By Alan Hurst
A cinephile’s dream: programming your own film festival. We’ve given ourselves a bit of a challenge here at Foote and Friends on Film to start a series of articles where we each get to program our own film festival, maybe even a few. The theme of the festival, the number of films, the order of the screenings, are all up to the writer. The project is way to dig a little deeper into the impact of these films and juxtapose a film with another film that, on the surface, may not be similar but there may be a common thread or two.
To kick things off we’re looking at movie moms. Not the idealized, self-sacrificing mothers as represented by Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver (1942) but moms that are more complex, more conflicted, more realistic and definitely more interesting. Mothers with an Edge. All the mothers here provided the actresses who played them with a terrific opportunity – in many cases they represented the best film roles of their career.
Day One: The Misguided Mother featuring Now, Voyager (1942) and Mildred Pierce (1945)
Now, Voyager: Based on a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, Now, Voyager tells the story of the Vales, a well-positioned Boston family, and the youngest daughter, Charlotte (Bette Davis). Charlotte is a nervous, awkward, and plain woman who is in the throes of a nervous breakdown thanks to her domineering and unforgiving mother (a wonderful Gladys Cooper) who is convinced she is doing the right thing in her treatment of Charlotte. After spending time in a New England sanatorium under the attentive care of a doctor (Claude Rains), Charlotte heads off to South American on a cruise – and of course, she has lost weight, discovered make-up, hair stylists and a chic wardrobe. She meets a married architect on the boat (Paul Henreid) and falls in love before returning home … to mother. Actress Gladys George performs something of a miracle here – she makes the opinionated, rigid mother something very real. She never lets her daughter forget she was born late and not wanted and has therefore pushed her into a subservient role because, as she sees it, that’s how it should be. But as nasty as the character is at the beginning of the film, you never really hate her. You can see that this is a woman who expects duty above all else from her daughter and, as Charlotte develops her own will, the elder Mrs. Vale softens – just a bit – and you can see the real person behind the crust.
Mildred Pierce: When Joan Crawford screams at her daughter midway through the film, screeching her name in shock (“Veda!) as she realizes what a venal, spoiled brat she’s raised, everyone watching in the audience is 100% on her side. And when she caps off the confrontation by kicking her out of the house, we’re thrilled. Even more thrilled than when Mildred gave her a deserved slap earlier in the film. But it doesn’t last. Crawford’s Mildred is too guilt ridden to keep her daughter out of her life for long and ends up making some disastrous decisions to get the money to spoil her daughter even more. 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 creatures in movie history. Director Michael Curtiz worked well with Crawford, getting her to scale back her normal tendencies as an actress. It’s a surprisingly natural performance in heightened surroundings.
Day Two: The Self-Involved Mother featuring Imitation of Life (1959) and Postcards from the Edge (1990)
Imitation of Life: One of director Douglas Sirk’s best films, Imitation of Life is a classic of his signature melodramatic style. The film highlights class and racial inequities in the fifties – with two problematic mother-daughter relationships at its core. Imitation of Life is the story of two single mothers and their daughters – one white (Lana Turner and Sandra Dee) and one black (Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner). Turner and Dee struggle with estrangement when Turner’s character becomes a successful stage actress. Moore and Kohner’s story is more serious as Kohner struggles with her African-American identity. No surprise, Turner is definitely the self-involved mother of the two moms, pursuing romance and career at the expense of her daughter, upon whom she showers money and things, but not attention. All four of the principles are good and Turner is at her movie star best here – glamorous, emotional, and disturbingly unaware. (Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, has said this film hit a little too close to home at the time).
Postcards from the Edge: 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 – expertly directed by Mike Nichols – is one of the best films ever made about Hollywood – sharp, funny, and accurate. It’s the film version of Carrie Fisher’s best selling novel, which she adapted for the screen. It chronicles the recovery from an overdose of the lead character, Suzanne (the substitute Carrie). 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 and the nagging need for attention that entails. MacLaine is the more colorful and eccentric of the two, and her performance 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 between the two actresses is classic, with MacLaine screaming that her dress twirling up at her daughter’s 16th birthday party was purely accidental … and Streep subtly reminding her she wasn’t wearing underwear.
Day Three: The Withholding Mother featuring Ordinary People (1980) and Mother (1996)
Ordinary People: When it was announced that Redford had decided to cast Mary Tyler Moore as the cold, detached mother in his film adaptation of Ordinary People, people questioned her suitability and Redford’s rationale. He said in an interview that he saw Moore walking on the beach in Malibu and saw something a little darker and more introspective than her television personae had ever revealed. He wisely trusted his instincts. She dug deep behind her famous smile and showed us a mother for whom appearances are everything and emotions are to be buried. It’s a role that could very easily have come across as one dimensional, but Moore and Redford gave her depth without making her evil or completely unsympathetic. They could have turned the character into the villain of the film, but they don’t. Moore doesn’t have a lot of scenes in the film, but her every appearance is major. If Timothy Hutton as her son is the film’s focus, Moore is its catalyst. The way she communicates her inability to connect with her son or show any affection or approval is sobering – whether it’s the way her neck tendons flare when he turns down breakfast, or a tense exchange in the backyard trying to make small talk, or the way she shuts her husband (Donald Sutherland) down when he suggests the family get some help, she’s both a little sad and also frightening in her rigidity.
Mother: Debbie Reynolds got her own shot at creating a fun and flawed mom in this very funny and incisively written Albert Brooks film, one of the great comedies of the nineties. Brooks plays a newly divorced writer who determines that if he ever wants to have a successful relationship with a women, 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, subtly but assuredly withholding her approval of a son who is trying so desperately to win her over. The actress wisely stayed away from taking the character over-the-top, which she had tendency to do in the past. This is a very smart, realistic piece of work.
Day Four: The Conniving Mother featuring White Heat (1949) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
White Heat: This classic crime drama is probably best known for the blistering lead performance by James Cagney as Cody, the headache prone, mother-fixated ringleader of a group of criminals. When Cody lands in jail after a botched train robbery, the authorities plant an agent (Edmond O’Brien) in jail with him to gain his trust and get information. While in jail, Cody’s mother (Margaret Wycherly) dies, leading to one of the biggest onscreen meltdowns in film history. He eventually breaks out of jail, taking Hank with him as part of the gang. Cody and gang then plan a payroll heist that ultimately leads to their doom. Directed by Raoul Walsh, who was responsible for a number of Warner Brothers classics during the period, White Heat is a tough, exciting and tense drama with a creepy exploration of mother/son love. Margaret Wycherly is superb as Cody’s mother. She gave the character an eerie, steely calm that showed she ultimately controlled her son, she was the brains behind the operation, and she was the only one who could console him. It’s a wonderful performance. That connection between mother and son gave the film its explosive (literally) final line: we see Cagney at the top of a gas storage tank before after being shot several times – Cody fires at the tank which then bursts into flames and he shouts, “Made it Ma. Top of the world!”
The Manchurian Candidate: John Frankenheimer’s adaptation of Richard Condon’s novel “The Manchurian Candidate” is an exciting political thriller, a strong indictment of McCarthy era communist paranoia, and it’s also a disturbingly layered look at a mother and son relationship that is among the most fascinating in movie history. Angela Lansbury plays the mother and Laurence Harvey the son. The film tells the story of Korean war vet Raymond Shaw (Harvey) who, when his troop is captured, is brainwashed to eventually become a political assassin. Years later when Shaw and a fellow POW (Frank Sinatra) meet, the plot is slowly uncovered. Shaw is ultimately controlled by this mother who, with Harvey’s stepfather, are part of a prominent political family working secretly with China and Russia to overthrow the American government. Heady stuff, but the movie is quick moving, suspenseful, one of the best films of the decade – and still unfortunately relevant. Lansbury is excellent as the mother – clearly the political brains of the family – exuding cool and calculating evil with every line of dialogue. The scene where she explains everything to her son is frightening because of the complexity of the plan, but also because of a kiss she gives her son – on the lips – that lasts just a little too long. Freud would have had a field day with these two.
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.