Of Moms, Memoirs, and Movies: The Top Five Tragically Bad Mothers on Film
May 11, 2012
Melissa Leo in ‘The Fighter’/Photo © Paramount Pictures
It’s no mystery that mothers often have the juiciest part in any memoir. It stands to reason that the person who played arguably the most pivotal role in our conception and birth should be featured prominently in any honest account of a person’s life. Think of it as cosmic payback for bearing the brunt of the blame for the deepest emotional damage accrued during childhood and beyond. Mothers also seem to take the hit for not better preparing their spawn for the collision with the human condition that often hits around middle age. We’re talking here about the disappointment that comes with the realization that we’re born into an imperfect world where the promise of unconditional love dooms us to a lifetime of relationships with people who fail to buffer us from the existential truth of our essential aloneness.
Who is to blame for the despair and indignation that goes along with these existential reality checks? The messenger, that’s who. And the first person to deliver the message (implicitly or explicitly) is more often than not one’s mother. Talk about a setup for failure and disappointment. It’s no wonder the most memorable mothers on screen and in print are rarely characters to whom you’d ever entrust your kids.
To commemorate Mother’s Day — and what may be our society’s most high-pressure job with the lowest odds for success — we’ve assembled the following collection of a few the most indelible memoir-based movie moms, each more flawed than the next. And in the spirit of the big family dinner table that is the virtual world we all now inhabit, we hope you’ll weigh in with a few of your most and least favorite cinematic mother figures.
“Running with Scissors” (2006)
Few behaviors place children at a higher risk of a therapy-filled future than a mother figure with a poetic temperament and a pretentious conviction that the rest of the world is slightly dumber and less deserving of attention and praise. And though Augusten Burroughs‘ mom scores off the charts in both categories, he seems to regard his manic-depressive mother (played with great panache in Ryan Murphy’s big-screen adaptation by Annette Bening) with wry affection, as if his teenage self knows that all her crazy antics will add up to good material for his yet-to-be-written memoir. Among the many questionable judgment calls set in motion by Burroughs mere is her decision to send her fourteen-year-old to live with her eccentric therapist, whose home office comes complete with a “masturbatorium.”
“Anywhere But Here“ (1999)
Before the man-child became a pop cultural trope, there was its precursor: the mom-child. This subset of the species is often staggeringly ill-equipped for parenthood partially due to a generational quirk that arrested their development just as the sexual revolution and media age were getting under way. This phenomenon goes a long way toward explaining the epidemic of bad 1970s parenting (e.g., inappropriate exposure to movies, pornography, and other forms of media; acrimonious divorce). This confluence of events also sparked an epidemic of beautiful narcissistic women who became convinced that they were destined to be discovered by Hollywood and inducted into the cult of fame.
In this adaptation of Mona Simpson’s eponymous reflection on her peripatetic childhood, a young Natalie Portman plays the author as a soulful participant observer riding shotgun as her self-absorbed mother (Susan Sarandon in tragic past-her-prime bombshell mode) chased her dream in the half-promised land of the slums of Beverly Hills. This film follows the tandem coming-of-age stories for both mother and daughter and makes a compelling case for the ways in which a parent’s half-baked ambitions and unrealized dreams can motivate a child to achieve great things, if only to avoid a similar fate.
“This Boy’s Life” (1993)
In 1989, Tobias Wolff wrote the ne plus ultra memoir of surviving a childhood miserables. Wolff’s unsentimental telling of his hard-scrabble Oregon boyhood burrows deeply into a dark and dusty place in a reader’s emotional storage bin, where personal memories are stored with a few characters and scenes picked up in only the most resonant books and movies, This Boy’s Life chief among them. The indignities Wolff suffered growing up with a first-generation single mom, an early-adopter 1950s version of the can-do archetype (played with well-meaning resignation by Ellen Barkin) and a bullying stepfather (Robert De Niro) may have been particular to young Wolff’s less-than-ideal upbringing. But, both on the page and on the screen, Wolff’s story unfolds with such ruthless grit and truth-telling self-awareness, it’s hard not to find something familiar in each of the flawed characters populating this story of a mother and son’s imperfect, but genuinely loving, union.
“The Fighter” (2010)
David O. Russell films merit their own chapter in the annals of movies featuring epically unfit mothers. His 1994 directorial debut, “Spanking the Monkey,” featured a sexually frustrated college student who has a deeply unsettling fling with his mom while home for summer break. But it’s hard to imagine a more maddeningly destructive mother than the one at the heart of “The Fighter,” based on the life (yet to be committed to memoir) of blue-collar pugilist, Micky Ward, who spent as much time battling dysfunctional family members as he did beating back beefy boxers in the ring. His mother, a fierce creature of interest in spandex, peroxide, and shiny red daggers for nails, wields her maternal power like a vengeful goddess righteously determined to ruin her sons’ lives by expecting too much of one and not enough of the other. Of course, it’s hard for any mother to admit that she’s severely misjudged her own children. But Micky Ward’s mom is a piece of work of epic proportions, so shocking in her stage-mom selfishness, her character on screen was so singularly corrosive that Melissa Leo netted her second Oscar for playing the role.
“Being Flynn” (2012)
The homeless father figure at the heart of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is a dramatic and charismatic character who receives more than his fair share of attention and air-time throughout Nick Flynn’s picaresque reflection on his alcohol-soaked coming of age, which spans his early childhood through early middle-age. But the feminine half of Flynn’s parental equation seems to haunt the narrative, remaining just powerful and palpable in her absence as his father is in his ubiquitous iniquity. Flynn and his brother drew a disastrously bad hand in the parenting department – deadbeat is too generous a term to describe his father; his mother tried to provide for her sons working in diners until she couldn’t and finally committed suicide. But there is something tragic-heroic about the sense of we’re-better-than-this dignity his mother brought to her daily struggle to survive. In director Paul Weitz’ moody rendering of Flynn’s book, Julianne Moore brings a fragility and sense of untapped potential to the role that leaves you wondering what that woman (and so many others like her) might have accomplished if fate had fallen in her favor.
Tags: Annette Bening, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Anywhere But Here, Bad Mothers, David O. Russell, Memoirs and mothers and movies, Micky Ward, Mona Simpson, Mother's Day, Nick Flynn, The Fighter, This Boy's Life, Tobias Wolff, Tragic Movie Mothers
- Spider-Man Forever: Sony Confirms Sequels Through 2016 Also today: Richard Scarry's critters reimagined, Sandra Bul...
- Blood, Bones & BRAAAAAINS: A Quick History of Pre-'World War Z' Zombies No matter what you call them — the undead, living dead, rean...
- Fathers of Steel: 8 Dads Now on Screens, Big and Small As Man of Steel lands in theaters just in time for Father's ...
- Lit’s-Eye View: 6 Takeaways from the WGA’s List of the 101 Best Written Television Shows In spite of some misfires, the Writers Guild of America shin...
- To Good Health, Doctor Who: 12 Tips for the Twelfth Doctor As Matt Smith prepares to retire his role as the Eleventh Do...