls have had a long love affair with Crawford. Ansloan, who stars as Crawford in the new production, has been portraying her since their first show 17 years ago.
With a long sequined gown, red lipsticked mouth and plenty of attitude, the actress has become one of Ansloan’s most popular recurring Dolls characters. But after years of more bawdy, larger-than-life portrayals, he decided it was time to dig a little deeper. Don’t worry—this show is full of the Dolls’ signature campy style and the sexual innuendo that fans eagerly expect. But it also has some serious moments to remind you that Crawford was, indeed, human.
Centering on the last day of the actress’ life, Crawford’s story is finally told from her perspective. She reflects on her legendary career, failed marriages, her passionate love affair with Clark Gable, hate-hate rivalry with fellow screen siren Bette Davis and, of course, her heartbreakingly tumultuous relationship with daughter Christina. And while the plot has all the drama of an episode of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” it also takes on a certain poignancy. Famous films, big hair and ridiculous drama aside, Crawford ends up just like everyone else—trying to make sense of her life before she breathes her last breath.
Crawford works through her memories by confronting younger versions of herself. First up is “Flapper Joan,” aka slutty Joan, played by Bradd Howard, also the show’s director.
“Playing flapper-slutty-Joan is a blast. Most people don’t know she started off doing stag films ... when she was a chorus girl,” Howard says. “She did some nudies at that time, which was pretty risqué ... so I get to be crass, I get to be ‘that girl.’”
Howard says that, like most Dolls productions, this show has been a collaborative effort.
“In the moment, if somebody does some improv and we like it better, we incorporate it,” he says. “With this group you have to be open-minded. When you work with a bunch of drag queens, everyone is a diva, so you have to be willing to listen to everybody.”
“Playing flapper-slutty-Joan is a blast. Most people don’t know she started off doing stag films ... when she was a chorus girl. She did some nudies at that time, which was pretty risqué ... so I get to be crass, I get to be ‘that girl.’”
As if numerous Joans in one production isn’t enough, there’s another very important character that adds glamour to the gloriously campy.
“Costumes play an important character in the show. We’ve recreated some of Joan’s famous costumes from her films,” Ansloan says. “We replicated the dress from Grand Hotel and her dress from The Women. We get to go through the decades from 1930 to 1970. So it’s kind of fun.”
That journey through the decades—and dresses—of Crawford’s life might surprise those who only think of her as the evil “Mommie Dearest.”
“A lot of people wonder, is Mommie Dearest true, or was Christina getting back at her mother because she was jealous? Joan had three other children, and the two youngest said no, this is untrue. Other people swear, ‘Yes, I saw Joan go psycho on Christina,’” Ansloan says. “Christina actually recanted that Joan attacked her with the wire hanger, which is weird.”
Psycho or not, you know Crawford did something right when, years after her passing, fabulously dressed drag queens continue to channel her onstage, determined to help their idol have the last word, even in death.
Whether Crawford is looking down from heaven or up from hell, Ansloan hopes she’s pleased.
“I hope she would smile and say ‘Wow this really captured my life, and for all its ups and downs, it was a life well lived.’”