Corliss, the movie critic for Time magazine since 1980 and the author of Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema, has collaborated with Turner Classic Movies to write Mom in the Movies: The Iconic Screen Mothers You Love (And A Few You Love to Hate), with a foreword by Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, out now with Simon & Schuster.
Here’s a sampling of five classic types of screen mothers, all featured in Mom in the Movies.
#1: The Great American Mom
The Great American Mom, particularly popular in the 40s, displays the kind of warmth and heroic love for her children that make viewers wish she were part of their own family. One great example is Marta Hanson in I Remember Mama(1948), played by Irene Dunne. Marta scrimps and saves to help her son attend high school and help her daughter fulfill her literary potential. Always understanding when others are critical, the Great American Mom struggles to raise her children above their circumstances and makes you believe that you, too, can realize your dreams.
#2: The Criminal Mom
The Criminal Mom, often the mastermind behind any nefarious activities going on in the film, uses her children’s love for her to manipulate them into a life of crime. Shelley Winters played a classic Criminal Mom, Kate “Ma” Barker, in Bloody Mama (1970). Winters’ character, loosely based on the real Ma Barker (who lived in the 1930s), lives by robbing banks with her four sons. When the boys bond with a businessman they’ve kidnapped, Ma recognizes the threat of an appealing father figure and orders them to kill him. The Criminal Mom is kind to her children when it suits her, but can be hard as nails when faced with losing control.
#3: The Showbiz Mom
From Mother Wore Tights to Mommy Dearest, crazy movie moms who devote their lives (and their children’s lives) to the stage are everywhere. The Showbiz Mom is a tyrant who will stop at nothing to achieve stardom for her children. Mama Rose in Gypsy, played by Rosalind Russell in the 1962 film, is the ultimate Showbiz Mom. She pushes her children to do whatever it takes to find the success she never had, sacrificing their love for her in her quest to make the audience love them.
#4: The Surrogate Mom
The Surrogate Mom, while sometimes initially reluctant, feels such a strong connection to an abandoned child that she makes him or her part of the family. Peg the Avon Lady in Edward Scissorhands (1990), an enthusiastic Surrogate Mom played by Dianne Wiest, does not even hesitate; she wanders into a forbidding castle on a hill, discovers a grim boy with scissors at the ends of his arms, and takes him home. Despite her best efforts, this tale of a gentle misfit will not end well, but it is one of Tim Burton’s most bittersweet stories. While Edward may not be accepted, he has a mom who loves him.
#5: The Malevolent Mom
The law of averages means that, among the billions of women who have given birth and raised kids, at least a few must be really rotten. The Malevolent Moms of the film world reach the heights of bad parenting, and none more so than Mrs. Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), played by Angela Lansbury. Mrs. Iselin acts as a Soviet double agent at the height of the Cold War, and helps brainwash her innocent son into killing eight people in a Communist takeover plot. In her Oscar-winning performance, Lansbury is a ruthless, ingenious manipulator. Whether Malevolent Moms are driven by avarice (Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes), a need to assert their own youthfulness (Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate), or simply their own controlling personalities, the sheer level of their villainy is unforgettable.
Richard Corliss is the movie critic for Time magazine and wrote the book Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema. His new collaboration with TCM, Mom in the Movies, is out now from Simon & Schuster, a CBS Company.