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Worst Picture/Best Picture Series: Mommie Dearest and Chariots of Fire (1981)

Continuing the series, we will be taking a look at 1981, the 2nd year of the Razzie Awards. Two movies which may look on the surface to be completely different but perhaps have more in common than you might think.

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MOMMIE DEAREST and CHARIOTS OF FIRE

 “’Mommie Dearest’ has the appeal of a horror B-movie (or a Thursday afternoon’s TV film at best) with a one- dimensional villain and an extraordinary claustrophobic confinement in a mansion that gets more and more maddening as the rivalry between ‘Mommie Dearest’ and ‘Cristina Darling’ progresses.” – ElMaruecan82, IMDb

“Seeing Chariots of Fire is like exploring a wonderful historical restoration.” – Richard Schickel, Time Magazine

“A Tale of Two Cinderellas”

In 1981 there was one film everyone considered a true “Cinderella Story”, a film that overcame all odds and beat out the giants to reign supreme. That film was of course the Oscar winning Best Picture winner Chariots of Fire, the small British film that defeated such grand films as Reds, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and On Golden Pond. Considered to be the last horse in the race, it ended up beating surprising everyone and taking the top prize. But why should this film be labeled 1981’s Cinderella Story when there was a film that year that is the true definition of that title? Mommie Dearest is the tale of a young girl’s struggle to deal with the horrible upbringing by a troubled mother and her eventual escape. So how is the story of Cinderella remembered, as a tale of a young woman struggling to deal with the horrible upbringing by a troubled mother and her eventual escape, or the tale of a young woman training to compete in the 1924 Olympics?

As Chariots of Fire opens, we are at a funeral for one of the winning runners. Right off the bat, what kind of fairy tale begins with the death of one of the beloved characters? Then we see the training athletes running on the beach as the powerful score by Vangelis plays. Of course, the runners are barefoot on the shore, their feet must be cold. At least Joan would let them wear socks if they liked, because we all know the socks she can handle.

Arriving at Cambridge, Harold Abrahams and Aubrey Montague, new students and gifted runners are greeted by two locals who help transport them. One of the locals has a wired jaw; Miss Crawford would be extremely pissed off. No wonder Harold and Aubrey are taken aback.

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And speaking of wire hangers, during the Oscar race, Chariots of Fire producer David Puttnam and Reds director/actor/producer Warren Beatty made a little bet that whichever film won Best Costume Design would go on to win Best Picture. They were right, and something tells me the reason Reds lost was probably because, yup, you guessed it, they used wire hangers on set.

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Searching through the extracurricular activities to join at Cambridge, Harold Abrahams joins the Gilbert and Sullivan club and, wait, who’s that? Why, it’s Kenneth Branagh, director of the upcoming Cinderella. I guess this film does have a little bit in common with the classic fairy tale.

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As a young girl, Joan teaches Tina how to swim and eventually learn the lesson of defeat. In the pool, even when giving Tina a head start, Joan easily defeats her. Upset, Tina storms out of the pool shouting that she won’t race again because Mommie always beats her. Perhaps Mommie needs to pay a visit to Mr. Harold Abrahams who made a similar statement. Sitting on the bleachers after a race with Eric Liddell in which he lost, Abrahams shouts that he won’t race if he can’t win. Abrahams just has to learn that no matter how hard you try, there will always be a Mommie who will be bigger, faster, and will always beat you.

And swimming isn’t the only thing Joan is good at, she’s even a runner like our British athletes. While Eric Liddell enjoys running next to a car from time to time, he flails his arms about as usual and has no real technique. With Joan, she wears a jumpsuit, similar to the American racers in the 1924 Olympics, and while next to the car she pushes herself faster by repeating “I will survive”, Mommie’s mantra. Perhaps if Liddell had said that in the qualifying rounds he wouldn’t have tripped and made himself faint afterwards. Even though it was you who falled, Eric, I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt.

During one of the starting races at the Olympics, the competitors use small shovels to make placements for their feet. While it is a useful method, perhaps it would be easier and faster to demand for an axe. It would be reliable and come in handy if there were any pesky plants or your daughter’s horny classmates in the middle of the lane.

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Perhaps many of the characters in Chariots of Fire have a little Joan in them. Eric Liddell is a big idol in Scotland and is loved around the country, speaking at many events and helping with local races. He speaks to the cameras and signs autographs for his fans. But does he really show his fans that he appreciates their devotion? I didn’t ever see Eric signing countless headshots and leaving a kiss on the photo.

Also, the deeply religious Liddell discovers late into the Olympic competition that his running event will take place on a Sunday. Being a devout Catholic and refusing to compete on the Sabbath, he stands his ground and speaks to the committee, telling them his decision. Baffled by his stance, the committee doesn’t know how to react. Similarly, after Miss Crawford’s Pepsi tycoon husband died, the board is shocked when Joan refuses to resign as a member of the board. Like Liddell, Joan stood her ground, but unlike Liddell, she didn’t rely on some friend like Andrew Lindsay to step in and help settle the quarrel by offering to help. If Liddell really wanted to be a survivor like Joan he would have stood up to the committee and yell “Don’t fuck with me, fellas!” Then they would have really known this Christian meant business. And god knows if Eric Liddell ever had a daughter like darling Tina who always cried out “Jesus Christ” for help he would slap with wire hangers for speaking the Lord’s name in vain without thinking twice.

Sybil Gordon, the fiancée of Harold Abrahams was on her way to being a worthy Joan. While out on a dinner date, Mommie dearest ordered a rare steak for herself and her darling Tina. Of course, Tina looked displeased with the decision, especially since we know from early on that she dislikes the redness of the meat. Meanwhile, while out on a date with her Harold, Sybil orders her favorite meal for the both of them, pig’s trotters. Of course, the Jewish Abrahams unable to eat pork, looks displeased. Perhaps if Tina had just pulled a religious belief on her Mommie it would have saved her from eating that delicious rare steak.

After confronting Joan about lying of her expulsion, Tina yells at her Mommie, claiming she doesn’t love her. Joan responds with frequent slaps, insisting that Tina loves provoking her and making her hit her. If that’s true, the following strangulation must have been pure ecstasy for darling Tina. With Sam Mussabini, Harold Abrahams’ trainer, the slap to his pupil probably only induced a mere smirk from the runner.

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Though confident in Harold’s chances, Mussabini refused to attend the actual race. Listening to the sounds of the crowd and seeing the British flag raised highest, he exclaims in triumph. During the Oscar ceremony where she won Best Actress, Joan didn’t attend the ceremony. Instead she stayed home and heard of her win over the radio. Of course her real reason for staying home was to be with her fans that she loves. Mussabini merely stayed at home for fear of the spectacle. I don’t know what’s to worry about, I mean, look at this poster for the Olympics. If you were flipping through the channels and this shot was the first thing that popped up on screen I would think I was watching Can’t Stop the Music, a film that glorifies the athletes and welcomes everyone.

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So, after reflecting on these two films, we are asked the same question: which film is the true Cinderella story? In its climax, Chariots of Fire shows our heroes, after their personal issues and grueling training, competing and winning in the Olympics. In Mommie Dearest, after living in a horrible household, darling Tina’s mommie dearest died and she is finally free, even though it may not be for the best (and at least this film ended with a funeral, not began). One film can stand on its own as a Cinderella story, the other relies on its reaction and awards to get that distinction.
I’ll leave it with this.

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About the author

Jeff spends too much time watching movies, but when he’s not watching them, he helps make them by working in the grip and electric department. Some would say he chose this profession because of the thrill of being on set and helping create art, but the real reason is most G&E don’t need to wear pants. Along with being a film nerd, Jeff enjoys riding his bike everywhere around the Southern California and watching his friends perform improv.

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