cw: assumed miscarriage
So, it’s Mother’s Day and Cinema has a lot of mothers (which is funny because people usually can’t figure out who their father is inste– ahem) and I think it’s just about time that rather than honoring my own mother like I probably should, maybe I should tell these fictional mothers (with two real-life exceptions) that I see them and the hard work they do for their children and how their status as a mother informs their actions and decisions within their films more than a little bit. Anyway, I gotta finish this intro real quick because I promised my mom I’d buy her tickets for Life of the Party.
10. Lynn Sear (Toni Collette) – The Sixth Sense
9. Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) – The Exorcist
They both essentially play the same fields, so I’m discussing both Lynn and Chris in this entry. Both are characters being foregrounded within the first half as very desperately trying to find every option on why their child is performing some alarmingly bizarre behaviors and both are sidelined by the time that the element of the supernatural is fully acknowledged by the main players in the film. And yet these are both pretty overqualified actors giving fatigued urgent performances as they run through the options and find themselves in dead-ends that they have to barrel through. Chris gets the edge with an extra layer of dire guilt we watch on her face in a scene of torturous medical tests that provide more horror than any of the spooky ghost scenes after, but Lynn just as well has a standout scene upon her son Cole helping her accept his gift while he relays a message from her own mother.
8. Maria von Trapp (Julie Andrews) – The Sound of Music
Who could possibly hate Maria? Even her romantic rival for Christopher Plummer’s Baron is eventually able to see what wonderful things she does for the von Trapp household and the kids themselves, able to function in all areas as a step-mother before the prospect of marriage is put on the table. She sees why the children feel alienated by their father and yet also why their father is such a demanding disciplinarian and by her presence connects the two together again. And also it’s Julie Andrews indulging in song and hating on Nazis. That’s it, game over.
7. Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) – Mildred Pierce
It’s practically criminal to include a list of the best movie mothers and not have Mildred Pierce on here. She pointedly throws herself on every possible cross she has to to make sure her monstrous elder daughter Veda is able to have everything she needs and more, while her success as a businesswoman is driven by her memory of the more loving Kay. And despite the disparity in reciprocation, we don’t see her play any favorites between the two. The only reason she’s so low is, given how the movie is mostly dominated with the Mildred-Veda pairing (Kay’s death occurring early in the film), Veda’s malicious elitism towards her own mother mark out their relationship as so draining and toxic to Mildred one knows the best course would have been to move on from her daughter’s grip. Pretty funny given that Crawford’s real-life relationship with her own daughter is notoriously the inverse.
6. Beatrix “The Bride” Kiddo (Uma Thurman) – Kill Bill Vol. 2
I’m honestly getting more and more suspicious of Quentin Tarantino’s behind-the-scenes treatment of women, but I’m still no less a fan of his work nor can I think of many other American filmmakers so generous to their female protagonists (save for James Cameron, who has not ONE but TWO entries here). We aren’t really aware of the survival of Bea’s child until the very last line of the first movie. But the second movie’s final act especially makes casual weaponization of a maternal grief and instinct that Thurman delivers cold as ice, slicing and dicing her way to some sort of personal peace up until she finds her daughter alive. Of course, the point of the final moments is that even with B.B. around, all the Shogun Assassin sit-down watches with B.B. in the world won’t satiate her until Bill is dead. And yet the final beats of the film are Beatrix looking forward to restarting as a mother and holding B.B. in her arms.
5. Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett) – Strange Days
Ah yes, one of the James Cameron mothers (I bet you were expecting someone else) although directed by his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow. I don’t know who is specifically responsible for Bassett’s exhausted performance in the film as she carries the most moral and grounded perspective of any other characters in this film, but Mace’s function as a mother is more in the peripherals of a movie that has bigger concepts to acknowledge. And yet we know that Mace’s dedication to her son as a divorcée whose ex-husband is possibly still in prison is why she’s carrying two jobs (possibly at the same time). Her marital and parental status gives everything else about the character – her distrust of police, her unwillingness to indulge in virtual reality, and her feelings for Lenny Nero – a soul in which for Bassett to build the performance out of. Not for nothing that the very scene where we see her meet Lenny and infatuated with her is one where she finds him comforting her son as her ex-husband is being arrested right outside their home.
4. Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) – Erin Brockovich
Hottest Take: Julia Roberts totally deserved her Oscar for this movie, even above the crowd favorite of Ellen Burstyn’s more doomed mother in Requiem for a Dream. It’s a performance that turns around the image of America’s Sweetheart at the time into a gritted (but still lovable) mother, whose constant losses toughened her up enough to get really dirty when demanding what she needs to provide for her kids and without losing sympathy for the many other mothers and fathers and kids she is fighting for in the central legal case she’s cleaning up. The early ability of hers to statistically breakdown her financial and family status to Aaron Eckhart’s love interest later returned into easily reciting numbers and details of her clients towards a condescending legal assistant and her later explanation to her son’s feeling of abandonment by elaborating on the situation of a mother and daughter dealing with illness affected by her case boosts her hella up this list.
3. Tina Quintero (Carmen Maura) – Law of Desire
Tina, like every other character in Almodovar’s Law of Desire and especially her brother Pablo, is a character of contradictions of a variety. She’s a transsexual woman who remains devoted to a Church that judges her, she’s a struggling actress who feels like she must exploit her struggles to remain in the spotlight, she’s a coke addict who has image issues involving her age. And that’s all without spoiling the rest of the craziness that happens in my favorite film by cinema’s greatest provocateur.
And yet she’s effortlessly functional as a mother to Ada, who is not even her blood daughter but of her cold ex-wife, constantly putting her first in any consideration and comfortably able to have any degree of discussion with her. The tight family unit between Tina, Pablo, and Ada is an unexpected source of warmth within the film’s sexual and violent story and there’s no doubt that despite all the fucked up things that go on in the movie, Tina has provided Ada with a very healthy household to grow up in.
2. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) – Aliens
Frankly, this is the character I think of when “movie mom” comes up. Nobody gets points for recognizing that Aliens is secretly a treatise about motherhood and dealing with grief by finding one another in the vein of Ripley and Newt, but the reason why Aliens is such an easy choice is because Weaver is just so good at giving that sort of surprise savage Momma Bear turn, making it all nervy but determined against beasts that have clearly traumatized her enough. The only fucking reason this character is not number one is because I’m a shitty prescriptivist of a person who recognizes that 1) Ripley is not Newt’s blood mother and 2) most of the deeper character and relationship shaping for both of them are in the Special Edition of the film released in 1990.
Coincidentally, Aliens and Kill Bill are both movies my mom really loves.
- Mrs. Jumbo (Verna Felton) – Dumbo
And apropos of nothing, Dumbo is one of the first movies I’ve ever watched and so the image of Mrs. Jumbo protecting her son from the laughter and gawking of everybody simply because he happens to be much much more adorable than any of them runs hella deep in me. And her desire to keep her son warm and comfortable even in her saddened imprisonment for whupping the asses of folks who deserved those whuppings jerks tears so hard half my face comes off with them. I mean, who doesn’t go awwwwww at that?