It’s Mothers’ Day! So we’re recalling some of the most vivid Mums in movie history.
Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) in Mommie Dearest
Once upon a time, there was a tough, working-class girl called Lucille LeSueur, who went to Hollywood, changed her name to Joan Crawford and clawed her way to stardom. She specialised in playing tough, working class girls who clawed their way to riches (usually by marrying the boss or his son).
She decided that she wanted to adopt a child to give her all the things that she never had. As a twice-divorced single woman (and an actress to boot), she was deemed unsuitable for legal adoption, but this being Hollywood she managed to acquire a gloriously blonde baby whom she called Christina. There followed a parade of publicity shots of mother and daughter in ludicrous matching outfits: Joan and Christina cleaning the house (we’ll get back to this one); Joan and Christina at Christmas; Joan and Christina celebrating birthdays. Another marriage, another baby is found (Christopher), and another husband is sent on his way. And, according to Christina, that’s when things start to go horribly wrong…
The book Mommie Dearest, published a year after Joan’s death in 1978, is Christina Crawford’s story of her magical Hollywood childhood. Behind the carefully maintained, homespun facade, Joan was a raging alcoholic depressive, prone to violent rages that usually resulted in some form of physical or mental abuse of one or other of her children, usually Christina. At the time it caused a sensation, being the one of the first ‘misery memoirs’ and the associated film was released with almost unseemly haste. And boy, does it show.
The film version opens with the construction of Joan Crawford, played with scenery-chewing relish by Faye Dunaway. Her morning routine shows her waking before dawn to scrub her skin raw with pumice and soap, followed by ice baths and the application of the Crawford look: thick painted eyebrows, cheekbones you could slice lemons with and a scarlet gash of a mouth. She stalks around her spotlessly clean Hollywood mansion, checking surfaces, admonishing staff and children alike and welcoming her latest gentleman caller.
So far,so good. The make-up and costumes are wonderful ( I reckon there was a different outfit for every scene). Faye Dunaway and Young Christina (Mara Hobel) are great: Hobel strikes a neat balance between wounded innocence and brattish precocity that elicits sympathy while making you glad she’s not your kid. It’s just a shame about all the other stuff, like the TV movie lighting, the script that doesn’t even deserve the adjective “hackneyed”, the other actors not actually doing much except stand aside gawping at Faye/Joan going off on one about her dislike of wire coat hangers.
There’s a good film to be made here. The book isn’t brilliantly written, but Crawford is sympathetic towards her mother’s struggle to maintain her career and her independence in a brutal industry while also skewering the toxic effects of fanlike adoration on Joan’s fragile ego. The film version plays like a low-budget horror movie directed by Hallmark, with very little looming menace and an awful lot of bafflement.
Both film and book versions of Mommie Dearest indicate that there was a kind of reconciliation in later life, in fact that Joan and Christina’s relationship evolved into a kind of complex friendship that was still bore the scars of Joan’s egomania but was civilised enough. However, Joan’s final act was to cut her two eldest children out of her will “for reasons known to them” and leave the bulk of her estate to various charities. That’ll teach them to wash the bathroom floor properly.
Mrs Bennet (Mary Boland) in Pride and Prejudice
It’s not very cool to admit to liking MGM’s 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice. It gets so much wrong: replacing empire-line frocks with crinolines; making Jane the dark one and Lizzy the fair one; ditching (as so many Hollywood literary adaptations of the era did) half the plot, and thus robbing it of much of its bite; the goddam crinolines.
But it gets some things right as well. Laurence Olivier in his beautiful prime is a perfect Darcy, the right amount of sexy and supercilious, Greer Garson is a warm and humorous Lizzy and Mary Boland remains my favourite Mrs Bennet. Boland was a renowned comic actress of the Broadway stage and her performance retains the broad strokes of the theatre: she’s snobbish, vulgar, very funny and imbued with some extraordinary transatlantic vowels (‘Mistah Dahcay of Pembahlay!).
Her Mrs Bennet is a woman of decision, action and energy, not the weepy hysteric, washed out by childbirth and disappointment, more modern interpretations depict her as. She marshals her daughters like the coach of a sports team. Like the best comic creations she’s offset by a great sidekick. Edmund Gwenn’s tiny, dry Mr Bennet makes a perfect foil, counterbalancing his wife’s energy and ambition with wry humour, common sense and a dash of humanity. He helps you believe in them as parents. There’s a view, put about by Fay Weldon, that Mrs Bennet is the only sensible character in the story; the only who appreciates the tragedy of being a mother to five daughters; the only one who understands that women are entirely dependent on men’s the favour and kindness of men. If that’s the case, then Boland’s Mrs Bennet is going to play as best she can with the hand she’s been given.
I like that she gets the movie’s first and last word.
Margaret White (Piper Laurie) in Carrie
Of all the movie mothers who shaped me into the person I am today, the deepest and most enduring impression was made by Margaret White, the mother of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976). Margaret is a piece of work. She forces her religious fundamentalism and projects her sexual trauma onto her daughter, refusing her both the romantic trappings of adolescence and the hard biological facts of puberty. The only thing Margaret White taught us is that “dirty pillows” is the most hilarious of all mammarian synonyms. If she had instilled less shame in Carrie, things might have turned out quite differently. Who’s to say they wouldn’t? That prom night could have been fabulous. Carrie could have been Matilda for the Cosmo Girls.
Piper Laurie was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for her performance (Sissy Spacek was also nominated for an Oscar) and would go on to win a Golden Globe for playing another of my favourite villains, Catherine Martell in Twin Peaks. It’s worth noting that my own mother allowed me to watch Carrie while home sick from school at the age of eleven. She is a very relaxed and cool and approachable mum; the only thing she has in common with Margaret White is their similarly epic temper tantrums. And I turned out just fine! I just watch a lot of horror movies.
Mothers don’t get a very good time of it in most Disney animated films. They’re usually dead (Cinderella, Snow White, Lilo and Stitch, Frozen), absent and presumably dead (Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast) or estranged from their offspring for some reason. Because their kids have been stolen by a fur-obsessed lunatic or they’ve been imprisoned for being a mad elephant or their child has been locked in a tower for the last eighteen years because of her magic hair. It’s definitely not easy being a Disney mum.
Step-mothers don’t fare terribly well either. I doubt many of them get cards on Mother’s Day. We don’t see much interaction between Snow White and her stepmother but, you know, the Queen does try to murder Snow White on several occasions and that’s rarely a good sign in a relationship. Cinderella’s stepmother really seems to be struggling with the whole ‘blended family’ situation as well. The relationship between Rapunzel and Mother Gothel in Tangled is quite an interesting one. I mean, sure, she’s manipulative and emotionally abusive and overbearing. And, well, evil. But, you know, loads of people have mothers like that. I felt a bit bad that she was offed quite so summarily at the end of the film. She’d raised Rapunzel for the last eighteen years! I think if we had seen the intervening years where Mother Gothel was potty-training Rapunzel and teaching how to talk, she might have come across a bit more sympathetically. Although still evil, obviously.
In fact the only example of a non-biological mother making an excellent job of parenting I can think of is Kala, Tarzan’s adopted Gorilla mum. So maybe humans are the problem here.
As for positive examples of biological mums in Disney movies, there aren’t many but there are a few. Tiana’s mum in The Princess and the Frog seems pretty nice. And Merida’s mum in Brave is a paragon of understanding and forgiveness given what her daughter puts her through. I would have been a lot more pissed off with the little idiot. Duchess in The Aristocats does an admirable job of raising her three kids which is never easy when you’re a single parent and there’s an evil butler trying to kill you all. She even manages to find herself some romance along the way which is great. Because just because you’re a mother, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to enjoy some red-hot kitty sex from time-to-time. Which, by coincidence, is the exact same thing I wrote my own mum’s Mother’s Day card this year.
Mary (Dee Wallace) in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
I was almost exactly the same age as Henry Thomas’ Elliott when I saw E.T. and, like Elliott, I didn’t pay all that much attention to his mother at the time. It’s only now, thirty-three years later, that I really appreciate both Dee Wallace’s warm-hearted performance as Mary and just how great a mother she was. First of all, she lets Elliott sit out in the back garden all night with a blanket, a torch and a handful of M&Ms. Secondly, she dresses up as a sexy cat-lady for Halloween. And thirdly, though her first instinct is to protect Elliott when she finally sees E.T. (who, to be fair, is making Elliott very ill at that point), she understands the extraordinary bond of love between them. The shot of her and Elliott exchanging meaningful glances as he tearfully hugs E.T. goodbye reduces me to tears just as much as every other moment in the final act – it’s a powerful, emotion-filled look that says everything about understanding, love and acceptance. Basically, she’s exactly the mother you would want.
There’s also a heart-breaking realism to Wallace’s performance – she’s a frazzled, hard working single mother, recently either divorced or abandoned by her husband (who’s in Mexico with Sally) and she’s obviously keeping a great deal of her pain from her three children, as evidenced in her reactions in the opening scenes. Incidentally, Dee Wallace has claimed in interviews that she believes Mary was the first single mother in a major feature film back then. Hollywood had shown us single mothers before, in Mildred Pierce. But single mothers in mainstream family films were still rare.
Since it’s easily Wallace’s most high profile role, it’s almost like she exists on film solely as that character.
That’s how I see her, anyway.
Miu Chui-fa (Josephine Siao) in Fong Sai-yuk
Spank the Monkey
When I eventually write my paper on gender representations in Hong Kong cinema – working title, Chow Yun-fat Is A Feminist Issue – there will, obviously, be discussion of how women are naturally expected to completely hold their own against men in the action scenes. But I’ll also mention the long-standing tradition of stories where women disguise themselves as men, only to run into romantic misunderstandings that cross the traditional gender roles. Put all that together, and it’s inevitable that a film exists where Jet Li’s mum not only helps him out in fights when he’s losing, but also nearly shags his mother-in-law.
Fong Sai-yuk (released as The Legend in the US) is, if you ignore the insurrectionist subplot, more or less a Qing Dynasty romcom. Rich scumbag Tiger Lui has decided to marry off his daughter Ting-ting, and offers her hand to any man who can beat Mrs Lui in a fight. This isn’t quite as grotesque as it sounds, as Lui Siu-wan is played by Sibelle Hu, who is hard as nails. Fong Sai-yuk (Jet Li) comes closest, but takes a dive at the last minute for sexist reasons. Sai-yuk’s mother, Miu Chui-fa (Josephine Siao), is outraged that her son has besmirched the family honour. She puts on a hat and trousers – that’s all you need to do to look like a man, apparently – calls herself Fong Tai-yuk, joins the queue to fight Siu-wan, and wins. So she now has to marry Ting-ting. Even worse, Tiger Lui’s wife has developed a major post-scrap crush on Fong Tai-yuk.
As a kung fu film, this is very much of its time (1993) – the fights are huge, wirework-enabled affairs that are more like three-dimensional geometry problems than depictions of violence – but the character of Chui-fa is what lifts it above the norm. Josephine Siao has to portray a crazy set of emotions here, and the uncertainty of the film’s tone pitches over into her performance: sometimes deadly serious, sometimes cartoonishly goofy. But she’s always on Sai-yuk’s side, in a way that his frequently absent father never is. She’s a good mother in the most traditional sense, especially in a late scene when she waves Sai-yuk off into his final battle. “Take care. Take a horse, it’s better than walking on foot. Beware of catching cold. Take some food.”
It’s a scene that’s played as if that’ll be the last we see of her. But in the middle of that final battle, Chui-fa charges through on a horse, waving a sword, yelling “Sai-yuk! Mom is here to save you!” This would be the perfect image of motherhood to use as a screengrab here, except that most of the time in this sequence it’s obvious that Siao is being doubled by a man in drag. Still, as she hacks her way through dozens of soldiers yelling “Go to hell! Why don’t you die?”, it’s the perfect transformation from good mother to Bad Mother.
Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford)
Joan Crawford’s Oscar moment (ironically, perhaps) was Mildred Pierce, the story of a woman who sacrifices everything for her vicious, ungrateful daughter. The film almost definitely contributed to Crawford’s public image as the hardworking single mother, but once again we’re talking about what lies beneath the surface.
Mildred breezily ejects her unemployed husband from the family home and sets about earning her own living, first hiding her waitressing job from her aspirational daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) and eventually building her own successful business. But this is 1945 and it’s time for the post-war consensus. Time to get women out of their jobs and back into the kitchen. The film suggests that Mildred’s children are doomed from the moment their father walks out of the door. I’m not quite sure what Mildred is supposed to do about earning a living once her husband is gone, but her ambitions outside the home lie at the root of her downfall. She loses her younger daughter on an access trip with her ex-husband. Her elder daughter lacks appropriate boundaries and starts flirting with her stepfather – and all, the subtext suggests, because she wasn’t doing her job properly.
Perhaps this is why Joan Crawford the actress felt that she had to adopt some children: to prove that, despite the divorces and the affairs, her mothering skills were as good as anybody’s. But she could only do that by magicking up a new orphan whenever her career looked in peril and making them into cases, not people. In order to prove to her fans, to her bosses, to Hollywood, that she was in fact a ‘proper’ woman, Crawford had to demonstrate that she could be a mother.