While, typically, mothers in movies have been presented as being noble and self-sacrificing, some movie matriarchs defy such sentimentalism. Their characters are not warm, huggy and sweet, but, often, mean-spirited, self-seeking and scheming. Of course, this makes them a lot more fun to watch than their saintly counterparts.
Three of my favorite examples of the big screen’s “baddest” mamas are:
Bette Davis plays Regina Giddens in the 1941 film version of The Little Foxes. The story takes place during the turn of the previous century.
Regina Hubbard Giddens is a manipulative, conniving Southern woman, who obviously married her husband Horace (Herbert Marshall), because of his fortune. Her scheming ways have caused her spouse to live apart from her. She rules her gentle daughter Alexandra (Teresa Wright) through intimidation, trying to maneuver her into a loveless marriage to a despicable cousin. Regina comes from a family of human “leeches,” whose biggest goal is to cheat and deceive others to attain wealth, rather than work hard to earn it themselves.
Regina uses bullying to bend Alexandra to her will and even tricks her into getting Horace to come back home. The purpose, of course, is to have her now ailing husband back under her control. There is no more chilling a scene than the one in which he collapses on the stairway and pleads with Regina to go get his medicine, only to have her respond with an icy stare, as she stands there and watches him expire.
At the end of the picture, of course, Regina gets what she really deserves. A wised-up Alexandra realizes what her mother has done and moves out. Regina is then left in the midst of all the wealth her greed has amassed, but she is all alone, without the one person left who truly loved her… Alexandra.
Bette Davis’s genius was that she could play reprehensible characters, yet make you feel some strange sense of pity for them. Even though her Regina is cruel and calculating, you can’t help but feel sorry for her, when she finally understands that all her schemes have gotten her is loneliness for the remainder of her life.
The Little Foxes is a somewhat ignored masterpiece that showcases the great Bette Davis at her best…
“Mama Rose” Hovik
The 1962 musical Gypsy, is based upon a Broadway musical that is based upon the real-life story of the late burlesque queen- Gypsy Rose Lee.
Rose, played by Rosalind Russell, is a monstrously ambitious stage mother, whose two young daughters, June and Louise, are forced to go on the road to perform in vaudeville, in a child troupe that Rose has put together. At the start, it’s clear that all of her hopes for “making it big” are penned on the pretty, blonde June, who does have genuine talent. Poor Louise (Natalie Wood) is virtually given second-class status by her mother.
Eventually, an older June gets tired of her mother’s restraints and runs off to marry one of the boys in their troupe. Devastated, Rose then decides to put her focus on Louise, becoming obsessed with turning her into a star. Unfortunately, Louise doesn’t have her sister’s musical abilities, but she does eventually find her “niche” , quite by chance.
When Louise’s act is bumped one night at a questionable theater, Rose overhears that they need a girl to go on, in a vacated spot. This spot, however, happens to be for a stripper. Rose’s horrified fiance Herbie (Karl Malden) protests the idea of subjecting Louise to this, but the ever ruthless Rose pretty much kisses him off and makes Louise go on the stage, telling her, “Remember, be a lady!”
Things are awkward at the start, but, eventually, Louise develops more confidence, literally turning from an ugly duckling into a swan and becoming popular burlesque star-Gypsy Rose Lee. She fights to break away from her mother’s control, which angers Rose, who fancies herself being the real reason for Louise’s success.
When she sings “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” in an empty theater, you realize that Rose’s real motive has always been about her own frustrated dreams for glory, never truly about her children.
At the end, Louise/ Gypsy seems to resign herself to the fact that her mother is always going to be domineering and accepts that reality, without allowing herself to be intimidated by it anymore.
Rosalind Russell chews up the scenery as the selfishly aggressive Rose, willing to sacrifice the happiness of her daughters, in order to achieve fame through their success.
It’s well worth watching Gypsy, just to see her performance. Russell isn’t as remembered as she should be nowadays, but this movie proves that she still deserves respect for her talents.
If June Cleaver and Charles Manson had mated and had a child together, she would probably have turned out like Beverly Sutphin, the suburban wife and mom in “Serial Mom.” You can pretty much expect any film directed by John Waters to be over-the-top and this 1994 movie does not disappoint.
Beverly (Kathleen Turner) is married to a dentist named Eugene (Sam Waterston) and they have two kids, Misty (Ricki Lake) and Chip (Matthew Lillard). They seem like the perfect upper middle-class family unit and Beverly seems like the ultimate “supermom”, until you realize that there is a much darker side to her than even her family knows.
Apparently, she cannot stand anyone who offends her or her family members, so she deals with them the only way she can…by murdering them. She kills her daughter’s boyfriend, an annoying neighbor who cut her off in traffic and a host of other individuals who simply irritate the heck out of her.
When the cops finally figure out that she is the culprit and catch her before she can continue her murderous spree, she becomes a media superstar when her trial is held and gets off scot free. You know, as the movie ends, that she is going to just pick up right where she left off. It may be difficult to believe that something so macabre could be funny, but “Serial Mom” is and it is largely due to Kathleen Turner’s hilarious performance as the dangerous suburban matriarch.
Since she hasn’t had too many film roles in recent years, people may not remember that there was a time when Turner was a huge box office star. Watching this movie will give you a glimpse at how skilled she was as an actress.