It’s Mother’s Day, and being the film-minded folks that we are, we cannot help but instantly try to assemble a mental (or in this case literal) list of the most iconic mothers in all of filmdom. Here’s the thing, though, so many of these lists that are made tend to be general enough that they can consider pretty much every type of mother in films. By which I mean, they will take an open approach as to the different types of motherhood and parenting before settling on the ones that are in fact the most memorably notorious examples. As such, the top spots are normally given over to, well, abusive lunatics. Mommie Dearest, Carrie, The Manchurian Candidate, Psycho, Precious, The Brood… these are all films that have excellent examples of unforgettable mothers from throughout film history, and of course they would be the first ones to spring to mind, but I sure wouldn’t want to have any of them as my mother.
So, without further ado, ten of the best mothers to ever grace the silver screen.
Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) from Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
In The Terminator, Sarah Connor was a regular waitress in her late teens, without any real plans or prospects for the future. One run in with a time-travelling cyborg killer later, and byTerminator 2 she was carved out of wood. Driven, smart, fearless, a survivalist with a single goal: keep her son alive at all costs, because he is mankind’s only hope. With the knowledge of what her son will become, she in turn becomes the most protective mother on Earth. This certainly leads her down some dark paths, and her violent ways can be difficult to deal with, but her dedication to her son is unmatched. Really, the only other mother on this list that offers any kind of competition as the most fearlessly protective is…
Okay, technically Ripley isn’t actually Newt’s mother, but that is all that is, a technicality. When Ripley discovers that frightened young girl living in a crawlspaces and air ducts of a colony overrun with Xenomorphs, her maternal instincts kick in. The parent/child bond that grows between the two is fast and utterly resolute (there’s actually a deleted scene in which Newt formally asks Ripley to be her mother). There’s even an instant of motherly standoff between Ripley and the Queen, each trying to protect their young, and it’s a hell of a moment. Don’t tell me Ripley isn’t a mother, because she’ll soon be knocking on your door with a Power Loader and a few choice words for you.
(Also, note that this is the second mother character to come from James Cameron to appear on this list. Hmm, wonder if that's a thing...)
For all of this talk of fierce determination and protection of their child, there is one aspect to the role of mother that is equally important: care. The kind of loving affection that only a mother can provide. To that end, neighbourhood Avon lady Peg Boggs is surely a sterling example of such a quality. Already a loving mother to two of her own children, she proves her maternal credentials even further by taking in a young man she finds living alone in an old Gothic mansion. Admittedly, this begins a chain of events that some may come to regret, but her sweetness and warmth are a beacon of motherhood. And by God, does she make those pastel colours work.
This South Korean tale of mystery and murder shows the lengths to which one elderly mother proves her devotion to her son when she decides to play detective in an attempt the solve the crime that her slow-witted son has been accused of committing. Her journey is a harsh one, and she comes to expose herself to some harrowing truths, and it’s her profound dedication to the son she believes to be innocent that leads her to make some very difficult choices. Morality and maternity split and clash throughout, and all because of a mother’s unwavering belief in and love for her child. And Kim Hye-ja is utterly astounding in the role. If you haven’t seen this already, do it now.
Kay Miniver is pretty much the gold standard in the realm of keeping the family together in the face of great adversity. Chronicling the trials of a British family trying to keep a stiff upper lip during the chaos of the Second World War, as well as the difficulties of family life, Kay is what every family needs. She is the fixed point, the voice of reason, the face of strength against the hardest of times. Garson was so good and became so inextricably connected to that role and the sentiment behind it, she utilised the public’s familiarity with her to sell the war effort and keep up morale. And that’s some pretty strong care right there.
(Fun fact: Greer Garson’s Best Actress acceptance speech for this film is the longest in Oscar history, running in at over five minutes long. She is effectively the reason we now have a time limit.)
Mothers were not always mothers. Before they became so, they were other things, too. And you know what? They are still those things, long after they become parents. Alice Hyatt is like that, a mother who never forgot the dreams she had in her youth. A former singer who gave up her career when she married, she quickly grabs the opportunity to make another crack at that life, taking on two jobs to support herself and her son whilst she does it. Ellen Burstyn gives a wonderfully naturalistic performance as Alice, with an easy rapport with the young boy playing her son and lots of nicely subtle moments that denote just the different shades of person exist under Alice’s skin. That’s what Alice shows us, that all mothers, including yours, have more to them than just the ways of a parent.
René Clément’s Gervaise is a film that is more generally about the corrosive affect of alcoholism, but it is told from vantage point of the title character, a laundress living in 1860s Paris. Her dream is a humble, but I’d say an undeniably honourable one: to improve the social standing of herself and her family by starting her own laundry business, through which she can build savings and fulfill the promise of a better life. Really, who wouldn’t want that? Her courage and determination are often sadly undermined by both the period in which she lives, and those to whom she attaches herself. Hardship, men and the demon drink all seem to conspire against her, but no one can say she doesn’t try her hardest to provide and care for her family.
I have it on good authority (that authority being my own mother) that having a child means being in a pretty much permanent state of worry over their well-being. You worry about their safety, their health, their life choices, everything. And when your child is afflicted with a condition that would seem to invite the worst kinds of treatment from other people, this can only be magnified. Mask tells the true story of Rocky Dennis, a boy born with craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, causing him to have an abnormally enlarged and disfigured cranium. Many treat him with fear and ridicule, which is why he has a mother like Rusty. Played exquisitely by Cher, Rusty is as devoted and ferociously protective of her son as a mother could be. Sure, she is not without her own big problems, but she will let no one mess with her kid.
Sally Field has more than a few really good mother roles under her belt. Don’t believe me? Look at Forrest Gump, Steel Magnolias, Eye for an Eye, Lincoln, Mrs Doubtfire, Punchline, Not Without My Daughter, (technically) The Amazing Spider-Man… the woman has quietly cornered the market on movie mothers, and she has delivered pretty much every single time. However, if it were up to me (and it’s my list, so it is), I’d have to pick her portrayal of Edna Spalding as her best. Yes, it’s the role that won her the Oscar for which she then did her notorious “You really like me!” bit, but she really is superb as the Texan widower forced to raise a family and maintain her farm almost by herself. Edna is determination, stubbornness and vulnerability, and most certainly belongs on a list such as this.
Mothers are expected to be everywhere and everything for everyone, getting pulled in so many different directions and expected to keep it up. It’s this idea that led to the creation of Elastigirl, superhero and mother in the household of the Incredibles. Voiced by the ever wonderful Holly Hunter, Helen Parr really is a woman capable of incredible feats, literally able to stretch herself to match up to the task of being a mother. She longs for her children to have a normal life, away from the scorn she felt herself in her younger days, but she wants them just as much to be comfortable with who they are. However, when push comes to shove and shove comes to supervillain, she’ll break out the spandex and fight as hard as anyone.
There are clearly so many other characters that deserve the recognition for being good mothers. So, suggestions of your own? The comments below are where you can make your case. Have at it.