Hollywood's Bad Mother Obsession

Nothing seems to delight Oscar voters like a mother from hell: Monsters from Black Swan, The Fighter, and Animal Kingdom are all vying for awards this year. Stephen Farber on their evolution, from Mildred Pierce to Precious.

12.29.10 12:08 AM ET

Critics' groups handing out awards for best supporting actress have been torn between Melissa Leo as the domineering mother in The Fighter and Jacki Weaver as the murderous mom in the Australian film noir Animal Kingdom. Another top contender in the Oscar race is Barbara Hershey, as the smothering mother of fragile Natalie Portman in Black Swan. All three monstrous maternal figures are part of a tradition of bad movie mothers who have often been favored by Oscar voters.

Hollywood once sent a very different message. The early moguls like Louis B. Mayer revered motherhood, and many of the first actresses to be hailed by Oscar were playing noble matriarchs: Luise Rainer in The Good Earth (1937); Jane Darwell as salt-of-the-earth Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940); and Greer Garson as Mrs. Miniver (1942), holding not just her family but almost all of England together during World War II. But film noir, which flourished in the late 1940s, introduced a new kind of malevolent heroine, and the Freudian gospel, misogynistic in flavor, that took hold in the '50s often blamed characters' troubles on their overbearing mothers. These days good mothers have not vanished altogether from the screen, but their evil counterparts have come to dominate movies and Oscar races over the last several decades.

In 1945, Mildred Pierce marked the transition from the noble mothers of an earlier era to the more disturbing matriarchs who began to grab audiences' attention. The film, based on James M. Cain's novel, focuses on a mother (Joan Crawford) who sacrifices everything for her two daughters. The younger daughter dies of pneumonia, and the older daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), grows up to be a spoiled, manipulative devil's child. Veda is the villain of the film, but Mildred isn't let off the hook, either. When Veda kills Mildred's husband in a jealous rage, she pleads with her mother to take the rap. "It's really your fault," Veda wails, and Mildred recognizes the kernel of truth in her accusation. Mildred overindulges her children, allowing them to get away with anything, including murder. Crawford won an Oscar for her definitive portrayal of mother love carried to unhealthy extremes.

Jo Van Fleet in 1955's East of Eden won an Oscar for playing the opposite kind of bad mother. She abandons her family and takes up a career as a madam, boasting to her son that she runs "the toughest house on the Coast." James Dean, in his first major role, plays the troubled teen who has to contend not just with an absent mother but with a stern, overly critical father (Raymond Massey). Dean tries to reconnect with his mother, but she remains distant and unloving. Although director Elia Kazan, working from John Steinbeck's novel, respects Van Fleet's fierce independence, he follows the Freudian ethos of the era in condemning her for choosing freedom over maternal responsibility. Van Fleet played another bad mom in 1955, the ruthless stage mother guiding the career of Susan Hayward's Lillian Roth in I'll Cry Tomorrow.

Gallery: Bad Movie Mothers

Suddenly Last Summer (1959) remains a slightly ludicrous but archetypal representation of the consequences of perverted maternal love. Katharine Hepburn was Oscar-nominated for her portrayal of the deranged Mrs. Venable in director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's adaptation of Tennessee Williams' play. While her son Sebastian never appears on screen, having died under mysterious circumstances before the story begins, it soon becomes clear that Mama was in love with her son in a distinctly kinky manner, driving him into homosexual liaisons that eventually led to him being murdered and eaten alive.

But the screen's most memorable depiction of Monster Mom might be Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Lansbury was Oscar-nominated, and many feel she should have won for her juicy portrayal. The Freudian underpinnings that permeated Suddenly Last Summer are also present here. Lansbury, a diabolical communist agent posing as a right-wing Republican, has turned her son (Laurence Harvey) into a prissy, repressed drone who's the perfect target of communist brainwashing. In the climactic scene, when she instructs Harvey exactly how to assassinate the presidential candidate, she ends her "aria of evil," as one critic described her monologue, by kissing her son passionately on the lips. Lansbury plays her role with such relish that she emerges as a modern-day Lady Macbeth.

Scenes of Shelley Winters, who won an Oscar as a hard-as-nails mother in A Patch of Blue (1965), abusing her helpless blind daughter (Elizabeth Hartman) are still painful to watch. Winters turns Hartman into a virtual slave. Eventually Hartman finds escape in friendship with a noble black man (Sidney Poitier, of course), and when Mama discovers the attachment, her racist tirade only adds another sinister shading to her acid-tinged portrait. Winters had a chance to travel once again to the dark side a few years later, when she played Ma Barker in Roger Corman's Bloody Mama, which co-starred a very young Robert De Niro as one of her browbeaten sons.

Ingrid Bergman gave her last big-screen performance and earned her seventh Oscar nomination when she returned to her native Sweden and worked for the first time with master director Ingmar Bergman in Autumn Sonata (1978). Ingrid plays a narcissistic concert pianist so absorbed in her own career that she has always neglected her daughter (Liv Ullmann). When she comes for a rare family visit, all the daughter's resentments explode, especially after a superb scene in which Ullmann plays the piano for her mother, and Mama cannot refrain from mercilessly criticizing her daughter's technique.

In Robert Redford's Oscar-winning directorial debut, Ordinary People (1980), Conrad (Timothy Hutton) attempts suicide after a boating accident that killed his brother and is now visiting a compassionate psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch) who is helping him to put his life back in order. The chief obstacle to his recovery—in a recapitulation of the Freudian catechism so prevalent in the 1950s and '60s—is his cold, withholding mother. Mary Tyler Moore startled audiences by playing against her endearing image from her hit TV show, and she earned an Oscar nomination for her hard-edged portrayal of a woman so steeped in desiccated WASP gentility that she is incapable of love. In the end Moore is banished from the family for failing to hug her son and for refusing to take communion with the all-knowing shrink.

Still one of the screen's most vivid renditions of child abuse, Christina Crawford's memoir of her nightmarish childhood with her adoptive mother, Joan, was turned into the lurid melodrama Mommie Dearest (1981), which earned no love from Oscar voters. The famous scene of Faye Dunaway's Crawford screaming "No wire hangers!" as she beats her helpless daughter has entered the annals of camp. But the movie's most chilling scene may be a later one, in which an enraged Joan comes close to choking the adult Christina (Diana Scarwid) to death before being stopped by an appalled gossip columnist. In Mildred Pierce, Crawford played a mother who went to extremes to provide for her children. This biography of the Oscar-winning star presented a horrific real-life counterpoint to that picture of misguided maternal love.

In 1990, Anjelica Huston earned an Oscar nomination for her sharp performance in The Grifters as a woman who not only seduces her son but ends up killing him as well. In this updated film noir adapted from a Jim Thompson novel, John Cusack plays the con man locked in a deadly war of nerves with his conniving mother. In other words, here's a mother who commits every possible transgression in her descent into depravity.

White Oleander (2002) may be the most underrated movie about maternal malevolence. In a unique drama based on the novel by Janet Fitch, Michelle Pfeiffer plays a talented artist who is in prison for murdering her lover. Even behind bars, however, she continues to manipulate her daughter (Alison Lohman), refusing to relinquish her perverse hold over the girl as Lohman struggles to carve out her own identity. Pfeiffer etches a bold, unflinching portrayal of a mother's selfishness.

But last year's Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress, Mo'nique in Precious, may have depicted the worst mother of all these cinematic monsters. Her character, who beats and degrades her obese, uneducated daughter (Gabourey Sidibe), recalls the harridan played by Shelley Winters in A Patch of Blue. But the rage-filled Mo'nique makes Winters seem almost twinkly by comparison. The actress won every possible award in addition to the Oscar, which should offer encouragement to this year's candidates. Nothing seems to please voters like a full-blown mother from hell.

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Stephen Farber is a film critic for The Hollywood Reporter. He has written reviews and articles on film for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Movieline, Esquire, New York, New West, and many other publications. Farber has written four books on film: The Movie Rating Game; Hollywood Dynasties; Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego, and the Twilight Zone Case; and Hollywood on the Couch.