Screen: With Mother’s Day coming up this weekend, here’s a look at the best and worst mothers in film history
An old proverb tells us God could not be everywhere, so he created mothers.
Even the much-banned James Joyce had a soft spot for moms: “Whatever else is unsure in this stinking dunghill of a world, a mother’s love is not.”
But then, of course, we have Anthony Perkins in Psycho telling us that “a boy’s best friend is his mother.”
That reminds us of the role that Hollywood has played both in celebrating mothers from heaven – and mothers from hell.
Canadian-raised Louis B. Mayer, the fabled tyrant who ran MGM with an iron fist during its heyday, adored Mother’s Day and would weep tears in the screening room whenever the studio delivered a new movie about noble, self-sacrificing motherhood.
Mayer wasn’t the only studio tycoon who saw that there was money in moms, but we shouldn’t be cynical about this: the truth is Hollywood has turned out a succession of memorable movies about memorable mothers – and more than a few monster moms. So with Mother’s Day on our doorstep, who are some of the best – and worst – screen mothers among movies currently available on DVD?
* Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver (1942) – MGM’s glossy take on the travails and heroism of an ordinary English family under siege in the Second World War, was filmed on a California back lot and was condemned in later years for its sentimentality. But it remains a brilliant piece of wartime propaganda and won a bundle of Oscars including one for Garson’s title performance with its unforgettable portrait of grace under pressure. Even the most flint-hearted viewer continues to be moved by it.
* Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich (2000) – Everybody’s favourite single mom, thanks to Roberts’ infectious Oscar-winning work as a woman with the smarts to keep her beleaguered family safe and secure while also emerging as an outspoken social advocate and enemy of big business.
* Dorothy McGuire in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945) – Legendary director Elia Kazan’s first film is an exquisite adaptation of Betty Smith’s famed novel about the hardships and resilience of a working-class Brooklyn family. It’s crammed with fine performances – Peggy Ann Garner as the sensitive daughter with dreams, James Dunn as her alcoholic father, Joan Blondell as a friendly neighbour, but the film is dominated by McGuire’s work as the film’s indomitable mother.
* Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side (2009) – There isn’t an ounce of phoney sentimentality in Bullock’s Oscar-winning portrayal of a formidable no-nonsense, upper-middle-class Memphis mom who takes a homeless black youth into her home and guides him to a football career.
* Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama (1948) – George Stevens directed this forgotten period drama about a close-knit Norwegian family in San Francisco. Irene Dunne is the ever-loving Mama of the title and she’s wonderful – especially in the famous scene when she smuggles herself into hospital, impersonating a floor-scrubbing charwoman, in order to reach a stricken child.
* Angelina Jolie in Changeling (2008) – Jolie delivers an emotionally powerful performance as a grief-stricken mother whose life turns into a nightmare when the Los Angeles police tries to pass off an impostor as her missing child.
* Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (1937) – The definitive portrayal of sacrificial motherhood. This film may often want to make you grind your teeth at vulgar lower-class Stella’s readiness to give up all to ensure her daughter has a place in the right social circles, but there is no denying that Stanwyck’s performance is spellbinding
* Susan Sarandon in Little Women (1994) – Sarandon can be tough as nails on screen, but here she surprises us with her warm-hearted performance as the immortal Marmee – mother to Winona Ryder’s Jo and the other March daughters in this super adaptation of the Louisa Alcott classic. Also worth a look – director George Cukor’s 1933 version with Spring Byington as Marmee and a transcendent Katharine Hepburn as Jo.
* Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia (2008) – Meryl Streep certainly isn’t your traditional mom, and don’t expect traditional family values in this adaptation of the hit ABBA musical, but you can’t deny the freewheeling effervescence of her performance as a mother with too many men in her past.
* Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945) – This emotionally violent classic of film noir won Crawford an Academy Award for her performance as devoted mother who is almost destroyed by the spoiled daughter (Ann Blyth) who is ashamed of her humble beginnings.
* Mrs. Bates in Psycho (1960) – This is the infernal mother who, in more ways than we want to imagine, made son Norman (Anthony Perkins) the troubled young man we encounter in Hitchcock’s horror classic. Without her, Janet Leigh would never have died in that shower and a terrified Martin Balsam would never have fallen downstairs to his doom.
* Piper Laurie in Carrie (1976) – Maternal fanaticism with puritan underpinnings: The psychosis of a mother so obsessed with sexual guilt that she considers the onset of puberty as a blood curse leads to psychosis (and worse) in daughter Sissy Spacek.
* Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – The scene where Lansbury’s malevolent Washington matriarch invites tormented son and programmed killer Laurence Harvey to play a game of cards gives this paranoid Cold War thriller its most startling and chilling moment. Those who know Lansbury only for Murder She Wrote will be jolted by her venom.
* The Alien Queen in Aliens (1986) – Equally merciless at killing off a space settlement or eviscerating an entire platoon of Marines, this monstrous mother with the slavering fangs and slimy tentacles is determined to protect her eggs at all cost. Thank heaven for Sigourney Weaver’s intrepid Warrant Officer Ripley.
* Melissa Leo in The Fighter (2010) – American critic Rick Bentley wrote last year that Leo’s Oscar-winning turn as aspiring boxer Mark Wahlberg’s insanely possessive and domineering mother made Hollywood’s previous monstrous moms seem as benign as June Cleaver.
* Margaret Wycherly in White Heat (1949) – As the mother of a vicious psychopathic gangster, this veteran actress had to hold her own against James Cagney’s electrifying performance as the mother-fixated Cody Jarrett, a gangster who blows himself up at the end with the exultant cry: “Made it Ma! Top of the world!” But Wycherly exercises a weird compulsion throughout the film – no more so than in the remarkable moment when Cagney snuggles up on her lap. No other Hollywood actor would have had the nerve to do that on screen 62 years ago.
* Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People (1980) – Moore was seeking to break away from her lovable television image when she accepted a role in Robert Redford’s directorial debut, and she succeeded with a vengeance. Critic David Denby calls her character “the ultimate Wasp movie bitch – the mother as Snow Queen and destroyer.”
* Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom (1994) – So what if typical suburban mom Beverly Sutphin murders the teacher who criticizes her son’s schoolwork and exterminates the guy who stood up her daughter on a date. Isn’t Beverly just being a caring mother? This John Waters film is a subversive delight.
* Bette Midler in Gypsy (1993) – Midler delivers a powerhouse performance as the driven stage mother whose obsessions threaten to destroy the happiness of her two daughters. A stellar made-for-television version of the hit musical, and infinitely superior to the 1962 film starring Rosalind Russell.
* Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest (1981) – Grotesque and trashy though this film version of Christina Crawford’s malicious tell-it-all book about mother Joan Crawford may be, you have to admit that you can’t take your eyes off Faye Dunaway’s demonic take on the purported nasty underside of one of Hollywood’s most durable stars. Trouble is that Dunaway is so over the top that she may have caused huge damage to her career.