Moms have been an important part of cinema since the beginning, as one of the first humans to appear in a film was Sarah Whitley, mother-in-law of inventor/director Louis Le Prince, in the extremely short 1888 work Roundhay Garden Scene. Since then, we’ve had mothers serving important roles in quintessential masterpieces of Soviet cinema (Mother), Bollywood (Mother India), experimental film (Window Water Baby Moving), animated features (Bambi, Dumbo, etc.), documentary (Grey Gardens), political thriller (The Manchurian Candidate), science fiction (The Terminator), horror (Psycho, Friday the 13th, Carrie, etc.), comedy (The Graduate) and of course melodrama (the whole maternal subgenre). And we’ve all grown up identifying with certain movie moms, and actresses who often played moms; for me they were usually portrayed by Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Dee Wallace Stone and Diane Wiest.
Therefore it would be an enormous task and read if I were to attempt to either list all or narrow down the best movie moms ever let alone handpick only a handful of scenes we love involving matriarchs. So I’ve asked the other FSR writers to help out by selecting a single maternal character they favor, and with one from yours truly included we honor ten of these varied women below.
Ellen Griswold (Beverly D’Angelo) from the Vacation Films
Let’s consider, just for a minute, how hard it must be to be Ellen Griswold. The Vacation mom is saddled with a frequently deranged partner (oh, Sparky), a set of kids who somehow manage to totally change their looks every couple of years (though they, curiously, never really age), and she hasn’t had a wholly enjoyable family vacation in years (even when she doesn’t have to travel away from home for some family time, her own house is still invaded by utter nonsense, i.e. extended family, boxed cats, dead squirrels…). And yet, even amidst all this madness, Ellen Griswold is nothing short of lovely, attentive, welcoming, smart, accommodating, and dead funny in her own unique way. Under most of the wacky circumstances thrown at her, anyone else would have gone totally goddamn bonkers, but not Ellen. Who wouldn’t want her to be their mom?
Okay, fine, that one time she became a Wayniac (temporarily), but who could possibly blame her? Wayne Newton is a ladies’ man. – Kate Erbland
Nina Banks (Diane Keaton) from Father of the Bride and Father of the Bride Part II
Nina was always the calming force to George Banks’ (Steve Martin) more unhinged moments. The Father of the Bride movies are some of my favorites because of this relationship between Nina and George, which reminded me of my parents’ own relationship, with one always balancing the other out. Nina always felt real to me because she reflected so much of my own mom (and her relationship with my dad) and made these movies ones I would turn to when I was missing either of them or simply homesick. – Allison Loring
Betty Parker (Joan Allen) from Pleasantville
The perfect blend between fictive ’50s perfection and open-minded passion, Betty Parker could make 10 pounds of pancakes for breakfast, but she wasn’t afraid to pursue life on her own terms, either. Considering she had to learn about sex from her daughter, she wasn’t exactly a true maternal figure, but that’s what made her amazing. On the surface, she was the picture of gentility and dutifulness, right down to the pearls. Simmering deeper was a full-blooded individual ready to cast off the yoke of what was expected in favor for individuality and a true sense of community. She showed fragility, strength, curiosity and courage, and after everything she went through, she stilled packed a brown bag lunch for her son. – Scott Beggs
Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) from Mommie Dearest
Sure, all of our mothers are arguably more than a little bit crazy. Though it takes the rare bird to force her kids to call her “Mommie Dearest.” Or wake their kids up in the middle of the night to help cut down rose bushes. Or… Well, you see where I am going with this. In Frank Perry’s now-camp-classic Mommie Dearest, Faye Dunaway plays an understandably fictionalized version of Joan Crawford that makes most of us feel a lot better about the mother card that we were dealt. Yes, she raised her children in a palatial Hollywood home, but she also was [hilariously] abusive to them. Her daughter, Christina, seems like she got the full tilt of crazy, since the film features a panties-exposing cat fight between the two and a rather unceremonious chopping off of a young Christina’s hair. But then there’s that infamous “No wire hangers… EVER!!!” scene, in which a crazed Joan Crawford, wearing a ghostly white facial mask, chastises her daughter for putting an expensive dress on a — gasp! — wire hanger, and subsequently beats her with said hanger, though not before festooning everything in her sight with bathroom cleanser. Dunaway’s Joan Crawford is a psychotic delight to watch — it ain’t her first time at the rodeo, after all. – Caitlin Hughes
Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) from Rosemary’s Baby
Technically we don’t get to see Rosemary Woodhouse do much child-rearing in Rosemary’s Baby. Most of the film could more rightly be titled “Rosemary’s Pregnancy.” Yet Mia Farrow’s entire performance is built around a fierce notion of motherhood, as she tries to figure out what on earth is going on around her. Her Vidal Sassoon haircut, her growing suspicion of her ambitious husband and her mysterious neighbors, and her dogged pursuit of the truth are manifestations of an active, empowered motherhood. By the end of the film she’s transformed, walking down a darkened hallway, gripping a carving knife and on a mission to protect her newborn. Happy Mother’s Day, Rosemary. And stay away from chalky undertastes. – Daniel Walber
Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) from Aliens
In James Cameron’s Aliens, fate — and the horrific events in the series’ first installment — have robbed Ellen Ripley of the chance to see her daughter grow. After battling a lethal xenomorph that kills her fellow crew members, and then after spending 57 years in cryogenic stasis, Ripley’s reward is to arrive on Earth to find that no one believes what she’s been through. And her daughter has grown up — and died. She’ll get another shot at motherhood when she heads back to investigate a lost terraformer colony on LV-426. There, she finds a surrogate daughter in the form of lone surviving colonist Newt (Carrie Henn), a sweet child who’s been driven practically feral by fear. Ripley displays sharp intellect, fierce bravery, unflagging conscience and a tender heart as she serves as both healer and defender to Newt. She shows us not only what it means to be a great mom, but a principled warrior and all-around awesome human being. – Jorge Sosa
Kanga (Voiced by Barbara Luddy, Kath Soucie and Others) from the Winnie the Pooh Films
Fans of movies have plenty of wonderful mother figures to think about when it comes to Mother’s Day –- from the logical choices of Maria from The Sound of Music to the ludicrous choices like Norma Bates or Vera Cosgrove from Dead Alive. However, for me the best mother in movies comes from classic animation. Kanga’s tender handling of her baby Roo in the Winnie the Pooh short films is what every child wants. She’s sweet and loveable, but she also makes sure Roo is doing the right thing and giving him boundaries. It’s a corny, child-like choice, but my heart always goes out to Kanga on Mother’s Day. – Kevin Carr
Stella Dallas (Barbara Stanwyck) from Stella Dallas
Like the mothers of many a Classical Hollywood melodrama, Barbara Stanwyck’s Stella Dallas is an incredible movie mother because she makes the ultimate sacrifice, her own happiness, in order to give her only daughter the life she herself never had. An aspiring socialite from a millworker family, Dallas relentlessly seeks to make sure Laurel (Anne Shirley) is fully integrated into high society. But Stella realizes the one thing holding her back from that goal is herself, so she abandons a life of shared happiness with her daughter in order for Laurel to find happiness alone. The result is one of the most heartbreaking stories of a mother ever put onscreen. – Landon Palmer
Selma Jezkova (Bjork) from Dancer in the Dark
Like Landon, I have to go with a mother who made an extreme sacrifice for the benefit of her child. Isn’t that really what Mother’s Day is all about, thanking and celebrating our mom for all that she did for us and all she gave up to do so? This is an extreme case, of course. Maybe our mothers would kill and face the death penalty to save us, but what about to save our eyesight? Lars von Trier, who directed an adaptation of the messed up mother story of Medea early in his career, brings together the already linked genres of musical (Selma plays Maria in a community production of “The Sound of Music”) and melodrama (Stella Dallas is obviously an influence) for the saddest tale of motherhood since Sirk’s version of The Imitation of Life, and probably the most totally gut-wrenching of all time. She just did what she had to do. – Christopher Campbell
Molly Weasley (Julie Walters) in the Harry Potter Franchise
Molly Weasley may be a witch, but her real magical gift is her ability to raise six children on a shoestring budget. On top of that, she welcomed Harry Potter into her home and took care of him when he was a stray, disheveled mess. As the overarching story progressed, we found out that her internal strength as a mother was mimetic of her physical strength as a warrior; a defender of good as a member of The Order of the Phoenix. Her dispatch of the heinous Bellatrix Lestrange is the final emphatic note of proof that you don’t f*** with Mama Weasley. – Brian Salisbury
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