© 2021 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
NPR Arts & Life

Mothers, The Rich Emotional Centers Of The Movies


In film, there are all kinds of characters - the hero, the villain, the seductress, the mentor, the damned and the redeemed. And sometimes, all of those are wrapped into one complex role called the mother.

Take a look at many of the great movies in history, and a lot of times, you'll find a maternal figure at the emotional center of the story. Here's Sally Field in "Forrest Gump."


SALLY FIELD: (As Mrs. Gump) He might be a bit on the slow side, but my boy, Forrest, is going to get the same opportunities as everyone else.

MARTIN: So to mark this Mother's Day, we talked with movie critic Richard Corliss about his book "Mom In The Movies." And we started off our conversation by listening to a clip from the great Shirley MacLaine in the 1983 film "Terms Of Endearment."


SHIRLEY MACLAINE: (As Aurora Greenway) Excuse me. It is after 10. Give my daughter the pain shot, please.

BETTE CROISSANT: (As Nurse) Mrs. Greenway, I was going to.

MACLAINE: (As Aurora Greenway) Oh, good. Go ahead.

CROISSANT: (As Nurse) In just a few minutes.

MACLAINE: (As Aurora Greenway) Well, please. It's after 10. It's time for her shot. You understand? (Shouting) Do something.

MARTIN: It was such a powerful role she played.

RICHARD CORLISS: Yes, "Terms Of Endearment," in a way, is two movies - the first two-thirds of the loving but prickly relationship between Shirley MacLaine as Aurora, the mother, and Deborah Winger as Emma. She proves a difficult friend to Emma until Emma gets sick in the last part of the film. And then she realizes that the most important thing a mother can do is try to save her daughter's life.

MARTIN: The subtitle of this book is "The Iconic Screen Mothers You Love (And A Few You Love To Hate)." Let's talk about those moms, starting with the woman who played the mother in "The Manchurian Candidate," Angela Lansbury, in the 1962 version. Let's take a listen.


LAURENCE HARVEY: (As Raymond Shaw) What is it, Mother?

ANGELA LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin) What type of greeting is that at 3:30 in the morning?

HARVEY: (As Raymond Shaw) It's a quarter to 3, and what do you want?

LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin) I want to talk to you, Raymond.

HARVEY: (As Raymond Shaw) About what?

LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin) I want to talk to you about that communist tart.

HARVEY: (As Raymond Shaw) Shut up with that, Mother. Shut up.

CORLISS: This is quite a venomous pair. And at one point, Lansbury explains exactly what she wants Laurence Harvey to do. Let's just say it involves an assassination. And she seals her speech with a big, sloppy kiss right on Laurence Harvey's lips.

MARTIN: (Laughing).

CORLISS: But that's one of the great performances of malevolent mothers, as I call them.

MARTIN: We can't leave the topic of malicious moms without talking about Faye Dunaway in "Mommie Dearest." Let's listen to a clip of this.


FAYE DUNAWAY: (As Joan Crawford) (Screaming) No wire hangers. What's wire hangers doing in this closet when I told you no wire hangers ever?

MARTIN: Wow. That's a powerful clip.

CORLISS: It is excellent fashion advice, by the way.

MARTIN: (Laughing).

CORLISS: But she delivers it a little too stridently. This is part high camp, part Hollywood expose and part classic monster movie...


CORLISS: ...Because Faye Dunaway playing Joan Crawford, who adopted a son and a daughter in the 1940s around the time that she was winning an Academy Award for playing the selfless mother Mildred Pierce, was apparently pretty tough on her kids.

MARTIN: And in a more modern vein, Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich in the film by the same name is a different kind of mom. She's this hero mom. She's an activist mom. Let's listen to a clip of her.


JULIA ROBERTS: (As Erin Brockovich) These people don't dream about being rich. They dream about being able to watch their kids swim in a pool without worrying that they'll have to have a hysterectomy at the age of 20. So before you come back here with another lame-ass offer, I want you to think real hard to think about what your spine is worth, Mr. Walker.

CORLISS: She is both a working mother and a single mother with three kids who can barely afford to feed her children. But she uses the savvy and the street wisdom and kitchen wisdom with which she's raised her kids in order to find loopholes in the argument made by the company that is infecting and sometimes killing these people.

MARTIN: So after going through all these movies, did you come away thinking, oh, this is my favorite mother?

CORLISS: As the idealized mother, I might choose Irene Dunne as the mother in "I Remember Mama" who strives and not just cooks and scrubs for her children, but who also acts as her daughter's literary agent.

MARTIN: And none of course measures up to your own mom, I'm sure.

CORLISS: My mom was great...

MARTIN: (Laughing).

CORLISS: ...As I begin the book. We lived a lovely, middle-class, suburban life in Philadelphia. And I really thought that the TV programs of the '50s, like "Father Knows Best" and "The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet" Nelson were documentaries filmed with hidden cameras in our neighborhood. It took me to see a few other movies and meet a few other moms to realize that mine was very idyllic.

MARTIN: Richard Corliss is the movie critic for Time magazine. He wrote "Mom In The Movies." Thanks so much for talking with us, Richard.

CORLISS: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: For Mother's Day, the staff here at WEEKEND EDITION made videos about our moms. Check them out on Twitter @NPRWeekend or @rachelnpr, and share your own. We'd love to see them. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.