The good, the bad & the ugly… mothers.
Mother. Mama. Mum. Mom. Momma. Mommie dearest. There are so many ways to address a mother, and evidently the cinema of history has shown that there many ways to portray a mother. She is a complex, fully-rounded character acquire multiple traits, which is why I ultimately find her to be one of the most complex figures. They say once an actress hits 40, she is simply resigned to the typical ‘caring’ role, but these performances could just prove otherwise. Good, bad, loving, manipulative, deceitful, desperate; there are many shades to a mother. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you some of the greatest on-screen mothers.
Hye-ja Kim in Mother (2009). Hye-ja Kim’s searing performance in Korean iconoclast Joon-ho Bong’s Mother saw this mother go to many lengths to prove her son’s innocence – but at what cost? The steadfast determination earns Mother a top spot on the list of, well, mothers. Oh, and the performance itself is quite fetching, too.
Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). Directed by highly esteemed female helmer,, Chantal Akerman, Jeanne Dielman is a film wherein the protagonist seemingly embodies archetypical housewife role, but it is not soon before the ‘bored housewife’ archetype itself is destroyed as the film progresses. The typical routine, as it were, of the ‘bored housewife’ is deconstructed after the death of her husband. See, Jeanne Dielman becomes a prostitute, which economically provides Jeanne. Interestingly, the film had provoked strong reactions during its initial release with regards to its feminist stance. Le Monde, upon its original release, called it the “first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of the cinema.” But herein lies the contradiction: is she a liberator or is she being exploited? I’d go with the former.
Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Rowlands’ iconic performance in John Cassavettes’ seminal piece about a woman whose mental health disintegrates before the audience’s eyes is filled with kooky, spontaneous gestures that would later become Rowlands’ trademarks, but it is Rowlands’ portrayal of a loving and warming mother and wife to Peter Falk’s dedicated husband Nick that ultimately merits sympathy from the viewer.
Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945). The role of Mildred Pierce is an important one in the evolution of female characters in cinema. Mildred Pierce became synonymous with the word ’empowerment’ for she was a single mother and divorcee who decides it’s time to start a life completely independent from her husband’s, which results in a job as a waitress; it’s not soon this job turn evolves into something restaurant manager. Add in conflict with her prodigious, but aloof daughter Veda, who’s much to proud to have her mother working as a waitress (that is until, of course, Mildred becomes an overnight success), and you have a character so very easy to emphasise with at the heart of Mildred Pierce. It was Crawford that tackled the iconic role, which was adapted from the James M. Cain novel of the same name. (Kate Winslet would also go on to the same titular character in an Emmy-laden HBO mini-series.)
Toni Collette in The Sixth Sense (1999). Every once in a while, I find myself craving to watch the car scene in The Sixth Sense. Much of the appeal of that scene is actress Toni Collette’s magnetic appeal and mercurial range that reels you in. Aussie Collette is a wildly versatile actress that even once admitted to her uncanny ear for accents, and she can easily slip into any role and infuse it with such deftness. But this performance expands farther than perfecting the vernacular and register of an American single mother. She displays her motherly skills and real genuine concern for her ghost whispering son, Cole (Haley Joel Osment), to which the audience responds with great sympathy particularly during the aforementioned climatic scene in the car. It should also be worth noting that Collette was only 24 at the time of filming which is a testament to Collette’s fine acting skills.
Dianne Wiest in Parenthood (1989). Veteran thesp Dianne Wiest can play loveable, lovelorn characters well; she is so loveable that it didn’t seem so out there for her to play a single, caring mother to Joaquin Phoenix’s (then called ‘Leaf Phoenix’) depressed (and slightly randy) adolescent and Martha Plimpton, whose crazy wild child teen is romanced by a not-so-cast-against-type Keanu Reeves.
Jane Wyman in All That Heaven Allows (1955). In Douglas Sirk’s social commentary on middle-class suburbia during the height of repression in the United States, Wyman’s unconventional tryst with a much younger, burly, and most importantly, hierarchically inferior man in the form of Rock Hudson; suffice to say, it’s not long before the neighbours come a-calling with their glasses against the walls. This sort of social critique was replicated many times in particular by German maestro Rainer Werner Fassbinder, most notably in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul with the only distinct difference being racial discrimination as opposed to social class. Perhaps, unlike, All That Heaven Allows, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is less focused on the motherly relationship.
Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich (2000). Erin Brockovich is a character (and real life woman) that put her feet in someone else’s proverbial shoes and pondered, “What if they were my children?” It was Roberts who nabbed the role of the altruistic and assertive working class mother who sacrifices almost everything to bring a town whose water has been poisoned to justice.
Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Perhaps the most badass entry on the list, Sarah Connor evolves from screaming damsel-in-distress to the person actually causing the distress in sequel as a woman that is pushed one step too far.
Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). In one of Scorsese’s more conventional and lighthearted affairs, it is Ellen Burstyn’s titular performance that is the central attraction. Instead of mourning the loss of her deadbeat husband, Alice sees this as opportunity to start afresh with her precocious young son. This wasn’t the first time Burstyn displayed her motherly instincts on film in the ’70s. She also played the concerned mother of a possessed teenage in The Exorcist, and on the other end of the spectrum, a promiscuous mother in a favourite of mine, The Last Picture Show.
Karuna Banerjee in Pather Panchali (1955). Beneath the mother in Pather Panchali’s strict and stern demeanor lies a woman determined give the best life for her children, living in a poverty-stricken household notwithstanding. She could easily be written off as an antagonistic wench of a mother trying to marry off her daughter (this was common at the time), but like most of the characters in Satyajit Ray’s classic, every character is well developed that they go far beyond caricatures; for she was the head of the household whilst her noticeably absent husband is struggling to find work.
Alison Steadman in Life is Sweet (1990). Before Mike Leigh manifested the jovially optimistic Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky, there was a performance of a similar ilk in the name of unequivocally chirpy Wendy played by the delightfully adept Steadman. Much similarly to Poppy, Wendy works with young children, which is where her zest for life and outright patience most likely derives from. She has to deal with her perpetually stroppy daughter played by Jane Horrocks. which resolves in a much needed intervention. No matter how annoying they may come across to viewers, it’s important to note that above all, she is well-intentioned.
Samantha Morton in The Messenger (2009). In a way, Morton’s role as the grieving next of kin represents the countless people that have experienced the death of a soldier within the family – including, of course, mothers. Oren Moverman’s thoughtful portrait of the other side of the war covers just precisely that in The Messenger, most particularly with Morton’s Olivia. Olivia is first introduced when she is informed that she has become a widow by Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson, both of whom are off-duty soldiers.
Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom (2010). “You did some bad things, sweetie,” utters Weaver, and with one cold-hearted stare, she absolutely walks away with the movie with such steady stoicism. Oscar agreed. As the matriarchal figure that slyly orchestrates the chain of events, Oz veteran Weaver became only the second Australian actor to be nominated in an Australian film (the other being the formidable Geoffrey Rush in Shine). While she enjoying great success in Hollywood post-Animal Kingdom, it’s a pity her roles (most of which are mother figures) don’t generate an ounce of zest that her performance so very did.
Piper Laurie in Carrie (1974). “They’re all gonna laugh at you,” notes protagonist Carrie’s bible-bashing, hopelessly irrational matron. Oh, and they laughed; in fact, Margaret’s prediction was so frighteningly accurate it spawned one of the many iconic sequences in Brian de Palma’s intepretation of Stephen King’s classic. Margaret is a dominant, strict figure; one that leads an oppressive household much to Carrie’s chagrin, and Laurie isn’t afraid to go completely over-the-top and full-on camp with an extra slice of kitsch because it suits the ostentatious and delirious nature of the character.
Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom (1994). In a deliciously satirical offering from cult favourite John Waters, this sociopathic mother is depicted as one that takes delight in tormenting her divorcee neighbour through a series of hilariously obscene phone calls, and will do anything to defend her typical, unassuming middle class family (pictured: clockwise Turner, Ricki Lake, Matthew Lillard & Sam Waterston). Waters’ critique on wholesome American values and how it has become tainted by the way the media portrays murderers is so blatant that one might just end up siding with Turner’s wicked perpetrator more than the supposed victims of a naive small town that doesn’t know any better. In essence, the lines become blurred.
Anjelica Huston in The Grifters (1990). The relationship between Huston’s Lilly and her son, Roy, played by John Cusack is that of the unconventional kind. There appears to be an Oedipius complex-type relationship at play here.
Claire Maurier in The 400 Blows (1959). Protagonist Antoine’s mother Gilberte has little concern for her wayward son’s behaviour. There’s a level of superficiality that helps us emphasise just a little more with Antoine and his miscreant ways.
Rhea Perlman in Matilda (1996). Perlman’s exaggerated and caricature-esque performance as the brash, blue collar mother whose biggest ambitions travel only as far as dining at the Ritz; she provides a great dichotomy (along with the rest of the travel) to the vivacious titular character, one who acquires telekinetic powers to her advantage.
Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People (1980). Some have dismissed Moore’s unflinching portrayal of a mourning mother as the ‘villain’ of the piece, but it’s not really hard to see why her character has been met with such a frosty reception over the years by critics. There’s plenty of ice within the character itself; the relationship between herself and surviving son, sullen and suicidal Conrad, is stilted and restrained even moreso after her son’s death. And to add to add, Donald Sutherland’s amiable father also somewhat becomes emasculated by , making way for a loud crescendo that results in a soul-crushingly bittersweet finale.
Diane Ladd in Wild at Heart (1990). Diane Ladd, real life mother to her on-screen daughter Laura Dern, plays the vindictive, and quite frankly, bonkers mother who will stop at nothing to keep her wild child daughter from being romanced by rebellious Nicolas Cage. Her limitless efforts even stretch as far as to plot to murder Cage’s Sailor.
Anne Ramsey in Throw Momma from the Train (1987). Ramsey’s comical, but visceral performance is at the centre of the narrative in this farcical homage to Strangers on a Train. This Momma in question is superlatively despicable, and she has to be because you want to root for Danny DeVito’s reluctant hero, who plots to off his intolerable mother.
Anne Bancroft in The Graduate (1967). In the 1960s, Bancroft set a precedent for older women lusting after young guys – it would later be termed a ‘cougar’ or in frat terms, a ‘MILF’. It was the beginning of New Hollywood; it was the type of film that no filmmaker would’ve dared to make five years prior. Conflict arises when Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock later falls for Mrs. Robinson’s daughter after his trysts with the decades older matriarch. It’s interesting to note that despite not being the central figure in The Graduate, she left such an indelible mark it it now renowned for being one of the most celebrated female performances of the ’60s.
Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest (1981). Dunaway’s performance in Mommie Dearest gained notoriety over the coming decades for its puzzling dialogue (“WIRE HANGERS!”) and overwrought acting; it’s now heralded as a camp classic much thanks to the kitsch factor. (Particularly by Joan Crawford fans.)
Mary Jones in Precious (2009). Arguably the most volatile character on the list, Mo’Nique’s vile ma shocked and earned universal praise for a performance that asks for no sympathy – or even empathy – right up until that final scene.
Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). In Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s epistolary chiller of the same name, Swinton’s Eva Khatchadourian epitomises every mother’s nightmare – the fear that the child she bore has become the bane of modern society, and it is Eva who is left to deal with it. The ever elusive argument of nature vs. nature is aroused, and we question whether Eva was to blame for Kevin, or whether he really was inherently evil. Swinton notably once before played a mother struggling to keep afloat whilst mothering her taciturn adolescent sprog in The Deep End. (And gave an equally effective performance.)
Julianne Moore in The Hours (2002). Moore has played a few seemingly perfect housewives in her widely expansive career. She played housewives, arguably on both sides of the spectrum, in two Todd Haynes films: Safe and Far From Heaven; two performances that are easily heralded amongst her greatest work, and with good reason. But it was in The Hours where motherhood was thematically integral to Moore’s seemingly perfect housewife role, unlike with Safe and Far From Heaven. Here she is a depressed housewife in the 1950s, with sporadic suicidal tendencies, suffocated by her surroundings, and to top it off – pregnant; but it is her selfish actions that would go on to effect her son’s disposition that is played by Ed Harris, now aids-stricken, in the present day. Playing a woman navigating her way through an era that was so relentlessly repressed, it is Moore’s effective performance that makes us somehow sympathise with her and her motivations.
Carmen Maura in What Have I Done to Deserve This? The hardest mother on the list to simply categorise, for sure. If anything, it’s a testament to Almodovar’s ability to create fully-rounded, rich female characters. During her tenure as an early Almodovar muse, Maura covered all kinds of roles: a transsexual, a diva, an actress, and this case, a downtrodden housewife. This, however, is not a housewife of the usual kind. Almodovar’s adopts a surrealist style reminiscent of Luis Bunuel (at one point she sells her underage son to the male dentist that lusts after him) and blends it with soap opera melodrama; the kind that has over the years has become a reliable trademark for Almodovar. It is Maura’s palpable depth that commands our attention and ultimately somehow demands our sympathy absurdity notwithstanding.
Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (1937). Stella Dallas often draws comparisons to Mildred Pierce for similar mother-daughter relationships. But what sets the character Stella Dallas apart from Mildred Pierce is that Stella Dallas only conflict is the conflict between herself, and the extreme lengths she goes to go to create a stable well-being for her daughter.
Bjork in Dancer in the Dark (2000). Poor Selma; she tries, she really tries to make a better life for herself and her son. But as one would expect from polarising Danish auteur Lars Von Trier, he makes it somewhat impossible for his leading ladies to find a satisfying or liberating trajectory, and sometimes it can border on sadomasochism. She even possesses childlike traits at times. Such is the example with the protagonist here; the audience is forced to watch an optimistic woman (she even sings and dances at one point) whose health not only deteriorates as the film progresses, but is also reprimanded for a crime she was forced to commit.
Geraldine Page in Interiors (1978). Woody Allen has been forthright about his Bergman inspiration in his work in the past, and his influence is at its most evident in his first fully dramatic venture Interiors. Particularly, Bergman-esque family dynamics such as stifled relationships and jealousy are explored. Specifically, as we are restricted to mothers here, it is Geraldine Page that claims the matriarchal throne as the clinically depressed jilted wife and mother, and her three children learn to cope in the aftermath of this sudden, unexpected news.
Patricia Clarkson in Pieces of April (2003). Clarkson is the terminally ill mother on her way to visit her estranged daughter Katie Holmes for Thanksgiving. As she makes her way to her daughter’s, it is rather frank that conflict lies ahead. Clarkson brings a vivid amount of humour to the role that was much needed to veer the performance from coming across as too steely and melodramatic.
Susanne Lothar in Funny Games (1997). Michael Haneke has certainly developed his auteurship over the years with his cold, seemingly clinically detached accounts of human nature in all its macabre splendor. In one particular moment in Funny Games, Susanne Lothar’s mother thinks she has finally prevailed over the apathetic masochists that terrorise her and her family, but in a cruel twist of events, a rewind button intervenes with fate and quite literally rewinds the film. Maybe this is Haneke’s way of frustrating the viewer even more by toying with people’s expectations, particularly with a viewer that is not privy to Haneke’s canon of films. It emphasises Haneke’s stance on romanticising reality . In fact, Haneke himself said that he “doesn’t believe in a ideal world.” It’s a role that demands physical and mental strength, and Lothar is more than up to standard of playing it.
Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice (1982). Often hailed as the greatest female performance in cinematic history (slightly hyperbolic, perhaps), the choice in question in Sophie’s Choice is a truly harrowing one. In the film’s most iconic – and soul-crushingly heartbreaking – scene, Sophie, a Nazi concentration camp survivor, is forced to choose between her two children. Essentially, you feel as if your heart has been torn out.
Sources: cineawesome.com, twi-ny.com, telegraph.co.uk, dvdbeaver.com, basementrejects.com, flixster.com, acertaincinema.pemomo.com, oprah.com, beachhutting.files.wordpress.com, sfgate.com, ibnlive.com, toutlecine.com, collider.com, thebeerdrifter.com, fanpop.com, cinema.de, gonemovies.com, hpic1919.org, movpins.com, thefancarpet.com, screenscribe.tv, thetimes.co.uk, themovierat.com, grazia.it, thetimes.co.uk, marieclaire.it, imdb.com, 8weekly.net, fanpop.com, tasteofcinema.com, fashionedforthegeek.com