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The Good, the Bad and the Mommy: Five Great Movie Mothers, and the Five Worst

10 minute read

On their annual Day, Mothers get candy, flowers or a brand new hat from their kids. Most moms deserve the gifts; and Hollywood often chipped in too. American cinema is full of films that emphasized the heroism of the maternal impulse — flinty, passionate and self-sacrificing — as indicated in the five pictures we’ve chosen, from 1940 to the current decade.

But villainy, whether cunning or deranged, has motivated some of the most memorable movie moms. They deserve mention as well: five harridans from Hell. To all these women, and to the brilliant actresses who brought them to screen life, Happy Mother’s Day.


1. Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, 1940

Following the pioneer trail, the Joad family went West — from devastated Dust Bowl Oklahoma to California, “the Golden State” — to find work. They find tragedy instead, and only the flinty optimism of their matriarch, Ma Joad, sustains them. Directed by John Ford from John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath wrings every drop of rage and pathos out of the plight of desperate farmers, ten years into the Depression. Tom (Henry Fonda) is the firebrand of the family, Ma the hearth. Darwell, who earned a Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, had the last inspiring words for the American underclass: “They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ’cause we’re the people.” As men go to war and kill, so women give life. Their bodies are the arsenals of future generations. Watch it now

2. Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce in Mildred Pierce, 1945

Her ex-husband (Bruce Bennett) was shiftless and her teenage daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) is needy. Mothers strive so their children can thrive, and Mildred Pierce goes to work as a waitress in a restaurant. Her drive and brains build that menial job into ownership of a restaurant chain and the fancy home, clothes and status that Veda thinks is her birthright. Yet she despises her mother for earning money the old-fashioned way: by earning it. Veda wants to be more than moneyed; she wants to be Old Money. So when Mildred marries the polo-playing Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), she schemes to take him too. Crawford, an Oscar-winner as Mildred, was no saint to her own adopted children; Mommie Dearest proved that. But she is plenty persuasive here, capturing the nobility of a working mother ready to sacrifice almost anything for a rotten kid. Watch it now

3. Claudia McNeil as Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun, 1961

With her late husband’s $10,000 insurance policy, Lena hopes to move her family — her 35-year-old son Walter Lee (Sidney Poitier), his wife Ruth (Ruby Dee) and their boy Travis, plus daughter Beneatha (Diana Sands), a college student — out of their two-bedroom apartment in a Chicago ghetto to the integrated suburbs. In Lorraine Hansberry’s magnificent play, now revived on Broadway with Denzel Washington as Walter Lee, plays no favorites among the Youngers: they all have big ideas and strong wills — and, as Ruth tells Lena, “it takes a strong woman like you to keep ’em in hand.” Poitier, who like the rest of the cast had appeared in the play, was the star attraction, but McNeil (just six-and-a-half years older than Poitier) is the dominant force. She plants her ample frame at the center of the screen and rarely yields the spatial foreground or moral high ground. Watch it now
4. Susan Sarandon as Michaela Odone in Lorenzo’s Oil, 1992

The earthiest Earth Mother in American movies, Sarandon has tangled with such screen children as Jake Gyllenhaal (Moonlight Mile), Natalie Portman (Anywhere But Here), Orlando Bloom (Elizabethtown) and her own daughter Eva Amurri (Middle of Nowhere). This summer she’ll be Melissa McCarthy’s ornery grandma in the road comedy Tammy. The Sarandon mother faced her gravest challenge in Lorenzo’s Oil, in which she and Nick Nolte play a married couple sucker-punched by fate: their son has a dreadful disease, whose incurability the wife is loath to accept. The parents share an intimate closeup, nearly three minutes long, whose focus gradually shifts from Nolte describing the disease to Sarandon’s dawning dread as she realizes the consequences. Tears drop simultaneously from both eyes, as if the last of this mother’s illusions had been squeezed out of her. In a moment of spectacular subtlety, Sarandon shows how accepting bad news can be a mother’s most taxing form of heroism. Watch it now

5. Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln in Lincoln, 2012

The former Gidget and Flying Nun won Oscars playing two feisty moms: the factory worker in Norma Rae and the Depression Texas farm owner in Places in the Heart. She raised Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias, and Tom Hanks to be Forrest Gump, and she’s a wonder of love and grieving as Peter Parker’s aunt in the Amazing Spider-Man movies. Her Mary Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s film was less nurturing than nudging: advising her president husband (Daniel Day-Lewis) on political tactics and pleading with him to keep their son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from joining the Union Army. “She was complicated and brilliant,” Field told TIME, “and she would not be looked at fondly.” Really, though, what viewer doesn’t look fondly at Sally Field? Watch it now


1. Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate, 1962

Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh were among two of the three top-billed stars, but the central, unforgettable tension is between Mrs. Iselin, the scheming wife of a Joe McCarthy-type Senator, and her son Raymond (Laurence Harvey), a Cold War cold-fish misfit who quite systematically kills eight people and, in the twisted logic of this acerbic thriller, is kind of the hero. He and his mother, both dripping sarcasm like formic acid, are two exceptional, odious creatures whom genetics and geopolitics have consigned to a death match. Amid the espionage, brainwashing and political assassinations (the movie came out a year before JFK’s death in Dallas), the most toxic moment is when Mrs. I explains her nefarious plan to subvert two warring nations. Then she gives her son a big slimy smooch on the lips; mother love never seemed so despotic or desperate.

2. Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, 1981

In 1946, when Joan Crawford won her Mildred Pierce Oscar, she was making life miserable for her adopted daughter Christina. In the film version of Christina’s sad, vengeful memoir, Dunaway plays the star as monster mother in a horror movies. (Joan, in the rose garden: “Tina, bring me the axe!”) She treats the girl, played by Mara Hobel as a child and Diana Scarwid as an adult, like a scullery maid; she demeans her, beats her, nearly chokes her to death. No less hurtful is Joan’s trick of seeming the victim—“You love to make me hit you!”—to a daughter whose fear and devotion she demands in equal doses. When she insisted that Christina call her “mommie dearest,” Faye’s Joan says, “I wanted you to mean it.” Director’s Frank Perry movie lurches between operatic high camp and a catalog of child abuse, between operatic high camp. In the infamous scene of Joan whupping the young Christina with a wire coat hanger, Dunaway rises to sick, satanic majesty. Unlike many over-the top performances, this one is not a pleasure but an ordeal to watch—a scary-great turn. Watch it now

3. Anjelica Huston as Lilly Dillon in The Grifters, 1990

Mothers in crime movies — White Heat, Bloody Mama, the Australian chiller Animal Kingdom — were every bit as devoted to their children as were Ma Joad or Mary Todd Lincoln. It just happened that their kids’ line of work was on the wrong side of the law, and crime moms were their ferocious enablers, sometimes encouraging their felonies and occasionally masterminding them. But even among this disreputable brood, Lilly Dillon, in Stephen Frears’ movie of the Donald E. Westlake novel, stands out like Lady Macbeth in a police lineup. A career con-woman, or grifter, Lilly has a son, Roy (John Cusack) into the family business, though they work separately. In friendlier moments, she treats him less as a boy than as a beau; that’s creepy. And when she feels conned by Roy, she can find a reason to kill him. Not protective but predatory, Lilly consumes her young for the same reason a mama scorpion does: she’s still hungry. Watch it now

4. Mo’Nique as Mary Johnston in Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, 2009

Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is an illiterate, grossly obese 16-year-old whose wildly abusive mother Mary allows Claireece’s father to have sex with the girl; he has already impregnated her twice. Mary bends her own talents for abuse to verbal and physical torrents against her daughter. In one tirade (with the obscenities excised here), she roars, “I shoulda aborted your ass! . . . I knew it when the doctor put you in my goddam hand you wasn’t a goddam thing!” Mary has a pathetic rationalization for permitting Claireece’s father’s depredations: if she doesn’t, he won’t have sex with her, and he’s all she’s got. Mo’Nique won an Oscar for summoning all the rage, and a bit of poignancy, in this all-time most vile, deplorable, eye-magnetizing monster movie mother: Momzilla. Watch it now

5. Laura Hope Crews as Mrs. Phelps in The Silver Cord, 1933

“You’ll love Mother, she’s marvelous,” David Phelps (Joel McCrea) tells his bride Christina (Irene Dunne) at the beginning of this little-known bad-mother masterpiece, based on Sydney Howard’s 1926 play. In fact, Mrs. Phelps is a marvel of scheming, suffocating possessiveness. Jovial, when it suits her, and doting, to a fault, she employs flutter and bluster to shackle her grown sons David and Robert (Eric Linden) and divert outsiders. At her country home, she convinces David and Christina to sleep in separate rooms, while she visits David, sits on his bed, holds his hand and dulcetly plots to rid him of his wife. Crews, reprising her Broadway role under John Cromwell’s direction (he staged both the play and the film), reveals Mrs. Phelps’s evil artfully, gradually, like the slow opening of a Venus flytrap. But the movie allows the heroine Dunne to render stern judgment on maternal love turned rancid: “You’re not fit to be anyone’s mother.” Watch it now

Adapted from Richard Corliss’s Mom in the Movies: The Iconic Mothers You Love (And a Few You Love to Hate), presented by Turner Classic Movies and published by Simon & Schuster.

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