Photos to come…
In the years since Anna Jarvis stepped forward in West Virginia to honor her mother, there have been countless portrayals of mothers in the movies. There have been tragic mothers in movies like Bambi, Sophie’s Choice, and Terms of Endearment; and there have been self-sacrificing mothers in films like Stella Dallas, Imitation of Life, and Places in the Heart. Billie Burke and Myrna Loy have played zany and lovable mothers and Mary Tyler Moore and Gladys Cooper have played cold and withholding mothers. Ms Cooper could be said to have made a career of it. There have been stepmothers wicked and wonderful in movies like Ever After and The Sound of Music and there have been magnificent surrogates in films like Auntie Mame and Tea with Mussolini. Angela Lansbury and Julianne Moore played mothers who were a little too close to their sons, and Naomi Watts and Robin Penn recently were a little too close to their sons’ best friend, respectively, though I haven’t seen that film. The following five movies all feature mothers in pivotal, if not central, roles, and are my choice for Mother’s Day. Anna Jarvis would most likely be horrified.
Aliens (1986, 1992 Special Edition)
“Get away from her, you bitch!”
Aliens is that rare breed of animal: a sequel that is as good as the original movie. While Ridley Scott’s film focuses on the claustrophobic “old, dark house” genre of horror, Mr Cameron’s is decidedly action-adventure: as he-no stranger to hyperbole-puts it “two-and-a-half miles of bad road.” The cast, full of such Cameronians as Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn, and Jenette Goldstein, are uniformly strong, but the movie is ruled by its Ellen Ripley: Sigourney Weaver. Tough mothers are no strangers to James Cameron’s movies, but in the hands of Ms Weaver, Ripley has onion peel layers of character absent in his other films.
Aliens begins 57 years after Alien, when Ripley is discovered drifting in a cryogenic sleep by a salvage team, who are notably less concerned about her well-being than they are the fact that they have missed the opportunity at a payload because she is alive. This conflict between humanity and commerce (often as the front man for the military) is an important theme in the Alien franchise. Demoted and degraded by The Company because she detonated their inter-space oil rig, Ripley is severely traumatized by her experience on the Nostromo-“I’m not going back, and I wouldn’t be of any use to you if I did”-and grief stricken by the death of her daughter: “I told her I’d be home for her birthday…her eleventh birthday.” The down-on-her-luck Ripley is given an offer she can’t refuse: The Company offers to reinstate her, if she returns to the planet where she encountered the Alien: the colony there has broken communication with them.
Naturally, Ripley returns, and naturally, things get fucked up pretty quickly, but before the aliens reappear en masse, she grudgingly earns the respect of male dominated Marine environment of the mission, becoming its defacto leader. Ripley meets Newt, the orphaned, sole survivor of the colony. Ripley’s relationship with Newt is the heart of the film: Carrie Henn-far less annoying than the average child actor-as Newt, is initially skeptical of the adults’ ability to protect her, but Ripley wins her over. Weaver truly plays the mother here, protecting Newt as she can from the horror of the place, washing her face, comforting her in her sleep. Ripley fights like a tiger to save them both from the face huggers in the movie’s most terrifying, smothering scene, and risks her life to save Newt from the Alien Queen.
Speaking of the Alien Queen, Ripley is not the only mother in the movie. The climax commences when Ripley emoliates the dozens of eggs lain by the Queen. The Queen is a mother herself, and while we will probably side with humanity when Ripley is Artemis to her Niobe, the Queen is more Medea than Niobe, a stowaway on the shuttle to the Sulaco, seeking her own vengeance for her brood. But the heart still sides with Ripley bellowing the above epigram that was so brilliantly paraphrased by JK Rowling in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when (another mother) Molly Weasley cries “not my daughter, you bitch!” before downing Bellatrix LaStrange. And yet, it was passion, not logic, that did not stay Ripley’s hand. The Queen would have let her leave with Newt, one mother on behalf of another. It was only Ripley’s need for vengeance that realized the “kill or be killed” denouement.
Those who have continued their sojourn through the Alien franchise will realize the irony of motherhood in the latter films, but Weaver’s performance in Aliens is heartfelt and honorable: the film academy itself honored her, with an Oscar nomination in a genre normally bereft. A truly magnificent film, Aliens shows that a woman can be strong, vulnerable, and maternal at the same time. A mother to be celebrated, indeed.
“Mother…what is the expression? She isn’t feeling herself today.”
The most infamous mother in the history of cinema was never seen onscreen: not really, or, if at all, only as a desiccated, taxidermied skeleton. One can only see Psycho for the first time once, it’s like Citizen Kane and The Empire Strikes Back that way. Mother is Rosebud, Mother is Father. But, unlike the aforementioned films, the great reveal is only a small but significant part of the film, not the movie’s great gasp.
The great horror, the great gasp of Psycho begins a third through the movie, when Mother stabs Marion Crane to death in the shower. For me, at ten, it was horrifying: not the violence, in the age of Jaws, The Godfather, Halloween, and Taxi Driver, but the fact that the star of the movie was killed. And, whether or not you ever saw the knife hit the body, it was pretty terrifying. Janet Leigh never took another shower. But I liked Marion Crane, thief that she was, and then she was a bloody mess at the bottom of a bathtub. And the mother did it. That was a change. That was a shocker. And then she killed the detective. From Archie’s Place. And it turned out to be Tony Perkins, all along. In his mother’s dress, because, why not?
There’s a lot of psychiatric mumbo jumbo about why Norman did what he did, spouted by the racist cop from West Side Story, but it’s pretty much filler until you see a blanketed Perkins sitting in holding, and that voice spouting on about hurting a fly, and a skull superimposed upon his face, and it’s pretty damn unsettling.
Mommie Dearest (1981)
“If she doesn’t like you…she can make you disappear.”
I have no idea to what extent Christina Crawford was truthful in her depiction of her childhood, but I can say that I never cared for Joan Crawford before seeing Mommie Dearest. The film is best served by viewing it as drama: at its best, it is Hollywood grand Guignol, at its worst, it is camp not worthy of Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
From its opening moments, it should be clear that the germaphobic, Silkwood scrubbing Crawford had no business adopting a child. Better she should have chosen Howard Hughes. Loofah on the face followed by alcohol thawed ice at 5am doesn’t spell luck in parenthood. But then, as now, babies make a grand accessory, if you’re allergic to Chihuahuas.
While it’s certainly horrible to be beaten with wire hangers (ever) and forced to clean your bathroom in the middle of the night by a mother costumed like a Kubuki Lion, I have to say that I sympathize with Joan during much of the film. As commentator John Waters points out, Christina wouldn’t have had a better rearing by the nuns in a Catholic orphanage, and Joan certainly had an awful time of things careerwise during Christina’s formative years. Hollywood was harder in the 40’s on its actresses than it is today, and in the years of the studio contract, “box office poison” (“Tina, bring me the axe!”) trumped “Hollywood Royalty” any day of the week.
Joan Crawford should probably have never been a parent. Whether she was motivated by love or publicity is unimportant, the character of “Joan” went beyond the pale in domestic discipline. No child should face their mother spinning around like Linda Blair in The Exorcist as she tries to strangle her, simply because she doesn’t treat her mother with respect she’d get “from a stranger on the street.”
That said, “Don’t fuck with me, fellas. This ain’t my first time at the rodeo.”
Now, Voyager (1942)
“I think you’d be ashamed to be… Miss Charlotte Vale.”
I stated before that Gladys Cooper made a career of playing the bad mother, but never did she do so with such vim and vigor as she did in Now Voyager, where she treats her youngest, ugly duckling daughter, Charlotte, as an unpaid servant. Bette Davis, as Charlotte elevates the film from a potboiler, turning the lighting of two cigarettes in her costar Paul Heinreid’s mouth from a pedestrian act to a moment of oral sex.
Charlotte has a breakdown and is sent by her psychiatrist (the foxy Claude Raines) on a South American cruise, where she meets and has a brief affair with married architect Jerry (Paul Heinreid). When she blames her independence for her mother’s death, she becomes acquainted with Jerry’s ugly duckling daughter, only to be rebuffed when Jerry is made aware of their relationship. charlotte convinces Jerry that she can parent his child; when he questions what will become of their love, she replies “Let’s not ask for the moon, Jerry, we have the stars!” and smokes another connubial cigarette.
I don’t know what to say about this movie, but the actors make it work. Gladys (my grandmother’s name, but she was the nicest Gladys imaginable and in no way a wall flower: she made bathtub gin) Cooper plays the worst of all possible mothers. Claude Raines makes his sardonic gravitas seem reasonable: really, what psychiatrist could keep his license when he allows his patient to essentially adopt her lover’s daughter (who also happens to be his patient)? Paul Heinreid plays on his nobility in Casablanca in the part of kind of a heel, who maybe will, maybe won’t commit to the woman he loves.
But, Bette Davis, Bette Davis, Bette Davis!!! She runs the gamut of human emotions; not like a star, as in All about Eve; nor as a grotesque, as in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? but as a human being. And she triumphs in motherhood, as ill advised as it is, a role to which she has no good experience. Where Joan Crawford is the consummate Hollywood star, Bette Davis, was, is, and always will be the greatest actress of the Golden Age.
Serial Mom (1994)
“Don’t say hate, dear. Hate is a very serious word. Scrambled eggs, anyone?”
Beverly Sutfin takes being a mother seriously.
Don’t cross her.
Dottie Finkel receives obscene phone calls because she steals a parking place. “Pussywillows, Dottie?”
The math teacher dies because he questions her parenting capabilities: “You’re doing something wrong, Mrs Sutfin.” Run down with gum in his mouth. Twice.
Misty’s boyfriend dies because he was fucking Tracy Lords: Don’t forget to flush! His liver is harvested at the urinal.
The Sterners are stabbed by scissors and crushed by an air conditioner because they abuse dental hygiene.
Mrs Jensen wouldn’t rewind. “Lick momma’s feet, make ’em all wet!”
Scottie wouldn’t fasten his seatbelt. And Camel Toes.
Beverly Sutfin celebrates motherhood. Muhammed Ali is wrong. He is not the greatest of all time. Beverly is the G.OAT. Do not cross her.