Since it’s Mother’s Day I thought I would search out some memorable film mothers. You know, the sort of characters that warm our hearts and remind us all of how lucky we are to have that devoted and comforting character watching over us.
Then I thought, well, the hell with that and decided to list some real “mothers”, some of the strongest portrayals onscreen, male or female. You are allowed to take issue with my choices on this particular day of the year, but there is no denying the power of these characters and their use of their considerable maternal instincts to challenge the world they face. Not all ends well, but that is not what we’re looking for here; instead, it’s the burden of motherhood and the influence it naturally provides, for better or worse, to get things done…her way.
Sophie’s Choice – Alan Pakula (1982)
The title of the Pakula’s film adaptation or William Styron’s novel has become part of our verbal lexicon when we are faced with an impossible choice, and Meryl Streep’s Sophie is an acting creation like no other. Burdened with guilt over a horrendous decision she is forced to make in a train yard by Nazi guards, the rest of her life is pretty much a death spiral in which she spins like a moth to a flame (the flame in this case being Nathan as played by Kevin Kline). Her unpardonable failure, circumstances aside, turn the maternal instinct against her and dissolve her soul from within. One of the finest screen performances ever committed to film.
Autumn Sonata – Ingmar Bergman (1978)
Both Bergman’s punctuated the finale of their cinematic careers with this tale of the famous, talented, and artistic mother whose career and life led to the emotional neglect of her own daughter, played by Liv Ullman. The film explores the tentative circling and parrying involved in any difficult reconciliation, so when you have one of the world’s iconic directors maneuvering two of our arguably greatest film actors, it’s a fascinating watch. I doubt few actors have had the career of successes similar to three-time Oscar winner Ingrid Bergman, and I would place her performance here near the top of her encyclopedic filmography.
The Grifters – Stephen Frears (1990)
Nobody, absolutely nobody, would nominate Lilly Dillon (Angelica Huston) as mother of the year. Focused and predatory, her life spent on the con, Lilly has somehow transferred and corrupted her maternal instincts from her son onto her own survival to the point of no return by the end of the film. Frears and neo-noir together are as delectable and necessary as meat loves salt. He gets career-high performances from John Cusack and relative newcomer Annette Bening, but it is Huston’s Lilly that we will never forget – or forgive. A raw and seductive film, it is we who are finally conned. She couldn’t possibly, could she?
The Manchurian Candidate – John Frankenheimer (1962)
Despite her sweet persona, few actors have managed to consistently go against type as successfully as Angela Lansbury. Her Eleanor Iselin is a political powerbroker without conscience, insidiously steering her own son to further her political gains. Frankenheimer’s skill always shone brightest with intricate thrillers and few surpass this deft tightrope walk of loyalties that firmly holds relevance today. Paranoia and brainwashing all committed with a mother’s “love”. Queen of Diamonds, indeed.
Mommy – Xavier Dolan (2014)
Die Dupres (the wonderful Anne Dorval) has more than she can handle with her sometimes-violent ADHD son. Writer/director Dolan’s hypnotizing film is filled with jubilation and remorse, tension and bliss, as Die tries to do what is best for the son who continues to bounce their lives back and forth between heaven and hell. Dolan’s film style here is brilliant, capturing and conveying the emotions ranging from a euphoric pas de deux with a shopping cart to the boot-to-the-balls final shot. Overseeing it all, Anne Dorval’s hopeless – yet hopeful – Mommy, locked in a challenge she cannot win. My favourite film from 2014.
There – no Terms of Endearment here, but no Psycho, either. These are five fine examples of the power that motherhood provides, how far that influence can take one and how it can be misguided, intentionally or not, into situations that could not occur without, well, Mother.
Happy Mother’s Day to all you mother’s out there – we have our collective eye on you.