The Mother Ode: A Cinematic Pantheon of Mamas


Since the Lumières’ first homespun projections, there have been umpteen films about, and for, mothers. The portraits have ranged from adoring to crazed to Camus-cold (“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.”). After the jump, peruse our categorized list — more Mamma Rosa than Mamma Mia, but by no means the maternal final word. Add your favorites in the comments.

1. The OverprotectiveWild At Heart (1990) by David LynchSerial Mom (1994) by John Waters These ladies doth protest too much — even if they believe it’s on the behalf of their children. In Lynch’s gonzo road movie, Nic Cage and Laura Dern are lovers on the lam from Dern’s irrational, Southern Belle from Hell mama (real-mom Diane Ladd) who, to put it mildly, hasn’t taken kindly to their romance. Entertaining to the nth degree, this surprising Palme d’Or winner is a mosaic of pulp, Elvis Presley, euphoria, night highways, Wizard of Oz, and a lots and lots of lurid red. Waters, meanwhile, camps it up in Lynch’s usual backyard: suburbia. Kathleen Turner is just terrific as the neurotic, two-faced B’More housewife who safeguards her family’s honor with a single-minded (read: homicidal) zeal.

2. Mama’s BoysHail the Conquering Hero (1944) by Preston SturgesGoodbye Lenin (2003) by Wolfgang Becker Made with WWII at its crest, Sturges’ rapid-fire satire on patriotism follows dismissed soldier Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (a lovable Eddie Bracken) as he returns home to his kindly, widowed-by-WWI mother (Georgia Caine). En route, six sympathetic marines (including Freddie Steele and his own amusing mother complex) help fabricate a jingo-all-the-way story that soon has poor Woodrow inadvertently running for mayor while trying not to break his mother’s heart. Becker’s charming tale takes matters even further: loving Alex (Daniel Brühl) does just about everything in his power to keep his die-hard Communist mother (Kathrin Sass) — who has just awoken from an 8-month coma and doesn’t know that the Berlin Wall has fallen — ironically and firmly entrenched in the repressive, brand-free past.

3. Oedipal ComplexionsWhite Heat (1949) by Raoul WalshPsycho (1960) by Alfred HitchcockMurmur of the Heart (1971) by Louis Malle Top of the world, Ma! Jimmy Cagney and Anthony Perkins are perhaps the two most famous, mama-obsessed cases in film history. While there’s also Mel Gibson’s Hamlet and Glenn Close’s Gertrude in the 1990 Hamlet, a more remarkable one is Malle’s tenderized coming-of-age story about teenage Laurent (Benoît Ferreux), whose fondness for his mère (Lea Massari) becomes troublesome during a sortie to cure his titular ailment. Rest assured, Mr. Murphy Brown approaches the proscribed subject with a supple and humorous touch, buoyed by the beboppin’ sounds of Charlie Parker and Sidney Bechet in addition to the beautifully evocative mise-en-scène.

4. Mom-umentsThe Grapes of Wrath (1940) by John FordRome, Open City (1945) by Roberto RosselliniAll About My Mother (1999) by Pedro Almódovar As Ma Joad, Jane Darwell embodies maternal resolve. When the family is uprooted, for instance, she briefly ruminates over several keepsakes that she knows she shan’t keep, then tosses them in the fire. In that act, Darwell confronts every Okies’ main concern (“how can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past.”) yet forages on as the family’s Joad of Arc in her unshakable faith. In performances that are equally heroic and resonant, Anna Magnani can’t escape Nazi-occupied Rome while Cecilia Roth heads for Barcelona after a flash of kismet in one of Almódovar’s loveliest tributes to the opposite sex.

5. Momma Non GrataTokyo Story (1953) by Yasujiro OzuThrow Momma From the Train (1987) by Danny DeVito In Ozu’s beloved, fine-drawn masterwork, aging Chieko Higashiyama and pa call on their children in Tokyo. Son and daughter treat them like strangers, both too busy to be bothered until that reverberating bell tolls for the old lady. Sound familiar? Human nature in an understated key, the film’s effect is ineffable. For a darker, harsher, and decidedly more hilarious illustration of the unwanted mother, stick with DeVito’s directorial debut in which he and Billy Crystal do Hitchcock’s quid pro quo thriller Strangers on a Train to comedic effect. Anne Ramsay is a hoot as the harridan mother; suffice it to say, faces don’t get any more distinctive.

6. Disney’s MaterfamiliasSnow White (1937)Dumbo (1941)Bambi (1942)Cinderella (1950) Mothers are strangely if not suspiciously absent from Disney’s animation vault. When they do appear, they don’t fare too well: Mrs. Jumbo, hearing the jibes hurled at her precious Dumbo, loses her cool and gets caged; Bambi’s mother meets her demise in the first reel; and both Snow White and Cinderella are raised by cruel, gorgon mother figures.

7. Independent WomenMildred Pierce (1945) by Michael CurtizImitation of Life (1959) by Douglas SirkJeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) by Chantal Akerman Akerman’s 200-minute feminist opus on the “problem of being” immerses you in the rinse-and-repeat life of the eponymous widow (exceptionally played by Delphine Seyrig). Her domestic errands, like cooking and cleaning for her son, become real-time events. Lord, even her prostituting is precise. But after syncing you to a routine that’s as predictable as a metronome, each minor blip that Akerman introduces becomes seismic. More melodramatic are Curtiz’s classic single-mother vehicle for a selfless Joan Crawford and Sirk’s deeply ironic version of Life, which explores mother-daughter relationships through race and the bitter trade-off of professional success (John M. Stahl also crafted a fine one in 1934).

8. The MotherlandMother (1926) by Vsevold PudovkinMirror (1975) by Andrei TarkovskyMother and Son (1997) by Alexander Sokurov Milky skies, windswept fields, and mothers: three Russian specialties in three tours de force. Based on a story by the social realist Gorky, Pudovkin’s film typifies the Soviet Mother as Martyr trope as salt-of-the-earth Vera Baranovkskaya continues to fight the anti-czarist fight begun by her slain son. Both Sokurov and Tarkovsky’s odes, meanwhile, are meditative, difficult, yet out-and-out sublime. Basked in amber light, Sokurov’s intimate and painterly portrait matches the restful pace of the old mother’s (Gudrun Geyer) last few hours with her affectionate son, which is spent simply with walks and bedside chats. Mirror unfolds more obscurely, as memory would. Drifting between black-and-white and color, diary and dream, Tarkovsky rhythmically textures reminiscences of his mother with poems from his famed father, exquisite pastoral landscapes and newsreel footage.

9. Ma-Ladies of the MindGypsy (1962) by Mervyn LeRoyManchurian Candidate (1962) by John FrankenheimerMommie Dearest (1981) by Frank Perry In Frankenheimer’s conspiracy-theory thriller, Angela Lansbury is frightfully convincing as the ambitious bitch (a role played by Meryl Streep in the 2004 redo). She’s the type of mother that uses her brainwashed son (done during the Korean War) as a political assassin to promote a second puppet — her second husband and McCarthyist congressman. While Rosalind Russell’s domineering, exploitative mother in Gypsy doesn’t hold a candle to Lansbury’s degree of parental abuse, Joan Crawford’s second appearance on this list (but played by a cranked-to-11 crazy Faye Dunaway) merits consideration. Regardless, these are mothers to be thankful for not having on Sunday.