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The ideal date? Mom’s the word

Special to The Times

And the winner for best date is: Mom?

She could be the ideal date for awards season. Nicole Kidman has brought her to awards shows for years. Charlize Theron has been taking her everywhere this Oscar season. Naomi Watts plans to bring her to the Oscars. Even Justin Timberlake and Sean Penn have been seen with her. Suddenly, Mom is the hottest date in town.

“Mothers are Hollywood’s latest accessories on the awards show circuit,” declares publicist Bebe Lerner of Bumble Ward and Associates.

It wasn’t always thus. Less than 10 years ago, taking mom to a big event was considered odd, even suspicious. In 1996, Kevin Spacey brought his mother to the Oscars and thanked her in his acceptance speech after winning the supporting actor statuette for “The Usual Suspects.” He got so much flak for his date that in his 2000 acceptance speech (for lead actor, “American Beauty”) he responded: “And Mother, I don’t care what they say about bringing you to awards shows, I will always bring you to awards shows ‘cause I’m proud of you and I love you.”

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In between Spacey’s wins, James Woods managed to escort his mother to the Oscars, with no noticeable backlash. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon won plaudits for taking their mothers down the red carpet in 1998. At the podium (for original screenplay, “Good Will Hunting”) Affleck thanked both moms, calling them “the most beautiful women here” (a common sentiment for victors expressing appreciation for their moms). Perhaps the stars’ youth gave them more leeway with their choice of dates; they came off looking kind of adorable.

Since then, stars have occasionally brought along their mothers -- and, yes, a father or two. But over the past year or so, the rare mother sighting has practically become de rigueur. Certainly moms deserve the honor to accompany their famous children on their big nights. But why, after all these years, are so many of them getting what they deserve now?

Trish McDermott, who bears the agreeable title of vice president of romance at the Internet dating site Match.com, posits a serious theory.

“I think it may tie into 9/11,” McDermott says. “Our priorities shifted, we thought about the people who matter most to us and gave ourselves permission to love and appreciate those who truly matter in our lives.”

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A longing to feel safe was high on everyone’s priorities as well. Who makes us feel safer than mom? OK, a fireman, but the uniform would clash with the couture.

Feeling safe can be of paramount importance in the wake of more personal traumas as well. After the very public Nicole Kidman-Tom Cruise split, there was tremendous speculation about whom she would bring to the Academy Awards last year. Best actress winner Kidman was able to gracefully sidestep the issue entirely by escorting her mother down the red carpet. Best actor winner Adrien Brody also brought his mom to the ceremony (though he saved his famous kiss for Halle Berry).

It’s OK to be single

A change in social trends could also account for the growing popularity of the mom date. “More and more people are saying they no longer feel stigmatized to be single,” says McDermott, whose company is constantly surveying singles. “It may be that celebrities are feeling that single is not necessarily a transitional state that they’re clamoring to get out of.”

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Celebrity singles don’t feel the need to create the perception of romance in their lives with some trophy date, so they’re free to bring someone they really love. In the process, they look even more appealing. “All of that may actually be adding to their clout, their desirability and charisma,” McDermott says.

Whether single or otherwise engaged, the A-listers have clout to spare. Kidman brought her mother to this year’s Golden Globes, as did nominees Cruise, Theron and Troy Garrity. (Garrity’s mother, Jane Fonda, is pretty familiar with these events.)

In fact, Theron, a favorite to win best actress this year for her role in “Monster,” has been hauling her mother everywhere from the Santa Barbara Film Festival to the Academy Awards nominee luncheon. Keisha Castle-Hughes, the 13-year-old star of “Whale Rider,” also brought her mother to the nominee luncheon, fitting in with many of the more seasoned nominees. The surprising presence of the notoriously reluctant star Penn at the event was only compounded by the sight of his mother on his arm -- he actually looked happy to be there. And Watts excitedly told the press that her date for the Oscars would be her mother.

We all know about comfort food. Maybe this is comfort dating. After all, moms are a low-stress, low-maintenance option. Even Joan Rivers would think twice before dissing your mom’s outfit. Moms have always got your back. Chances are they won’t get drunk and try to hit on your co-star at one of the parties. They also know how to fade into the background if you want to check out the scene. “ ‘You go ahead and play with your friends, I’ll just sit here,’ ” Lerner imagines a mom saying to her star offspring. Mothers would also be great in case the unthinkable happens. “If you don’t win, Mom will take you for ice cream,” Lerner suggests.

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They can even help with damage control. A week after Justin Timberlake’s faux pas at the Super Bowl, he took his mother to the Grammy Awards. Inadvertently or not, it sent a message. “If you’re involved in something a little edgy and you want to pull back a bit, it’s good to remind people that you’ve got a mom and that you still speak to her,” notes Allan Mayer, head of the entertainment section of the crisis management group Sitrick & Company.

Even as this trend grows, other branches of the family tree are getting in on the action. Susan Sarandon, Robin Williams, Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas, Sting, Jamie Lee Curtis and Christopher Guest, and Andre 3000 of OutKast have all been seen at big events in the last year with their children in tow. Hey, it saves a ton on babysitting. And who’s going to enjoy sitting through four hours of awards show revelry more than a date who’s up past their bedtime?

Melissa Rivers, host for E! Entertainment, who has been working red carpets with her mother, Joan, for eight years, has lately been seeing entire families come along for the big nights -- parents, kids, siblings. After all, “a movie takes a big commitment from everyone around the actor or producer or director,” she says, “they all lived the experience.” They all deserve some of the recognition. “But Mommy pulls rank,” she says. After all, she gave you life. The least you can do is give her your goody bag.


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