Are mothers the movie world’s new villains?


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Filmmakers, call your mothers.

Or maybe better yet, mothers, call your filmmaker children. They apparently have some issues with you.

Over decades of moviemaking, mothers have had it pretty good. Sure, every once in a while there’s a Mrs. Iselin, Angela Lansbury’s deviously controlling maternal unit in ‘The Manchurian Candidate.’ But by and large cinematic moms fit into one of several archetypes, all of them affectionate.


There is, first off, the plucky single mom. You know her well -- she’s raising her children in a cruel world, fighting the odds and her own difficult past for the sake of the next generation. We’ve seen her on screen going all the way back to Barbara Stanwyck’s ‘Stella Dallas’ and in a raft of current movies, Laura Linney in ‘You Can Count on Me,’ Maggie Gyllenhaal in ‘Sherrybaby’ and so on.

Then, of course, there’s the fiercely protective mother, capable of extraordinary sacrifice to help her children, like Tilda Swinton coolly covering up her son’s crimes in 2001’s ‘The Deep End.’

And then there’s the victim mother, who suffers a terrible tragedy and lives to tell the tale, the Sissy Spacek character from ‘In the Bedroom’ and so many of her ilk.

And even when movie moms indulge their less angels as overbearing parents, at heart they’re just misunderstood nurturers. Albert Brooks came around on Debbie Reynolds’ meddlesome mom in 1996’s ‘Mother.’ And Meryl Streep may have gotten too involved in her son’s love life in 2005’s ‘Prime,’ but she meant well, didn’t she?

But this year something has changed. All those good mothers have gone and a host evil ones have come to take their place.

Manipulating mothers make appearances in two very different movies this Thanksgiving weekend.

Disney releases ‘Tangled,’ which, if you have small children you’re probably already well aware, offers the character of Gothel, a mother who keeps her daughter Rapunzel sequestered so she’ll forever need and be devoted to her. (The Disney website describes Gothel as someone who ‘lies to Rapunzel about the outside world and everyone in it, making Rapunzel wary of ever leaving her protection.’)

And in ‘The King’s Speech,’ Queen Mary (Claire Bloom), emotionally represses her son so thoroughly he comes out of childhood with a crippling stutter.

It’s only the latest example of bad moms on the big screen. In this summer’s indie darling ‘Animal Kingdom,’ a new kind of maternal monstrosity emerged. Jacki Weaver’s Smurf Cody is a mother (and grandmother) as conniving and power-hungry as any character in Shakespeare. As the New York Times put it, Cody is a ‘magnetic, seductive hybrid of Lady Macbeth and Ma Barker in the camouflage of a cheery suburban grandmother.’ Meanwhile, in the summer art-house breakout ‘Winter’s Bone,’ Jennifer Lawrence’s teenage Ree Dolly is forced to take over parenting responsibilities after her mother has abdicated them. [UPDATE: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said Ree’s mother was a meth addict.]

Bad moms won’t stop anytime soon, either. In Darren Aronofsky’s supernatural drama ‘Black Swan,’ which opens next week, Barbara Hershey is the creepily obsessive single parent to Natalie Portman’s 20-something ballerina. Hershey’s doting is a thin ruse for her own jealousy and desire for control. ‘Sweet child,’ she whispers to her daughter, but with mother keeping progeny locked in a state of perpetual pre-adolescence, it’s more threat than bedtime reassurance.

And the week after that we’ll see ‘The Fighter,’ which introduces the world to one of the most scarily controlling parents ever to appear on screen. As incarnated by Melissa Leo, Alice Ward -- mother and manager to boxing prospect Micky Ward -- has mixed motives every which way, nearly ruining her son’s career for a few thousand dollars in commissions and some emotional payback.

Er, do directors have some issues to work out?

Some of this may simply be a matter of dramatic necessity. Filmmakers look for new villains all the time, and it may well be that after years of plumbing everyone else in the family structure (the creepy uncle lost his cachet years ago), they needed someone new.

The trend does raise a commercial question. Mothers, and women in general, are a huge part of box office and moviegoing decisions. Could all this anti-mother sentiment turn some of them off?

At least in one sense, though, the proliferation of bad mothers is good news. For years we’ve heard about the dearth of substantive roles for actresses, particularly older ones. But these difficult-mother roles offer the chance for older performers (Hershey and Leo are both over 50) to bite into something meatier; indeed, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Oscar nominations for both of them. Maybe directors are recognizing the scarcity of complex roles and creating parts to address the problem.

Or maybe they’re just in need of a good therapy session.

-- Steven Zeitchik

Bottom, Gothel and Rapunzel in ‘Tangled.’ Credit: Disney.