Mother’s Day at the Movies

An appreciation of the silver screen's most iconic maternal moments.

In honor of this weekend’s holiday, here is a look at some of my favorite mothers in the movies, from the childhood animated classics to only-for-adults horror queens:

The first films we ever saw in theaters were most likely the ones our parents took us to see when we were just little tykes — for me, these were movies from Walt Disney Studios. Strangely, mothers seldom appear in Disney films, but when they do, it’s often unforgettable.

It’s commonly believed that one of the most upsetting movie scenes of all time takes place in Bambi: the death of Bambi’s mother. The doe tells her young son, “Man is in the forest!” As they run through the snow toward a thicket for cover, a shot rings out and Bambi’s mother is no longer. We never see her fall — she is just gone. Heartbreakingly, the fawn calls for her until his father, the great stag, majestically appears and tells his son, “Your mother can’t be with you anymore.”

Disney tears our hearts out again in Dumbo, when the little elephant’s mother is chained up and locked in a circus wagon after attacking bratty kids who tease her son because of his oversized ears. The mouse Timothy brings Dumbo to see his mother, and she reaches out through the bars, embraces him with her trunk, lifts him up, and begins gently rocking him. Not a dry eye in the house.

Cinderella explores two maternal archetypes: the “evil stepmother” and “fairy godmother.” In the more recent Into the Woods, we meet a combination of them embodied in Meryl Streep’s witch. She plays Rapunzel’s mother, who keeps her daughter locked up in a tower because of her overpowering need to protect her from the evils of the world.

My wife Carolyn traumatized our own children when she played the Cruella de Vil–esque stepmother in my film Dolls. The result was that they would continuously beg her to scare them, and when she obliged, they would scream their little heads off.

Alfred Hitchcock is famous for his films’ mother figures. I particularly like Cary Grant’s mother (played by Jessie Royce Landis) in North by Northwest, who turns to the bad guys in an elevator and asks them if they really are trying to kill her son. Before they can answer, everyone in the elevator begins to laugh until the mother herself and the would-be killers all join in.

Things are a bit darker in Notorious, when the cold-as-ice mother of Nazi agent Claude Rains explains to him that his new wife, Ingrid Bergman, is really working as a spy for the American government and that she will have to “die slowly by poison.”

And things get pitch-black in Psycho, when the theme of perverse motherhood is explored in far more twisted detail.

Evil moms abound in movies such as White Heat. Who will ever forget the scene in the prison mess hall when James Cagney learns of his gun-moll mother’s death and goes completely berserk, proving beyond any doubt that a boy’s best friend really is his mother?

Let’s not ignore Mommie Dearest, in which Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford creates a full-blown monster mom, whipping her young daughter with a wire coat hanger. I particularly love the scene at the end of the film, when Crawford lies dead in her coffin and you’re on the edge of your seat, expecting her to spring back to life, hissing like a female Count Dracula.

To paraphrase Newtonian physics: For every bad mommy, there is a good one. How about Lillian Gish in Charles Laughton’s masterpiece Night of the Hunter sitting in her rocking chair, with a shotgun across her lap, protecting her child runaways from a terrifying Robert Mitchum?

Or let’s hear it for Brie Larson helping her little boy escape the clutches of her rapist captor (and the boy’s father) in Room.

In science fiction, maybe the ultimate mother mashup is between Sigourney Weaver and the Alien Queen in Jim Cameron’s action-packed sequel, Aliens. After Ripley destroys the monster’s unhatched eggs, the creature goes for the little girl survivor, prompting Sigourney’s iconic line, “Get away from her, you bitch!”

But the all-time greatest mother award has to go to Mia Farrow in the classic Rosemary’s Baby, who (spoiler alert) ends up embracing her baby after discovering that he is the actual spawn of Satan.

When I first saw A.I. (Artificial Intelligence), Steven Spielberg’s version of an unfinished Stanley Kubrick project, I assumed the film’s sentimental ending was added by Spielberg. In that scene — which, if you haven’t yet seen it, skip this paragraph! — the child robot is granted one last day with his beloved mother who abandoned him years ago. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that this heart-tugging scene actually was Kubrick’s original ending.

So let’s hear it for the moms. None of us would be here without them. Show them a wonderful Mother’s Day. Take them to brunch and treat them like the queens they are. But don’t forget the last few lines of Tom Lehrer’s catchy little song about Oedipus Rex:

“So be good and kind to mother
Now and then have a chat.
Buy her candy or some flowers
Or a nice new hat.
But maybe you had better let it go at that.”

Stuart Gordon is a writer/director/producer of film, television and theater. He is best known for the cult classic Re-Animator and for murdering his wife Carolyn in his films whenever possible.