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Best & worst movie moms (mothers)


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I spent some time recently reviewing some online lists of best / favorite movie moms, and gadzooks, the list is thinner than you might think. At least, if you're looking, as I am at the moment, for a) affirmative depictions of b.) admirable mothers c) in onscreen mother-child relationships (ideally though not necessarily d) in intact families of some sort or other).

As you'd expect, one character who crops up in practically every list is Elastigirl from The Incredibles. Really, she is super awesome. I mean.

After that, hm.

Another character in practically every list is Linda Hamilton from Terminator 2. Really? I mean, yeah, if you happen to be the locus of an apocalyptic temporal war, you could do worse than to have Sarah Connor on your side. But it's not exactly the sort of mother-son relationship I'd hope for. What you really mean is she's a kick-ass female protagonist with a key relationship that happens to be a mother-child relationship, and disses men as the creators of weapons who don't know what it's like to have life growing inside you, right? I thought so.

I'd be more likely to go for Sigourney Weaver as a surrogate mother figure in Aliens, but again, no.

More frequently nominated moms and other candidates (with parenthetical comments on the likelihood of their inclusion in my eventual list):

  • Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. (Almost certainly. A stepmother, of course, but a really good one.)
  • Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side. (Probably.)
  • Cher in Mask. (No.)
  • Patricia Clarkson in Easy A. (No.)
  • Toni Colette in The Sixth Sense. (Almost.)
  • Beverly D'Angelo in European Vacation. (No.)
  • Melinda Dillon in A Christmas Story. (Dunno. Haven't seen it recently enough.)
  • Sally Field from Forrest Gump. (No. Teaching your son that life is like a box of chocolates and putting out for the icky principal so the boy can get an education, if your boy is Forrest Gump and you happen to be in the rather nihilistic world of this film, may be the best you can do. But still.)
  • Rachel Griffiths in The Rookie. (Maybe, but it'd be settling.)
  • Angelina Jolie in Changeling. (No, per onscreen mother-child relationship criterion.)
  • Mrs. Jumbo from Dumbo. (No. Very devoted and loving, yes, and fierce in the face of her child's suffering. Still, pretty one-dimensional. I'd be more likely to go for Bambi's mother, who's at least shown educating her son. But prolly not.)
  • Catherine Keener in Where the Wild Things Are. (What was anyone thinking?)
  • Francis MacDormand in Almost Famous. (Not sure I ever saw the whole thing.)
  • Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment. (No.)
  • Ellen Page in Juno. (Um, no.)
  • Donna Reed in It's a Wonderful Life. (No, per per onscreen mother-child relationship criterion. One of the best movie wives ever, and I'm sure she's an awesome mother, but it's not a significant theme in the film.)
  • Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich. (No.)
  • Meryl Streep in Mama Mia! (No.)
  • Emma Thompson in Brave. (No. One of the best mother-daughter relationships in Hollywood animation, albeit the good stuff is all when Elinor is a bear. Still, that would be a maybe at best -- and I'm not putting two Pixar moms in the same short list.)
  • Julie Walters (Molly Weasley) in the Harry Potter films. (Maybe.)

Good grief, this list is heavy with popular Hollywood films. I've seen plenty of foreign and indie films; why am I not coming up with candidates outside the mainstream?

Thoughts, suggestions, comments etc. welcome.

Edited by SDG

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

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Bin Won in Boon-Ho Jong's Mother (this would be close to the top of my list.)

Isabelle Huppert in Time of the Wolf (a stretch)

Jessica Chastain in Take Shelter (the mother part isn't really the focus of her character, though.) You could add her character in The Tree of Life, I suppose.

It's the side effects that save us.
--The National, "Graceless"
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This is a hard list to come up with good candidates, but here's what I can think of:

Beulah Bondi in Make Way For Tomorrow (positive mother portrayal, even if her children are rotten)

Diane Wiest in Edward Scissorhands (I think she's the most positive mother portrayal that I can come up with)

Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast (is her character too small?)

Jacki Weaver in Silver Linings Playbook (cares for her family and tries to help all of them)

Shelley Duvall in The Shining (that might be too subversive, but she deeply cares for her entire family)

Katherine Hepburn in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (mabye too contrarian, but a pretty good mother)

Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver (haven't seen it in a while, but I recall her being a very good mother)

Sarabi in The Lion King (she's really too passive and has too little screen time, but I'm struggling)

All the mothers in Babies (a big stretch)

But if someone suggested Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia! (two and a half hours of my life that I want back soooo badly) nearly any movie mother could be considered. Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins is a better mother by leaps and bounds than Streep in Mamma Mia!

Edited by Evan C

"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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I just watched A Wrinkle in Time (A TV movie) and I thought that mother (Sarah-Jane Redmond) was both affirmative and admirable.

Jodie Foster in Little Man Tate (admirably defends her son without apology)

...the kind of film criticism we do. We are talking about life, and more than that the possibility of abundant life." -M.Leary

"Dad, how does she move in mysterious ways?"" -- Jude (my 5-year-old, after listening to Mysterious Ways)

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"Mrs. Bates" (Psycho), Ann Sothern in The Killing Kind, Faye Dunaway in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=287_bhb_ok4.

Sorry, SDG. Let me try again.

Jane Alexander in Testament.

Done.

Edited by Nathaniel

"A great film is one that to some degree frees the viewer from this passive stupor and engages him or her in a creative process of viewing. The dynamic must be two-way. The great film not only comes at the viewer, it draws the viewer toward it." -Paul Schrader

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Thanks for suggestions so far, all. Any others?

Bin Won in Boon-Ho Jong's Mother (this would be close to the top of my list.)

Started this but never finished it. Is the actual mother/son relationship a significant theme?

Jessica Chastain in Take Shelter (the mother part isn't really the focus of her character, though.) You could add her character in The Tree of Life, I suppose.

I could, if she were more of a character and less of an archetype.

Diane Wiest in Edward Scissorhands (I think she's the most positive mother portrayal that I can come up with)

Anyone second this? I may have to watch Edward Scissorhands tonight.

Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast (is her character too small?)

Not necessarily, but her relationship with Chip isn't very important.

Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver (haven't seen it in a while, but I recall her being a very good mother)

She's a great character, but she's actually more interesting as a mother-in-law than a mother.

Sarabi in The Lion King (she's really too passive and has too little screen time, but I'm struggling)

Way too passive, yep.

Jane Alexander in Testament.

Interesting. Anyone second this?

To clarify: are you looking specifically for mothers of young children? I assume so, or else someone would have mentioned The Darjeeling Limited.

Not necessarily mothers of young children, no.

Any other suggestions, anyone?

Edited by SDG

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

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Any other suggestions, anyone?

Depending on how adventurous you're feeling, Joan Bennett in The Reckless Moment.

"A great film is one that to some degree frees the viewer from this passive stupor and engages him or her in a creative process of viewing. The dynamic must be two-way. The great film not only comes at the viewer, it draws the viewer toward it." -Paul Schrader

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might be a stretch, and I've only seen the American remake, but Jennifer Connelly in Dark Water. Of course my wife hates this movie, so there might be something I'm missing about the choices she makes in the movie.

"The truth is you're the weak, and I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin Ringo, I'm tryin real hard to be the shepherd." Pulp Fiction

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How about Rachel Cooper in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER? She's a surrogate mother, rather than a biological mother, so that may disqualify her. Nevertheless, she's one of the best movie mothers I can recall.

Diane Wiest in Edward Scissorhands (I think she's the most positive mother portrayal that I can come up with)

Anyone second this? I may have to watch Edward Scissorhands tonight.

You haven't seen it before?

Dianne Wiest's character in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS is certainly a very good-intentioned, warm-hearted movie mom. The film sometimes pokes fun at how she can be a bit clueless, but her essential goodness is never in doubt.

Edited by Ryan H.
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Bin Won in Boon-Ho Jong's Mother (this would be close to the top of my list.)

Started this but never finished it. Is the actual mother/son relationship a significant theme?

Depends how you look at it, I guess. The son has an intellectual disability and depends on his mother to do a lot for him, though he is somewhat rebellious. He gets accused of a murder and is arrested; the movie then becomes the mother's quest to prove her son's innocence. They're separated for a lot of the movie, but her love for her son is the overriding theme.

It's the side effects that save us.
--The National, "Graceless"
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Dianne Wiest's character in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS is certainly a very good-intentioned, warm-hearted movie mom. The film sometimes pokes fun at how she can be a bit clueless, but her essential goodness is never in doubt.

I would just emphasize that the film never paints her in a negative light, and she's probably the most virtuous/heroic/selfless character in the film (other than Edward)

Possibly Sandra Bullock in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, for the film's flaws, she was a pretty good example of an onscreen mother.

Edited by Evan C

"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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Kee in Children of Men. (Okay, not an intact family, I guess.)

That young woman who had a baby in The Nativity Story seems somewhat admirable to me.

Ruth Sheen as Gerri in Another Year. Her child is grown, but we do see that she has a good relationship with him, if I recall.

Edited by Overstreet

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Lillian Gilbreath (Myrna Loy) in the 1950 Cheaper by the Dozen. Unflappable mother of 12 and (though the film doesn't emphasize this much) partnered with her husband as industrial psychologists/engineers.

A comment on Jeffrey Overstreet's FB post mentioned Edna Spalding (Sally Field) in Places in the Heart--she seems admirable before her husband is killed, but when she faces trials as a widowed mother, adversity truly brings out her virtues.

Edited by BethR

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Wow. This is a great subject. I've been wracking my brain all day to come up with something - I feel there is an example on the tip of my tongue that just can't break its way through. Maybe I have a "Platonic archetype" in mind... When I try to run through films, I just can't think of one that actually is what I'm thinking of.

I love Elastigirl from The Incredibles. And I actually really like Sigourney Weaver from Aliens as an example (I think this is the best example of an adoptive mother of any nominations I've seen so far - at least of films I have seen - and I'm kind of shocked by that).

"It's a dangerous business going out your front door." -- J.R.R. Tolkien
"I want to believe in art-induced epiphanies." -- Josie
"I would never be dismissive of pop entertainment; it's much too serious a matter for that." -- NBooth

"If apologetics could prove God, I would lose all faith in Him." -- Josie

"What if--just what if--the very act of storytelling is itself redemptive? What if gathering up the scraps and fragments of a disordered life and binding them between the pages of a book in all of their fragmentary disorder is itself a gambit against that disorder?" -- NBooth

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  • Toni Colette in The Sixth Sense. (Almost.)

Although the lesser film, if this is being thrown out, I'd actually say Nicole Kidman in The Others is a better example.

"It's a dangerous business going out your front door." -- J.R.R. Tolkien
"I want to believe in art-induced epiphanies." -- Josie
"I would never be dismissive of pop entertainment; it's much too serious a matter for that." -- NBooth

"If apologetics could prove God, I would lose all faith in Him." -- Josie

"What if--just what if--the very act of storytelling is itself redemptive? What if gathering up the scraps and fragments of a disordered life and binding them between the pages of a book in all of their fragmentary disorder is itself a gambit against that disorder?" -- NBooth

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Steven, a lot of suggestions are coming in on my Facebook page, where I repeated your conditions. And, well... don't get your hopes up. Some of the suggestions there are pretty awful.

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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SDG, would you consider making a list of bad movie moms instead? We might have an easier time of that.

Edit: Some more long shots:

Citizen Kane

Gone With the Wind

My Fair Lady/Pygmalion

Gigi (no literal mothers in that, but close enough? don't even answer that)

the 1957 Cinderella

The Exorcist and/or other mother-centered horror films that I haven't seen, like Rosemary's Baby

Home Alone

Toy Story 3

Where the Wild Things Are

Edited by Rushmore
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SDG, would you consider making a list of bad movie moms instead? We might have an easier time of that.

Oh sure. We can come up with a ton of great examples. And probably narrow it down to a really great best-of list. Best moms, though? I'm fascinated by the lack of good examples. Seriously. Faith-based examples or not, given the deficiency of examples so far, I'm shocked.

"It's a dangerous business going out your front door." -- J.R.R. Tolkien
"I want to believe in art-induced epiphanies." -- Josie
"I would never be dismissive of pop entertainment; it's much too serious a matter for that." -- NBooth

"If apologetics could prove God, I would lose all faith in Him." -- Josie

"What if--just what if--the very act of storytelling is itself redemptive? What if gathering up the scraps and fragments of a disordered life and binding them between the pages of a book in all of their fragmentary disorder is itself a gambit against that disorder?" -- NBooth

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