Tuesday, August 30, 2011

bad mother movies

I clicked past something horrible on the screen the other night, and then found myself clicking back to it, somehow hijacked by the awfulness of it.  I hate bad mother movies.  They're just so painful to watch.

This one turned out to be called 'Raising Genius.'  I'd never heard of it.  Shrill mother in an apron. OCD father reading the paper. Unbearable spoiled smart kid locks himself in the bathroom while working on equations. Therapist who gets trapped into sex with shrill mother looking for better sperm. And why on earth did I watch bits of this thing? Everyone in the movie is almost paralytically dysfunctional.

It reminded me a bit of 'Harold and Maude' — which has, I think, the best bad mother on film.  The 'Raising Genius' bad mother seemed to have been trying to imprint on Harold's mother, but just wasn't able to carry it off.  And the 'Raising Genius' genius kid is named Hal (short for Harold), and almost but not quite has the Harold look.  But he's not smart (in the British sense), and he's not interesting.  And he's as much a piece of work as everyone else in the family.   'Harold and Maude' on the other hand, is a class act across the board. No point even going there: this is something everyone knows.

'The Graduate' comes to mind for Anne Bancroft's bad mother class act.  I saw this one when it came out and found it so disturbing (especially Anne Bancroft's role) that I could never watch it again.  What is it about these bad mother movies that just scares the shit out of me?  Of course 'The Graduate' also drove us all crazy because they're driving the wrong direction on the Bay Bridge to Berkeley, and they used somebody else's campus and called it ours.  WTF?

'Black Swan' turned out to be another bad mother movie, although it didn't overwhelm the film.  Still—what did bad mother do here? Drive daughter beyond retrieval, right smack into the best scene of shape-shifting I've ever seen.  You have to sit through the whole bloody movie to get there, however.

'Ordinary People' had Mary Tyler Moore showing her bad mother chops.  Shocking to see after all her sunny TV persona. Well, wow.

In 'Bee Season' I'm not sure the bad mother counts as bad or just psychotic.  Either way, she's more part of the problem than part of a solution.

'Mommie Dearest.' Enough said.

'Postcards from the Edge' with Shirley MacLaine having a ball doing Debbie Reynolds' bad mother.  This is the most bad mother movie that I can handle. There's contributory negligence enough in here to be doled out all around.

Maybe I can take bad mother movies if they're funny enough.  Without the funny, they throw me into a despondent frenzy.  They're not like real life, are they, where you can pretend to change the outcomes. In the movies you can't change anything.  The bad mother doesn't get any better.  She doesn't learn her lesson. She doesn't change her ways.  She's frozen on the screen, just sitting there in her awfulness, and driving all the action in almost every scene.

Are there good mother movies?

Maybe Jessica in 'Dune'?  Hm.  Nope. Even she (in her ambition and pride) drugs herself on spice while daughter Alia is still in utero. For all her goodness, Jessica's still a bad bad mother.

Are good mothers too boring to put in movies?  Are they crap at motivating their kids to rebel in movie-worthy ways? Are all good mothers dead mothers?  (Think Babar, Curious George, and every fairy tale you ever read as a kid).

Is it only the loss of good mother that leads the little ones out onto their adventure? And if she's not dead yet, do we need the bad mother in order to excel?

Help me here.  I'm thinking about American films not films from other parts of the world.  Are there any good mother films out there that are produced in the US that still work (i.e. aren't sappy or cartoonish) and that really do the job?


  1. I've been on a "bad girl" movie binge but I'm ready to start looking for good mother movies ... meanwhile:
    how about "Rachel Getting Married" = bad, sad mother
    "Paris, Texas" = bad mother redeemed

    and just last night I saw the quintessential bad FATHER movie - "Damage."
    And that one *almost* has a good mother - except there's a hint she's a little too possessive. Can't win.

  2. Scarlet O'Hara is a bad mother, but her mother is a good mother. Of course, she dies -- which is part of the lesson of good mothering. Bambi's mother is good -- she dies, too. The mother in Fly Away Home dies in the first scenes of the film, but her daughter, played by Anna Paquin, becomes a good mother over the course of the movie. To *geese*, but still. Simba's mother in The Lion King, and of course, many Disney mothers -- not the step mothers, but the original mothers who (again) die, leaving their daughters in the hands of all those wicked stepmothers.

    Oh, wait, I know one. Jodie Foster in Finding Bobby Fischer. And Ripley, in Aliens. She may be the best film mother I know.

  3. All Sally Field movies, she either is the bad mother or has one.

  4. Sally Fields, hm. Wonder if that's why I've always hated her acting — I've only seen her do bad-mother!