Motherhood has been explored in an unsparingly frank fashion in great films. These aren’t the movies that anybody wants to watch on Mother’s Day, claims Geoffrey Macnab
The furiously demented movie star Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) is tugging at her young daughter Christina’s hair. She found the little girl at her dressing table, imitating her and making a speech to “my wonderful fans who’ve made me a star”. She starts hitting her with a hairbrush and then cutting off her
long blonde locks with a pair of scissors. It’s one of the most overwrought scenes in Mommie Dearest (1981), which ranks among the bitterest Hollywood films about motherhood.
It’s in stark contrast to one moment at the end of Stella Dallas (1937) in which the self-sacrificing, working-class mum played by Barbara Stanwyck is standing outside in the rain watching unnoticed as her daughter is getting married to a high society husband. A cop moves her along. Or the excruciating scene in both versions of Mildred Pierce, in which the devoted mother, played by Crawford (1945) and Kate Winslet (2011), realises that her daughter is in a relationship with her husband, who is the daughter’s stepfather.
These are just some of the hyper-charged moments in classic Hollywood mummy melodramas. Magnificent films have been made over the years by directors in which the maternal bond has been explored in an unsparingly frank and sensitive fashion. These, though, aren’t the movies that anybody wants to watch on Mother’s Day on Sunday.
“I wept and wept, from start to finish,” rock star Nick Cave wrote after seeing Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s Mother And Son (1997). You can easily understand why the film hit him so hard. It’s about a devoted son spending his last day with his mother, who is at death’s door. Imagine watching the gutwrenching death of Bambi’s mother in the 1942 Disney film, but on a permanent loop and in extreme slow motion, and you’ll get a sense of its essence. It’s a self-consciously poetic film with a dream-like feel. The son’s love for his dying mother is overwhelming. We see him carry her frail body through the fields while the wind rustles ominously in the background.
Mother and Son’s melancholy beauty can’t hide its extreme morbidity. Nonetheless, it stands as one of the most reverent films about motherhood in the entire history of world cinema. You won’t find anyone else who loves his mum quite as much as the devoted son (Alexei Ananischnov) in Sokurov’s masterpiece.
Many other big-name European filmmakers have explored the maternal bond in an equally raw fashion. Spanish director Pedro Almodovar continually refers to his mother in his work. Sometimes, as in his semi-autobiographical drama Pain and Glory (2019), the romanticised mother figure – played by Penelope Cruz as a young woman and by Julieta Serrano as an elderly lady – is directly inspired by his memories of her. In other films, her influence is more loosely felt. As a kid, he relished listening to her and the neighbours telling each other “stories of suicides, incest, or singing all together”. What he heard later fed into his work. His 1999 comedy-drama All About my Mother is one of his typically fraught movies in which the main protagonist is a single mum. Nurse Manuela (Cecilia Roth) loses her beloved teenage son after he is struck by a car. His heart is transplanted into another man – cueing all sorts of emotional complications.
“Motherhood is blessed in my movies. There are many different models of motherhood. For me, it’s like talking about love or passion or beauty. You can make a thousand different movies about it,” he told The Irish Times in an interview last year to promote Parallel Mothers (2021), his melodrama about two mums whose babies are accidentally switched at birth.
Brooding Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman likewise adored his mother. He may have bristled with resentment about his father, a vain, bullying, and narcissistic pastor, but his feelings toward his mother were very different. “Mother is beautiful, really the most beautiful of all, more beautiful than The Virgin Mary and Lillian Gish,” he rhapsodised about her. Like Almodovar, he credited her with nurturing his artistic gifts. One of his most moving and neglected films, the short documentary Karin’s Face (1986), tells the story of his mother’s life by using a selection of images taken from family albums. We see her over the years as she turns from a child into a beautiful young woman and then into an old lady.
The Belgian director Chantal Akerman – whose 1976 drama Jeanne Dielman recently topped the Sight and Sound poll of the greatest movies of all time – was likewise obsessed with her mother and referred to her frequently in her work. In her 1977 documentary News From Home, Akerman, then living in New York where she has gone to pursue a career as a filmmaker, looks for consolation in exile to letters from her beloved mother who is far away back home in Europe. Without her mum, her words on the page and her handwriting are the next best thing.
No Home Movie (2015), Akerman’s final film, was another documentary about her mother. Natalia Akerman was a Holocaust survivor. The film shows Natalia as an elderly woman
going about her daily life in her Brussels apartment, having conversations with her daughter either in person or by Skype. Natalia died in 2014 before the documentary was released.
“Even if I have a home in Paris and sometimes in New York, whenever I was saying I have to go home, it was going to my mother…and there is no home anymore because she isn’t there,” Akerman told The New York Times just as the film was about to premiere at the Locarno Film Festival in 2015. These words seem all the more poignant given Akerman’s own suicide a few weeks later.
There is a long tradition of mother worship in European cinema. From Soviet-era films like Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother (1926), in which the mother became an emblem of revolutionary change, to Italian movies like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma (1962), in which an ageing prostitute (Anna Magnani) does everything she can to give her son a better life, mums are portrayed in a very idealised light.
By contrast, in Hollywood melodramas, it’s as commonplace to find mothers being betrayed or abandoned by their children, as it is to be worshipped by them. Whether it’s Crawford or Winslet tormented by their brattish, promiscuous kid in Mildred Pierce, or Lana Turner’s character in Imitation of Life (1959) seeing her daughter develop a crush on her boyfriend, it’s the mothers who are invariably made to suffer. They’re masochistic figures who can’t help sacrificing themselves for kids who don’t seem to give much of a hoot about them.
Mums are also often grotesquely caricatured in US cinema. They’re frequently portrayed as bullying harridans. Their children are desperate to get rid of them. Throw Momma from the Train (1987), Danny DeVito’s directorial debut, is a perfect example of the trend. DeVito himself plays the meek and browbeaten son, an aspiring writer who fantasises about sticking a huge pair of scissors through his mother’s head. The Strangers on a Train-like plot has him trying to enlist his writing teacher (Billy Crystal) to bump her off. The mum, played in ogre-like fashion by Anne Ramsey, is predictably tough to kill.
With hairs in her nostrils and a hoarse, guttural voice, Ramsey may be terrifying but she seems almost a pussycat by comparison with Dunaway’s Crawford in Mommie Dearest. There is a certain irony here. Dunaway is portraying the star who gave such a powerful performance as a long-suffering mum in Mildred Pierce. In real life, though, Crawford appears to have treated her adopted children in much the same way that Cruella de Vil did the little puppies in 101 Dalmatians. She’d hit them and scream at them, working her way into a fury over their smallest perceived misdemeanours.
Dunaway’s Crawford is perversely sympathetic. She’s a monster but we can understand why. As MGM’s biggest name, Crawford is entirely self-obsessed. She is conscious that she is growing older and terrified that everything will be taken away from her. “I will survive, I will survive,” she murmurs to herself when she is out jogging. She is ferociously competitive, even to the extent that she won’t let her tiny adopted daughter beat her in a swimming race. Her obsession with tidiness is an extension of her anxiety about her own appearance. She has to look perfect for the studio boss and for her fans. She’s a figure of pity but that doesn’t disguise the fact she is also an abusive mother.
From Mia Farrow’s traumas in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to the terrifying labour that Jennifer Lawrence endures in Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! (2017), pregnancy and motherhood are portrayed as demonic experiences in many US horror movies and psychological thrillers. As if to atone for the bleakness of such films, there is another strain of American mummy movies that are gooey and maudlin in the extreme. These are the ones that tend to be re-released in time for Mother’s Day.
“A hurricane of garbage” was how one critic responded to Garry Marshall’s Mother’s Day (2016), starring Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson and Julia Roberts. That was one of the kinder responses to a terminally schmaltzy drama in which the characters either have mummy issues – they’re adopted or estranged from their parents – or are embattled single mums themselves. By the final reel, every conflict is resolved… and every mum and kid is happy. The reviews were savage but the “repellent”, “godawful” and “truly offensive” film still turned a tidy profit.
Last weekend, when Michelle Yeoh won her Best Actress Oscar for Everything Everywhere All at Once, she dedicated her award “to my mum, all the mums in the world because they are really the superheroes and without them, none of us would be here tonight”. In the film, she herself plays a long-suffering mum weighed down with her work running a laundromat who is
suddenly given the chance to experience life in other dimensions. She gets to see herself in many different guises, for example, a martial arts star, a chef and an opera singer.
That’s not an opportunity given to characters in most mummy movies. There’s something uncomfortable about the probing way the best ones deal with love and grief and with the constricted, difficult lives their protagonists invariably lead. Come Mother’s Day, it’s understandable then that viewers don’t want to be stuck in their worlds, or to weep and weep as they confront the inescapable fact that every child eventually loses its mother. You can hardly blame them if, on Sunday, they take the Roberts romcom option instead.
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