As much as I loved counting down the top movie mothers of all time … counting down the 10 worst is just more fun. I have no idea what that means in the long run, but in any case, here is a poison pen letter to cinema’s mothers we all love to hate.
10. Delia Deetz, Beetlejuice
OK, this will be a pretty nerdy reference point, but I remember as a kid creating characters for Palladium role-playing games and having to decide on their moral alignment. I’d always create villains, but would never go full-on “diabolical.” Instead, I’d chose “miscreant,” someone who acted badly and knew it, as opposed to the white-is-black-and-black-is-white types who were so evil they were simply oblivious to their own capacity for maladaptive acts. In that spirit, I give the lead-off slot here to Catherine O’Hara’s wickedly funny mom in Tim Burton’s best film. She’s never totally malicious, but I can’t think of too many domestic outbursts more terrifying than her immortal, “If you don’t let me gut out this house and make it my own, I will go insane and I will TAKE YOU WITH ME!”
09. Ma Jarrett, White Heat
Margaret Wycherly’s Ma Jarrett is actually a pretty loving mother. Loving and overly tolerant. One of the great enablers in film noir, Ma keeps her son Cody (James Cagney) in a constantly alternating state of comfort and disobedience. Her upbringing ensures his maladjusted relationship with the world at large. No matter how much evil he commits, he knows he can return to the foul womb, so to speak. As long as Ma’s there to rub his scalp and chase his migraines away, he’s without guilt.
08. Beverly Sutphin, Serial Mom
The early films of John Waters, Baltimore’s sultan of bad taste, all boast dozens of legitimate candidates for this list, and most of them were played by drag queen Divine. With apologies to his truly putrid maternal figures rampaging through Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, Waters’ most memorable naughty mommy has to be Kathleen Turner’s Beverly Sutphin. A Donna Reed domestic goddess most of the time, Beverly reacts with considerable violence when anything disrupts her world of suburban bliss (i.e. people wearing white shoes after Labor Day). Of all the mothers on this list, she boasts the highest body count, but the mayhem is all in the name of old-fashioned American politesse.
07. Earline Fitzgerald, Million Dollar Baby
Now here’s an interesting case: a mother so bad that most people wish she just wasn’t in the movie at all. Memorably cited among the A/V Club’s worst scenes to infect otherwise great movies, the neglectfully tardy arrival of Hilary Swank’s highly clichéd trailer-trash mother to her hospital bedside is an outrage that upsets the otherwise delicate balance in director Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning sleeper. Margo Martindale is a skilled actress, but there’s not a thespian alive who could’ve made the woman’s decision to stop at Disney World before rushing to her daughter’s aid believable.
06. Mrs. Lift, Throw Momma From The Train
Anne Ramsey could’ve just as easily been on this list for her spin on the Ma Jarrett archetype in The Goonies, but she earned a surprise Oscar nomination for her even more riotous turn as Danny DeVito’s gargoyle mother in this comic riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Ramsey gets a lot of mileage with a face only a son could love.
05. Mrs. Robinson, The Graduate
What begins as a lackadaisical fantasy for young Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) becomes something far more sinister. Anne Bancroft’s cunning performance as the mom next door first stresses Mrs. Robinson’s malaise and loneliness, allowing Ben and audiences alike to fall in love (or thereabouts) with a seemingly forthright, modern woman. But when Ben falls for someone his own age — namely, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter — the claws come out and suddenly mother knows worst.
04. Eleanor Shaw, The Manchurian Candidate
Anyone who knows Angela Lansbury only as Jessica Fletcher or Mrs. Potts will likely find her role as an opportunistic power broker in John Frankenheimer’s classic political thriller a cold slap in the face.
03. Beth Jarrett, Ordinary People
With one fell swoop, Mary Tyler Moore transformed herself from America’s 1970s sweetheart into the next decade’s first great movie witch. As a mother, Beth Jarrett does everything wrong, and when her support systems predictably begin to fail, she reacts with all the guiltless rage of upper-class entitlement. Her favorite son dies in a boating accident, and she reacts to the tragedy by ignoring the son who survived, driving him to attempt suicide. Instead of embracing his efforts to heal, she browbeats her husband for daring to mention his psychological therapy to the neighbors. She chooses to nurture public appearances, and attacks her brood whenever they do or say anything that contradicts that façade. Moore’s brittle performance is a domestic ground zero.
02. Margaret White, Carrie
Piper Laurie was coaxed into this Oscar-nominated role when director Brian De Palma told her the movie was actually a comedy. Talk about a great directorial strategy. Laurie’s performance walks the fine line between hysterical and … well, hysterical. As Carrie’s religious nut mother, Laurie keeps her outcast daughter locked in a broom closet for most of her teenage life and, when she begins making tentative stabs at social normalcy, accuses her of witchcraft. She reasons, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Things get messy.
01. Joan Crawford, Mommie Dearest
Because “No wire hangers!” has now entered the lexicon as a synonym for child abuse. So thoroughly ferocious is Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford (reenacting the juiciest details of Christina Crawford’s tell-all excoriation of her adoptive mother) that her career never recovered. From keeping Christina at the table until she finishes her raw steak to cutting off all her hair to wringing her sassy neck, Mommie Dearest is nothing if not a taxonomy of bad motherhood.