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Significant mothers: 10 memorable movie mums

BY Katie McCabe

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

Significant mothers: 10 memorable movie mums

Guilt, sacrifice, and fraught cultural stereotypes: they’re all there for the taking. Has there ever been a more perfect narrative vehicle for screenwriters than 'the mother'?

Angela Lansbury, The Manchurian Candidate

The elegant villainy of Mrs. Eleanor Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate is a world away from the Angela Lansbury of Murder She Wrote.

As we watch Iselin brainwash her own son and demand that he “shoot the presidential nominee through the head”, our brains can't help but scream, "Jessica Fletcher, what are you doing?!"

But Lansbury is near-perfect as the plotting communist Iselin, a woman determined to place her Mcarthy-esque husband in office so that she can pull the political strings.

When she issues Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) his assassination orders, Lansbury's chilling performance is a welcome reminder that she could take Bette Davis or Bacall on their best day.

The fact that Lansbury was just 37 when playing femme fatal mother of a 35-year-old Laurence Harvey is just another example of Hollywood's ridiculous age politics, but makes it all the more impressive that she managed to pull it off.


Kim Hye-Ja, Mother

Kim Hye-Ja, Mother
Image via Alt Film Guide

How many films can you name where a badass middle-aged woman gets the majority of the screen time?

In this oddball Korean thriller Kim Hye-Ja plays the put-upon mother of a young man with a learning disability who is prone to unpredictable fits of rage.

When he is accused of murdering a local schoolgirl, Hye-Ja's character will do anything to clear his name, regardless of innocence or guilt.

Before Mother, director Bong Joon-Ho directed smash-hit monster flick The Host about a giant parasite, one of the highest grossing films in South Korean history.

In the beautiful opening sequence, we see 'mother' dancing alone in a misty field, ill at ease, close to tears, as though someone is forcefully choreographing her every move.

It's a film about the inevitable pain of motherhood, a mood that Hye-Ja captures with grace.



Lillian Gish, The Night of the Hunter

Themes of mothering and childhood are woven through The Night of the Hunter like a carefully-constructed Moses basket.

It's a Biblical story of two children—Pearl and John—under threat from the insidious Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum).

Rachel Cooper (played by Lillian Gish) is their saviour; a righteous older woman who takes in the 'little ones' cast out by the Great Depression. As she walks, her children walk behind her in duckling single-file.

When Powell comes to claim Pearl and John, Gish guards the whole brood from a rocking chair, armed with an enormous rifle that further shrinks her tiny frame.

A star of the silent film era, this was one of Gish's most significant speaking roles.



Anjelica Huston, The Grifters

The Grifters
Image via Fanpop

Nobody made the 1990s look as stylish as Anjelica Huston's chain-smoking, cash swindling character Lily in The Grifters.

The film's legacy has faded a little with the passing decades, but the image of Huston, statuesque in her heels, with an electric shock of white hair beneath her head scarf is unforgettable.

A veteran con artist, Lily's toughness softens only around her son Roy (John Cusack). He's a fellow scammer and she hasn't seen him in eight years. When she has to call an ambulance to save Roy from internal bleeding, she tells the medic; “if my son dies, I'll have you killed”.

The psychological and actual physical violence in the film hits harder than expected; those who have witnessed the 'cigar burn' scene won't be forgetting it anytime soon.



Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Image via Universal

“There are still great roles for women over 40, as long as you get hired when you're under 40,” joked Tina Fey about Patricia Arquette's performance in Boyhood, a film that was 12 years in the making, allowing its characters to age before our eyes.

The most realistic part, however, was not the sense of passing time but Arquette's portrayal of single-mother, Olivia.

We watch her carry the burden of parenthood alone, with musician dad (Ethan Hawke) swooping in at intervals with philosophical advice and bespoke Beatles CDs to remind the kids just who the cool parent is.

Meanwhile, Olivia puts herself through school, becomes a psychology professor, escapes an abusive marriage and somehow raises two children in the midst of it all.

Boyhood is an incredible cinematic feat, but it's also a much-needed study of the unfair expectations placed on single mothers. The boy is the star, but like so many mothers, Olivia is both the heart and backbone of the story.



Sally Field, Steel Magnolias

Steel Magnolias
Image via TriStar

It's a bit broad to say an actress could be 'typecast' as a mother, but whenever there's a role for an anxious mum in a pastel twin-set, it's fair to suspect Sally Field could be top of the casting list.

Mrs Doubtfire, Forrest Gump, Places in the Heart… Field has fake-raised half of Hollywood by this point.

In Steel Magnolias, a movie so 80s it's still a threat to the ozone layer, we see Fields in full worried-mother mode as M’Lynn Eatenton. The film is about one liners, big hair, female friendships, and eventually, loss.

Field has one particularly unexpected and painfully honest outpouring of grief that shows us why Steel Magnolias is more than a manipulative tearjerker.



Bjork, Dancer in the Dark

If the title reminds you of Bruce Springsteen's upbeat 1984 hit, you'll be bitterly disappointed. In Bjork's devastating film debut Dancer in the Dark, there is no happiness to be found.

Bjork plays Selma, a punch-press operator who is slowly losing her sight and wants to earn money for an operation to save her son from going blind too.

The only respite from the despair is found in fantasy—spontaneous musical numbers with Selma in the starring role.

We watch frustrated as she places her faith in the wrong person, and makes sacrifices for her son that grow more severe with each scene.

Lars Von Trier's film is a profoundly sad take on a mother's instinct to protect her child.



Angela Bassett, Boyz N the Hood

Boyz N the Hood
Image via Columbia

Angela Bassett’s glorious shoulder pads and formidable persona command the screen in the precious few moments she appears as Reva Styles.

When a teacher calls to suggest her son might need a child psychologist, and ask if she is employed, Reva smacks the nonsense down: “I am employed and studying for my Masters Degree, are we going to talk about me or my son?”

John Singleton was nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards for this film.



Divine, Hairspray

Divine Hairspray
Image via Clinton Street

Hairspray is a wondrous, grotesque, powder-puff appreciation of early 60s innocence. In its own warped way it celebrates a time before Vietnam, when a teenager's biggest concern was how to perfect the 'mash potato' for a TV dance competition.

It opens with infamous drag queen Divine (starring as Edna Turnblad) perspiring over an ironing board with mullet hair and a housedress to set the tone.

This was Divine's final film role, and it's a testament to her sass-drenched performance that the role of Edna has been played by a man ever since.



Holly Hunter, Raising Arizona

With Raising Arizona, the Coen brothers hit their stride. The fast diction, the proverb-filled dialogue and the humour all found its form when Ed (Holly Hunter) and H.I. (Nicolas Cage) fell in love.

When the two find they can't conceive ("Edwina's insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase") they kidnap a baby from a family of quintuplets on the basis that "they already got more than they can handle".

Holly Hunter is brilliantly neurotic as Ed, and manages to be outrageously funny whilst simultaneously dealing with the emotional fragility surrounding her character's infertility.

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