Mother's Day made us think of some memorable maternal film characters

When filmmakers examine maternal relationships, anything is possible, writes Mathew Scott

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 May, 2014, 4:08pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 May, 2015, 11:09am

Filmmakers always seem to have had a slightly tortured relationship with the mothers they portray on the big screen.

Maybe it's because the film industry is dominated by men, but we are often presented with explorations of characters that dwell on life's extremes, presented through portrayals of pure and malicious evil on the one hand or a mad, high-camp humour that tries to make a mockery of the realities of life, on the other.

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho is among the few to have dug a lot deeper in his 2009 thriller Mother. It is a classic of the genre that tries to unravel a few of the many layers that flesh out the relationships with the most important women in our lives.

There is a connection there that has many different elements to it and I think that is why this relationship is so popular with directors
Bong Joon-Ho

"Like many other directors, I am curious about this human relationship," says Bong, who brought a remastered black-and-white version of his film to this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival. "I think it is the strongest relationship between humans - the relationship we all have with our mothers.

"This is especially the case in Asian countries, such as Korea, where it seems there is a special connection. The boy comes from inside her, but is of the opposite sex. There is so much going on, so much you can explore. There is a connection there that has many different elements to it and I think that is why this relationship is so popular with directors."

With that in mind, and on the day that we celebrate the lives of those who brought us into the world, here's a look back at some of cinema's greatest mums.

Family matters

The Grapes of Wrath (1940, directed by John Ford): the all-American male was Ford's usual stock in trade, but in fully realising the majesty of John Steinbeck's classic novel, he turned to stage and screen veteran Jane Darwell - who won the best supporting actress Oscar for the role - to play the Joad family matriarch. And in Ma Joad, she taps into the hopes and desires that drove the American dream. While much of the attention went to Henry Fonda as troubled son Tom, Darwell provides the film's heart, a woman who fights against the odds to keep her family together - and to give them hope when all seems lost.


Yes, mother

Psycho (1960, directed by Alfred Hitchcock): much has been written about Hitchcock's own sometimes troubled relationships with the women in his life and it has been claimed he often took out his frustrations on the female cast in his films. This time, however, for one of cinema's creepiest probes into the mother-son dynamic, he gave Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates) full rein to take on both roles as a man so obsessed by his mother that he literally becomes her. Unsettling on so many levels, the revelation of the Norman-mother creature is a masterstroke.

Desperate times

Two Women (1960, directed by Vittorio De Sica): Italy had long been under Sophia Loren's spell by the time master director De Sica decided to cast her as a mother trying to shield her young daughter from the horrors of war. The entire world was soon in the actress' thrall and her Oscar-winning turn hinges on just how real her desperation seems. Little wonder to learn then that Loren had similar wartime experiences to lean on - her own mother had taken her to the relative safety of the countryside - and the film did much for a country that at the time was still coming to terms with the consequences of what can happen when fate is taken out of our hands.

Sealed with a kiss

The Manchurian Candidate (1962, directed by John Frankenheimer): for a generation raised on Angela Lansbury as the loveably determined sometime sleuth in TV's Murder, She Wrote, it's hard to picture her as the embodiment of pure evil. This cold war thriller has ice pumping through its veins and it swirls around a plot to bring down the United States government. That the mother so wilfully betrays her own son (revealed with a kiss) as well as her country was enough to put the fear of god into a nation at a time when paranoia wasn't so much feared as encouraged.

The woman next door

The Graduate (1967, directed by Mike Nichols): the look on Dustin Hoffman's face on the poster for Nichols' coming-of-age classic says it all. There's temptation and confusion in a single glance as Hoffman - playing a young man going nowhere - considers life's possibilities. Chief among them, of course, is a seductive neighbour (the mother of his future girlfriend) and as the hapless lad falls under her spell, we both laugh at his clumsiness and cringe at the thought of his fantasies. Anne Bancroft is the kind of seductress most men find hard to cope with - she's simply servicing her own needs with scant regard for the effect they have on others.

Playing for laughs

The House of 72 Tenants (1973, directed by Chor Yuen): a remake of a Chinese classic that was a monster hit in Hong Kong, Chor brings together a multitude of stars from the time and taps into just about every clichéd local character imaginable. But it is Lydia Shum Tin-ha as the shrewish Shanghai Po who steals the show, making the film her own and setting a template for Hong Kong mothers as comedy would present them over the following generations. It was a role that would come to define Shum's stellar career.

In the name of love

Mommie Dearest (1981, directed by Frank Perry): every child's worst nightmares take the shape of screen siren Joan Crawford as played by Faye Dunaway. It was a role that divided the critics who seemed to rest in two camps - either they revelled in its sheer monstrosity or snickered at the fact that Dunaway sometimes stretches the boundaries of believability. But there is no denying that the premise itself - a woman bereft of love can drain every drop of it from those supposed to be held nearest and dearest - taps into the darkness that rests in the human soul.

Nature vs nurture

Aliens (1986, directed by James Cameron): Sigourney Weaver gave us one of the strongest female characters ever presented on the big screen. When her maternal instincts take over Ripley reveals herself to be the match for anything nature can throw at her. Protecting a young girl from a fate worse than death becomes her primary focus - and the action is amped up by the fact that she comes face to face with a beast intent on protecting its own brood. It becomes a fight, simply, for survival.

Poetic justice

Mother (2009, directed by Bong Joon-ho): when family is all you have, to what lengths would you go to protect it? That's just one of the questions Bong asks in his gripping thriller which casts the grand dame of Korean cinema, Kim Hye-ja, in its lead as a woman pushed to the edge. When her son is accused of murder, the mother in question not only refuses to accept the facts, she sets about distorting them as she fights to clear his name. Kim produces a lesson in how to portray steely resolve - and offers the kind of love only a mother can have for a son.

Animal instincts

Animal Kingdom (2010, directed by David Michôd): another production that revealed a talent to the world that the locals had long celebrated. A one-time star of bawdy Australian 1970s comedies, Jacki Weaver plays Janine "Smurf" Cody. In the course of this film she strips away the picture we are initially given of a mother who has simply lost control of her kids. Weaver slowly allows her character's inner demons to rise to the surface and we are left with a portrait of pure evil that deservedly earned her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress.

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