The Strange Fate Of Terry O’Neill’s Sole Produced Film

January 15, 2023
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When people think of the late, great Terry O’Neill, they will inevitably think of his legendary photography career and his vital role as the man who captured the inner lives of the rich and famous in the 1960s and 1970s.

However, far fewer people know about his career in the world of film aside from taking incredible shots of movie stars depicted on lavish Terry O’Neill prints, in part because he was part of just two film productions.

One was providing still photography for the 1987 opera anthology Aria, but the other was being an executive producer on one of the most infamous films ever made.

Terry O’Neill was part of the production of the 1981 film Mommie Dearest, starring his then-wife Faye Dunaway as the film actress Joan Crawford, who at the same time is abusive, manipulative and highly controlling.

This credit was apparently to balance the influence of David Koontz, husband of Christina Crawford, Joan’s daughter and writer of the original autobiographical book the film is based on, so that Faye would have someone on set to advocate for her.

The resulting conflict ultimately affected the film, to the point that distributors Paramount changed their marketing quickly to pivot it towards its unintentional comedic status.

The critical reception, whilst praising Ms Dunaway’s performance, was legendarily savage, with the late Roger Ebert describing it as “unremittingly depressing” and Variety describing the central performance as one that swallows up the rest of the film.

Christina Crawford despised it, Faye Dunaway blamed it for hurting her career, and whatever role Mr O’Neill wanted to play in Hollywood would never happen.

The film has a complex legacy, with some adoring it as a Rocky Horror Picture Show-like camp midnight movie favourite, others despising it as one of the worst films ever made, and others strongly believing the film was unfairly maligned.

The latter group see it as an accurate adaptation of the extreme behaviour described in the book, aside from the details that have been highly disputed, with many of the moments seen as mirthful by the ironic fans seen as chilling by these other fans.

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