Here's a brief look at some of my favorite movies about motherhood and mothers. These films all have memorable mothers as characters, and all these movies have touched my heart and made me think about my own mother in different ways. Ordered by year of theatrical release, here's my list.
The title character (Barbara Stanwyck) in this heartbreaker is a lower-class woman who marries an upper-class man. The marriage doesn't work, but they have a lovely daughter, and Stella dotes on her. Eventually, Stella makes a sacrifice to try to ensure her daughter's happiness. There's no question Stella is well-meaning, but did she do the right thing?
During the Great Depression, the Joads are evicted Oklahoma sharecroppers who move to California, only to encounter a new set of obstacles. At the center of the family is the indomitable Ma (Jane Darwell), and I'll always remember her saying, "They can't wipe us out, they can't lick us. And we'll go on forever, Pa, 'cause we're the people!"
An emotionally powerful drama, this coming-of-age tale set in San Francisco circa 1910 is narrated by a young Norwegian-American named Katrin (Barbara Bel Geddes). She looks back on her family's ups and downs, focusing particularly on her mother (Irene Dunne). I'll never forget Katrin intoning, "But first and foremost, I remember Mama."
Sabrajaya (Karuna Bannerjee), a mother of two, must serve as the anchor for a family living in abject poverty in rural India. With her young children wearing rags and threatened with starvation, she is relentless in trying to give them every tiny advantage. This movie made me realize just how fiercely protective of her children a mother sometimes has to be.
Rosaria (Katina Paxinou) and her five sons constitute a peasant family that moves to a big city in search of a better life. She tries to keep up the old values, but each son deals with the family's altered circumstances in his own way. As Rosaria watches her sons change, she experiences both great joy and deep sorrow, winning my sympathy.
This is a bittersweet, heartwarming story of an unusual mother-daughter relationship, and Shirley MacLaine is memorable as Aurora Greenway, a widowed mother often at odds with her rebellious daughter (Debra Winger). I love how this film brings to life the almost inseparable mixture of love and hate that often occurs in close mother-daughter relationships.
Mothers and daughters in the Chinese-American community are at the heart of this sprawling, poignant drama. There are four mothers who grew up in China before the civil war of 1946-49, but their four daughters are very Americanized young adults. This movie comes closer than any I know to capturing the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship.
Debbie Reynolds is delightful in this hilarious comedy. After his second divorce, a science-fiction novelist (Albert Brooks) moves in with his mother (Reynolds). They have difficulty getting along, but the experience turns out to be good for both of them. This movie gave me insight into the relationship between a mother and her adult son.
This hard-hitting film is Almodóvar's homage to maternal love and his own mother. Manuela is a single mother who witnesses a car on a Madrid street kill her son, and she returns to Barcelona looking for his father who has become a transvestite. Although this movie is unusual and disturbing, it is moving because the feeling of love infusing the story feels real.
The arrival of single mother Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche) and her small daughter transforms a small French town in the 1950s. I've always loved Binoche's portrayal of the free-spirited Vianne, who opens a chocolate shop during Lent and overcomes the stiff opposition of many of the townspeople when her confections help several of the locals solve their problems.