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10 Classic Mean Movie Mothers

by Maggie Van Ostrand and Jorge Sosa
Maggie Van Ostrand

Getting sentimental and sloppy over our moms once a year is fine for well-adjusted kids and Mr. Hallmark, who took creative advantage of Mother’s Day to celebrate sweet, loyal, dedicated moms. But we chose instead to honor filmdom’s 10 most demonic, diabolical, villainous mothers – the ones we love to hate.

We’re talking about the kind who screw with our heads, twist our self-esteem into an unrecognizable knot, and read us fairy tales about babies in cradles falling out of a tree to smash on the pavement below; Humpty Dumpty’s fractured skull; blind mice who can’t escape having their tails amputated; and manic monkeys catching weasels and popping their bloody guts all over the lot. It should come as no surprise that we begin with Bette Davis.

Get ready to work through some issues:

10. Charlotte’s Mother in Now Voyager (1942)
Bette Davis’s memorable role of Charlotte in the melodrama, Now Voyager, the story of a homely, repressed, overweight daughter’s transition into an attractive woman, is largely remembered for Paul Henreid sticking his and her cigs in his kisser and lighting them simultaneously, but the real story was Charlotte’s mom. Gladys Cooper played the selfish, aristocratic Boston dowager who, in order to keep Bette at home and enslaved to her every narcissistic whim, uses verbal and emotional abuse to convince Charlotte that she was so ugly and undesirable, she could never get anyone to marry her. This is not a Go-to-your-room mom, she’s a Go-to-your-room-and-stay-there-forever mom. That’s the kind of psychological control that makes a demon mother. Ultimately, Charlotte falls in love, causing mom to get so furious that she has a heart attack and croaks, leaving Charlotte distraught and feeling guilty. No happy ending here.

9. Stifler’s Mom in American Pie (1999)
Part MILF, part cougar, Jeanine Stifler (Jennifer Coolidge) is a decidedly unfit mom. She lies in wait for her son’s party guests, plies them with hard liquor and f***s ’em. The first film in the American Pie series draws a blatant line from Mrs. Stifler to Mrs. Robinson of The Graduate fame. (When Mrs. Stifler is seducing Finch, the song “Mrs. Robinson” comes on and she says, “Mr. Finch….are you trying to seduce me?”) But, while Mrs. Robinson is at least capable of showing some class, Jeanine just reeks of desperation.

8. Ripley in Alien Resurrection (1997)
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. In 1986’s Aliens, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is a tender but fiercely devoted surrogate mom for the orphaned girl Newt. In screenwriter Joss Whedon’s hands, Ripley is more morally ambiguous. First, she helps conceive the ugliest baby ever during an intergender/interspecies orgy. The resulting progeny is a pale, fleshy, juicy, alien/human hybrid who follows Ripley around like a homicidal puppy. Ripley ends up dispatching the hybrid by creating a hole in a spacecraft hull. The beast suffers an agonizing death as it’s sucked inside-out through the pinhole leak into the vacuum of space. Sure, Ripley’s just saving humanity. But what a thing to do to your own kid.

7. Ma Jarrett in White Heat (1949)

James Cagney is Cody Jarrett, a deranged, ruthless badboy with a mother complex. His relationship with her has twisted his life into that of a psychotic madman. He was a real mama’s boy who sat on her lap as a grown man (Cagney’s idea) for solace. Scorsese called the scene “extraordinary.” When Cody gets one of his frequent agonizing headaches, mom massages his head, gives him a drink and, as he downs it, she says, “Top of the world.” She says it again, visiting him in prison: “You’ll be out soon, back on top of the world.” The iconic line was roared skyward by Cody to his murdered mother, as he blew himself up on a gigantic gas storage tank: “Made it Ma, Top of the world!!!” (Often misquoted as “Top of the world, Ma.”) In an over-the-top performance by character actress Margaret Wycherly, Ma Jarrett goes down in film infamy as one of the best worst mothers. Cody may be at the “ top of the world,” but his mother is strictly from hell.

6. Ma Barker in Bloody Mama (1970)
Shelley Winters as machine gun-slingin’ Kate “Ma” Barker in Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama. Her sons are loaded with perversions, like sadistic Herman who sleeps with Ma, homosexual son Fred’s former cell mate and lover also sleeps with her, son Lloyd is a whacko drug addict who’d snort the chenille right off Ma’s bedspread if she’d let him. Fourth son Arthur is a loser who can’t find anyone to sleep with except himself. Addict Lloyd Barker was played by a young Robert DeNiro. In her autobio, Winters says: “Bobby stayed in character 24 hours a day, losing 40 pounds and getting scabs all over his body. Toward the end of the film when he OD’s [sic] and the Barker family must bury him hurriedly, Bobby insisted on getting into the grave so the camera could record the dirt covering his face. In the scene I was hysterical with grief, and I didn’t realize until he was almost completely covere d that it was Bobby and not a dummy … [I] pulled him out, saying, ‘For Christ’s sake, Bobby! Even Marlon has never pulled such a dangerous stupid trick in a movie. This is not real life, it’s only a film.’ [He replied] ‘But Shelley, for actors, aren’t the movies our only real life?’”

5. Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest (1981)
The story of the relationship between a child trying to survive and her ruthless, scheming, alcoholic, movie star adoptive mom, who knew every nasty trick in the book. Written by Joan Crawford’s daughter, this look at the super star as mom gives the audience a glimpse behind the scenes. In real life, Crawford was allegedly an enraged bitch, using physical and psychological weapons on her kids, using them as P/R props, and smashing their young egos down into the dust. Faye Dunaway gives a scenery-chewing performance, which took so much out of her that after the infamous “No more wire hangers!!” scene, Dunaway “collapsed in a heap on the floor of a closet on Paramount’s Stage 8.” Crawford herself won an Oscar for playing a rotten mom in Mildred Pierce. Why not? She had a lot of personal experience.

4. Mrs. Bates in Psycho (1960)
How do you think Norman Bates got that way? Dear old tyrannical mommy, that’s how. Even as a skeleton rocking away in that creepy Goth house still standing on Universal’s backlot, Mrs. Bates had to fight off her randy son. (How do you think those empty eye sockets got so worn?) She and Norman were based on real-life Ed Gein and his mommy. Norman Bates was so dominated by his mother while she lived, and so riddled with guilt for murdering her, that he tried to erase his crime by using his taxidermy skills to preserve her corpse. Ultimately, Norman “becomes” his mother, as his voice says at the end, “…I’m not even going to swat that fly! I hope they are watching! They’ll see and they’ll know, and they’ll say, ‘Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly!’”

3. Augusta Gein in Ed Gein (2000)

The true story of a religious zealot mother so controlling, ominous, and fire and brimstone that after she dies, her son becomes a grief stricken maniac, ultimately digging up women’s corpses, humping them, dismembering their remains, and making lampshades, speedos, and a “woman suit” out of their skin. Carrie Snodgress brilliantly played Augusta W. Gein, who’s incessantly rocking in her chair, reading scary Bible stories to young Ed, scolding him whenever he tries to make friends at school, and teaching him that all women are prostitutes and instruments of the devil … except her. Ed allegedly murdered his brother so he could have mom all to himself. The real Ed Gein said he lost his “only friend and one true love.” Not only were Mom and Norman Bates based on the Geins’ ghoulish relationship, but so was Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, and Dera nged: Confessions of a Necrophile. We wonder what Ed got Augusta’s corpse for Mother’s Day.

2. Margaret in Carrie (1976)
Piper Laurie delivers one of the most memorable performances in horror cinema as Margaret, deranged Bible thumper and matriarchal dictator. Margaret has some warped views on faith and sexuality, which she forcefully attempts to drill into poor Carrie’s head. By using prayer as punishment and equating healthy sexuality with original sin, she just about assures her supernaturally talented daughter will fail in life. After Carrie demonstrates psychokinetic abilities, Margaret attempts to murder her. This cinematic bad mom is literally a backstabbing bitch.

1. Mrs. Iselin in Manchurian Candidate (1962)
No other dark and sinister mother in film history can compare to Mrs. Iselin, wife of an incompetent U.S. Senator and mother of war hero, Raymond. In a chilling performance, Angela Lansbury collaborates with America’s enemies in creating an anonymous political assassin. She schemes and manipulates in order to ultimately possess unprecedented power by getting her dithering husband elected President. She learns for the first time that the assassin they so carefully molded is none other than her son. Whenever brainwashed Raymond sees the Queen of Spades, his personality morphs into a killing machine. Mrs. Iselin: “I know you will never entirely comprehend this, Raymond, but you must believe I did not know it would be you. I served them. I fought for them. I’m on the point of winning for them the greatest foothold they would ever have in this country … I told them to build me an assassin. I wanted a killer from a world filled with killers and they chose you because they thought it would bind me closer to them… when I take power, they will be pulled down and ground into dirt for … what they did in so contemptuously underestimating me.” [Kisses Raymond on the forehead, then his cheek, then on his lips] Lansbury said director John Frankenheimer went “for the jugular,” and called the role of Mrs. Iselin, “… an incredible, massive part.” Lansbury turned in a shattering performance as the incestuous, power-crazed monster mother of all time.

No Happy Mother's Day for these women. Take that, Mr. Hallmark!

Copyright Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus"
May 10, 2014 column
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