Thursday, May 5, 2011

Cinema Moms Who Never Complain, Never Explain

In honor of Mother’s Day, I pay tribute to a baker’s dozen of cinema’s strong, self-sacrificing but never self-pitying moms. These women aren’t on a pedestal and wouldn’t want to be. They live, they love, and they keep the home in every sense of the word. These kid-friendly films portray moms who put themselves out for their children because it goes with the territory of being a devoted parent. All the thanks they need is for their kids to live good and happy lives. These actresses represent an honor roll of great acting through the decades:

Stella in Stella Dallas, 1937,
directed by King Vidor.

Barbara Stanwyk is able to let her natural-born Brooklyn accent out of the bag as this working-class good-time gal who has a daughter with an upper-crust ex-husband. Stella’s not willing to lose her daughter to her ex but she hasn’t the slightest clue as to how to break into the upper echelons, and her attempts are pitiable. When she realizes she’s endangering her daughter’s chances of being accepted into polite society, she steps aside, though it breaks her heart. Her “tough gal” façade can’t hide it, but she never lets on.

Apple Annie in Lady for a Day, 1933,
directed by Frank Capra.

May Robson stars in this Damon Runyan story of a street peddler with a secret: a daughter she’s supported long-distance for years. When daughter Louise visits New York with her wealthy fiancé and would-be father-in-law, Apple Annie marshals her resources and puts on a masquerade that ensures her daughter’s long-term happiness. As her daughter’s boat disappears from view, Apple Annie gets back to work without missing a beat. Remade in 1961 by Capra himself as Pocketful of Miracles with Bette Davis as Apple Annie, both are satisfying renditions of this unlikely but entertaining New York City tale.

Aunt Betsey in David Copperfield, 1935,
directed by George Cukor.

When little Davey’s mother dies leaving him at the mercy of his cruel stepfather, Edna May Oliver’s Aunt Betsey steps up, the savior of every child’s dream—strong, wise, and kind. She raises David with an almost modern appreciation of the importance of fun. And she diplomatically holds her tongue when David’s hapless wife is the worst housewife ever. There have been several filmed versions of this Dickens tale, and the 1999 television adaptation with Maggie Smith as Aunt Betsey runs a close second.

Doris Walker in Miracle on 34th Street, 1947,
directed by George Seaton.

Mom’s a great looking, confidant, no-nonsense woman who has the ultimate glamour job. Maureen O’Hara plays Doris, the Macy’s special events director who runs the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade. She’s a modern single parent to her daughter (introducing Natalie Wood!) but she’s not too proud or stubborn to change her mind on the issue of the existence of Santa Claus, and let’s her daughter know she was wrong. Let’s hear it for communication, for whimsy, and for having a mom who’s boss in every way, shape, and form.

Martha in I Remember Mama, 1948,
directed by George Stevens.

Irene Dunne claimed this was her favorite role in her long and enviable career. Dunne also plays the memorable, quirky mother Vinnie Day in Life With Father, but it’s in I Remember Mama that Dunne gets to sink her teeth into a complex role as the strong and loving matriarch of an extended Norwegian immigrant family. She shields her children from the harsher realities of life while she encourages them to dream big. When she’s asked if she’d like to be rich, she replies, “I’d like to be rich like I’d like to be ten feet tall. Good for some things, bad for others.” Amen.

Mame Dennis in Auntie Mame, 1958,
directed by Morton DaCosta.

When her nephew is orphaned, party gal Mame Dennis played by Rosalind Russell becomes the kindest, silliest, most replete substitute mom in cinema. She’s a very forward-thinking woman and enrolls her nephew Patrick in a progressive school and takes him traveling around the world. They ride a rollercoaster of good times and bad, but Mame is always devoted. With her, life is a banquet.

Maria in The Sound of Music, 1965,
directed by Robert Wise.

Julie Andrews as Maria starts as a governess and ends up a beloved stepmother. In the meantime she brings joy and yes, music back into the lives of her charges. She’s fun, inventive, she never says die. She’s not afraid of the bullying captain and even defies his orders when she thinks she’s right. Yes, captain, your children were parading around Salzburg in window curtains. Deal with it.

Rose Castorini in Moonstruck, 1987,
directed by Norman Jewison.

Olympia Dukakis as Rose is a mom who’s honest and strong. She supports her daughter through her decisions, good and bad. She’s not afraid to lay down the law with her philandering husband and she’s wonderfully unromantic when she warns her about-to-be-married daughter, “When you love them they drive you crazy because they know they can.”

Mrs. Brown in My Left Foot, 1989,
directed by Jim Sheridan.

Brenda Fricker as the mother of cerebral palsy sufferer Christy Brown quite literally carries her son since he can’t walk himself. She supports him and facilitates him, enabling him to become one of the voices of his generation. Helping him learn to write with his foot, she encourages him, “Go ahead, Christy. Make your mark.” Thanks to her, he did.

Jules and Nic in The Kids Are All Right, 2010,
directed by Lisa Cholodenko.

It’s a bit of a drag for moms Julianne Moore and Annette Bening when their teen kids invite sperm-doner “dad” played by Mark Ruffalo into their lives. The moms deal with the situation with grace and a smile for the sake of the kids, because that’s how they roll. Welcome to 21st Century parenting.

Juno in Juno, 2007,
directed by Jason Reitman.

Ellen Page’s Juno is wise enough to realize that she’s not ready to be a mother and unselfish and gutsy enough to make someone else’s dream of motherhood come true. Second set of kudos to Allison Janney as Juno’s step-mom Bren, who makes the case for speaking your mind and being the tiger step-mom with a heart.

Honorable mention goes to Anne Revere who played Elizabeth Taylor’s mom in National Velvet. I’ve already extolled the virtues of this performance—one of my favorite cinema moms—in the piece, Remembering Elizabeth Taylor In National Velvet.

So happy Mother’s Day to moms, step-moms, and not-ready-to-be moms everywhere. I know you’re not in it for the thanks, but thank you just the same.

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