8. Postcards From the Edge (1990)
Having a famous parent can’t be easy as pretty much everyone will judge the child by the parent and will often find the child wanting. Actress/author Carrie Fisher must agree with this since she wrote Postcards From the Edge, what many thought was a fictionalized version of her life as the daughter of 50s and 60s movie darling Debbie Reynolds.
The story concerns actress Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep) trying to get her rather indifferent acting career back on track after some major drug-rehab problems. Not helping one bit is her movie star mother, Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine). Doris will not admit that the show ended quite some time ago and that she is now a star only in her own mind. She knows that her daughter is having problems but somehow they don’t quite measure up to…well, her own life and its importance.
This could easily have been a ponderous Hollywood soap/roman a clef but Fisher and the extraordinary director Mike Nichols decided to have some serious fun with it. All the comic mishaps are used in the service of a story that does have some sharp observations about mother-daughter relationships and the two actresses, especially Oscar-nominated Streep bring it all to vivid life.
7. Terms of Endearment (1983)
“Soaps” or “weepies” have a bad name mostly due to the fact that most of them are tritely made using age old tropes with little insight. When more creative artists seeking to explore human situations, hopefully with a little humor, tackle the same sort of ideas the results can be memorable.
Author Larry McMurtry’s book, Terms of Endearment, was about a mismatched mother and daughter whose relationship ends tragically After a few false starts it finally fell into the hands of writer/director James L. Brooks. Though the novel’s style couldn’t directly translate into film, Brooks found his own voice in creating a fine movie version.
Wealthy Texas widow Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) lives over the top and is a queen bee if ever there was one. Her daughter Emma ( Debra Winger) is much more down to earth and is making the most of being married (much to her mother’s displeasure) to ne’er-do-well academic Flap (Jeff Daniels) and raising their three children.
Both women will face a number of challenges with the years and, from time to time, face off with each other until a cataclysmic medical diagnosis brings home what’s real for both of them.
This could easily be the stuff of the hoariest weepie ever and things do get mighty intense towards the end but this material was also in the hands of experts who never let it go over the edge. The big redeeming factor is the film’s sense of humor. Aurora is an inherently comic character since she virtually defines the term “diva”.
Her interactions with her various suitors (Danny De Vito and Jack Nicholson as the astronaut next door being most prominent) are hilarious. Emma’s story is much more serious but her ill-starred relationship with a most unlikely match-up (John Lithgow) is a comic gem as well. In the end this film’s blend of humor and pathos rendered it as life-life and memorably touching.
6. Mildred Pierce (1945)/Mommie Dearest (1978)
Who better to follow Bette Davis than her arch-rival and fellow emotion picture queen Joan Crawford and Crawford’s eventual portrayer and Davis’ latter day nemesis, Faye Dunaway. Both actresses play mothers in these two films with Crawford playing a fictional one and Dunaway playing Crawford in a fictionalized version of her life.
In Mildred Pierce, taken from James M. Cain’s novel and transformed into a murder mystery, the title character is a grass widow who scratches, claws and does a few other things in order to make it to the top in the restaurant business. Why? In order to support her beloved daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) in the style to which the girl expects to become accustomed.
Actually, Veda is perhaps the most ungrateful, uppity, selfish, hatefully spoiled daughter of all time and she is all too happy to take all of her mother’s largesse as her just due while sneering at the poor woman to her face as being much too low class . When they both fall for the same caddish man (Zachary Scott) it can’t end well.
Cut to about thirty years later. Crawford has gone to the big matinee in the sky and her adopted daughter Christina has written a vituperative tell-all memoir, Mommie Dearest (the appellation Crawford supposedly ordered her adopted children to use in addressing her).
The book paints Crawford in no uncertain terms as a psychically and emotionally abusive alcoholic who sadistically enslaved the children as her punching bags as a way of compensating for her fading career and failed personal life. Was it true? Some say yes and others no.
The eventual film doesn’t care about facts as it goes for broke as a maternal horror story. Oddly, this is directed by Frank Perry, once a maker of tasteful and deeply felt independent This film is given a special lift in the craziness department thanks to Dunaway, who uncannily channels Crawford in both looks and demeanor and goes over the top in a way that would make even the infamously unsubtle Crawford cringe. So here, in these two films, may be found the Hollywood yin and yang of mother as saint and monster.
5. Imitation of Life (1934/1959)
One of the most famous film stories concerning mothers and daughters is represented by a brace of films which, not that many years ago, seemed like a pair of soapy antiques. However, in recent years these films have been revived and reexamined.
Oddly, the remake has become the more famous and revered, reawakening interest in the original version. Both films have their merits, though they are surprisingly different. First filmed by John M. Stahl in 1934 it was remade in 1959 by the screen’s supreme ironist, Douglas Sirk. Both were big hits, especially the later film.
Imitation of Life started as a 1933 novel by Fannie Hurst, a best-selling author who specialized in stories concerning women and their place in society, albeit with a romantic, melodramatic slant. Hurst’s story concerned a young woman forced into an arranged marriage with an older man by her seriously ill father. Alas, the husband dies just after she has given birth to a daughter, leaving the young woman a single mother having to fend for her family.
Good luck comes her way when an African-American woman looking for a place for herself and her daughter talks her way into the young widow’s life and helps her to achieve success. However, sadness lurks over the horizon when the daughter of the white woman falls for the man her mother is dating. Far more serious, the black woman’s daughter is light-skinned enough to pass for white. The girl is ashamed of her loving mother and wants to run away to live as a white woman.
Many find the original with Claudette Colbert, Louise Beavers, Warren William, Rochelle Hudson and Fredi Washington (a light-skinned African-American stage actress in her only film role) more than a little corny . But it is very sincere and, thanks especially to the performances of Colbert and Washington, quite touching.
The 1959 version features a plastic Lana Turner and Sandra Dee as the white mother and daughter (and Sirk was using their shallowness to telling effect) and Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner (a half Latino-half Anglo actress) as the black mother-daughter. Sirk, as usual, is interested in the supporting characters, the vital people living on the margins of society. Where the black mother-daughter strand was a meaty little subplot in the first film, it becomes the real focal point of the second.
To this end Miss Moore’s work as the kindest and most loving, if not most understanding, of mothers and Miss Kohner’s searing performance as the desperately unhappy young woman frantic to fit into a sector of society which rejects her are both superb. This story should again have seemed banal but the actresses and director manage to find real emotion, remarkable in that few other films of the time would have considered the feelings of minority characters.
4. Interiors (1978)
In 1978, after a decade of writing and/or directing largely comedies, Woody Allen went serious in no uncertain terms with Interiors, a film that pays homage to Bergman in no uncertain terms.
Drawing not from his native Jewish, N.Y.C-based roots but instead from very upper class W.A.S.P. culture, Interiors is the story of a family in crisis. It seems that the father, Arthur (E.G. Marshall), is splitting from his wife, Eve (Geraldine Page). Eve is an interior decorator and constant judge of everyone and everything around her, all of which and whom she finds wanting.
As an example, she finds anything but black, white, and the palest shades of beige and light green to be intolerably vulgar. This is not a fun lady and she tries to kill herself quite tastefully. Their three daughters, successful but conflicted poet Renata (Diane Keaton), vain and talentless movie star Flynn (Kristin Griffith) and family pity case Joey (Mary Beth Hurt), who can’t get it together and takes that fact out on everyone, are upset. Why is their father leaving?
The turning point comes when the father shows up with his new wife, Pearl (Maureen Stapleton). She is Eve’s opposite number, who flounces in wearing mink over a deep red dress, has no intellectual pretensions and loves talking about life’s sensual pleasures.
The daughters don’t know what to think and the film becomes a dynamic concerning who and what makes a parent and how much of the parental quality depends on the fine things given by someone of one generation to another. Allen may be masquerading a bit but he hits on some profound truths.
3. The Piano (1993)
This is one major mother-daughter film both written and directed by a woman, New Zealand-born Jane Campion. This brooding and powerful costume drama set in 19th century New Zealand contains a mother-daughter plot strand central to the drama’s action.
Ada (Holly Hunter), a Scottish woman who has been mute since her adolescence, has a young daughter Flora (Anna Pacquin), though she has never been married. Because of this, her family has her married by proxy to a rough farmer (Sam Neal) in an isolated and rugged section of New Zealand. Though her understanding child can interpret her signs, actions and emotions to the world, Ada’s one true means of expression is her piano.
However, her insensitive husband declines to have it transported from the beach where the ship that brought Ada and Flora had left it. He profits by selling the piano to a wily fellow farmer (Harvey Keitel), who uses the instrument to pursue Ada. Everything comes to a horrifying climax when Flora, who has become enamored with the idea of having a father, betrays her mother to her step-father, prompting him to commit a savage act.
The Piano is an intense film with a number of dream-like passages. Ada is a mysterious character to both the other characters and the viewer. Flora, who seems to be uncommonly mature at some points but, in the end, is still a child, is also her mother’s true complement.
Her betrayal was the act of a child and can’t truly be held against her, especially since her mother’s odd circumstances have thrust her into an adult world way too soon. In the end, the two seem to have an almost mystic bond, as do many mothers and their daughters.
2. Cria Cuervos (1976)
Carlos Saura was one of the finest Spanish film makers of his generation and his muse on and off screen for years was actress Geraldine Chaplin. Surely their finest hour together is Cria Cuervos.
The film is a careful blend of fantasy and reality centering on an eight-year-old girl named Ana (Ana Torrent) who believes that she has killed her hateful father, an officer in Franco’s fascist regime.
Why does she think this? Well, her late mother (Chaplin) playfully told her that a harmless box of baking soda was poison and the little girl laced her father’s milk with it. She does not miss her fatherbut her late mother keeps reappearing in the child’s imagination. Sadly, when a cold-hearted aunt comes to take charge things are worse than ever and the mother’s memory becomes an even more precious treasure.
The loss of a parent is a painful thing and the loss of a mother in a daughter’s life can seem the worst of all. Saura uses this to magnify an even larger theme about the nature of fascism by contrasting the love of a mother with the coldness inherent in the child’s world. In addition to the political implications the heartfelt emotions of the mother-daughter relationship resonate with everyone. Like the great director he was, Saura can magnify a larger concern through the glass of personal experience.
1. Autumn Sonata (1978)
Many film scholars have written about Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman and his deep, almost mystic understanding of women. Oddly enough, the women in his films were most often sisters, friends and/or rivals or acquaintances but few were mothers. Late in his career, he corrected that.
Ever emotionally potent, Autumn Sonata examines the relationship between Eva ( Liv Ullman),a dowdy, depressed minister’s wife who is grieving the loss of her young son, and her remote mother, Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman ).
The two have not seen each other in seven years when the film begins mainly due to the fact that the resplendent Charlotte, a world famous concert pianist, has never made much time for either Eva or her severely mentally and physically handicapped sister Helena (Lena Nyman). The two women try to find some common ground but, being a Bergman film, things don’t go well (and get talked about A LOT while they don’t).
This could be the epitome of the post-Freudian school of Blame Mommy thinking but for the fact that director Bergman puts a lot of shading into the mix. By rights, Charlotte should be a pillar of selfish ego and cruelty. However, casting actress Bergman and having her work hard to redeem Charlotte makes the film play out in an unexpected way.
Eva may be in the right regarding her feelings for her neglectful, uncaring mother but one feels that Charlotte made a sensible choice in choosing to do the best for herself. Eva, on the other hand, seems a masochist who loves to wallow in her misery. She ambushes Charlotte with the surprise appearance of Helena, taken from her institutional home for the visit and the climatic results aren’t pretty. In the end, though, there are no easy answers. Both women had their good sides and their flaws. Leave it to the director-writer to find that.
Author Bio: Woodson Hughes is a long-time librarian and an even longer time student/fan of film,cinema and movies. He has supervised and been publicist for three different film socieities over the years. He is married to the lovely Natalie Holden-Hughes, his eternal inspiration and wife of nearly four years.