Before the advent of movies, the Madonna and child ruled the image banks of popular Western culture. Now, we've beatified a Madonna who goes on television to promote condom use. Whether she is portrayed as virgin or whore, sacred or profane, representations of motherhood are the expressions of our collective ideology. (The same, but with sex-role variations, is true for representations of fatherhood.) Movies are a vast archive of cultural meanings and myths. So here are some "quick pick" images from my personal gallery of movie moms. By no intents a comprehensive survey of the subject, what follows is a freely associated list of some mothers I have known in the dark. The spontaneity of these images, perhaps logically, puts the accent on flamboyant roles - the kind that are larger than life and leap rapidly to mind. All are available on videotape.
"The hand that rocks the cradle" is an image that film pioneer D.W. Griffith literally carved into his 1916 epic about the genesis of religious prejudice, Intolerance. As the bridge between four separate stories set in time periods as distinct as ancient Babylon and 20th-century America, Griffith would repeat a sequence-cleansing shot of a woman (played by Lillian Gish) rocking a cradle, an arc of life that becomes emblematic of civilization's continuity.
A film mother can conveniently pinch hit as either a symbol of civilization or nature. She can serve as her family's teacher and moral center, a conduit to the past and the future. Conversely, she can be associated with the ungovernable forces of nature, an agent of mysterious and subcutaneous instincts and drives. Both earth mothers and home wreckers spring from these forces. Actress Jane Darwell, who was a stock player in so many John Ford westerns, was one of the best at portraying the nurturing, eternal mother. This ability guided her to an Academy Award for her role as Ma Joad in the 1940 film version of The Grapes of Wrath.
"Sacrifice" films constitute a whole area of American melodrama I have always found fascinating. Here, women forego their own personal happiness for the well-being of their children and family. Yet virtuous martyrdom always has a way of backfiring. It drives the husband away, creates rotten offspring, or leads to extreme counter-measures. It is in this arena that issues such as maternal ambivalence, single motherhood, working outside the home, and class barriers can be found lurking in the story's subtext. In movies like Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford, Stella Dallas with Barbara Stanwyck, and Caught (directed by the great Max Ophuls), mothers sacrifice personal pleasure for the sake of their children's security, only to have these deeds lay the groundwork for catastrophe. There's one image from Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows that I find overwhelming: that of widow Jane Wyman staring at her solitary reflection in the screen of a gift-wrapped television set given to her by her grown children, to whom she has devoted her life but, now, the only attention she receives from them is their vehement objection to her budding relationship with her gardener, who is also younger than her and played by a hunky Rock Hudson.
A horror movie titled Mother's Day is actually one of the most disgustingly vituperative things I have ever seen. In it, a sicko mother and her dimwit sons torture some random female prisoners until the victims get the upper hand and return tit for tat. Mothers get a bad rap in much of the horror and action fare: Think of Psycho's Norman Bates and Carrie. The popularization of psychoanalysis has also pigeonholed mothers as preordained players in the ongoing Oedipal drama. Then there are the "mothers from another planet," like the egg-producing creature of doom in Aliens. Also, there is The Brood by David Cronenberg, in which Samantha Eggar plays a disturbed woman with a history of child abuse who externalizes her anger in the form of a vicious brood of clone-like child demons.
Leave it to the European men to romanticize incestuous relationships between mothers and sons. Louis Malle's Murmur of the Heart focuses on a boy's sentimental education and Bernardo Bertolucci's Luna shows a mother helping her son kick an adolescent heroin habit by sleeping with him. These sensitive treatments meet their match in the garish, American-made, Roger Corman production Bloody Mama, which stars Shelley Winters as Ma Barker, who is shown here as leading her boys to break not only the laws of society but the taboos of the family. A special citation must also go to Shelley Winters for what may be the quintessential caricature of a Jewish mother in Next Stop, Greenwich Village.
Certain to show up on everyone's list of first impressions of movie moms is Mommie Dearest, Faye Dunaway's outrageous portrait of Joan Crawford as seen through the eyes of her daughter Tina. Here, the standard equation between mom and the wicked witch takes a more fascistic turn. There is also something we might call über-moms, those matriarchs whose very marrow seem to provide the lifeblood of their clan. Examples include Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment, Sally Field in Steel Magnolias, and Susan Sarandon in Safe Passage. The arcs of Field's and Sarandon's careers both provide interesting case studies in the birthing of movie moms. In the past year we have seen Sarandon, whom we've come to associate with sexually voluptuous characterizations, cast in three maternal roles: Safe Passage, Little Women, and The Client. And Sally Field has gone from playing Tom Hanks' love interest in the 1988 movie Punchline to playing his mother in last year's Forrest Gump. These are the kinds of transitions that the old Hollywood studio system was well geared to handle. Complete management could obscure the fact that virtually no slots exist for women, apart from ingenue, witch, or mother. But the studio system could, at least, pave the road from flying nun to dying mum.
On the subject of "favorites," I always come back to Dumbo. What more comforting image exists than the sight of Mrs. Jumbo cradling her baby in the nook of her trunk, which is all she can outstretch from behind the bars of her solitary confinement? (Disney's overall treatment of motherhood is a whole separate topic. Ever notice how absent they are?) Another favorite of mine is an early Jonathan Demme film called Crazy Mama, with Cloris Leachman in the title role as a possessed matriarch who, with her mother (Ann Sothern), daughter (Linda Purl), and extended family (Stuart Whitman, Donny Most) sets out to reclaim what is rightfully hers. She's a mom with a mission and a sense of fun. She's a mom in a tiger-print dress with a gun.
Eeek! Second impressions are already flooding in and I'm not finished with the first round.