Desert Island Lists: Special Mother’s Day Edition


        Mothers have historically been given the short end of the cinematic stick, drowning in their male counterpart and typically a far more villainous portrayal of parenthood. In nearly every Disney princess film, it is the mother that is killed to leave a child either orphaned or stuck with an evil step-mother. Mothers are an easy scapegoat for any evil or bad behavior in offspring, occasionally even encouraging it, as is the case with both versions of the film sharing the name of the holiday celebrating them.


Apparently there have been so few positive matriarchal portrayals on film that nearly every article listing the best Mother’s Day movies is actually a list of memorably awful mothers. Three of the top four films in the list by Time Out include Mommie Dearest, Psycho and Carrie, and two of the top five on the list from include Precious and The Fighter. The Guardian and LA Times online went a step further, titling the lists “10 Best... Bad Mothers on Film,” and “Top 10 Worst Movie Moms.” I’m going a different direction with my list. Rare as they may be, there have been some spectacular representations of maternal love in the history of cinema, and I have gladly rooted them out in honor of a mother deserving of the extra effort: my own.


It would be easy to start pointing fingers, blaming Hollywood for sexist tendencies in the favoring of film fathers. While this would not be entirely incorrect, this is also only a portion of the greater picture. While it is true that mothers have been neglected onscreen, there is a shining flip side of the coin in the representation of parents in modern television. Long gone are the days of “Father Knows Best,” replaced by Homer Simpson and Al Bundy. At the same time, women have grown stronger, more intelligent, and even increased independence in television programming. Sitcoms have seen a decrease in intelligence and physical appearance for father figures, while the women remain as beautiful as ever while nearly always outsmarting their male spouse in a game of wits. In the 1950s Lucy unsuccessfully hid her harebrain schemes from her judgmental husband, but the tables have flipped on Jim Belushi, Ray Romano, Tim Allen and every other comedian given a sitcom in the last three decades. Strong and beautiful mother figures have shown up in other genres of television as well, from crime (“Weeds,” “Sons of Anarchy,”) to good old fashion soap opera drama (“Desperate Housewives,” “Parenthood”). In other words, the slang “boob tube” has never been a more accurate name for sitcom television programming. 


I’ve broken the films with positive mother role models into five categories: Mother/Daughter Bonding, Smothered Sons, Sacrificing Mothers, Aggressive Protectors, and Grieving Mothers. Rather than the typical Desert Island list, I will simply list my favorites within each category, and my reasons for appreciating the films often correspond with similarities I see in my own mother. However, rest assured Mom, none can hold a candle to the actual experience of having you for a mother.


Mother/Daughter Bonding

        I will never fully understand the relationship women have with their mothers, though I have certainly seen enough films on the subject to imagine it is similar to what men experience with their fathers. These films begin with opposition and dissention and end in a bonding experience which allows mother and daughter to come to a new appreciation of each other. This comes from each having an experience that allows them to understanding each other better, happening in the most literal sense with the plot twists of the body switch narrative. Freaky Friday is the best example of this, with a 1976 version starring Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster, a 1995 remake with Shelley Long and Gaby Hoffman, and the 2003 version with Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan.


        Lohan’s best career moves have been choosing to do films with talented veteran actors, and Georgia Rule (2007) is another example of this, as well as another type of mother/daughter bonding film. This matriarchal melodrama takes it a step further with three generations of women, co starring Felicity Huffman and Jane Fonda as Lohan’s mother and grandmother. Other entries in this sub-sub-genre would include One True Thing (1998) with Renée Zellweger and Meryl Streep, Anywhere But Here (1999) with Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon, and Because I Said So (2006) with Mandy Moore and Diane Keaton. The fact that I have mentioned nearly every great actress over 50 and still working regularly is evidence of how few roles like this there are to go around.


Desert Island Favorite: Pieces of April (2003) Directed by Peter Hedges, Starring Katie Holmes and Patricia Clarkson as the mismatched mother/daughter, and co-starring Oliver Platt, Derek Luke and Alice Drummond.


Smothered Sons


        Occasionally the mother/daughter films utilize comedy, but not nearly as common as with films about mothers and their sons. A mother smothering their sons with love to the point of irritation is comedic gold, and has become a staple stereotype in the representation of the Jewish community as well. This was as clear with Albert Brooks’ Mother (1996) as it was with 2012’s The Guilt Trip, starring Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand. Being a single parent is another constant character trait in a cinematic mother’s smothering of her son, whether it is the bullied child of a flower child in About a Boy (2002), or an aspiring writer working away from home for the first time at a young age in Almost Famous (2000).


        This is another area which has succeeded in the realm of television more than the big screen, which has never been more apparent than it is in current broadcasting. As well as the television adaptation of the previously mentioned film, “About a Boy,” there is a perfect depiction of the stereotypical over-eager loving mother in “The Goldbergs.” Remove the plethora of tacky sweaters and Wendi McLendon-Covey’s performance as Beverly Goldberg may closest resemble the type of childhood my mother attempted to give me. Prior to this 1980s-based series, I probably would have given “The Wonder Years” this distinction.  


Desert Island Favorite: Almost Famous (2000) Directed by Cameron Crowe, Starring Patrick Fugit and Frances McDormand as the mother-son duo, and co-starring Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel and Philip Seymour Hoffman, among many others.


Sacrificing Mothers


        These cinematic mothers are the ones who put their own needs and wellbeing aside in order to care for their children. This includes the ultimate sacrifice of life, as the unforgettable death of the title fawn’s mother in the classic Disney film, Bambi (1942). More often than death, however, the mother’s sacrifice was seen in her ability to do whatever necessary to see her child cared for. This martyrdom has come in several forms over the years.


        In the 1930s, this melodrama genre often saw the mother forced to step away from her child as a way of allowing her a chance at a higher social standing. This is often due to the mother’s need to work for a living in order to support her child, a double-edged sword which caused society to look down on her. The best examples of this include the several adaptations of Stella Dallas (1925, 1937), Imitation of Life (1934, 1959) and Mildred Pierce (1945, 2011), which makes a villain out of the ungrateful daughter.


More often than not, however, the sacrifices made are purely due to financial need. In order to ensure her children’s needs are met, cinematic mothers are willing to do whatever is necessary. This meant taking whatever jobs available in order to raise the needed funds, either through creative means such as entering jingle contests in The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (2005) or even turning to a dangerous life of crime such as the smuggling done by the mother played by Melissa Leo in Frozen River (2008). Japan also saw a consistent number of films with this theme as well, including Every-Night Dreams (1932) Mother (1951) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954), among others.


Desert Island Favorite: The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (2005) Directed by Jane Anderson, Starring Julianne Moore and co-starring Woody Harrelson as the abusive alcoholic husband.


Aggressive Protectors


        The difference between this category and the previous comes down to a more proactive approach by the mothers. Mothers in the last section were defensive of outside harm, whereas these mothers take a more offensive approach to the protection of their offspring. This can be seen in the most obvious form of physical aggression, as is the case with robot-fighting mother of John Connor in the Terminator franchise, the superhero mother of Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004), or the bully-killing mother in John Waters’ Serial Mom (1994).


        Sometimes they aren’t violent, but manage to break laws and dismiss morals in order to cover up for the violence of their child. The mother played by Tilda Swinton in The Deep End (2001) never even asks her son about his implication of a murder, but merely covers it up as quickly as possible in order to avoid any chance of his culpability being questioned. In yet another film titled Mother (2009), this time from South Korean director Joon-ho Bong (Memories of a Murder, The Host, and the upcoming Snowpiercer), a mother searches for the real killer after her son is arrested for a murder.


        Then there are the mothers who offer a different type of protection, aggressively fighting for a child’s basic rights and doing whatever possible to shield them from future emotional suffering. These include defenders against bullies, such as biker mom played by Cher in Mask (1985), and activists against insufficient school systems, including the crusade led by the mothers in Won’t Back Down (2012) played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis. Then there is the simple act of comforting, an innate way that every mother is able to protect their child and my favorite depiction of parental love in a film from this section or any.


Desert Island Favorite: Dumbo (1941), Directed by Sam Armstrong, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts and more.


Grieving Mothers


        Sadly, this is probably the most common depiction of a mother’s love onscreen. The examples of grieving mothers onscreen are far more common than fathers, across a number of different narratives. The most difficult ones are the films that deal with this loss head on, such as Things We Lost in the Fire (2007), Bella (2006), Secret Sunshine (2007), Rabbit Hole (2010), Beautiful Boy (2010), Still Walking (2008), Changeling (2008) and In the Bedroom (2001). Then there are films which simply use the loss as a character developmental devise for other elements of the film, seen most clearly in Sandra Bullock’s performance this past year in Gravity as a mother in who must fight the grief and make the decision continue to live.


This section merely motivates me to stay alive, because I would never wish this kind of suffering on the mother who has so graciously given me so much. So, here’s to living. And here’s to all of the mothers who resemble and surpass those in cinemas and on television, none more impressively than my own. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. Nearly everything else in life appears better onscreen to me, but your daily devotion to my happiness far exceeds anything that can be glamorized by Hollywood.


Desert Island Favorite: Moonlight Mile (2002), Directed by Brad Silberling, Starring Susan Sarandon and Dustin Hoffman as grieving parents, as well as Jake Gyllenhaal as the former fiancé of the deceased daughter. Holly Hunter and “Grey’s Antomy” star Ellen Pompeo also co-star.

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Anonymous said...

I'm glad that women have everyone kissing their fat, lazy, self-absorbed, selfish asses now. I think it's great that no one gives a damn about raising or praising good fathers today. Yes, feminism has really helped everyone become less sexist against women. That's just great. Ladies, you might as well castrate your sons and make them into girls as soon as they come out. That's how much boys mean to society today. According to society, all men are just evil rapists and wife-beaters by design... despite all of the statistics proving that women can be just as vile and dangerous.

Ryan Izay said...

You may have a valid point or two hidden amidst your anger, Mr. Anonymous, but my mother is not fat, lazy, selfish, or self-absorbed in any way, shape or form. I don't think a single person in her entire life has ever used any of those words to describe her, and she was the one I wrote the article for. I'm sorry you didn't have the same experience, but judging by the mass of articles about bad mothers on film, it seems you are not alone. Which makes me all the more grateful for the mother I have. So...thanks for you comment?