It’s no secret that roles for actresses are often limited to ‘wife’, ‘girlfriend’ or ‘mother’. In fact, according to a 2014 report by the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, 58% of female characters are identified by their roles as wives or mothers. While frustrating to see female characters reduced to their reproductive capabilities, some of cinema’s most complex, interesting and memorable women have been mothers.
On-screen mothers often come in a few familiar flavours: saintly housewives; working mums; single mothers; women driven mad by the pressures of motherhood or just plain possessed.
Of these cinematic archetypes, the single mother is particularly pervasive. Even when they’re not empowered, the trope works as a convenient plot device that allows us to see these women simply making the most of their cruel or absent male counterparts – though films like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), Erin Brockovich (2000) and Room (2015) find a specific kind of strength in single parenthood.
In some films, motherhood is cast as a curse – as demonstrated in films like Now, Voyager (1942), Carrie (1976), Mommie Dearest (1981) and Precious (2009), as well as in the substrain of oedipal dramas including Psycho (1960), Birth (2004) and Womb (2010).
In this Mother’s Day selection, expect heartbreak, tenderness, sexual jealousy and oedipal undercurrents – as well as good old-fashioned love.
Mildred Pierce (1945)
Director Michael Curtiz
In Michael Curtiz’s classic film noir, Mildred (Joan Crawford), a devoted, docile housewife and mother with a penchant for baking pies, is forced into being the family breadwinner when her husband leaves her. Under pressure to fund her spoilt daughter Veda’s (Ann Blyth) extravagant tastes, she takes a job as a waitress – a role that awakens her entrepreneurial spirit and inspires her to open her own restaurant. A clash of egos between mother and daughter ensues, exacerbated by the arrival of suave man-about-town Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). Beragon pursues Mildred all the while indulging the snobby Veda’s petty whims, driving a wedge between them.
Blyth is deliciously deviant as the toxic, scathing Veda though it’s Crawford who shines as a principled woman struggling to suppress her mothering impulses against her better judgement. Also worth watching is Todd Haynes’s more recent version of James M. Cain’s novel, an excellent five-part miniseries, made for HBO and starring Kate Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood as the troubled mother-daughter duo.
Imitation of Life (1959)
Director Douglas Sirk
Douglas Sirk’s swansong is about two mothers, bonded by their difficult daughters; Lana Turner’s Lora Meredith, an aspiring actress, and Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), her black maid. The two women develop a close relationship that spans years, though their friendship is coloured by an undercurrent of race and class-related tension. The uneven power dynamic between the two mothers isn’t helped by Annie’s mixed-race daughter Sarah Jane, whose light skin means she is able to pass as white.
Juanita Moore is the heart and soul of Sirk’s crystalline weepie; it’s heartbreaking to watch Annie try (and fail) to teach Sarah Jane that her blackness isn’t something to be ashamed of. Moore locates pathos in Annie’s calm, solemn demeanour, her delivery dashed with hopelessness.
Mamma Roma (1962)
Director Pier Paolo Pasolini
Ageing working girl Mamma Roma (Anna Magnani) has decided to turn over a new leaf in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s steamy melodrama. Swapping her job as a prostitute for the more respectable role of fruit and vegetable seller, Mamma Roma conceals her dark past from her adolescent son Ettore (Ettore Garofolo). When he finds out, his behaviour becomes delinquent. Though Magnani’s haggard face carries the burden of her dark history, she radiates an earthy, raw sensuality. This aspect of her screen persona lends itself to a role that eschews the victim complex that on-screen prostitutes are often saddled with, and instead imbues Mamma Roma with vitality, pride and casual confidence.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
Director Martin Scorsese
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is an outlier in Martin Scorsese’s filmography. Starring Ellen Burstyn as Alice, a freshly widowed mother who relocates from New Mexico to California – stopping in Arizona along the way – with her talkative young son Tommy (Alfred Lutter), it is one of Scorsese’s only female-centric films. While it doesn’t share the same sense of rhythm as the pictures he wrote and directed (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was written by Robert Getchell), its focus on families is typical of the Italian-American auteur.
It’s a joy to watch Alice and Tommy banter back-and-forth with words and water pistols, and Burstyn is particularly brilliant as the tough but tender-hearted single mother. Alice’s liberal parenting style ruffles her new paramour’s (Kris Kristofferson) traditional feathers, but satisfyingly, she remains committed to honouring the maternal instincts that have guided her relationship with Tommy.
Grey Gardens (1975)
Director Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Muffie Meyer and Ellen Hovde
This cult documentary is about a mother and daughter – both named Edith Beale – living in Grey Gardens, a squalid, crumbling, raccoon-infested mansion in upstate New York. Grey Gardens itself sits in the wealthy neighbourhood of East Hampton, and the Beales were once the epitome of New York high society, though the film sees both Edies turned into social recluses (albeit incredibly stylish ones) living in decaying disarray. Yet, while both Big Edie, 82, and Little Edie, 56 (the cousin of Jackie Kennedy), have become actual cat ladies, the film treats them with reverence, probing gently with respect and curiosity. The intimate relationship they have with each other and with Grey Gardens itself seems frozen in time, unaffected by the changing context in which they now live and as content as they ever were.
Mommie Dearest (1981)
Director Frank Perry
Joan Crawford might have won an Oscar for her performance as a selfless mother (Mildred Pierce – see above), but the actor’s off-screen experience of motherhood was decidedly more complicated. In 1978, her adopted daughter Christina Crawford released a scandalous tell-all memoir detailing Crawford’s misdemeanours as an abusive alcoholic. The book – also called Mommie Dearest – was turned into Frank Perry’s camp cult classic, starring a manic Faye Dunaway as Crawford.
Dunaway operates at fever pitch, contorting her face into all manner of exaggeratedly grotesque expressions, hurling physical and psychological abuse at the angelic, eager-to-please Christina (Mara Hobel). Impromptu haircuts and cruel coat hanger beatings aside, it’s an uncomfortable watch – but a luridly compelling one too, even if it doesn’t exactly inspire sympathy. Dunaway is mesmerising as a woman whose sense of self is unspooling too rapidly to catch.
Eve’s Bayou (1997)
Director Kasi Lemmons
Roz Batiste (Lynn Whitfield) may look like an airheaded trophy wife but this mother of four is the glue that holds the Batiste family together in Kasi Lemmon’s idiosyncratic Southern Gothic drama. Ten-year-old Eve (Jurnee Smollett) suffers from middle-child syndrome, playing foil to her cherubic, bespectacled baby brother Poe (Jake Smollett – Jurnee’s real-life sibling) and poised preteen sister Cisely (Meagan Good). When Eve witnesses something she shouldn’t at a family party, sparking a chain of events that culminates in multiple crimes of passion.
Between her womanising husband (Samuel L. Jackson on particularly creepy form) and sister-in-law slash psychic Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), Roz has to work extra-hard to protect her boisterous brood. A murder mystery filtered through the hazy memories of several unreliable narrators, Lemmon’s directorial debut is as odd – if not odder – than it sounds. Yet with its arch humour and willingness to mimic the plasticity of memory with its narrative structure, it’s exciting too.
Savage Grace (2007)
Director Tom Kalin
The ‘based on a true story’ moniker is often utilised as a marketing tool that helps films claim credibility. Yet the story behind Tom Kalin’s glossy oedipal crime drama is true – and all the more incredulous for it. Julianne Moore is Barbara Baekeland, an Eisenhower-era It girl and heir-by-marriage to the Bakelite plastics fortune, who was notoriously murdered by her precocious gay son Tony (a typically simpering Eddie Redmayne).
Exquisitely designed with careful attention to period detail (the film is set between 1946 and 1972), Savage Grace focuses on the toxic, inappropriately intimate relationship between mother and son – a relationship that simmers slowly to boiling point. The selfish, hot-headed Barbara is hardly an aspirational mother figure (if anything she’s the opposite), but Julianne Moore’s is ever the magnetic screen presence as the louche, stylish socialite.
Director Xavier Dolan
Widower Die (Anne Dorval) struggles to wrangle her hyperactive, violent son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) in Canadian writer-director Xavier Dolan’s maximalist paean to single parenthood. The relationship between Die and Steve shifts erratically, the pair engaging in both explosive screaming matches and playful kitchen karaoke duets (an ingenious insertion of Celine Dion’s 1998 power ballad ‘On ne change pas’) at full-throttle intensity.
Dolan’s first feature I Killed My Mother also examined the dynamic between mother and teenage son, though its sympathies mostly sat with the bratty Hubert (played by a young Dolan). In Mommy, it is single mother Die who Dolan encourages us to side with – all trashy elegance, caught in the maelstrom of her son’s wild energy. Both Dorval and Pilot unleash an exhilarating avalanche of feeling in this brash, bombastic melodrama.
The Second Mother (2015)
Director Anna Muylaert
Brazilian writer-director Anna Muylaert’s class-conflict comedy explores the sacrifices many mothers make with a lightness of touch. Val (Regina Casé) takes a well-paid job as a live-in maid and nanny for a rich family in São Paulo, a role that separates her from her own children. Over her 13 years with the family, Val develops an affectionate, motherly relationship with their son and only child Fabinho. When her real daughter Jessica visits the city to take a university entrance exam, an opportunity for her to spend time with Val and her second family arises.
Yet the headstrong Jessica is unwilling to slot neatly into the social hierarchy her mother is complicit in upholding. Casé is luminous and funny as Val, who must juggle the expectations of her teenage daughter, jealous would-be son and snobbish boss while deciding whether the life she has built for herself is one she still wants to pursue.