Every year when Mother’s Day comes around, you can bet that there will be a number of articles and lists counting down the most memorable and iconic mother figures the movies ever produced. What always bothers me about these lists, however, is that a large part of them tend to showcase the meanest and most insane of on-screen moms. You can bet that Michelle Pfeiffer’s murderous inmate from White Oleander will make the cut, as will the likes of Piper Laurie’s religious fanatic from Carrie and Angela Lansbury’s political nazi from The Manchurian Candidate. It goes without saying that most of these lists will cap off citing Faye Dunaway’s turn as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest as the most immortal of on-screen mothers.
In this edition of The Archivist, I thought I would pay homage to a pair of lesser-known cinematic matriarchs that have graced the screen by two of cinema’s most skilled and beloved actresses. The Catered Affair starring Bette Davis and Men Don’t Leave starring Jessica Lange offer up two well-drawn portraits of mothers whose love for their children is the sole focus of their films, both of which beautifully illustrate the kind of drive, determination, and spirit which only a mother could posses.
The Catered Affair
In 1956’s The Catered Affair, Bette Davis leads an all-star cast including Ernest Borgnine and Debbie Reynolds in this story of a working-class Bronx family, whose oldest daughter Jane (Reynolds) has announced her engagement to Ralph (Rod Taylor), a good guy from a well-to-do background. When Jane’s mother Agnes (Davis) decides that her daughter should have a proper wedding, family tensions start to rise, especially on the part of Jane’s father Tom (Borgnine), a cab driver whose dreams of getting his own hack may remain just that as his daughter’s wedding looks to eat up his entire life savings.
Based on an original script from Paddy Chayefsky and adapted by Gore Vidal, The Catered Affair is a showcase for some really great actors to do some pretty fine and exceptional work. This is especially true in the case of Reynolds, who, as the frustrated bride to be, gives her finest performance. But its Davis who proves the true standout. In a career which saw her play a plethora of formidable screen heroines, and a few villains/anti-heroes as well, the one area Davis seldom ventured into on the screen was motherhood. Doubtless she probably saw the role of wife and mother as the antithesis of the image of the fierce and independent woman she had cultivated for years during her studio time. But this was the ’50s, her contract days were over, and she had to make do with whatever part she got. And make do she did. In Davis’s hands, the character of Agnes makes for such a complex maternal portrait. Agnes has her moments of getting swept up in the idea of limousines and centerpieces, as well as times dealing with the amount of grief this is giving her husband. However, Agnes isn’t saying yes to all the lavish wedding touches simply to prove to her new in-laws that she and Ralph can afford them, but rather because she feels that Jane deserves them. This is a woman who has struggled all her life and in the end partly feels like she let her children down, despite making a solid and loving home for them. For Agnes, Jane’s wedding will be her ultimate gift to her daughter, and one she is determined to get right.
Men Don’t Leave
Not many people have heard of this touching 1990 drama of a family starting over. Men Don’t Leave stars Jessica Lange as Beth, a happy wife and mother, whose life is turned upside down when her husband dies in a car accident. Forced to begin a new life for her family, Beth moves her and her two sons Chris (Chris O’Donnell) and Matt (Charlie Korsmo) to Baltimore. Despite a promising start, including a new relationship with a musician (Arliss Howard), adjusting to a new way of life proves more than difficult for the new family, with Matt acting out, Chris becoming involved with an older woman (Joan Cusack), and Beth falling into a deep depression, which she must fight to get out of if she hopes to keep her family together.
Two things give Men Don’t Leave the kind of emotional weight needed to rise above other soapy family dramas. The first is the fact that the story of the film is the story of so many people’s real life. The struggle of Beth and her sons can surely be felt among many families who have found their loving unit torn apart by life, which they must put back together using whatever devices they have. The film never shortchanges these people through its characters and their journeys. We see Beth, Matt, and Chris each find coping mechanisms of their own, some of which turn on them, but ultimately help them to heal and grow. The second element working in the film’s favor is the cast. From excellent work by O’Donnell (in his film debut) and Korsmo (one of the greatest child actors of all time), to wonderful supporting turns from Cusack, Howard, and Kathy Bates as Beth’s boss, each member of the cast adds valuable flavor to the film. None prove more compelling than Lange, however, in one of her most poignant leading roles. Watching her take Beth from happy homemaker to optimistic widow and then seeing her descend into a deep depression, which serves as both a mourning for the life and love she lost and the fact that she feels she’s letting her children down, is heartbreaking. Yet it’s Beth’s determination as a mother that provides her with the strength to pull through and give her children a good and happy life.