Sally Field’s Mrs. Gump was guilty of articulating one of cinema’s silliest similes when she compared life to a box of chocolates, explaining the mercurial inevitability of existence. But it’s an aphorism worth tossing right back at her for something a bit more suggestively sinister, as it aptly applies to a facet of motherhood — you never know what you’re gonna get.
While speaking ill of motherhood may be anathema to most, there’s a compelling complexity worth exploring as we celebrate our mothers, those living and those dead, on the annual mandatory holiday reserved for their honor. Terrible mothers permeate the cinematic lexicon, though their presence still somehow feels taboo, a perversion of the only celebrated role endorsed for women in the heteropatriarchy. Andrea Dworkin mused, “The only dignity and value women get is as mothers.”
The celebratory holiday was initially conceived as an anti-war campaign, a way for the world to come together by leading us back to the veritable conduit through which we all passed. But like all concepts courting saintliness, there’s significant deterioration evident in the inherent chaos of reality, even though, culturally, we seem more comfortable satirizing contemporary motherhood as a cage we’ll allow women to step out of intermittently — as evidenced by the slapstick Bad Moms films, which find a quartet of women more or less engaged in girls-just-wanna-have-fun shenanigans.
But there are more fractious depictions of motherhood more closely exemplifying something one could call “bad.” In honor of Mother’s Day, here are 10 examples of American motherhood, in an ascending order of psychosis or heightened distress.
While Netflix is unleashing Jennifer Lopez as an ex-assassin in The Mother just in time for the 2023 festivities, here are some audacious women who we might love to hate or hate to love but nevertheless enriched our world.
- Mary Kay Place in Smooth Talk (1985)
Playing a mother to a teenage Laura Dern in Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk (1985), Mary Kay Place might seem like something of an anomaly in a conversation about bad moms. In truth, she isn’t uniquely terrible, but she’s a sterling example of how mothers suddenly find themselves estranged from daughters when adolescence and budding sexuality take hold. Place’s loving but irresolutely uncommunicative momma sends mixed signals to a daughter who just wants to run around the mall and gawk at boys with her friends, but instead runs into a sinister lothario played by Treat Williams. Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ stellar short story “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?”, Chopra shoehorns this coming-of-age tale into a low-key horror film.
- Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People (1980)
As Beth Jarrett in Robert Redford’s 1980 Best Picture winner Ordinary People, Mary Tyler Moore is a shock to the system. The death of a prized child sends a family reeling headlong into their foundational dysfunction, but Moore, playing against her iconic type, is one of the most bitter mothers you’re apt to see. Cold and contemptuous, her venom is nearly unrivaled — though Debra Winger plays the same field in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, (2008).
- Anne Bancroft in Torch Song Trilogy (1988)
One of the most painful mother-child relationships to unfold onscreen is between Harvey Fierstein’s Arnold Beckoff and his judgmental mother played by Anne Bancroft in the 1988 landmark film Torch Song Trilogy. Based on Fierstein’s play of the same name, a gay man who’s suffered several tragedies, including the death of a partner, has a long-overdue confrontation with his mother, who predictably isn’t supportive of her son’s sexuality. Though we’re brought to a sense of resolution, Bancroft is an obnoxiously ignorant mother whose child has had to survive without her compassion or approval.
- Mo’Nique in Precious (2009)
Lee Daniels directed Mo’Nique to a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in the sensational Precious. Although the film feels so over the top in its miserabilism and misogyny, Mo’Nique’s Mary is the poster child for the adage “hurt people hurt people,” who ostensibly reared a child with her milk of sorrows. It’s the type of role which could have easily been caricatured, but Mo’Nique is captivatingly agonizing to behold as a mother whose love language is viciousness itself.
- Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945)
As Mildred, Joan Crawford won an Academy Award as a long-suffering momma in Michael Curtiz’s adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel. Mildred Pierce is something of a problem, a mother whose extreme dotage on her spoiled daughter Veda would result in their shared incestuous relationships with men and eventually murder (for which the frustrating Mildred tries to take the blame, neglecting to realize how much more damage her nasty kid would exact were she allowed to roam free). Todd Haynes remade the film as a miniseries in 2011 with Kate Winslet that further finesses the ultimate enabling mother.
- Patti LuPone in Beau Is Afraid (2023)
Ari Aster takes a mother’s manipulations to the extreme in his masterful deadpan allegory Beau Is Afraid, with Joaquin Phoenix playing the horrified and henpecked progeny of Patti LuPone’s Mona Wasserman. An anxiety riddled, shadow of a man makes an epic journey home to attend his mother’s funeral, only to realize it’s a disturbing test of his reverence for her. LuPone is downright frightening as an omnipotent powerhouse of overbearing motherhood whose son can’t muster the respect she deserves. You know, the kind she gets from any stranger on the street.
- Susan Sarandon in Pretty Baby (1978)
It’s hard to imagine how something like Pretty Baby would be tackled today, but Louis Malle’s infamous 1978 film, set in a turn-of-the-century New Orleans brothel, is something to behold for purveyors of the uncomfortable and provocative. Against her agent’s wishes, since playing mothers was seen as something of an unseemly transition and potential death knell for women, Susan Sarandon (who was dating Malle) portrayed Hattie, a prostitute in the waning days of the legalized trade in the city’s red-light district. Keith Carradine arrives to photograph the women and becomes infatuated with Hattie and her 12-year-old daughter, Violet, played by Brooke Shields, whose celebrity was a sensation all its own at the time. With Violet’s virginity auctioned off at the same brothel where her mother works, the film unfurls as an endlessly toxic tableau.
- Margaret Wycherly in White Heat (1949)
You might not know her name, but Margaret Wycherly is the OG problematic momma in White Heat, her most iconic role (despite being Oscar-nominated for playing another mother to Gary Cooper in 1941’s Sergeant York). Having nursed her son Cody Jarrett, played by the magnetic James Cagney, into a full-blown murderous criminal, the duo’s lethal symbiosis is the film’s deadly love story. A handful of women would later bask in Ma Jarrett’s septic shadow, including Shelley Winters as the infamous Ma Barker in 1970’s Bloody Mama, Angie Dickinson in Big Bad Mama (1974), and Lesley Manville in Let Him Go (2020), but nothing rivals the machinations of Wycherly, who receives the unforgettable refrain from her big bad boy at the end of Raoul Walsh’s film, certifying he is indeed on top of the world, Ma.
- Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest (1981)
Frank Perry’s endlessly maligned adaptation of Christina Crawford’s shocking tell-all memoir Mommie Dearest is indeed the glorious camp gift that keeps on giving. Faye Dunaway’s career imploded following her portrayal of Joan Crawford, the abusive Hollywood legend who adopted four children (including twins who are conveniently excised from the film version and apparently curried her ultimate favor) and then traumatized them with her neurotic conduct. While it’s become a cult classic, and features a myriad of lionized catch phrases, Dunaway and Perry did manage to convey a troubling, chaotic portrait of motherhood run amok. If there’s any real lesson to be learned, it’s that Mother will always beat you.
- Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom (1994)
And at Number One for most terrible mother is Kathleen Turner as Beverly Sutphin in John Waters’ deliriously entertaining black comedy Serial Mom, a send-up of suburban ideals taken to murderous, fascist extremes. While it’s Waters’ most perfectly realized adult mainstream film, it’s really Turner’s playground, as she purloins every single moment on screen as a psychotic housewife who inadvertently throws herself into a killing spree for those who dare to antagonize her family in any perceivable way (which includes criticism of her children at school, her husband’s abhorrent clients, or those who refuse to rewind their VHS rentals). Turner is joined by a cavalcade of Waters’ favorites (Patty Hearst, Ricki Lake, Mink Stole, Traci Lords, and a fantastic Mary Jo Catlett), but this is Kathleen Turner overdrive all the way.
Watch Nick and his husband Joseph review (and spoil) films on their YouTube channel, Fish Jelly Film Reviews. Their podcast of the same name is available everywhere.