By Alan Hurst
Movie moms tend to fall into three categories. You have the self-sacrificing, almost saintly mothers as epitomized by Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver (1942), Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama (1948), and step mom Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965). Then there are the dark, edgy creations like Margaret Wycherly as James Cagney’s mom in White Heat (1959), Shelley Winters abusing her blind daughter in A Patch of Blue (1965), and Angela Lansbury’s manipulative political mother in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). I’m picking five moms from the middle – flawed, fascinating, but doing the best they can. You know, just like most moms.
Mildred Pierce (1945)
This is the big one in Joan Crawford’s career, as she moved from MGM to Warner Brothers. One of the best films of the decade, it’s an engrossing, tense and sometimes humorous melodrama that gets better with each viewing. Crawford plays the lead character and the film focuses on Mildred’s drive to provide the best for her daughters. At the beginning of the film she has two daughters, but one dies (the mourning period is surprisingly brief) and then it becomes all about her other daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth). Although sidetracked by a shady boyfriend and her desire to make money to give Veda everything she wants, Mildred is not a bad person but she does make some really bad decisions. And Veda – expertly played by Blyth – is one of the nastiest, most spoiled daughters in movie history. When Mildred finally slaps her, it’s such a relief. The film is expertly cast and performed right down the line and it’s one of Crawford’s best performances. Michael Curtiz achieved a small miracle here in getting Crawford to scale it back – it’s a surprisingly natural performance in heightened surroundings. It’s also a terrific looking film – beautiful and moody photography and perfect sets. Warner Brothers pulled all the stops out for this one and it shows.
Peyton Place (1957)
This was a big one for Lana Turner, coming after a few years of lacklustre films where you could see she was bored, miscast – or both. The film is based on the popular and, for the time, shocking novel about life in a small New England town. It’s set in the early forties but feels very much like the Eisenhower fifties. The town is all picture perfect on the surface, but barely hiding the more interesting things going on behind closed doors – adultery, single parenthood, abuse, teenage sex, alcoholism, murder. It’s all there amidst the most beautiful images of New England. This isn’t a great film, but it’s entertaining and Turner is very good as the secretive mother of a teenage daughter who aspires to leave Peyton Place to be a writer. Turner had a tendency to be overly emotional onscreen, but this time she plays everything closed and uptight and it makes her more interesting. The mother-daughter friction between Turner and Diane Varsi is even more fascinating to watch today, knowing Turner’s backstory. Cheryl Crane, Turner’s real-life daughter, has said that watching this and Imitation of Life (1959) was like watching a home movie. Turner got her only Oscar nomination for Peyton Place, but didn’t win.
Yours, Mine and Ours (1968)
God help it, this is the film that helped give inspiration to TV’s The Brady Bunch (1969-74). It’s about a widow (Lucille Ball) with eight kids who meets and falls in love with a widower (Henry Fonda) with 10 and they decide to marry and bring their broods together. That decision alone qualifies both as not-so-perfect. How could 18 kids in one house even begin to seem like a sane decision? And, of course, by the end of the film – and to ensure the title makes sense – there are 19. The film is at times very funny, but it’s also an overly sanitized look at family dynamics despite having been based on a true story. The conflicts and problems that arise are all very predictable, but there is still something very comforting watching it all play out. Ball gets the film’s funniest scene. When Lucy’s character goes to meet Henry’s kids for the first time, they try to get her drunk by spiking her “light” screwdriver with vodka, scotch and gin. She gets hammered, tries to pretend she isn’t, and dinner is a disaster – but it’s also hysterically funny. Lucy switching from tears to laughter to tears and then back again as she’s trying to figure out what’s happening is perfection.
Postcards from the Edge (1990)
Shirley MacLaine’s work in Terms of Endearment (1983) definitely deserves a place among the great, flawed movie moms but I’m just as partial to her work in Postcards from the Edge where she’s plays a fictionalized version of movie star Debbie Reynolds to Meryl Streep’s fictionalized Carrie Fisher. The film – nicely directed by Mike Nichols – is one of the best films ever made about Hollywood – sharp, funny, incisive. It’s the film version of Carrie Fisher’s top achievement as a writer, which she adapted from her own best seller. It chronicles the recovery from an overdose of Fisher’s character. The film spends less time in the rehab facility than the novel does, but that allows for a laser focus on the relationship between the mother and daughter played by MacLaine and Streep, both playing actresses. MacLaine is both tragic and a hoot as she tries to navigate and help her daughter, all the while barely hiding her own dependence on alcohol to get through the day. A confrontation scene on the stairs of between the two actresses is classic.
Debbie Reynolds got her own shot at creating a fun and flawed mom in this very funny and superbly written Albert Brooks film, one of the great comedies of the nineties. Brooks plays a newly divorced writer who decides that in order to have a successful relationship with a woman, he needs to resolve the antagonistic relationship he has with his mother (Debbie Reynolds). So, he moves back home with her, turning his bedroom back to 1968, complete with a Barbarella poster on the wall. And then the conflict and comedy go into high gear. Reynolds had not had lead role in a feature film for 25 years, but with the wonderful character Brooks created she delivered the best work of her career – a sly, funny, steely performance as the ultimate passive aggressive mother. And Reynolds wisely stayed away from taking the character over-the-top (which she had tended to do in the past). This is a very smart, realistic piece of work.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.