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Are mothers the movie world's new villains? [updated]

November 24, 2010 |  8:00 am

Filmmakers, call your mothers.

Or maybe better yet, mothers, call your filmmaker children. They apparently have some issues with you.

Over decades of moviemaking, mothers have had it pretty good. Sure, every once in a while there's a Mrs. Iselin, Angela Lansbury's deviously controlling maternal unit in "The Manchurian Candidate." But by and large cinematic moms fit into one of several archetypes, all of them affectionate.

There is, first off, the plucky single mom. You know her well -- she's raising her children in a cruel world,  fighting the odds and her own difficult past for the sake of the next generation.  We've seen her on screen going all the way back to Barbara Stanwyck's "Stella Dallas" and in a raft of current movies, Laura Linney in  "You Can Count on Me," Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Sherrybaby" and so on.

Then, of course, there's the fiercely protective mother, capable of extraordinary sacrifice to help her children, like Tilda Swinton coolly covering up her son's crimes in 2001's "The Deep End." 

And then there's the victim mother, who suffers a terrible tragedy and lives to tell the tale, the Sissy Spacek character from "In the Bedroom" and so many of her ilk.

And even when movie moms indulge their less angels as overbearing parents, at heart they're just misunderstood nurturers. Albert Brooks came around on Debbie Reynolds' meddlesome mom in 1996's "Mother." And Meryl Streep may have gotten too involved in her son's love life in 2005's "Prime," but she meant well, didn't she?

But this year something has changed. All those good mothers have gone and a host evil ones have come to take their place.

Manipulating mothers make appearances in two very different movies this Thanksgiving weekend.

Disney releases "Tangled," which, if you have small children you're probably already well aware, offers the character of Gothel, a mother who  keeps her daughter Rapunzel sequestered so she'll forever need  and be devoted to her. (The Disney website describes Gothel as someone who "lies to Rapunzel about the outside world and everyone in it, making Rapunzel wary of ever leaving her protection.") 

And in "The King's Speech," Queen Mary (Claire Bloom), emotionally represses her son so thoroughly he comes out of childhood with a crippling stutter.

It's only the latest example of bad moms on the big screen. In this summer's indie darling "Animal Kingdom," a new kind of maternal monstrosity emerged. Jacki Weaver's Smurf Cody is a mother (and grandmother) as conniving and power-hungry as any character in Shakespeare. As the New York Times put it, Cody is a "magnetic, seductive hybrid of Lady Macbeth and Ma Barker in the camouflage of a cheery suburban grandmother."

Gothel Meanwhile, in the summer art-house breakout "Winter's Bone," Jennifer Lawrence's teenage Ree Dolly is forced to take over parenting responsibilities after her mother has abdicated them. [UPDATE: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said Ree's mother was a meth addict.]

Bad moms won't stop anytime soon, either. In Darren Aronofsky's supernatural drama "Black Swan," which opens next week, Barbara Hershey is the creepily obsessive single parent to Natalie Portman's 20-something ballerina. Hershey's doting is a thin ruse for her own jealousy and desire for control. "Sweet child," she whispers to her daughter, but with mother keeping progeny locked in a state of perpetual pre-adolescence, it's more threat than bedtime reassurance.

And the week after that we'll see "The Fighter," which introduces the world to one of the most scarily  controlling parents ever to appear on screen. As incarnated by Melissa Leo, Alice Ward -- mother and manager to boxing prospect Micky Ward -- has mixed motives every which way, nearly ruining her son's career for a few thousand dollars in commissions and some emotional payback.

Er, do directors have some issues to work out?

Some of this may simply be a matter of dramatic necessity. Filmmakers look for new villains all the time, and it may well be that after years of plumbing everyone else in the family structure (the creepy uncle lost his cachet years ago), they needed someone new.

The trend does raise a commercial question. Mothers, and women in general, are a huge part of box office and moviegoing decisions. Could all this anti-mother sentiment turn some of them off?

At least in one sense, though, the proliferation of bad mothers is good news. For years we've heard about the dearth of substantive roles for actresses, particularly older ones. But these  difficult-mother roles offer the chance for older performers (Hershey and Leo are both over 50) to bite into something meatier; indeed, it wouldn't be surprising to see Oscar nominations for both of them. Maybe directors are recognizing the scarcity of complex roles and creating parts to address the problem.

Or maybe they're just in need of a good therapy session.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photos: Top, Jacki Weaver as Smurf Cody in "Animal Kingdom." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics. Middle, Barbara Hershey in "Black Swan." Credit: Fox Searchlight. Bottom, Gothel and Rapunzel in "Tangled." Credit: Disney.

Comments () | Archives (14)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Jacki Weaver as Smurf for the win, definitely!!!

Actually in Winter's Bone it is Ree's FATHER not MOTHER who is a meth addict and abandons the family. Do your research!

Thing is, mother bashing isn't new. Just look at Sigmund Freud.

Absurd analysis. After decades of films depicting men and fathers as nothing but butts of jokes or malingering buffoons or abusive jerks, a handful of recent films depicting some mothers as evil (also an old trope) is a civil rights issue?
There are so many great roles for women in TV and film. In fact, I bet if one were to count up the lead roles and good roles in current film and TV and we would find that the count is similar for men and women.
I am surprised there isn't more of a discussion about how poorly men are depicted in film and TV. Pick any show and I would bet, dollars to donuts, one of the male leads is flawed to awful and one of the female leads is flawed and wonderful.

Maybe I saw a different screening of The King's Speech because Claire Bloom is barely in what I saw. David and King George seem to have more of an effect (visibly in the film) on Albie's stutter than anyone else, so I don't know that this is an appropriate example with which to support your thesis.

The mother in WINTER'S BONE is mentally ill and catatonic not abusive or neglectful. Big difference.

Tara - If I remember Winter's Bone correctly, the father is absent and the mother lives with Ree and the kids, but she's heavily medicated and completely out of it, forcing Ree to raise her siblings and search for her father on her own... There is a scene where Ree buys her mother's medication.

what do you mean by "new"?

Seems like a non-issue to me... evil moms go all the way back to Medea. And as a couple of other people pointed out, the mom in WINTER'S BONE is catatonic, not evil.

This mother/evil mother/oedipus theme is seen in many television shows too -- "V" (symbol for woman), "The Event", "Fringe." Tired of watching this obsession. Are we watching television and films through the polluted lense of a new over-population of screen writers and executives with like-minded troubled pasts and presents? There is a lot of worthy material to write about out there if someone will look for it.

Well, the thing is, mother's are a really important part of our development. They are our first line of security, literally and figuratively, throughout all of our childhood. They provide things that father's simply cannot. In our society, our mom's are often not physically present for most of our waking hours (somebody's gotta work, right?). Perhaps some unconscious resentment is present in writers and directors? The bottom line is: I want my mommy, where's my mommy (what happens when this basic need doesn't get met?).

This isn't new. Mommie Dearest, Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment, all the Texas Cheerleader Mom movies...

What's really alarming is how often the lead character in a children's movie has a DEAD mother -- from Nancy Drew to Harry Potter to any Disney princess with a step-mother (i.e. the real mom's dead). I guess the theory is that a mom would stop you from having any adventures.

I saw Black Swan and Barbara Hershey's character is mentally ill, not just mean or evil or jealous. That's much more interesting.

This could be an even greater insight, if it was truly inclusive - or that new. The Queen Mother in THE KINGS SPEECH? How do you include that - and WINTER'S BONE - and not Mary in last year's PRECIOUS? How about CONVICTION's premise? Disney's Princess films almost ALWAYS have an evil mother figure.

And, while you take on the industry contexts, you don't hint at any socio-cultural contexts (what the recession is doing to entertainment; how bad moms effect manhood) on the zeitgeist trend your title suggests. Good shot though. I'd be interested to see if you (can) expound on this, through awards season.


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