What’s the best kind of movie mom?
Good or evil, I like one we sense exists outside the margins of the movie. That’s true of any character. They’re most interesting when they’re so complicated that the movie can’t capture all of their dimensions, and we get only tantalizing glimpses. I’m thinking of Margaret Marmee March in “Little Women,” who raises extraordinary daughters without much help from their father but who’s also an activist with unrealized dreams.
“I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it,” says Marmee in Louisa May Alcott’s book and Greta Gerwig’s movie. It’s fascinating to wonder what makes Marmee angry.
It can be even more interesting to see the emotion depicted on screen by mothers who don’t feel obligated to bottle it up — whether that’s Barbara Harris/Jamie Lee Curtis admitting jealousy of their daughter in the versions of “Freaky Friday” or Mia Farrow risking it all to care for her child in “Rosemary’s Baby.”
Many movie mothers are intended to be cautionary tales. Joan Crawford’s title character in “Mildred Pierce” thinks the key to motherhood is to sacrifice everything (as does, to a certain extent, the version of Crawford that Faye Dunaway plays in “Mommie Dearest”). Angela Lansbury’s mom in “The Manchurian Candidate” takes a similar route, with similarly bad results. Whether she’s branded a martyr (as Crawford is) or a supervillain (as Lansbury is), we are left wondering: Would her life have gone differently if she’d realized her own dreams instead of funneling them into a rotten kid?
Some movies don’t know what to do with mothers. Classic Disney fare, often inspired by fairy tales, tends to ignore them (“The Little Mermaid”), bump them off (“Bambi”) or demonize them (“Cinderella” is the one that convinced us “stepmother” means “wicked”).
That lack of respect may be why actors have sometimes been reluctant to play mother roles, which are too often one-dimensional. Beulah Bondi, for instance, is remembered for playing a mom in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and other films and but we know virtually nothing about her characters other than that they’d given birth. Even the great Angela Bassett — in “Akeelah and the Bee,” she’s a sketchy cliché, a roadblock to her daughter’s happiness.
But that’s less likely to be the case in recent years, now that women are more involved in the creation of movies and are showing that there are as many ways to depict a mom as there are moms.
“I like playing mothers. My maternal force is probably my strongest energy in the world,” said Nicole Kidman, who raised kids in HBO series “The Undoing” and “Big Little Lies,” as well as movies like “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” “Lion” and “Rabbit Hole.”
Those women are as varied and vivid as real moms. So are these compelling, if not always perfect, mothers.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946): Jimmy Stewart gets the props in the happy ending to this mostly dark holiday classic but he’s not alone in front of that Christmas tree. Who manifests the events of George Bailey’s life with a whispered childhood wish? Who helps him realize true love? Creates a home for him (literally)? Saves his business? Keeps him out of jail by raising thousands of dollars in a matter of minutes? Mary Bailey (Donna Reed), who also raises his four kids while he’s off deciding whether he wants his wonderful life. (Bonus mom: Bondi as Ma Bailey, who really does know best.)
“Terms of Endearment” (1983): Shirley MacLaine is a riotous mom in “Postcards From the Edge” but her Oscar was for the forthright Aurora, who sees her daughter as her masterpiece. She’s such a life force that the fears Aurora imprints on baby Emma become her destiny when she’s an adult, played by Debra Winger. “Terms” doesn’t ask Aurora to be perfect but it does insist on her devotion. In a hospital scene when, frustrated by what she perceives as nurses’ inattentiveness to her daughter’s needs, she discards the calm she usually presents to the world.
“Carrie” (1976): In an homage to another scary movie mother, “Psycho,” teenage Carrie (Sissy Spacek) attends Bates High School. She’s bullied there but things are worse at home, where her zealot mother (Piper Laurie) terrorizes her. Laurie is brilliant in Brian De Palma’s thriller because it’s clear this unstable mom believes she’s doing her job — protecting her daughter.
“The Joy Luck Club” (1993): “You don’t know the power you have over me,” says one of four women to her mother, sobbing, in this adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel about mothers and daughters who are struggling to understand one another. The relationships are complex and it gets more than a little lesson-y but I love how Wayne Wang’s film insists that the characters are products of expectations and hopes that date back not just decades but centuries.
“The Manchurian Candidate” (1962): The original trailer doesn’t even mention Angela Lansbury, but her character, a manipulative power broker who fights for her son to achieve goals she knows are out of her own reach, is key to the iconic thriller. Lansbury’s character is a lousy mother but her determination and naked ambition make her a remarkable one.
“Lady Bird” (2017): You may question Marion’s methods but you can’t argue with the results achieved by the title character’s truth-telling mom (played by Oscar-nominee Laurie Metcalf). She raised a smart, creative, funny and compassionate kid — even if that kid did reject the name she gave her (Christine).
“The Incredibles” (2004): Pixar helps atone for Disney’s legacy of absent/ignored/murdered mothers with Helen Parr (Holly Hunter, also a noteworthy mom in “The Piano”). The superhero fantasy boasts one of animation’s most realistic moms. Helen has had to figure out how to do it all for her family (as represented by her superpower, an elasticity that lets her bend in every direction) and save the world at the same time.