I remember reading somewhere that the legendary two-time Oscar-winning actress Shelley Winters once commented that, as a woman, the only way to secure longevity in Hollywood was to play mothers. Winters indeed proved this to be true, playing mothers of all kinds in both Disney fare such as Pete’s Dragon and WTF indies like as Wild in the Streets. The actress became so much the go-to for playing mothers in Hollywood, that she found herself turning down such roles (including that of Bette Midler’s mom in Beaches). However, while she may never have been short of work, the types of mothers Winters found herself playing were lacking in depth and believability, usually failing to capitalize on her considerable talents as an actress.
The latter part of Winters’ career and, more specifically, the characters she played, is more than a little telling about how Hollywood has typically treated mothers both then and now. For decades now, it seems that mothers in films have served as a mere function within the story, rather than actual human beings, never fully coming to life. Even more sad is seeing once-great and beloved actresses relegated to playing these nothing characters. Watching Oscar winners Kim Basinger and Jessica Lange (pre-AHS resurgence) play colorless fourth fiddle to the likes of Zac Efron and Channing Tatum, respectively, makes every cinephile shake their head in sadness.
However, this year seems to be different.
Many year-end high-profile releases feature women who are mothers at the forefront of their films, such as Jackie and 20th Century Women. Fences and Arrival can certainly be included on this list in that both films feature well-written female protagonists who just so happen to be mothers. All fantastic films, all featuring mothers at the center. However, the fact that each of these characters are mothers is secondary to the overall creation of fully-fleshed and compelling portraits of some of the most deep, complex, and fascinating women the screen has seen in years.
There are, beyond these films, a number of other current titles which acknowledge mothers through a number of deep and telling incarnations, each one painting a multi-layered portrait of parenting in roles big and small. The women in these parts were written strictly as mothers and wonderfully convey different aspects of motherhood and what the title means in ways that cinema rarely has bothered to explore before.
Naomie Harris- Moonlight
It’s hard for anyone but the central character, and perhaps his mentor Juan, to steal the spotlight in Moonlight, but Harris does in every scene she is a part of. In most actresses’ hands, the journey of Paula from loving, single working mother to strung out junkie would seem rather patchy. But Harris is so in sync with Barry Jenkins’s superb screenplay, beautifully bringing to life, in just a handful of scenes, a woman caught in the trappings of a world she fought so hard against. Her final scene in which a sober Paula tells her grown son, “You ain’t got to love me. But you got to know that I love you,” is wonderfully gut wrenching. There is so much pain and regret in Paula at that moment as she accepts all the consequences of what she’s done. Through it all, she needs to make sure her son knows that the love she has for him never died.
Laura Linney- Nocturnal Animals
Linney’s big-haired Texas socialite only pops up for one scene in Tom Ford’s unforgettable thriller Nocturnal Animals, but she makes enough of an impression that lasts until the film’s end. With cocktails, high-end apparel, and jewelry for days, Anne Sutton lives up to every cliche a woman like her would be associated with. This is more than apparent by the selection of a posh Manhattan restaurant as the setting to tear apart at her daughter’s life choices with careful stature and shaky refinement. When her daughter reveals a devastating decision she intends to carry through with, Anne’s tone changes as she takes in what she has just been told and responds with a simple, “Don’t do this. You’ll regret it.” The quiet longing in Anne’s voice and the pleading look in her eyes quietly and instantly strips away the well-constructed facade and reveals a mother at her most primal, trying desperately to shield her daughter from a future she knows will bring her nothing but pain.
Nicole Kidman- Lion
Lion has to be one of the year’s most heartwarming movies thanks to its uplifting and inspiring true story of a young boy from India being separated from his family only to embark on a quest to find them when he grows older. However, no one is more deserving of the accolades the film has received so far than Kidman as the main character’s adopted mother. The actress is positively radiant as she embodies Sue Breitley, a woman who gave up having children of her own, choosing instead to provide a loving home to lost ones who needed it. Having raised two adopted sons, one with severe psychological problems, watching Sue cling to the love for her boys as her main tool for keeping her family together is utterly captivating. When her son hesitantly tells her of his intention to seek out his birth mother, there’s a definite sense of guilt stemming from a feeling that he’s betraying the woman who’s raised him. But when Sue smiles lovingly back at her son as she says, “She needs to see how beautiful you’ve become,” she shows herself to be so in tune as a mother that she instantly knows how important her son’s mission is to both him and the woman who gave him life.
Felicity Jones- A Monster Calls
To say Jones is enjoying a career most actresses would kill for is an understatement. The actress seems to have the film world at her fingertips currently, moving from one buzzed about project to another. Yet its her work in the fantasy/drama A Monster Calls for which she should be most lauded. Ostensibly playing second banana to a child and the titular monster, Jones breaks everyone’s hearts as a mother dying of cancer who will soon leave behind her young son to face the world without her. In all of her scenes we watch her character push her own fears and worries to the side as she valiantly tries with all her might to make sure her son’s childhood remains untarnished by what is happening to her until the last possible moment. “I wish I had 100 years…100 years I could give to you,” she says when the disease finally begins to take her over. “If you need to break things, then by God, you BREAK them,” she tells her son, letting him know the pain and frustration he’s feeling are both normal and should be let out rather than kept bottled up inside. The final thing she can do for her son is to make sure he knows that he will be just fine even after she’s gone.
After so many years of treating mothers the way most teenaged sons have (either hardly acknowledging them or ignoring them altogether), it seems more than apparent that the movies have started to do right in paying homage to cinematic matriarchs of all kinds. If Hollywood can keep this up, it will definitely serve as yet another sign that maybe the times are indeed changing.