We all know that actors are often cast as “wife,” “girlfriend” or “mother” in their roles. Female characters are frequently depicted as spouses or mothers, according to a study conducted in 2014 by San Diego State University’s Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film. Motherhood has given us some of cinema’s most nuanced, intriguing, and unforgettable female characters—despite the fact that it can be discouraging to see women limited to their reproductive capacities.
Mothers on the big screen come in a variety of flavors, including saintly housewives, working mothers, single mothers, and women who have been driven mad by the demands of parenthood.
The lone mother is one of the most common film archetypes. A convenient plot device, the trope lets us see these strong female characters simply making the most of their male counterparts’ cruel or absent behavior – though films like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), Erin Brockovich (2000), and Room (2015) find a particular kind of strength in single parenthood..
As shown in films like Now, Voyager (1942), Carrie (1976), Mommie Dearest (1981), and Precious (2009), as well as the substrain of oedipal dramas such as Psycho (1960), Birth (2004), and Womb (2009), motherhood is sometimes shown as a misfortune in film (2010).
Heartbreak, sensitivity, jealousy, and oedipal undertones are there in this Mother’s Day offering. But there is also good old-fashioned love.
1. Mildred Pierce (1945)
The loving, obedient wife and mother Mildred (Joan Crawford) in Michael Curtiz’s classic noir film noir is forced to become the family breadwinner when her husband leaves her. To help support her spoiled daughter Veda (Ann Blyth), she gets a work as a server, which sparks her entrepreneurial spirit and ultimately leads to the opening of her own restaurant in her hometown of Toronto. The appearance of Monte Beragon, a suave man-of-the-people, exacerbates the mother-daughter power struggle (Zachary Scott). It is just a matter of time before Beragon and Mildred find themselves on opposite sides of a rift.
Veda is deliciously perverse, but Crawford shines as a moral lady striving to resist her mothering urges against her better judgment. Todd Haynes’s more contemporary adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel, starring Kate Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood in a five-part HBO miniseries, is also worth viewing.
2. Imitation of Life (1959)
Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), an aspiring actress, and Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), her black maid, are bonded by their challenging daughters in Sirk’s swansong. The two ladies form a close connection that lasts for many years, despite the fact that they are torn apart by issues of race and class. Sarah Jane, Annie’s mixed-race daughter, does nothing to alleviate the power imbalance between the two mothers.
When Annie tries (and fails) to teach Sarah Jane that her blackness isn’t something to be ashamed of, it is terrible to witness. As Moore points out, Annie’s demeanor is characterized by a sense of pessimism.
3. Mamma Roma (1962)
Aged Mamma Roma (Anna Magnani) has decided to take a new path in the hot melodrama by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Instead of being a prostitute, Mamma Roma now works as a fruit and vegetable vendor, keeping her troubled past hidden from her adolescent son Ettore (Ettore Garofolo). As soon as he learns the truth, his behavior devolves into criminality. Her weary face bears the weight of her tragic past, but she emits an earthy, primal sensuality. On-screen prostitutes are often given a victim complex, but Mamma Roma’s screen character lends itself to a part that is vital, proud, and casually confident.
4. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
In Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore stands out as an exception. It is one of Scorsese’s few female-centric pictures, starring Ellen Burstyn as Alice, a newly bereaved mother who moves from New Mexico to California with her outspoken little son Tommy (Alfred Lutter). However, despite its lack of rhythm, the focus on families is typical of the Italian-American filmmaker, who wrote and directed Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
The back-and-forth banter between Alice and Tommy, complete with water guns, is hilarious, and Ellen Burstyn is outstanding as Alice, the tough-as-nails single mother. Despite Kris Kristofferson’s (Kris Kristofferson) disapproval of Alice’s liberal parenting style, she remains devoted to honoring the maternal instincts that have guided her relationship with Tommy.
5. Grey Gardens (1975)
As the title suggests, this documentary follows a mother and daughter named Edith Beale as they struggle to survive in upstate New York’s Grey Gardens, a dilapidated, raccoon-infested home. Although the Beales were at the pinnacle of New York society, the film depicts them as social recluses (although exceedingly elegant ones) who live in rotting disorder in the posh East Hampton neighborhood where Grey Gardens is set. A cat lady aged 82 and Jackie Kennedy’s cousin at 56 years old — Big and Little Edie — are depicted in the video with regard and a gentle curiosity. While the world around them has changed, the deep bond they share with each other and with Grey Gardens appears to have remained unchanged.
6. Mommie Dearest (1981)
Joan Crawford may have earned an Oscar for her portrayal of a selfless mother in Mildred Pierce, but Crawford’s off-screen experience as a mother was far from straightforward. Christina Crawford, Crawford’s adoptive daughter, published a tell-all memoir in 1978 describing her mother’s misdeeds as an abusive alcoholic. Frank Perry’s kitsch cult classic, Mommie Dearest, was based on the novel and starred a manic Faye Dunaway as Crawford.
Exaggerated facial expressions and physical and psychological abuse are hurled at Christina while Dunaway operates at a fevered pitch… (Mara Hobel). Even though it doesn’t exactly elicit pity, it’s a gruesomely captivating movie, even if it doesn’t exactly make you feel sorry for the characters. In this role, Dunaway is captivating as a woman whose sense of self is unraveling at a rate she cannot keep up with.
7. Eve’s Bayou (1997)
Roz Batiste (Lynn Whitfield) may appear to be an airheaded trophy wife in Kasi Lemmon’s eccentric Southern Gothic drama, but this mother of four is the glue that ties the Batiste family together. A 10-year-old Eve suffers from the “middle-child syndrome,” balancing her baby brother Poe (played by real-life sibling Jake Smollett) and her stoic preteen sister Cisely (portrayed by Jurnee Smollett) (Meagan Good). An incident at a family gathering sets off a series of events that leads to many crimes of passion being committed.
Roz has to work extra hard to keep her family safe from her husband’s womanizing and her sister-in-slash-psychic law’s sister-in-law, Mozelle (Debbi Morgan). Lemmon’s directorial debut, a murder mystery told through the fuzzy recollections of numerous unreliable narrators, is as bizarre as it sounds. But it’s also thrilling because of its sardonic humor and desire to replicate the fluidity of memory in its narrative framework.
8. Savage Grace (2007)
As a marketing tactic, the phrase “based on a real tale” is frequently employed. In spite of this, Tom Kalin’s glossy oedipal criminal thriller is actually based on an actual story. An Eisenhower-era It girl and heir to the Bakelite fortune, Barbara Baekeland was notoriously murdered by her precocious gay son Tony. Julianne Moore portrays her (a typically simpering Eddie Redmayne).
Savage Grace is an exquisitely crafted film that focuses on the toxic, inappropriately personal relationship between mother and son — a relationship that simmers steadily to boiling point. Even though Julianne Moore plays a snobbish, self-centered socialite in the role of Barbara, she has a compelling screen presence nonetheless.
9. Mommy (2014)
In Xavier Dolan’s maximalist ode to single parenting, widow Die (Anne Dorval) battles with her hyperactive and violent son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). At full throttle intensity, Die and Steve engage in both explosive screaming battles and lighthearted karaoke duets (an ingeniously inserted Celine Dion power ballad “On ne change pas”) between them. The connection between Die and Steve fluctuates constantly.
A similar dynamic between a mother and son was explored in Dolan’s debut feature, I Killed My Mother, but the film’s sympathies tended to rest with the brat Hubert (played by a young Dolan). In Mommy, Dolan puts us on the side of single mother Die, who is dressed in trashy elegance and caught in the whirlwind of her son’s untamed energy. Brash, explosive Melodrama has both Dorval and Pilot release an exciting avalanche of feeling
10. The Second Mother (2015)
The class-conflict comedy by Brazilian writer-director Anna Muylaert examines the sacrifices many moms make with levity. While working for a wealthy family in So Paulo, Val (Regina Casé) finds herself cut off from her own children because of her new position as a live-in maid and nanny. Fabinho, the family’s sole kid, has grown to love and rely on Val throughout the course of their 13 years together. A chance to spend time with Val and her second family arrives when her real daughter Jessica enters the city to take her university entrance exam.
Despite her mother’s complicity in maintaining a rigid social structure, Jessica refuses to fit in. Casse shines as a mother who has to balance the demands of her daughter, son, and employer as she decides whether the life she has made is one she wants to continue.