Thursday, May 8, 2014

Best Movie Moms for Mother's Day

I have a habit of bringing this one back for Mother's Day. And I haven't changed my mind since the last time, either!

Lists of movie moms inevitably include Stella Dallas, Mildred Pierce and Psycho's mom. Maybe even the over-the-top stage mother in Gypsy. Yeah, I'm not going for any of them. Instead, my idea of a movie mom is more like, well, the list below.

Best Movie Mom, Classic Category
Jane Darwell as Ma Joad
My favorite mom in the classic period of Hollywood movies is Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath. She's not the lead, but she is everything that represents home, love and stability as her family must take to the road in the wake of foreclosure, hunger, death and separation. Born Patti Woodward to a wealthy Missouri family (her dad was the president of a railroad), Darwell was not the kind of poor Okie she played in The Grapes of Wrath, but she definitely made an impact. The scene where her son, Tom Joad, played by Henry Fonda, tells her that he will be there, the everyman who stands in "Wherever you can look, wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there," is probably the most famous bit of Grapes of Wrath and Darwell is certainly the anchor in that scene. But I defy anyone not to get a little teary when Ma Joad packs up the remnants of her household, holding up a pair of earrings and looking at her reflection in the side of a metal coffee pot. As she remembers who she used to be and all that she's leaving behind, accompanied by the melancholy sound of the song "Red River Valley," Darwell looks at us, straight ahead, with a subtle yet devastating expression on her soft, worn face, and you see the whole plot, the whole punch of the movie right there. Jane Darwell won an Oscar in the Best Supporting Actress category for her performance, and she certainly deserved it.

Best Movie Mom, Funny Category
North by Northwest isn't exactly your standard comedy, but Jessie Royce Landis, who wasn't nearly old enough* to play the mother of her on-screen son, Cary Grant, is so fresh and funny playing a sardonic society mother who totally and completely has her playboy son's number, that you'll forget the Hitchcockian suspense and just smile every time she's on screen. Landis had an extensive Broadway career before and after her screen debut in At Your Service in 1930. On Broadway, she played Jo in Little Women and Hermione in The Winter's Tale, and on film, she was Grace Kelly's wise and witty mother in To Catch a Thief a few years before she played Cary's mum in North by Northwest. Clearly, she'd have been a better match for Mr. Grant than a mother, but it's all good. Jessie Royce Landis did the knowing eye-roll better than just about anybody.

Mr. Grant and Ms. Landis in North by Northwest
Best Movie Mom, Most Like a Real Mom Category
ET with Dee Wallace
I remember a friend opining that Steven Spielberg creates good movie moms. I think that's true, with none more real and warm and just all-around mom-a-riffic than Dee Wallace in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Wallace's Mary doesn't do anything special or spectacular; she just goes about her business as a caring, loving single mother to her children, Elliott (Henry Thomas) and Gertie (Drew Barrymore), even when an alien starts living in her son's closet. If I were under ten again, I'd pick this modern, lovely, regular-old mom for my family. Dee Wallace has been in a ton of horror movies, giving them the same grounded, real presence she provides in E.T. And she showed up a few years ago on The Office, once again playing a mother. (This time she was Andy Bernard's mom.)

Best Movie Mom,Cartoon Category
Elastigirl and Her Voice, Holly Hunter
Holly Hunter has done at least two memorable film moms, with her barren-but-yearning, babynapping Ed in Raising Arizona making an impact, along with her sweetly fierce Helen (AKA Elastigirl) in The Incredibles. Moms with superpowers probably deserve a category of their own, but what makes Helen stand out is how normal she is, even in her spandex suit, and how well she looks out for her kids and her husband, even in the face of assaults from supervillains. Hunter also deserves mention for making Helen feel real and sympathetic simply through the use of her voice.

Best Movie Mom, Musical Category
Meryl Streep in "Mamma Mia"
Meryl Streep has played a lot of moms in her career, and if we'd seen more than just a flashback where she saves her kids and the family cat in Defending Your Life, I might be inclined to pick that luminous and lovely performance. But, alas, she's more "romantic heroine" and less "mom" in that one. I'm sure she's picked for Sophie's Choice a lot, too, but that is such a difficult and terrible movie for any mother that I'm not going there, either. So I'm going with Mamma Mia, where she plays against type as a goofy, hippyish mother who isn't sure which of her three boyfriends from the past is the father of her daughter. Mamma Mia is certainly not the best musical around, but Streep is delightful, dancing around in her overalls, nothing like the Grande Dame of the American Screen, making herself absolutely convincing in an otherwise not-believable-in-the-least movie. I don't know. Maybe I should remove Meryl after her scenery-chewing turn as a Mom from Hell in August: Osage County. But I still like her in Mamma Mia.

*The oft-repeated story is that Landis was almost a year younger than Grant, which the Internet Broadway Database thinks is the correct information. The Internet Movie Database, however, has Landis born in 1896, making her 7-and-a-bit years older than Grant. Certainly not old enough to be his mother, but at least not younger. Who's right? My husband, who likes genealogical research, has located Jessie Medbury (her birth name) on the 1900 Chicago census as a three-year-old, and then again on the 1910 and 1920 censuses when she was 13 and 23, respectively. So my household is going with 1896 as Jessie Royce Landis's year of birth.


  1. I look forward to Movie Moms every year! The occasion isn't right without it.

    Dee Wallace is a great example. She felt unexpectedly real in the middle of that lovely fantasy. Two others I like to recall are Toni Collette in The Sixth Sense, and Frances Lee McCain in Gremlins. I get such a kick out of seeing FLMcC dealing with unexpected Gremlins in her kitchen. Does she flinch or run away? Nope, she uses her kitchen appliances to nuke the little critters.