Best (and Worst) Movie Moms

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By Erin Donovan

Erin Donovan helps us celebrate this year's Mothers Day with a guide to all the multifaceted kinds of moms depicted in film, grouped for your pleasure by most common archetypes. (Our moms would be proud for being so organized.) And of course, this is an overview. Surely (or Shirley), you will want to suggest a few more of your own in the comments.

Dianne Wiest in E Scissorhands

The Understanding Mom: Dianne Wiest's earthy compassion grounds the hyper-whimsical Edward Scissorhands, making a story about a man born with scissors for hands (by Tim Burton, no less) seem more Boo Radley and less Freddie Kruger. Before she became the poster child for troubled celebrity youth Lindsay Lohan was all streaky hair, freckles and charm in the 2003 re-make of Freaky Friday. She and Jamie Lee Curtis bridge the generational divide with great comic aplomb. In the 1977 melodrama Turning Point, Shirley MacLaine plays a former ballerina who left the dance life to raise a family and when her former best friend/top competitor (Anne Bancroft) comes into town; a Dynasty-esque catfight ensues.

The Dedicated Mom: Catherine O'Hara trekking from France to Chicago in Home Alone and winding up in the back of a UHaul van with John Candy's polka band may be one of the finest comedic scenes in American cinema. In Shut Up And Sing, Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck humanize the much-beleaguered Dixie Chicks with simple visual elegance, by showing mundane things like the three women taking their children trick-or-treating and fending off the road boredom of touring. It worked. The DVD extras include a panel with one of the right-wing activists who led the anti-Chicks charge admitting that he really enjoyed the film and lauded the Chicks for their dedication to family. In Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, Kaycee Moore (a non-professional actress) is the matriarch of a struggling family living in the Watts district of Los Angeles. The scene where she chases drug dealers away from her husband is one of the greatest scenes in independent cinema.

The Rise to the Occasion Mom: Shelley Duvall fends off an axe-wielding, scenery-chewing maniac in The Shining; when her son views the videotape THAT KILLS in the American remake of The Ring, Naomi Watts goes to the end of the earth (aka Bainbridge Island) to save him; young Claire-Hope Ashitey plays the human race's last hope in Children of Men; Marley Shelton fends off neglectful babysitters, an abusive husband and throat-eating zombies in Planet Terror; and Panic Room/Flight Plan are virtually the same movie with Jodie Foster as a mother fighting street thugs and international terrorists.

Jane Alexander won an Oscar for her post-nuclear apocalypse mom in Testament, Dee Wallace plays a mom fending off dehydration and a rabid dog in the oddly lyrical Cujo; and Jennifer Connelly plays a mom in mental decline trying to protect her daughter from thugs and child-ghosts in an awful apartment building in Walter Salles' Dark Water (and see, too, the Japanese original.)

Hunter/IncrediblesThe Robo/SuperMom: After an eight year memory lapse, Geena Davis realizes she's not just a suburban mom but also a CIA super-agent in Long Kiss Goodnight. A mother who can hyper extend and contort herself may be a bit on the nose but Holly Hunter in The Incredibles voices one of the few superhero moms in movie history.

The Immigrant Mom: Like raising kids isn't hard enough when you have little understanding of local customs and norms. In Mira Nair's The Namesake, Bollywood mega-star Tabu encapsulates the entire message of the film in a scene where her son, back from his first day in first grade has disowned his given name for a more American one. Then there's the epic melodrama Joy Luck Club, in which four Chinese immigrants share a life-long friendship; and Samantha Morton tries to shield her daughters from the tribulations of being undocumented immigrants in Jim Sheridan's semi-autobiographical In America.

The Martyr Mom: Self-sacrifice is a common theme for movie moms but few of them are burned into our imaginations quite like Ann Dvorak throwing herself out a window in Three on a Match, Joan Crawford turning herself in for a crime she didn't commit in Mildred Pierce, Tilda Swinton burying a body in The Deep End; and Louise Beavers, Juanite Moore and Barbara Stanwyck each allowing their children to disown them in Stella Dallas and the 1934 and 1959 versions of Imitation of Life. And don't forget about Debbie Reynolds' freezer-burned-sherbert-loving mom in Albert Brooks' Mother.

The Psycho Mom: Bette Davis rocks an eye patch and hates her daughter in law in The Anniversary; Faye Dunaway's performance in Mommie Dearest is a gift that never stops giving; Park Chan Wook's Sympathy For Lady Vengeance features Yeong-ae Lee as a mom wrongfully imprisoned for killing children and set on seeking bloody revenge. In John Waters' Serial Mom, Kathleen Turner plays the perfect suburban socialite who kills all those who meddle with perfection. (And perhaps Mother in Psycho would fit here, as well.)

The Maligned Mom: Susan Hayward plays a mom railroaded by the California justice system in Robert Wise's underseen classic I Want to Live! And Lana Turner plays a mom on trial for murder being defended by her long-estranged son in Madam X. Joan Chen is a mom who can't take a gay hint in Saving Face but must move in with her daughter when she's banished from her own community.

The Singing Mom: Glynis Johns' dedication to the suffragette movement made it necessary for her children to have the greatest nanny ever in Julie Andrews' Mary Poppins. Catherine Deneuve is a singing suspect in her husband's death in Francois Ozon's 8 Women, Big Edie is a model for all co-dependent mothers and daughters in the Maysles brothers' documentary Grey Gardens. And although she wasn't the most functional character in Movie Mom history, I would be remiss to not highlight Carol Burnett's delightful turn as Miss Hannigan in the 1982 film version of Annie.

The Inappropriate Mom: Anne Bancroft's seduction of her daughter's friend in The Graduate, Queen Gertrude's shadiness around her husband's death in Hamlet, Cher's nomadic tendencies in Mermaids and just about everything Kate Winslet does in Little Children are all red flag plays for moms. Perhaps one of the best (or worst) examples of extreme neglect could go to the mother depicted in the Japanese film Nobody Knows.

Burstyn in Alice Doesn't Live Here

The Single Mom: There's no shortage of great single moms in movie history. Martin Scorsese's stab at making an old fashioned "women's picture" led to Ellen Burstyn playing a lounge lizard in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore; in Jasmila Zbanic's Grbavica: the Land of My Dreams [not on DVD] Mirjana Karanovic raises her daughter in a Sarajevo housing project just a few years after the war; Julia Roberts won an Oscar playing a boobalicious activist in Erin Brockovich; Emily Mortimer goes to elaborate lengths to protect her son from knowing his father has died in Dear Frankie; Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a recently paroled mom trying to mend her relationship with her daughter in Sherrybaby.

In Jonathan Caouette's documentary Tarnation we see a lifetime of home movie footage as his mother succumbs to schizophrenia; It Was A Wonderful Life is Sophie Ohayon's documentary about formerly middle class homeless women who now raise families in their cars.

I Could Never Be Your Woman hailed the return of both director Amy Heckerling and Michelle Pfeiffer as a cool tv producer mom amicably divorced from Jon Lovitz(!). In The 40 Year Old Virgin, we see the rarest of all birds, a three-dimensionally funny woman in a Judd Apatow film -- Catherine Keener plays a whip-smart single mother of three. Laura Linney struggles with paying the bills and family dysfunction in the indie gem You Can Count on Me.

The Mourning Mom: No one does tear-stained cheek hysteria quite like Marcia Gay Harden and she's never been better than in Karen Moncrieff's The Dead Girl; On the other end of the spectrum is Mary Tyler Moore as an emotionally repressed WASP-y woman trying to hold her bereaved and resentful family together in Ordinary People. And there's Sandrine Kiberlaine's novelist Betty who loses her son and decides to kidnap another one to take his place in Claude Miller's Alias Betty.

Huffman in Transamerica

The Non-Traditional Mom: In the oddly sharp indie Manny & Lo (starring a then 9 year old Scarlett Johansson), Mary Kay Place is taken hostage by two young girls and goes full-tilt Stockholm syndrome; in The Secret Life of Words Sarah Polley gives voice and imaginary life to a miscarriage; in Transamerica Felicity Huffman plays a mom who used to be a man. And in Juno we see Allison Janney as perhaps the kindest stepmom in Movie Mom history, Jennifer Garner as a marginally humanized barren woman and Ellen Page as the most famous pregnant teenager in recent movie history. In Sandra Nettelbeck's Mostly Martha (not to be mistaken with the terrible American re-make No Reservations), Martina Gedeck plays a type-A chef given charge of her niece when her sister dies suddenly.

The Drunk Mom: Shirley MacLaine is constantly humiliating her actress daughter (played by Meryl Streep) in Postcards from the Edge; Julianne Moore has almost too many to choose from for this category but Far From Heaven, the technicolorful tribute to Douglas Sirk, is one of my favorites; Felicity Huffman is oblivious to the abuse her daughter (Lindsay Lohan) has been subjected to in Georgia Rule. And Gena Rowlands plays a delightfully saucy if not somewhat downbeat mother to Parker Posey's adrift neurotic in Broken English. (Not to mention Rowlands' Gloria, who suddenly becomes an unwilling foster mom -- more of a candidate for the third category, perhaps.)

The Coma Mom: After mom wakes up from a long illness in Goodbye, Lenin! the family bands together to keep up the charade of Communism in east Berlin. And Uma Thurman wakes up pissed off and vengeful in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill after assassins kill her groom and her child.

Ghost Mom: Documentary filmmaker Doug Block uses decades of his mother's personal journals to put together the mystery of her life in 51 Birch St; Penelope Cruz and her sisters get a little posthumous help from their mother Volver.

Moms of all kinds, we salute you!


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T2 is such a good one! I

T2 is such a good one!

I joked with Craig about Sophie's Choice and then he reminded me joking about Sophie's Choice = A TICKET STRAIGHT TO HELL.

One more...

...I thought of after this, Erin (and all):

(As an example of a really bad mother in her own right:)

Piper Laurie in CARRIE! C'mon, does it get scarier and ickier than that?

Oh, yeah, and Anjelica Huston in The Grifters, pretty memorable.


But nicely done, Erin. This is fun.


Just a few more

A great list! Here's a few more: Aliens
Flirting with Disaster
Sophie's Choice Where's Poppa?
Terminator 2
Murmer of the Heart
The Grifters

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