Previously, I counted down the top 10 worst movie mothers of all time. There’s no particular reason why I opted to list bad movie mothers before tackling the good ones, I hasten to clarify. But obviously, but there’s never a bad day to pay tribute to mothers, right?
10. Alice Hyatt, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
Erin Brockovich almost made it into this slot in the single mom sweepstakes, but I prefer this Oscar-winning performance from the actress Julia Roberts beat out at the 2000 awards. Ellen Burstyn’s raw, very real performance anchors Martin Scorsese’s domestic drama. (She’s every bit as good, though a bit less “admirable” as a mother, in 1973’s The Exorcist.)
09. “Euphegenia Doubtfire,” Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
Give up one of ten slots on a list of mothers to a father? What could I possibly be thinking?! Well, to be honest, the movie’s message seems to be that the best thing a father can do for their children is to be a little bit more like their mother. That’s pretty progressive, no?
08. Donna Trenton, Cujo (1983)
Dee Wallace’s performance in E.T. would’ve been fine here too, but there’s something awesomely ferocious and protective at work here. No scene hits on the combination of love, terror and frustration that motherhood can invoke quite like the scene when Donna snaps at her dying son, screaming “Alright, I’ll get your daddy!” Another strong candidate in this same vein (from the same year, even) is Jane Alexander as Carol Wetherly, helplessly watching her family die in the aftermath of nuclear disaster in Testament.
07. Mildred Pierce, Mildred Pierce (1945)
Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford topped the list of bad moms. But the real Joan Crawford played one of the best, or certainly one of the most (unbelievably) selfless mothers ever.
06. Mrs. Parker, A Christmas Story (1983)
Melinda Dillon has been a fantastic movie mother not once, but twice. She earned an Academy Award nod for, basically, radiating sheer maternal warmth in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but it’s her performance in this holiday classic that will endure. Fully rounded, she allows her ’40s suburban mom to come off exactly as Ralphie (the narrator) remembers her, a bundle of neuroses wrapped up in nostalgia.
05. Julia, Julia (2009)
OK, Tilda Swinton’s alcoholic hot mess doesn’t exactly start out as a model mother. In fact, she only gets progressively worse after her introductory bender. The fact that the “child” she “mothers” is actually not hers, and that she actually kidnaps him at gunpoint … well, I guess you could call this my unconventional pick. But watch the movie and see if Swinton doesn’t turn you into a convert.
04. Ma Joad, The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Pathos and sacrifice aren’t required to be a great mother. But they don’t exactly hurt when it comes to movie representations.
03. Annie Johnson, Imitation of Life (1959)
See above. Also, see this movie, probably the best pre-Civil Rights era Hollywood movie to tackle racism in America.
02. Diane Freeling, Poltergeist (1982)
Steven Spielberg movies have had a lot of great moms, but the best of them all was in a movie he only wrote and produced. JoBeth Williams’ devoted mother remains steadfast even when otherworldly souls snatch her youngest daughter and take her into the dimension between life and death. She even plunges into the otherworld without so much as batting an eye, all in the name of protecting her kin.
01. Helen Buckman, Parenthood (1988)
The 1980s are positively littered with single mothers doing it for themselves. Many of them balanced career and family without a hitch. Dianne Wiest’s Helen Buckman doesn’t fall into that trap. She’s constantly perched on a fine line, trying to keep it together as her divorce continues to resonate and her children grow into their troubled teens. All the while, she maintains a mordant sense of humor about the whole mess. This is the realest portrait of suburban middle-class motherhood I’ve ever seen in a movie.
Eric Henderson is a web producer and film blogger for WCCO.COM.