Mother's Day at the Movies 2003
Okay, I didn't actually spend Mother's Day at the movies this year. If you're as lucky as I am, and you have a terrific mother to spend the day with (if only on the phone—sorry, Mom!), you have other occupations on that second Sunday of May. But the season did get me thinking about mothers in film, and I realized that nearly all the movies I attended or rented in the weeks before and after Mother's Day added new faces, new emotions, and new conflicts to the great portfolio of cinematic Mommas. Here is a selection of ten films I recently screened, including current releases and past favorites, and some words about why they seemed especially poignant at this time of year.

For the record, my other idea for this feature was a list of favorite or most memorable movie mothers. There are certainly too many to mention, but for me, even the shortest list would have to include Cicely Tyson in Sounder, Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus, Juanita Moore in the 1959 Imitation of Life, Holly Hunter in The Piano and The Positively True Adventures..., Gena Rowlands in A Woman under the Influence, Divine in Pink Flamingos, and the activist mothers of Harlan County, U.S.A. If you have a favorite movie mother or Mother's Day movie, let me know at—there could be a whole other feature to be made here!

And, also for the record, I love you, Mom! — this feature is for you.

Laurel CanyonBend It Like BeckhamSpiderMarie AntoinetteLong Day's Journey into Night
ClaudineWhat Have I Done to Deserve This?Blue VelvetDolores ClaiborneMother and Son

Now in Theaters

Frances McDormand in Laurel Canyon
Lisa Cholodenko's second feature isn't nearly as coherent or absorbing a piece as her 1998 debut, High Art, starring Ally Sheedy. In the recent canon of films about motherhood, however, it's hard to overlook. Frances McDormand virtually owns the picture as a free-living record producer whose son is mortified by her character and her choices. Her blond-tinted hair hanging loose and her body hugged by a casually slinky wardrobe (that is, when she's dressed at all), McDormand is as good as she usually is, though in truth it's an easy performance to over-praise. So much else in Cholodenko's movie feels choked and undernourished—Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale are blanks as the son and his fiancée, the portrait of the recording industry feels forced and anachronistic, and the sexuality of the film is much more priggish than it thinks—that McDormand is a welcome presence simply because she seems comfortable and accessible to her audience.

Still, there's an interesting, nearly subliminal twist near the end, when the Bale character's real anxiety about his mother reads very differently than it has before: recriminating Mom doesn't feel quite the same when you're toying with her toes by the side of the family pool. Where does one draw the line between acknowledging a mother's sexuality and palpably feeling its pull on oneself? David O. Russell's funny-sad-creepy Spanking the Monkey went further with these ideas, but Laurel Canyon, after an hour and a half of dullish clichés, finally shows some provocative tricks up its sleeve.

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Shaheen Khan and Juliet Stevenson in Bend It Like Beckham
Gurinder Chadha's Bend It Like Beckham is fun if you know what you're getting into: an undeniably spirited, eminently predictable exercise in larkish wish-fulfillment. To the movie's credit, the wishes being fulfilled—those of two talented English girls who dream of fame and happiness as soccer stars—exist outside of Hollywood's typical demographic purview. It's fun and gratifying to see women tearing it up on the football field, though the emotional register is lightly generic and the most shocking affronts to film technique are performed along the way.

A notable but dispiriting context for Jesminder and Juliette's story is that, whenever the film is pressed for a villain, it usually nominates a mother. While Jules' father is gamely practicing kicks with her in the backyard and Jes' father, a conservative Sikh, is the eventual champion of her cause, the mothers of both girls are considerably less sympathetic. Shaheen Khan, as Jesminder's marriage-minded mother, rails and clamors and cries right up till the end, when her hubby's change of heart demands her implausibly sudden concession. Juliet Stevenson, who excels at subdued characters but is also a reliable harpy (see Emma or Nicholas Nickleby), seems to be having fun with her garish caricature, so perhaps we're not meant to notice what a cheaply written part it is. Whatever edge Beckham has would be blunted if everyone cheered Jesminder and Juliette from the outset—but writer-director Gurinder Chadha has trouble paying tribute to one kind of femininity without sticking pins in another. A better movie might have found a different tack.

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Miranda Richardson and Miranda Richardson in Spider
One of the eeriest, most indelible images of motherhood in the American cinema is of Samantha Eggar raising her priestly white smock in David Cronenberg's The Brood and revealing the fetal life-forms that she is nurturing on the outside of her body. Like Pedro Almodóvar, though, Cronenberg has become much more fashionable once his films "matured," which is often a code word for calming down a little.

Spider is so calmed-down that some audiences, at Cannes and at home, have been unmoved; Sony Pictures Classics, calm to the point of catatonia, barely marketed the film despite some early awards buzz, so you'll have to hunt for those prints still wandering around in commercial distribution. But Spider is a worthy find, blending the story of Ralph Fiennes as a quiet schizophrenic in a grungy quarter of London with that of his own childhood memories, when his mother (Miranda Richardson) was murdered by his father and replaced with a local prostitute (also played by Richardson). The raves for the film are as dodgy as the pans—Amy Taubin, the best critic around, has credited Spider with formal ingenuities that Cronenberg has consistently achieved since at least Dead Ringers. Still, as the film reveals more and more despair in Fiennes' maternal memories, that Cronenbergian vapor of unplaceable melancholy takes hold of the picture, and it stays with you for days.

From the Vault

Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette
Norma Shearer is still The Star Who Got Away, a fading cultural memory even as old rival/counterparts from MGM like Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford remain contemporary touchstones. Her declining notoriety over the years may stem from a waspish perception at the time that she only landed her plum roles by being the wife (and eventual widow) of studio head Irving Thalberg. Sure, someone who wasn't in Norma's matrimonial position couldn't have talked their way into the part of Juliet at the age of 36. (Her costar, Leslie Howard, was 43.) Still, Norma had chops, and happily, she has some strong advocates at Turner Classic Movies, which shows an enduring predilection for re-broadcasting her hits.

1938's Marie Antoinette is one of Norma's greatest. Historically and politically, the film could hardly be more laughable: watch as Norma reacts with horror at the news that nefarious courtiers are buying jewels for her behind her back...don't they know people are starving outside?! King Louis' greatest crimes here are that he is oafish and egg-shaped; Marie herself seems to have no faults at all, and the film itself spares no expense at conjuring her world as a glittering panorama of balls and summits and semi-passionate clenches. The picture is fun in spite of, or maybe because of, its brazen ahistoricism, but then, in the last act, Norma Shearer single-handedly changes the temperature as she and her young son and daughter are jailed and readied for the guillotine. Marie Antoinette begins as a light and improbable melodrama but ends as something genuinely sad and surprisingly heavy: the story of a mother whose children are about to die. The movie is expensive piffle. The Revolution is a cartoon, but Shearer's performance, as they say, is a real coup.

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Katharine Hepburn in Long Day's Journey into Night
Q: Ask me where I most wish I were right now? A: Anywhere near Broadway, where Vanessa Redgrave is currently slaying critics and audiences with her rendering of Mary Tyrone, the ghostly, morphine-addicted, adoring, and terrible mother who lords over Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night. Redgrave is one of my favorite actresses, and certainly one of our most spectral. It is hard to imagine that her performance isn't a feat.

And yet, watching Katharine Hepburn's scalding performance in Sidney Lumet's film version is hardly a consolation prize. By 1962, no one doubted that Hepburn could do anything; her previous performance, as the fanged, son-obsessed doyenne of Suddenly, Last Summer, had also illumined totally new facets of her long-established talent. But Hepburn's Mary is a consummate achievement by any standard, in any career. Mary is a junkie and a liar, and she hopes her family doesn't know it (they do). She is also a well-intentioned protector and a grossly abused woman, and she wishes someone would recognize it (they don't). Hepburn makes sure we grasp all of this, assisted by a great ensemble, some of Lumet's best direction, and the craggy, resourceful cinematography of Boris Kaufman. Watching this film for the first time as an eighth-grader was one of those formative experiences that has kept me looking to the movies for truth, surprise, and revelation ever since.

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Diahann Carroll in Claudine
My mom had my brother Nathan, her first baby, in 1974, so I always associate that year with motherhood. As it happens, though, it was also an especially rich year for maternal characterizations on film. Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence were both Oscar-nominated as embattled free spirits with tots in tow. (Burstyn won.) Faye Dunaway competed in the same race as Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown, another mother with, shall we say, her own problems.

A fourth nominee for Best Actress that year was Diahann Carroll in Claudine, a movie that finally debuted on DVD in the last month. These days it's the least heralded of these four films, but it's an unmitigated joy and a rousing success. In the title role, as a working mother who's tentative about her boyfriend (James Earl Jones), annoyed by the exploits of her kids, but really peeved at the welfare system that traps them all in a narrow set of choices, Carroll is fierce and funny, dismissing any notion that a woman can't be both. All the actors hold their weight, especially the uniquely fine ensemble playing her children, but it's Carroll who holds the film together as a romantic comedy, a domestic drama, and a stern protest piece: an actual film for adults, three times over.

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Carmen Maura in What Have I Done To Deserve This?
I liked Almodóvar's All About My Mother, but I didn't love it. I much prefered his film High Heels, about a television newscaster's difficult relationship with her estranged celebrity mother, but I just finished plugging that film in this spring's Post-Oscar Rental Guide. So this time I'll champion another, earlier Almodóvar picture that I only recently caught up with, a nearly chaotic farce called What Have I Done to Deserve This? or, in the more desperate Spanish title, ¿Qué he hecho YO para merecer esto?!!

Carmen Maura, who lit up her segments of Law of Desire, stars here as a housewife and part-time custodian whose family gets into messes even she can't clean up. One son is a drug dealer and the other a barely pubescent homosexual who gladly offers his body to the fathers of friends and the family dentist. Her husband is a lout when he has the energy, and her live-in mother-in-law is rather singly preoccupied with her pet lizard, named Dinero. For some storytellers, these competing forces would comprise a whole film; for Almodóvar, they are merely the prelude to impulsive murder, cheeky forgeries, jocular prostitution, tampering with evidence, and sex in the gym shower. The fun parts are really fun (though occasionally tough to keep up with), and his signature flair for color is well evinced in this, his third film. But the end of What Have I Done To Deserve This? is also unexpectedly affecting, even more so than some of his later, more "serious" works. For this, Maura's comic and sad performance deserves considerable credit. And speaking of sad fates, the video of this title is now out of print and no DVD has been pressed, so cross your fingers at the local Blockbuster.

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Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet
Does David Lynch have a sentimental side? Almost his entire body of work mitigates against such an idea, although his macabre visions and surreal experiments still have an apparent soft spot for mom. The Elephant Man is haunted by his mother's beauty in a cameo photograph, and by horrific dreams in which her assault by wild elephants leads to his own disfigurement. Underlying both fantasies is a romantic idea—that his mother is a lovely ideal, that his deformity must have resulted from her own suffering—and the character's attachment to them is what counts in Lynch's universe as a special kind of tenderness.

Tenderness in general is not what Lynch's Blue Velvet is about. The character played by Isabella Rossellini, a knife-wielding, sadomasochistic victim of homicidal kidnappers, is a particularly bleak and upsetting creation. Roger Ebert famously withheld affection and admiration from this film because, in his mind, the Rossellini character amounted to a degradation of both the actress and the audience. And yet, after two hours of bizarre plot-twists, soundscapes, and images that annihilate America's collective delusion of Normal Life, Lynch ends Blue Velvet with an ecstatic, slow-motioned moment of bliss between Rossellini and her son. It is true that, after Blue Velvet, we are destined to feel the tugs of pain and perversity even in this euphoric image; but it is equally true that, with this shot, Lynch effectively imbues his nightmare visions with a pathos and an emotional payoff that the rest of the film rarely achieves. Each return to Blue Velvet yields different readings and impressions, almost a different movie entirely, and yet ultimately, they each must be measured against this final, iconic portrait of maternal joy. (Your guess is as good as mine!)

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Kathy Bates in Dolores Claiborne
Kathy Bates, venturing into Stephen King's oeuvre for the second time after her Oscar-winning role in Misery, bats 1 for 2 in Dolores Claiborne: she creates a distinctly different performance despite the novelist's limited range of characterization, but the movie as a whole is a disappointment. The story is like Misery in reverse: rather than an Everywoman who reveals her lethal psychoses, Bates' Dolores is a two-time murder suspect whose task over the movie is to show her double innocence, plus her infinite, Stella Dallas-level patience and self-sacrifice. Jennifer Jason Leigh, clenched and unflatteringly lit, is the daughter who thinks Mom is nuts. David Strathairn, Christopher Plummer, and John C. Reilly, all of them more florid than usual (if such a thing is possible for Reilly), hang around where the plot needs them to be.

The mysteries of Dolores Claiborne are involving enough that the film is never a chore. The process and content of their revelations, however, is stilted and banal—you keep watching not out of a burning need for answers but out of a detached, unsettled fascination: the film boldly refuses to satisfy the horror fans who are its expected audience, but it's massively unclear what kind of audience it does have in mind. Director Taylor Hackford, whose commentary track is more laughable than the movie's worst excesses, congratulates himself for making a film from his feminine side. This from the man who forces all three of his main actresses to speak the line, "Sometimes being a bitch is the only thing a woman has to hang on to." There's a powerful, intriguing uneasiness built into Dolores Claiborne, but it derives from something other than pure suspense. It's the spectacle of watching talented people grappling with a film that seems to elude them all. In a sense, the movie captures the profound discomfort that King was aiming for, but in none of the ways it likely intended to.

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Gudrun Geyer in Mother and Son
If Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark struck you as emotionless or academic, Mother and Son will either turn you around or seal the case against him. At 73 minutes, it's worth finding out—and as one of Sokurov's three films to achieve any video or DVD release in the United States (despite an output of nearly 40 pictures), it's a rare glimpse into one of the subtlest, most limpid sensibilities in film.

I say this, and yet I'll admit I was a little bored by Mother and Son. There is hardly a plot to speak of, and even less dialogue: a mother is on the hushed brink of death, and inevitably, she passes away. Her grown son is her only companion, carrying her across a pastoral landscape for a final stroll, sitting beside her under a tree, kneeling on the bed and watching her breathe. If watching a character breathe sounds to you like a punchline version of bad art cinema, stay away. I'm one of those people who loves art museums for the first hour or so, and then I want to sprint out into the fresh air—Mother and Son affected me similarly, which is another way of saying that, just because I wouldn't want to watch it every day, I certainly thought it was gorgeous and exquisitely emotional. Sokurov, ever the innovator, also has some inspired formal ideas: he films some shots through angled panes of glass and other improvised filters, so some scenes have the two-dimensional perfection of paintings, and others a strangely concave distortion. (One critic memorably described this effect as life seen through a welling teardrop.) Sokurov describes the film as a stripped-down attempt to see the heart of the mother-son bond. My own bond with my mother is a little more lively than I suspect Sokurov's to be, and I bet I'm not alone—but as a moment of poetry in an increasingly brash art form, Mother and Son is a gift.

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