I remember Mama. We called her Mom or Mother. Elizabeth McCluskey Corliss lived her entire long life in Philadelphia. For forty-one years Elizabeth taught first grade in the city’s public school system; for thirty years she was married to the love of her life, my father, Paul, until his death in 1963; and for many more years she raised—uplifted—my brother, Paul Jr., and me, teaching us less by command than by example, by her easy charm and uncommon sense. I hardly exaggerate when I say that everyone who knew Elizabeth adored her, and that she repaid that affection a thousandfold. She loved her siblings, her sons, her grandchildren, her whole extended family and the friends she had accumulated over a gracious lifetime.
Her life, which lasted one hundred years, two months and twenty-two days—exactly the span of Gloria Stuart, the actress who played the older Rose in James Cameron’s Titanic—wasn’t all good luck: Within a year and a half in her mid-fifties she lost her husband and a breast to cancer. Her dear sister Margaret, who lived with us, died of cancer a few years later. But nothing dimmed Elizabeth’s dimpled optimism, her belief in the decency of the people she knew. I knew most of them, and I agree they were good. Just not as wonderful as my mom.
Growing up in the 1950s, I imagined that my mother was the inspiration for television moms played by Donna Reed and Harriet Nelson, and that cheerful family programs like Father Knows Best were documentaries filmed with hidden cameras in our neighborhood. TV shows of that decade did what my parents did: teach, comfort and reassure. But who would make a movie of Elizabeth Corliss’s life? In fifties films, I saw few women who reminded me of my mom. James Dean, who I thought nearly matched me in faunlike sensitivity, had a clueless mother in Rebel Without a Cause and a brothel-owning mother in East of Eden. A slew of serious films sprang from novels and plays that ripped the Band-Aid off generational wounds. No movie family convened as we did each evening in the living room, eating tuna salad on table trays and watching the evening news on a twelve-inch Philco set. The Corliss home life was surely worth living, I’ll testify to that, but Hollywood might say it was not worth filming.
I sing the movie mother, proud and strong. Also warm and gentle and, on occasion, misguided or downright nasty. Motherhood has embraced multitudes across the history of the medium, from the earliest peep shows—when that regal mom Mary Queen of Scots was shown being beheaded in an 1895 trick film—through the 1930s-’40s golden age of both Hollywood and mothers, and up to the most modern films, when . . . Wait a minute, what happened? Where have all the mothers gone?
They should still be around, because they always have been. Mothers have driven dramatic literature from Euripides’s Medea in 431 B.C. to Tyler Perry’s Madea today. Ever since the Greeks, the theater has honored the compact between what any audience has experienced—the joys and tensions of the maternal bond—and what it can see onstage. Shakespeare knew that the actions of mothers could stoke classic tragedy: If Gertrude hadn’t married her late husband’s brother, her son, Hamlet, would have been just another morbid teen instead of a palace insurrectionist. In some of the great plays of the mid-twentieth century—Death of a Salesman. Long Day’s Journey into Night, A Raisin in the Sun and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—women address their own or their husbands’ infirmities and the urges of their children, real or imagined. In the last decade, Perry’s touring plays about the sassy Mabel “Madea” Simpson, a character he says is based on his own mother and aunt, may not win drama awards, but they have extended into the twenty-first century the theater’s fascination with mother love.
American television, for its entire lifespan, has teemed with mothers, from Lucy Ricardo and June Cleaver to Marge Simpson and Breaking Bad’s Skyler White. All have served as anchors of love, loyalty and common sense. Mostly, they serve at home, where the hearth is, and the TV set. The media room is near the kitchen, traditionally portrayed as Mom’s domain, and the typical small-screen drama—a weekly habit, not an event—affirms her time-honored values: nurturing, reassurance, continuity, commitment. Learning and hugging, as the old TV rule goes. Mother knows best.
In films of the last half century, though, mothers have nearly become an endangered species. We grant that a modern superhero may have a mom: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) reveres his Fridda (René Russo); and in Man of Steel, Superman (Henry Cavill) has a birth mother (Ayelet Zurer) and an Earth mother (Diane Lane), both of them selflessly devoted to their boy. A villain, like the drug-cartel prince played by Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives, may also have a mother: the cartel queen Kristin Scott Thomas, with a vicious mouth and a malicious will. But mainstream Hollywood has essentially consigned mother stories to foreign films (the Korean Mother and Pieta, for example) and to indie movies of the Sundance stripe (Precious, The Kids Are All Right), which have inherited the domestic-drama genre that long sustained American cinema. In real life, mothers far outnumber superheroes or serial killers in this country—but not on this country’s multiplex screens.
Why is the mother movie near extinction? Let us suggest a few reasons.
1. Movies are about movement. People watch TV but go to a movie. The big screen doesn’t duplicate the cozy home viewing of TV; it’s a giant wall for communal dreams. Having got out of the house, filmgoers presumably wanted to see the characters on that wall do the same: break out of the status quo to court danger and achieve physical triumph. The convention of womanly acceptance gave way to the depiction of manly quests. Unlike the theater and TV, media that from their beginnings embraced the power of the voice, cinema began in silence; it was all show, no talk. On a movie set, a crew member shouts, “Lights, camera, action!”—not “Lights, camera, chatting.”
When sound films replaced silents in the late 1920s, they did become more like theater: filmed plays, in which people talked out their conflicts, often brilliantly. These were sophisticated wars of words, in an arena where women could battle men on equal terms, and win. But most of today’s big movies are all show, little tell; they offer world-threatening scenarios resolved by rockets, space suits, muscles—in a word, manpower. Hollywood replaced weighty subjects with heavy lifting. Superheroes may have mothers, but they aren’t mothers.
2. The role of women has evolved. For millennia, mothers have superbly performed crucial tasks—keeping the brood together, cooking and cleaning, instilling the values of civility and civilization—that were not seen as intrinsically cinematic; they were routine duties, drudge work, homework. In the last half century, the number of women in the workforce has risen sharply until it is now close to the percentage of employed men. That change should have cued a new era of movies about working women, including working mothers. But the demographic trend coincided with the ebbing of movie realism and the blooming of fantasy; we’re talking about you, Star Wars. The mammoth success of that sci-fi epic, surely the single most influential movie of the past forty years, certified Hollywood’s flight away from women (and mothers) and toward heroic sons (with father issues).
The increased economic power of women meant only that they had more money to spend on movies about science-fiction and pulp-fiction men. If women wanted to see the drama and fun of a working mother’s life in fictional form, they watched TV. In the rare cases when a woman is at the center of some big action picture, she is usually the solitary warrior, as unencumbered by children as any Marvel man. Katniss Everdeen couldn’t win the Hunger Games if she had to go home at sundown to cook the kids’ dinner.
3. The audience has evolved. For generations, when moviegoing was a family activity, Hollywood designed its films to appeal to all and offend few. In the half century of feature filmmaking before the industry introduced its rating system in 1968, anyone of any age could see any movie; that fact imposed a self-censorship on filmmakers and a modicum of good behavior on film content. Even in the early years of G-, PG-, R- and X-rated movies, Hollywood believed that, when a dating couple was considering what to see at the Bijou, the woman usually made the choice. Today, that rule doesn’t apply so much. Movies are still a relatively cheap date, but women tend to go in groups to see a women’s movie (Sex and the City, Mamma Mia!) and men go in packs to see guy movies (everything else). Since men, young men, are the crucial demographic in a hit franchise, Hollywood produces stories to appeal to their fantasy self-image.
And that’s just in North America. In the rest of the world—a huge market that accounts for more than half of the business for pictures produced by the big studios—audiences don’t care about the niceties of dialogue, especially as spoken by women with children. The global box office seems to validate this gender prejudice. Of the seventeen films that had earned more than a billion dollars at the worldwide box office through the end of 2013, the top two—James Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic—were, yes, love stories of the Romeo-and-Juliet stripe, on the Atlantic or in outer space, but the heroine’s mother in Titanic was the merest marplot. And Titanic, unlike Star Wars, was seen as a fluke, not a blueprint for a new spate of fateful romances. In the other billion-dollar movies, mothers were usually poignantly distant memories (as with Harry Potter’s late mum) or nonexistent. Only the James Bond film Skyfall boasted a significant maternal figure: Judi Dench’s M, the stern surrogate mom to both 007 and the movie’s villain, Silva. Otherwise, it’s all superheroes, pirates, wizards and Mad Hatters.
That list is tabulated by dollars, which have inflated as ticket prices soared over the decades. But the true measure of a film’s success is tickets sold, and by this standard, five of the all-time top ten films contain significant maternal figures. In tenth place, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: a wicked stepmother, scheming to kill a girl who learns to mother seven small bachelors. At nine, The Exorcist: a single mother battles her child’s possession by demons. At eight, Doctor Zhivago: the search for the lost child of the good doctor and his vibrant love Lara. At three, The Sound of Music: the nun postulant who becomes the wonderful, singing stepmother of seven starchy Austrian kids. And at number one, in what is still the most popular of all films, Gone With the Wind, with three prime maternal roles: Scarlett, the willful belle whose motherhood is creased by tragedy; Melanie, the saintly one, whose baby Scarlett midwifes; and Mammy, the house slave and Earth Mother of them all.
Turner Classic Movies knows the importance of GWTW. It was the first film shown on the network, as well as on its predecessor, TNT, when that channel was the flagship of the Ted Turner’s MGM-RKO-Warner Bros. library. Moms still live in old movies, especially on TCM—which, if it shows a series of Irene Dunne or Fay Bainter films, can seem like Turner Classic Mothers. To look at the movies of Hollywood’s golden age and beyond is to chart both the progression of women’s power and the devolution of motherhood as the defining aspect of womanhood. Recalling the movies’ saintly or sinful women, we hope to bring them back to life in all their heroism and travail, their wit and their passion.
This book will trace the course of movie mothers from their birth in silent films, through their flourishing in the golden age and into the thinning of the herd in later decades. These pages are graced by good moms and bad, stepmothers and surrogate mothers, maternal figures in crime movies, horror films and sci-fi epics. We don’t guarantee that all your favorite movie mothers are included, but we offer more than a hundred for your edification and fond remembrance. You will revisit old friends; you may meet new ones. Where have the movie mothers gone? Here.
A word of warning: Any mother’s story spans her whole life, and we sometimes tell what happens at the end, without the black flag of a SPOILER ALERT. But the appeal of these stories is less in their resolutions than in the details that give mood and meaning to any film. Mothers may die, but they’ll never die out—not on TCM and not in this book, where we remember Mamas: mine, yours and the movies’.