2016 Film Essays

Cult Vault, Part Three: On Campy, Queer Figureheads In ‘Mommie Dearest’ and ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’


“Indeed, the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural; of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric, something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.” This observation pops up in the opening page of Susan Sontag’s “Notes On Camp,” the seminal essay which not only defined the genre of camp but provided the blueprint for how to spot it in cinema. Over the years, audiences have entwined camp and queerness in film in a way that has made such themes nearly inextricable. This is not a bad thing at all, as viewers can delight in a camp film that embraces its queer text. The flair of camp instincts, as defined by Sontag, have helped to sharpen the lenses when viewing cult film, letting viewers separate the dramatic from the melodramatic, the heteronormative from the delightfully queer. In this way, camp films (especially those that revel in their queerness) overlap frequently within the cult sphere. Films like Pink Flamingos, Can’t Stop the Music and The Birdcage are a few that neatly touch on the cult-camp intersection. But perhaps the two films that share the status of pinnacle or epitome of cult-campness and exhibit their queerness most overtly are Mommie Dearest and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. For the former, it’s not necessarily the queer storyline catapult its status but rather the unintentionally over-the-top performances, notably Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford. For the latter, the explicit theatricality mixed with eroticism in the form of Dr. Frank-N-Furter and company is one of the main reasons that secret performances in Everytown, U.S.A. exist today.

So, what is it about these two figureheads of cult film that makes them so iconically and definitively camp? What is it about the performances from Dunaway and Tim Curry, respectively, that endears them to many a viewer’s heart, but especially those hearts of queer communities? The way I see it, these two characters (Crawford and Frank-N-Furter) are two sides of the same coin, two sides of the dichotomy of a queer life. Repression versus expression in camp form. These two modes, as embodied by these lead actors and their performances, serve as entry points for viewers because they are both heightened states of being, further elevated by camp elements. While these films are held dear by queer viewing communities (and I’ll be relating the two to each other frequently), they are by no means exclusive to one audience. Lovingly embraced by the public, the two films are camp relief, camp instruction and camp commentary, perhaps just a bit more accessible to some than others.


Mommie Dearest is considered a viewing rite of passage for those in the gay community. Since its 1981 premiere, the film has secured its status as campy cult masterpiece. Variety’s infamous indictment that Dunaway “does not chew scenery. [She] starts neatly at each corner of the set in every scene and swallows it whole, costars and all,” is perhaps the best way to frame why this movie is so renowned. Dunaway becomes maniacal and monstrous, even in Crawford’s skin. There is no line worth understating, no facial expression worth limiting. Crawford’s repression of Christina, who simply aims to please her mother, is an enjoyable hurricane. “Tina, bring me the ax!” Crawford says, hacking away at her rose garden, dressed to the nines. Such malevolence towards shrubbery has ne’er been seen since. And while there’s no real reason to go deeply into the “No wire hangers!” sequence (much has been discussed of the infamous moment), it bears repeating why there’s a damn good reason this scene lives in infamy. Dunaway, shaking with rage and eyes bulging, takes the performance past the limits of logic, beyond melodrama and into pure psychosis. The kind of psychosis brought on by maternal pressure, societal pressure and judgements from those she cares about. In every scene, one can practically read Dunaway’s mind as it churns with visions of Oscar glory. There’s a roiling melodrama just underneath her porcelain visage. As Crawford, here lies a woman in wait for her prey, ready to take aim with mighty gusto on whomever she deems too at odds with her own ideologies.

Dunaway singlehandedly transforms Crawford into a woman to be mocked, an edifice of maternal and societal repression to be torn down. This iteration of the Golden Age starlet becomes the blueprint for drag queens, Hollywood costumes and sight gags in other films. It is the unintended hilarity that has made Mommie Dearest the looming camp cult favorite is it today; it is Dunaway’s performance as Crawford that alone catapulted it to that position. Sontag wrote, “Perhaps, though, it is not so much a question of the unintended effect versus the conscious intention, as of the delicate relation between parody and self-parody in Camp. […] In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails…Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate and the naïve.”


While Dunaway’s intentions were certainly naïve in that she did not intend to chew every scene to bits, what’s left on the celluloid says otherwise. The unintentional parody of Crawford’s legacy and her status as a Hollywood starlet on Dunaway’s part mean that the fictional Mommie Dearest version of Crawford remains not only the essence of camp performance, but makes Dunaway’s Crawford into an unabashed queer figurehead of cult film.

In similar ways, it’s difficult to deny Rocky Horror’s place as the epitome of camp and queer merging to form a near-perfect cult film. The effervescent sexuality keeps the film alive from start to finish. What is now a cult classic is also a must-see for any person even the tiniest bit attracted to theatricality, spirited entertainment or musicals (regardless of sexuality or sexual taste). With a film that features a muscle-bound Steve Reeves 2.0, a chorus line of tuxedoed singers and an innuendo-laden soundtrack, it’s no wonder Rocky Horror has a special place in cult history. But it’s truly down to the character of Frank-N-Furter (a delicious innuendo if ever there was one) to make Rocky Horror the camp film it is at its heart.


From the first notes of “Sweet Transvestite,” accompanied with Curry’s caped Frank-N-Furter descending in an elevator, there is clearly something afoot. “Don’t get strung out by the way I look. Don’t judge a book by its cover,” Frank-N-Furter sings, staccato and full of sass. He’s out to proclaim his presence in this solo. More intriguing is the way Curry embodies Frank-N-Furter. He sways, he stomps, he simpers directly to camera. His features accentuated in sticky drag makeup, pouting for his very square guests, Frank-N-Furter shocks (to his delight). Sontag notes that, “[a]s a taste in persons, Camp responds particularly to the markedly attenuated and to the strongly exaggerated. The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility…Camp taste draws on a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual attractiveness…consists in going against the grain of one’s sex. What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine…”. His camp, queer attractiveness, elevated through his physicalization, draws viewers in even deeper. This is why we love watching him.

Queer positivity triumphs in Rocky Horror from the start. Frank-N-Furter’s immediate clash with Brad mirrors society’s long-standing clash with queerness. Homogenous Brad (who only wants to use the phone, damnit) is left vulnerable to Frank-N-Furter’s sexual frankness and openness. It’s no wonder repressed Janet flies at the chance to escape the confines of tradition when presented the opportunity from the Good Doctor. In the same ways that the delightful horror of Crawford’s repressiveness appeals and sympathizes specifically to the queer viewer, the delightful horror of Frank-N-Furter’s sexual expressiveness appeals and frees the queer viewer.


So, what is it exactly about the fictional Crawford and Frank-N-Furter that makes them campy, queer figureheads to embrace even closer with every repeat viewing? Is it their ephemeral histrionics? Their monstrously made-up faces, contorting to the extremes of human emotion? Their extravagant costumes which they seemingly sink into and become transformed by? It’s all of this and more. It’s the inexplicable, the “I know it when I see it” camp sensibility that keeps them at the top. And damn if it that doesn’t make them two of the best characters in cult film.

Allie Gemmill is a film writer from Tampa, FL. Her previous bylines can be found at Broadly, Bitch Flicks and Little White Lies. She is also the founder and creative director of The Filmme Guild, a feminist film salon dedicated to examining how women shape film and film shapes women. Follow her on Twitter @alliegem.