Movie Mothers

Slide 1: Introduction

The Kids Are All Right, writer-director Lisa Cholodenko’s new comedy about unconventional families, offers a rather unique perspective on motherhood. In the movie, lesbian moms Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) struggle with the reality that their eldest child, 18-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska), is getting ready to fly the nest for college, worry about the sexuality of their 15-year-old son Laser (Josh Hutcherson), and have to deal with a rival parent appearing on the scene when their children get in contact with their sperm donor father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo). To mark the movie’s release through Focus Features, FilmInFocus decided to look back through movie history at the way that mothers have been portrayed on the big screen over the years, from Sergei Pudovkin’s 1926 silent Soviet melodrama Mother all the way through to Henry Selick’s 2009 animated fantasy Coraline.

Slide 2: Mother (1926)

Russian filmmaker Vsevolod Pudovkin’s 1926 Mother – based on Maxim Gorky’s novel Mat – is possibly the first major film to explore the perils and problems of maternity. Set against the backdrop of the 1905 Russian Revolution, Mother centers on Pelageya Nilovna Vlasova, a woman who family loyalty is wrenched in two directions when her husband Vlasov and son Pavel Vlasov take different sides in a worker’s strike. After her husband is killed, Pelegaya’s actions unintentionally lead to her son being unjustly sent to a prison camp, and from this point on her one goal becomes to save Pavel’s life – at any cost. She allies herself to Pavel’s cause and becomes part of a group who try to free him and his fellow revolutionaries. However, the attempted breakout fails and both mother and son are killed in the process. Describing Pelegaya’s fearless demise in the film’s climax in a Senses of Cinema essay, Cara Marisa Deleon writes, “When the demonstration becomes violent, the flag, symbolizing their cause, is dropped by its slain holder. The title character takes up the flag and stands motionless against the soldiers as tears roll down her steadfast face in a moment of supposed realization regarding the cause. The camera shoots her profile in a close-up; then, within the frame, the fluttering flag obscures her face, symbolically displaying the unification of mother and revolution. She walks towards the advancing soldiers, who trample her to death.”

Slide 3: Imitation of Life (1934)

A common factor in films which focus on the issues of motherhood is that the women in those films are usually widows or single mothers, and thus tend to be without a strong male figure. Facing the void left by a dominant patriarch, they assume the power and responsibility of normally assigned to a man, leaving behind a background role of quiet passivity to become the master – or rather mistress – of their and their family’s destiny. A notable example of this model is Imitation of Life, the 1934 melodrama directed by John M. Stahl, which was remade by Douglas Sirk in 1959. Based on the novel of the same name by Fannie Hurst, Stahl’s movie tells the story of widow (Claudette Colbert) with a young daughter who hires an African-American live-in maid (Louise Beavers), who herself has a young daughter. The mother-daughter relationships are close and loving but, as the girls grow older, these become strained: Colbert’s daughter falls for her mother’s boyfriend, and Beavers’ light-skinned daughter disassociates herself from her mother because she is trying to pass for white. (In the 1959 Sirk version – in which the plot is almost identical – Lana Turner and Juanita Moore played the Colbert and Beavers roles respectively.) Both movies are about children rebelling against the mothers who have raised them, and the inherent struggles each parent faces with their children. Writing about Sirk’s remake in her book Imitation of Life, Lucy Fischer summarizes the movie by saying that “maternal angst is the core of the melodrama,” yet Sirk’s version ends with the grief of a child, Susan Kohner sobbing on Moore’s coffin, crying, “Mama! Do you hear me! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Mama! Mama, I did love you.”

Slide 4: Stella Dallas (1937)

Olive Higgins Prouty’s 1923 novel Stella Dallas was written after the author’s daughter tragically died at the age of just 3, and she channeled her emotion into a narrative about a mother who would do anything for her daughter. Of the three film adaptations of Prouty’s work, King Vidor’s 1937 version starring Barbara Stanwyck is the most famous and acclaimed. Stanwyck’s working class Stella marries rich Stephen Dallas, but when their marriage disintegrates, she dedicates herself to giving her daughter, Laurel, the best possible life. (As in so many films about what it is to be a mother, sacrifice is a central part of the narrative.) However, when Laurel becomes friends with snobby, affluent kids, Stella realizes that her being a part of her daughter’s life is actually holding her back. In her essay “Stella Dallas and the Maternal Melodrama,” Linda Williams writes about the heart-wrenching moment in which Stella makes the unthinkable decision to “sacrifice her only connection to her daughter in order to propel her into an upper-class world of surrogate family unity. Such are the mixed messages – of joy in pain, of pleasure in sacrifice – that typically resolve the melodramatic conflicts in “the women’s film.”

Slide 5: Mildred Pierce (1945)

Mildred Pierce, Michael Curtiz’s movie from James M. Cain’s noir novel, occupies similar territory to both Imitation of Life and Stella Dallas in that its heroine is a single mother and its theme is maternal devotion and ultimate sacrifice. The film starts with the murder of the title character’s second husband, and the majority of the action is made up of a subjective flashback narrated by Mildred showing her life story and how events lead up to this point. We see divorcee Mildred (Joan Crawford) climb from the lowly position of a waitress to a successful restaurant chain owner as she tries to earn enough to keep her callous, materialistic daughter Veda happy. Like Stella Dallas, Mildred destroys her own life in order to allow her daughter to rise in the world, although here there is no illusion that anyone is happy: Mildred ends up a penniless widow, while Veda goes to jail for murder. Looking at the movie in comparison to Stella Dallas in his book on Mildred Pierce, Albert J. LaValley writes: “Unlike Stella’s daughter, Mildred’s Veda is ungrateful and vicious. As a catalyst for Mildred’s drive to power, Veda taints the film’s central action. The aims of power become questionable. The American dream of greater success for one’s children acquires a sour edge. In its path lie sexual excess, business corruption, and depersonalization. Even Mildred’s nobility has overtones of masochism.”

Slide 6: Gypsy (1962)

In Stella Dallas and Mildred Pierce, the titular mothers focus on making their daughters as happy and affluent as they can. However, Gypsy presented a flipside to this scenario by centering on a different archetype: the stage mother. No one is more ambitious for their children than a stage mother, however their modus operandi is to push their children to fulfill whatever talent they have so that their gifts will be appreciated by the world and they will become a star. And there is no more pushy a stage mother than Mama Rose in Gypsy, the movie version of the Stephen Sondheim musical adapted from burlesque legend Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoir. While Ethel Merman originated the stage role on Broadway, in Mervyn LeRoy’s 1962 movie, Rosalind Russell played the formidable, dominating matriarch, “the most momma a girl ever had,” according to the film’s trailer. In its review of Gypsy, the New York Times expressed distaste at the character of Mama Rose, who first tries to make star of her photogenic elder daughter June (Suzanne Cupito), and then transfers all her energies to her other, less promising offspring Louise (Natalie Wood). “This dynamo of a woman who charges her two little girls with the push of her own intense ambition to be an act in vaudeville is not a very pleasant person,” wrote the Times’ Bosley Crowther. “She is a tyrant, a prude, a blusterer and she brazenly sweats child labor in working a line of boys into her daughters' act.” Bette Midler played Mama Rose to acclaim in a 1993 TV movie, while the character has been an unfortunate real-life inspiration to a number of pushy mothers of famous starlets.

Slide 7: Where's Poppa? (1970)

Films about mothers and daughters are much more prevalent in Hollywood than films about mothers and sons, however Carl Reiner’s 1970 movie flouted that particular norm – and many more. George Segal played Gordon Hocheiser, the resentful, live-at-home lawyer son of Ruth Gordon, a senile widow who perpetually forgets that her husband is dead (hence the title), routinely humiliates Segal and leans on him for help with the slightest of things. Hocheiser can’t stand her, but can’t put her in a home because he promised his father on his deathbed that he wouldn’t. So, in order to get her out of the way so he can marry his dream girl, he tries to scare her to death by dressing up as an ape. (Another name for the movie is Going Ape.) Carl Reiner’s movie tapped into a rich vein of provocative black humor, and at one stage was set to be even more edgy. In Man Enough: Fathers, Sons, and the Search for Masculinity, Frank S. Pittman writes, “In the original ending, Segal gives up, breaks off with his fiancée, and falls into bed with his mother. Preview audiences rejected that ending in favor of a fantasy in which Momma goes to a lovely nursing home where she finds a man she thinks is Poppa. Either way, the point is clear: a boy is not free to find a partner of his own as long as he must be a partner to his mother.” The theme of the grown man inhibited by his infuriating elderly was subsequently explored by Woody Allen in “Oedipus Wrecks” (his segment in 1989’s portmanteau movie New York Stories), Sylvester Stallone in Stop or My Mom Will Shoot (1992) and Albert Brooks in Mother (1996).

Slide 8: Murmur of the Heart (1971)

The early 1970s seems to have been a popular time for Oedipal undercurrents in movies: in addition to Where’s Poppa? there was Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama (1970), in which Shelley Winters’ criminal matriarch Ma Barker has incestuous relationships with her sons, and Hal Ashby’s 1971 cult classic Harold and Maude, featuring a boy’s love affair with a much older woman. None, however, were quite so direct as Louis Malle’s joyous coming-of-age comedy Murmur of the Heart. Though incest is usually not openly condoned in movies, here Malle views it as an entirely positive occurence between the bookish, teenage French protagonist, Laurent (Benoît Ferreux), and his young Italian mother, Clara (Leá Massari). In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote that “Malle sets us up for the final scenes so skillfully that the moment of incest, when it occurs, seems almost natural, more fond than carnal, and not terribly significant.” Dissecting the Oedipal sex scene in his Criterion Collection essay on the film, Michael Sragow deems that mother and son “make love in the least incestuous incest scene imaginable. …Malle doesn’t treat it as a taboo—he ties it too closely to the needs and dreams of a drunken, amorous woman who’s still dizzy from her breakup with her lover, and of a drunken, amorous teenager who has grown to understand the emotional needs behind her adultery. Rather than set off damaging psychic depth charges, the experience gives Laurent an unexpected shot of virility.” Subsequent cinematic investigations of mother-son incest include Bernardo Bertolucci’s La Luna (1979), David O. Russell’s Spanking the Monkey (1994), Christophe Honoré’s Ma Mere (2004) and Tom Kalin’s Savage Grace (2007).

Slide 9: Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to his breakthrough movie Mean Streets not only showed his range as a director but his awareness of cinematic history. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, penned by first-time writer Robert Getchell and featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Ellen Burstyn in the title role, provided an interesting modern twist on the classic Hollywood movies about single mothers. In films like Stella Dallas and Mildred Pierce, the absence of a man in their lives prompts the heroines to focus all their energies on their children, however when Alice’s no-good husband dies near the start of Scorsese’s movie, she ups and leaves to pursue the dream of being a singer she gave up when she became a mother. Burstyn’s Alice is an empowered, emancipated woman who balances the responsibilities of looking after her son with her personal desires to be a successful singer and to find love. In The Women's Companion To International Film, Lilie Ferrari described Scorsese’s movie as “one of a group of films seen by feminists as part of a ‘new women’s cinema’ emerging from Hollywood in the 1970s: films with narratives organized around the process of a woman’s self-discovery and growing independence, with central characters who are not glamorous in the conventional Hollywood sense.” In 1975, the National Organization for Women (NOW) made October 29 “Alice Doesn’t Day Strike,” a special day inspired by the film on which women did not make their usual contributions to society as in the workforce and at home in an attempt to underline the importance of their contribution to society.

Slide 10: A Cry in the Dark (1988)

The vast majority of films about mothers focus on their day-to-day relationships with their children. As a result, A Cry in the Dark stood out as it examined the trauma suffered by a real-life figure, Lindy Chamberlain (Meryl Streep), who was wrongly convicted of killing her nine-week-old daughter Azaria, after she disappeared at the Australian tourist spot of Uluru (aka Ayers Rock). While on trial, Chamberlain’s resilient denials of her guilt – she claims that a dingo carried away and then ate her child – are seen as not the actions of a loving mother. In her book High Anxiety: Catastrophe, Scandal, Age & Comedy, Patricia Mellencamp writes, “What was on trial as much as the incredulity of the event was the truth of women’s speech and Lindy’s lack of emotions – anonymous witnesses accused her of having no feelings, of being cold, heartless, unlike a woman, particularly a mother who has lost a child.” Though Lindy Chamberlain was released and exonerated two months before A Cry in the Dark opened, some still felt uneasy about the image of a mother that she presented. The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley ended her review by saying, “In this era of child abuse, baby-snatchers and inadequate day care, there's something of a dark parable here. A Cry in the Dark… isn't about apple pie. It's about culpability. These days, to Hollywood's way of thinking, the only perfect mothers are the daddies in Three Men and a Baby.”

Slide 11: The Joy Luck Club (1993)

Adapted from the bestselling novel by Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club tells the story of a group of Chinese American families living in San Francisco, and principally four elderly Chinese women who meet up regularly to play mahjong and talk about their lives. Wayne Wang’s film dwells on the cultural and generational divide between themselves and their Chinese-American daughters, all of whom feel pressure from their mothers to be successful. Describing the movie’s tackling of this subject, Janice R. Welsch and J. Q. Adams write in Multicultural Films: A Reference Guide, “For the daughters, their mothers’ hopes have been translated into pressures that have caused anxiety and feelings of inadequacy and failure. Only when these reach crisis proportions do the mothers and daughters confront each other and come to a greater understanding of their different perspectives – and they deep love they have for each other.” Paul Loukides and Linda K. Fuller, authors of Beyond the Stars: Themes and Ideologies in American Popular Film, reflected the great popularity of the film by stating that it “might serve as a refreshing model of how Hollywood films can offer us wise, funny, admirable mothers whose stories are formidable and haunting.”

Slide 12: Coraline (2009)

Being a mother is about dedication and sacrifice, however children often are not aware or grateful of the incredible contribution their mothers make to their lives. A perfect example of this in the movies is Coraline, Henry Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s young adult novel. Unappreciative of her parents – and particularly her mother – tween heroine Coraline discovers a parallel universe where there is her Other Mother, a physically identical maternal figure who is willing to give her everything that her real mother does not. However, this seemingly perfect doppelganger is, in fact, the very opposite of what a mother should be. Writing in Icons of Horror and the Supernatural: An Encyclopedia of our Worst Nightmares, Tony Fonseca describes the Other Mother as “that dreaded phallic mother we know from fairy tales and popular culture. While outwardly seeming to conform to her gender role, the phallic mother is truly the source of all power, which she uses to warp and manipulate those she supposedly loves. …In short, she is all our collective cultural imaginative fears women are capable of.”

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