Mother (noun): 1 a female parent; 2 one’s female parent; 3 a mother-in-law, step mother, or adoptive mother; 4. A woman exercising control, influence, or authority like that of a mother.
All of those words are true but somehow miss the fuller definition. A mother is the bearer of life, the nurturer of that life, the hub of the family and/or household, and in many cases the authority to whom one answers. The old saying, “mother rules the roost,” has a lot of truth to it.
Starting with Freud, the mother seemed to become either the saint who made the children what they are or the devil who made them what they are. Since many film makers are self analytical types, it’s not surprising that the movie mother has also ended up being either angel or demon. Oddly enough, the mother is often portrayed as an angel in films concerning boys and young men and as a devil with daughters (though there are exceptions, to be sure).
16. Splendor in the Grass (1961)
Sometimes the road to Hell really is paved with good intentions. Director Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass was an ill-fated romantic weepie of a finer type. It featured the debut of Warren Beatty as well as Natalie Wood’s finest performance. However, it is also the story of how parents, meaning only the best for their children, can turn the kids’ lives into big messes.
In late 1920s Kansas, Deanie Loomis (Wood) is desperately in love with handsome star athlete Bud Stamper (Beatty). He loves her back but also, very much, wants to love her in a different way than their rather chaste relationship allows. Bud’s over the top colorful dad (Pat Hingle) suggests that Bud find another kind of girl on the side since a nice girl like Deanie won’t be doing anything to relieve Bud’s stress.
Boy, is he right about the last part, if not the first. It seems that Deanie is surely the product of her upbringing in the very middle class home of her somewhat late in life parents. While her father is somewhat a shadow, her mother (Audrey Christie) is anything but.
It seems that she is always, ALWAYS preaching to Deanie that sex isn’t nice for women and that a decent woman will only put up with it in order to have children and that a nice girl isn’t ever going to think of doing anything until she gets a ring. It’s no wonder at all that between his dad and Deanie’s mom, Bud will end up a frustrated mess and Deanie will literally go crazy.
The mother might be painted as a villainess but she didn’t mean her daughter any harm. In a sad scene near the end of the film, she tells Deanie that she’s sorry if she caused any pain or harm and that she was only doing the best she knew. Her advice was far from sensitive or enlightened but it looks like she was speaking out of her experience and the conventional wisdom with which she had been given growing up. Thus does one generation impact another…
15. Now, Voyager (1942)
Now, Voyager was part of a cycle of books by Olive Higgins Prouty concerning an upper class family named Vale. This story was the opposite of Stella Dallas in that it dealt with how destructive a mother can be to a child and how a real mother may not be the one who gave birth to the child.
Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) is a mess indeed. The late in life daughter of a very upper crust Boston family, she is a neurotic, secretive, ultra-dowdy spinster who spends most of her time hiding in a her suite of rooms in the family mansion secretly making ivory carvings, smoking and reading books forbidden to her. Why? Well, she also lives under the thumb of her extremely haughty, patrician and mean-spirited mother (Gladys Cooper).
Though the mother high-handedly tells any and all how she sacrificed for her daughter it’s quite obvious that she greatly resented the intrusion of another child at a time when she thought herself done with that sort of thing. She is now making her daughter pay for this. Charlotte is saved from a nervous breakdown by the intervention of her sympathetic, intelligent sister-in-law (Ilka Chase) and the kindly progressive psychiatrist (Claude Rains) she introduces into the situation.
Charlotte is transformed and finds herself in a passionate but ill-fated romance with a married man (Paul Henried). For Charlotte to redeem her life she must, figuratively, slay the dragon of Mrs. Vale. Circumstances (improbably) result in her becoming the surrogate mother of her lover’s miserable daughter (Janice Wilson), who is as unwanted by her unloving mother as Charlotte had been.
Yes, this film is shameless but the emotional impact is surprisingly potent, thanks mostly to Davis, Cooper and Rains and competent direction by Irving Rapper. The film underlines the fact that soap opera can sometimes find an emotional truth that more tasteful works might not.
14. Marnie (1964)
Many have noticed that Alfred Hitchcock had numerous mother figures in his films, the vast majority of them mothers of sons. However, there is one towering exception where a relationship with a mother is key to a central female figure’s life.
Margaret “Marnie” Edgar (Tippi Hedren) is, quite bluntly, a thief. Her MO has her using her physical attractiveness to get jobs in large companies without references. She then cases the joints, robs them, disappears and sheds the fake identity she concocted for the job.
Afterwards, she goes riding on her beloved horse in the country and, as a capper, goes to a shabby neighborhood on the waterfront of Baltimore to visit her mother, Bernice(Louise Latham). Why she does this is anyone’s guess as Mrs. Edgar is hardly a bastion of warmth. She is pious, rigid, has a pronounced hated of the male sex. She is also distant with her adoring daughter.
Marnie also suffers from afflictions besides kleptomania. She is terrified of thunderstorms to an unnatural degree, the colors white and, especially, red send her into a blind panic if presented in a certain way and she has inherited her mom’s negative attitude toward men.
When the boss (Sean Connery) at her next job catches her and forces her to marry him he becomes determined to get to the source of Marnie’s problems. It becomes more and more obvious that something terrible happened in the long ago past which Marnie can’t remember and Bernice won’t reveal.
One irony of this film is that while many of the male-oriented mother figures in Hitchcock films are destructive or, at least, a nuisance, Mrs. Edgar, in the end, turns out to be more sympathetic than might be first expected. The ancient trauma turns out to be something ugly to which she had exposed her then small daughter but she had ever since, in the only way she knew, been trying to make things right.
In the end the truth is exposed but it’s obvious that much work is still to be done in order to rehabilitate both Marnie and the relationship with her mother. This is one of the few parent-child relationships in the Hitchcock canon which ends with a note of hope.
13. A Taste of Honey (1962)
Dysfunctional seemed to be the key word in more than one film movement over the decades and this is true of Britain’s “kitchen sink” films as any other. These tended to look at life in the grimier, grittier parts of the U.K. and how the largely uneducated, unfulfilled populace lived lives of little contentment. While many of these films revolved around male figures, one key film of the movement was centered on a young woman and her largely disastrous relationship with her train wreck of a mother.
The play A Taste of Honey was a major event on the British stage and catapulted young playwright Shelah Delaney, up until then a theater usher, to fame. She helped to adapt this screen version and give it a real bite. The plot concerns Jo (Rita Tushingham, making a memorable debut), a sad, plain 17-year-old who doesn’t have much of a chance in life. She is the daughter of Helen (Dora Bryan, one of those gaudy, overdressed, good time gals who seem to live in bars, dance halls and nightclubs.
However, at 41, she should, but doesn’t, accept that her best days as a strumpet are behind her. Her life involves going from one cheap man to another and one cheap boarding house room to another–from which she makes a habit of skipping out on in the middle of the night without paying the rent. Poor Jo is forever along for the ride, constantly getting uprooted. As the story opens, Helen’s latest Mr. Right forces her to abandon Jo as the price of being with him.
The girl, with no guidance, stumbles into an unfortunate situation which will alter her life . She also finds situation which might bring her a little happiness but it seems that the apron strings of even an alternately abusive and neglectful mother such as Helen can be quite long.
Who hasn’t seen a child suffer at the hands of a parent who shouldn’t have ever been a parent? The fact that this story is set against such believably lower class settings make it all the more heartrending. Sometimes a viewer may wonder what happened to characters after a film ends. In this case, it is all too clear.
History will repeat itself and no one will ever manage to find or do any better. The ring of truth in this film, directed by Tony Richardson, one of the kitchen sink movement’s key figures, makes that fact all the more poignant.
12. Two Women (1961)
A true art house classic detailing a mother-daughter relationship is noted neo-realist director Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women. Featuring Sophia Loren’s best (Oscar winning) performance, the film is also a larger story of war and the human cost which often goes unnoted.
Taken from a novel by Alberto Moravia, the story centers on Cesira (Loren), a widow running a small shop in Rome. World War II is coming to a climax in Italy and the war is moving ever closer to Rome. The city is being bombed on a regular basis and has become a most dangerous place.
More concerned for her innocent, highly religious daughter Rosetta (Elenora Brown) than herself, Cesira decides that they will leave Rome to go to the mother’s childhood home in the Italian countryside. Alas, war knows no safe haven and it turns out that the countryside is, in fact, even more dangerous than Rome. A terrible, traumatic event overtakes the women, one that marks them and their relationship for good.
Two Women is one of the most tragic films on this list. The mother loves the girl and the daughter is devoted to her. In normal times they would have had no great problems between them. However, the fates decreed that they would not live in normal times. They, along with so many others, will be the victim of the evil that comes out of war.
Loren and Brown both give fine performances, along with French star Jean-Paul Belmondo as an ill-fated freedom fighter, but it’s De Sica’s skillful humanist touch which makes it all come to life.
11. Female Trouble (1975)
Not all family relationships are created equal and, certainly, not all film makers are the same. It is a testament to the infinite variety of film that the same medium that could produce Bergman, Ozu, Dreyer, Renoir and all of those delicate, sensitive, sharply observant directors can also accommodate Baltimore-based indie icon John Waters, the most gleefully subversive, deliberately tasteless film maker of his generation (which is saying something).
Waters obviously finds “normal” middle class behavior and overly dramatic old movie tropes to be funny in an ultra-snarky way and loves making films which preferably send both up at once. One of his best efforts along these lines was Female Trouble starring Waters’ greatest discovery, the 300 lb transvestite Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead), one of the most over-the top comediennes of the time.
In this film Divine plays Dawn Davenport, a budding juvenile delinquent in 1960s Baltimore who graduates to full blown (if ludicrous) criminal status in the 1970s. After fleeing her middle-class home on Christmas morning due to an altercation involving a not received pair of cha-cha heels, Dawn is picked up and more or less raped by a grungy old guy in a station wagon (also Divine).
She ends up giving birth to a daughter she names Taffy (played as an adolescent by Waters’ regular Mink Stole, who was no more a kid than Divine was a woman). To call their relationship dysfunctional would be dignifying it. Dawn won’t let Taffy go to school since she doesn’t want to help with homework or be asked for lunch money, buys her only one dress in twelve years and chains Taffy to her bed in the attic.
Taffy on the other hand, is a pure brat, snottily insulting everyone and getting her big kicks playing car accident with a dummy and props! It all comes to a head when Taffy, having joined the Hare Krishnas, shows up backstage on the night of her mother’s nightclub opening, where mom expects to show her genius to the world.
If any of this was even remotely believable it would be horrifying but Waters and company send up middle class morality and women-in-crime and mother love melodramas so vividly that it’s all high in hilarity.
10. Stella Dallas (1936)
The black sub-plot of Imitation of Life dealt with a fact of many child-parent relationships, a fact that becomes the center of another famous mother-daughter weepie, Stella Dallas. It’s a sad fact that many children who feel that they are somehow inherently superior may feel ashamed of parents who the children see as commonplace or low on the social scale.
Stella Dallas, taken from a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, another bestselling lady from the 1920s through the 40s, had already seen service as a popular silent and was largely considered old-fashioned and out of date when the idea of remaking it was brought up in the mid-1930s. Director King Vidor, star Barbara Stanwyck and supporting actress Anne Shirley, however, helped to bring it back to very moving life.
Stella Martin (a dynamic Stanwyck), a young woman from a plain background working in a factory, spots a good thing when she sees it in Stephen Dallas (handsome but stick-like John Boles), a young man from a good family who has been left in a bad position by family misfortune. Stella snares him into marriage during a weak moment in the young man’s life and soon they have a beloved daughter, Laurel (Shirley as a teen and adult).
Decent but vulgarly tacky Stella and austerely classy Stephen don’t stand a chance. The marriage goes on the rocks with Stephen eventually re-finding the woman (Barbara O’Neil of his own class who he had lost around the time of his family scandal. When they marry and the woman becomes the kind of surrogate mother who can lead the innately classy Laurel (truly her father’s daughter) to her proper place in society, Stella faces a crisis. She tries, with no success at all, to “class up.”
She sadly realizes that she must make a sacrifice in order that her daughter, loving but justifiably embarrassed, may have a better life. Is this really so dated? Sure, but Stanwyck gives one of her very best performances and she and Shirley bring a lot of truth to their roles and the famous finale is hard to watch without getting misty.
9. Carrie (1976)
Brian De Palma had been directing films since the late 1960s and had achieved some minor success with the public andcritics when he finally delivered a film that put him on the cultural map. It was also the first film to be based on a novel by horror icon Stephen King, then at the beginning of his career.
Mousey high school misfit Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) has it rough. Everyone in school dumps on her. The worst is when she has her first period in the high school shower after gym class and the other girls hatefully taunt her. It seems she thinks she dying since her scary religious fanatic mom, Margaret (Piper Laurie), had never told her the facts of life. She considers all things sexual evil and she punishes Carrie for having her period since she’s sure it’s proof of Carrie’s sinfulness.
Another sign of this wickedness in Margaret’s eyes is something she and Carrie alone know: Carrie has inherited the ability of telekinesis, which runs among the women in the family (Margaret excepted). The traumatic event in the school shower will set in motion a number of things both inside the school and in the already abusive and troubled mother-daughter relationship which will climax on the cataclysmic evening of Carrie’s prom.
Carrie is an uneven film with De Palma’s satiric view of high school being a bit puerile. It’s also unusual for the monster in a horror film to be, in fact, the most abused and sympathetic character in the piece. However, the chemistry between Spacek and Laurie is so good that it more than compensates.
The mother is the true monster and Carrie is her victim. Spacek, however, makes the viewer see that Carrie loves a mother who deserves no love while Laurie makes what could be a one dimensional character into a frightening monomaniac. No other DePalma film has ever featured so profound a female-female relationship and, judging by this one, that’s a pity.