Mothers come in all shapes and sizes, and there’s no better place to bear witness to that than on the big screen. With Mother’s Day just around the corner, let’s celebrate by paying tribute to the top 10 unforgettable movie mothers of the last few decades.
10. The Blind Side (2009) – Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy
Leigh Anne Tuohy is a Tennessee mama-bear who takes in a homeless teen after noticing him walking alone in the cold, wearing only a t-shirt and shorts. “Do you have any place to stay tonight?”, she asks. From that moment on their lives are changed for the better. She’s opinionated, headstrong, no-nonsense, and unwaveringly protective of her children. Before this Oscar-winning performance, Sandra Bullock hadn’t received much critical recognition. But with the tough-as-nails Leigh Anne, critics couldn’t help but sit up and take notice.
9. I, Tonya (2017) – Allison Janney as LaVona Golden
The Emmy-winning actress earned her very first Oscar for her unflinching turn as LaVona Golden – the cruel and abusive mother of disgraced U.S. figure skater Tonya Harding. LaVona gives Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest (1981) a run for her money with her hostile parenting style. She’s all too comfortable spitting out insult after insult as a way of giving a young Tonya thick skin. Her “tough love” knows no boundaries – whether it’s hurling a knife during an argument or refusing to let her young daughter off the ice during practice for a bathroom break. She takes the traits of a ‘stage mom’ to a whole new level. LaVona’s behaviour is so deplorable that it’s easy to forget she’s a real person. “That was my mother” said Tonya Harding when asked to comment on Allison Janney’s performance during an interview on Ellen. During her Oscar acceptance speech, Janney thanked the pecking parakeet that sits on her shoulder throughout the film for elevating her work (in part at least).
8. Mean Girls (2004) – Amy Poehler as Mrs. George
She’s not like a regular mom – she’s a cool mom! Amy Poehler is comedy gold as the mother of Queen Bee Regina George (Rachel McAdams) in the film penned by her Saturday Night Live BFF Tina Fey. Dressed in outfits suited to someone half her age and clutching a small Chihuahua, one might think Paris Hilton (circa-2000) inspired the not-so-hip mother who’s desperately holding on to her youth. Mrs. George only appears in a few scenes, but my goodness does she steal them all – busting out the sexy Jingle Bell Rock dance moves in the aisle, photo-bombing Regina’s prom photo, and offering up a snack at the most inopportune moment.
7. Room (2015) – Brie Larson as Ma
How do you give your child a normal life when you don’t even have your own? In an Oscar-winning performance, Brie Larson gives it her all as Ma, a mother holding on to life through her 5-year-old son who she’s raising in a tiny shed that neither of them can leave. Having been kidnapped at 17 and giving birth in captivity, Ma is determined to gain freedom for them both.
6. Love, Simon (2018) – Jennifer Garner as Emily Spier
Need a roadmap of supportive things you can say to a loved one who’s come out as gay? Jennifer Garner as Emily Spier is here to be your guide – mothers of gay sons and daughters take note. In the romantic teen-drama Love, Simon, Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner play parents to 17-year-old Simon (Nick Robinson), who’s struggling to tell his friends and family he’s gay. The film is reminiscent of classic John Hughes storytelling in all the right ways – hitting at the core emotions shared by so many youths of today. As Emily Spier, the actress is the embodiment of light, love and acceptance. There wasn’t a dry eye in the cinema when she delivered the heartfelt words every gay teen wishes they’d heard or wants to hear from a parent – “These last few years, it’s almost like I could feel you holding your breath,” she tells her son. “You get to exhale now, Simon. You get to be more you than you’ve been in a very long time.”
5. White Oleander (2002) – Michelle Pfeiffer as Ingrid Magnussen
Michelle Pfeiffer plays the fiercely beautiful and manipulative mother in White Oleander, the film adaptation of Janet Finch’s best-selling novel. The story is told from the perspective of Ingrid’s daughter Astrid (Alison Lohman), as she journey’s through a series of foster homes while her mother serves a life sentence for poisoning her ex-boyfriend. Unlike most of the other mothers who feature on this list, Ingrid is hardly the warm-hearted maternal type. She’s destructive, frightening and narcissistic; her coldhearted influence (even from prison) always holding Astrid back and keeping her at arms length from the various foster mothers who enter her world. Pfeiffer’s character is determined to retain a sense of individuality for both her and her daughter, but fails to see (or care) about the adverse effects. “I raised you to think for yourself”, she says. “No you didn’t” Astrid replies, “You raised me to think like you”. By the film’s conclusion, Astrid has a clearer understanding of her mother – “No matter how much she damaged me… No matter how flawed she is… I know my mother loves me.”
4. Almost Famous (2000) – Frances McDormand as Elaine Miller
Frances McDormand dazzled critics as a grieving mother who demands justice for her murdered daughter in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018). Rewind back 18 years to her supporting role as the ever-uncool Elaine Miller yelling out “Don’t take drugs!” as she drops her son off at a rock concert and you’ve found a classic! Playing the mother of a 15-year-old aspiring journalist (Patrick Fugit) touring with an up-and-coming rock band, McDormand’s Elaine Miller is a stunning and savvy woman who, as she puts it, is trying to give her children the cliff notes on how to live life. She bans Simon & Garfunkel with this awesome one-liner – “Yes it’s poetry. It’s poetry of drugs and promiscuous sex. Honey, they’re on pot.” – And has no hesitation putting the lead singer of the band in his place with a stern word or two.
3. The Other Sister (1999) – Diane Keaton as Elizabeth Tate
Diane Keaton has offered up many stellar performances as ‘mother’ over the years – Because I Said So (2007) and The Family Stone (2005) among those. The Other Sister however, holds a special place in my heart (largely because I can so vividly recall watching the film with my mother at the local cinema almost 20 years ago). Diana Keaton is Elizabeth, the overbearing mother of Carla Tate (Juliette Lewis), a young woman who has returned home after boarding at a school for children with intellectual impairment. With her ‘mother-knows-best’ mentality, Elizabeth struggles to come to terms with Carla’s growing independence as she attends college and pursues a romance with a young man with a similar disability. Elizabeth seems overly concerned with keeping up appearances at times and has the highest of standards for her daughter. It takes a little while for her to recognise Carla’s individuality and strength, but she finds her way there by the end.
2. Steel Magnolias (1989) – Sally Field as M’Lynn Eatenton
Sally Fields’ M’Lynn is the mother who would do anything for her daughter Shelby (Julia Roberts) – including donating a kidney when her Type 1 diabetes takes a turn for the worse. There are a lot of films that chronicle mothers caring for a sick child, but not so many that depict the relationship when that child reaches adulthood and embarks on a life of their own. Steel Magnolias is one of those films that depicts the latter. As my mother so often tells me, a mother’s worry for their child doesn’t go away – no matter the age. She shares her daughter’s joy and pain. M’Lynn’s grief-induced hysterics at the funeral is one of those scenes that will likely stay with you long after the credits have rolled. “I want to know why!” She screams. “I want to know how that baby will ever know how wonderful his mother was.”
1. Susan Sarandon in… Well, just about anything!
Susan Sarandon is the quintessential mother on screen. If this list allowed for multiple entries from the same actress, she’d likely appear in the top three. From the overbearing mother, to the mother who’s lost her identity, to the mother who’d make painful sacrifices to save her child – she’s played them all. The obvious pick for most would be her role as Jackie Harrison in Stepmom (1998) – the terminally ill mother struggling to share maternal duties with her ex-husband’s new love, Isabel (Julia Roberts). But it’s her role as the free-spirited Adele August in Anywhere But Here (1999) that’s such an underrated performance and deserving of some serious recognition. The film is a coming-of-age story aimed at daughters who feel like they’re more the mother in their mother-daughter relationship. Sarandon is utterly captivating as Adele and explores all the nuances of a mother who dreams big, often to the disappointment of her 14-year-old daughter Ann (Natalie Portman). She’s doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons.
Did your favourites make the top 10? Performances that fell just shy of the list include Dianne Wiest as Peg Boggs, the mild-mannered local Avon representative in Edward Scissorhands (1990), and Toni Collette in The Sixth Sense (1999), as the mother struggling to understand what’s wrong with her son. And let’s not forget Emily Blunt’s near-silent childbirth scene in the surprise horror hit A Quiet Place (2018).
One consistent thread throughout these picks is that all 10 mothers want their children to make something of themselves and have a better life than their own, although some have a much healthier approach than others. They’re each nuanced and complex characters worthy of the 2 (or so) hour screen time.
To my mum – of all my favourite on-screen mothers, there’s none I love as much as I love you.
Happy Mother’s Day!