Rutanya Alda has done what no brave actress has done before. She’s dropped a bombshell on Amazon, self-publishing a memoir of the making of Frank Perry’s cult 1981 movie “Mommie Dearest,” the film that launched a million Halloween costumes and parodies and brought Oscar winner Faye Dunaway’s then-thriving career to a halt. Alda’s “Mommie Dearest Diary” recounts for the first time the making of this memorable film, and serves as well as an eagle eye backstage account of Hollywood during the swinging 70s and 80s. I couldn’t put it down!
Alda, a respected supporting and character actress, has worked just about every year for the last 40 in some of the best films ever. In “Mommie Dearest,” her most famous, she played Carol Ann, the devoted assistant of crazy legend Joan Crawford, played by Faye Dunaway.
But Alda’s other credits (she’s no relation to Alan Alda) include “The Deer Hunter,” “The Fury,” and HBO’s “Too Big To Fail.” She is the perfect definition of what the Screen Actors Guild would describe as a “working actress.” She is never the star, but the important third person who supplies honesty and consistency to a film’s foundation. Alda has also done tons of series television, from soap operas to “Law and Order” and every quality show. Her late husband, Richard Bright, played Al Neri, Michael Corleone’s personal enforcer in all three “Godfather” movies.
Alda’s book is excellent for many reasons. Even though Dunaway acts as badly as she could during the making of “Mommie Dearest,” Alda is incredibly fair to her. She even likes the diva Oscar winner even though Dunaway is loathed on set by cast and crew and continually upstages Alda in their scenes. Dunaway herself stops production a couple of weeks in until the studio gives her boyfriend, photographer Terry O’Neill, a producer’s credit on the film.
And Dunaway isn’t the only one Alda recalls as difficult. Mara Hobel, the nine year old who played a young Christina Crawford, grills Alda on Day 1 about her past credits and resume like a pro.
Meantime, Alda herself has a surprising few stories to tell about her own life, including affairs with directors Brian DePalma and Robert Altman and actor Neville Brand, friendships with a range of people from director Elia Kazan to “Cheers” actor Nicholas Colasanto (who played Coach), and amusing encounters with many A-listers from Sam Peckinpah to Bob Dylan to John Wayne. There’s also a revealing section about Walter Matthau’s wars with Barbra Streisand on the set of “Hello, Dolly!”
There’s also a personal side to Alda’s book. She doesn’t wallow in it, but her story as a Russian-Latvian immigrant to the U.S. is absolutely hair raising. No one who meets her now– she is charming at Academy events, movie premieres– would ever guess the abuse she suffered in her early years. Her marriage to Bright, which produced a son, Jeremy (who edited this book), was marked by his heroin addiction, too.
I don’t know why “The Mommie Dearest Diary: Carol Ann Tells All” is self published. It’s one of the best intimate memoirs of Hollywood I’ve ever read, genuine, funny, authentic. Alda not only took good notes, but she has an excellent eye for small details. Like Joyce Johnson in the Kerouac memoir “Minor Characters,” Alda was a fly on the wall who was very observant. It’s to our advantage now.