TCM is celebrating Mother’s Day (Note: this was originally published in 2014) with a great program of classic films showcasing notable mothers. While looking over Sunday’s line-up I was surprised to spot NOW, VOYAGER (1942), which features Gladys Cooper as the incredibly cold and domineering mother of Bette Davis. Cooper won an Oscar nomination for her memorable performance and went on to play another overbearing mother in SEPARATE TABLES (1958) who torments poor Deborah Kerr. While considering Gladys Cooper’s portrayal of two heartless mothers I started thinking about other horrible movie moms that I’ve enjoyed watching over the years.
Many good actresses have portrayed nurturing mothers who treasure their children but it takes incredible range, a lot of skill and a strong backbone to portray the kind of rotten mother that Gladys Cooper was so apt at playing. In honor of Mother’s Day I decided to pay tribute to a few of my other favorite bad movie moms. These women would never be nominated for a Mother of the Year Award but a few of them were nominated for Academy Awards.
Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham in GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946)
Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations features one of the literature’s most monstrous adoptive mothers, the wraith-like Miss Havisham. After being abandoned at the altar as a young bride, Miss Havisham turns her home into a cobweb-riddled cocoon and adopts a young orphan girl named Estella. Havisham intends to save Estella from misery but instead she “stole her heart away and put ice in its place.” But Estella isn’t the only victim of Miss Havisham, who plays a self-serving and cruel game of chess with a number of people’s lives in a sad attempt to fill the aching gap in her own decrypted heart. And while it’s hard not to sympathize with the lonely revenged-obsessed spinster to some degree, Miss Havisham remains one of the most frightening mothers I’ve ever encountered and few actors have inhabited the character as well as the late great Martita Hunt did in David Leans’ adaptation of GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946)
Margaret Wycherly as “Ma” Jarrett in WHITE HEAT (1949)
Arthur “Cody” Jarrett (James Cagney) is no angel in Raoul Walsh’s WHITE HEAT (1949) but as the movie progresses it quickly becomes apparent that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and that tree happens to be the intimidating “Ma” Jarret as played by Margaret Wycherly. Cody thinks he’s the tough leader of a bunch of crime-loving thugs but his dear old Ma is quietly barking orders in his ear and encouraging him to commit all kinds of awful offenses. When Cody faces death at the end of WHITE HEAT in a fiery gun battle with police and shouts “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” he immortalized one of the nastiest mothers in movie history.
Beulah Bondi as Ma Bridges in TRACK OF THE CAT (1954)
There aren’t many likable characters in William A. Wellman’s bleak winter western TRACK OF THE CAT (1954) but Beulah Bondi is particularly unsettling as the bitter and bigoted matriarch of the Bridges family. She sees sin and depravity everywhere and enjoys spitting incoherent bible verses at her long-suffering children (Robert Mitchum, Teresa Wright, William Hopper and Tab Hunter). Her alcoholic husband (Philip Tonge) is no prize either but after spending a few hours with Ma Bridges it’s easy to see why the man might be driven to drink himself to death.
Constance Ford as Helen Jorgenson in A SUMMER PLACE (1959)
It’s hard to see any redeeming qualities in the uptight and aggressive Helen Jorgenson. She’s married to a nice guy (Richard Egan) and they have a cute daughter (Sandra Dee) but she treats them both appallingly and you’re left wondering why her husband ever found her appealing in the first place. Maybe she was a nice and nurturing woman once, but by the time that we’re introduced to Helen in Delmer Daves’ A SUMMER PLACE, life has transformed her into a coldhearted shrew who seems to enjoy belittling her only child. With very little screen time Constance Ford was able to give the character of Helen Jorgenson plenty of depth but those depths are murky black and full of bile.
Katharine Hepburn as Violet Venable in SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (1959)
The venerable Violet Venable is the mother of a deceased young man named Sebastian who is determined to keep the sordid and gruesome details of his death a secret. But in order to do so she must have her traumatized niece Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor) locked up in a mental institution and lobotomized. Any normal mother wouldn’t consider committing such a horrible act just to protect the family name but Violet Venable isn’t a normal person. She’s a conniving, controlling, bigoted, and delusional woman who should be receiving the medical help that she forces on poor Catherine in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (1959). Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress thanks to her stomach-turning portrayal of Violet Venable.
Mrs. Bates in PSYCHO (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock introduced film audiences to a number of terrible mothers including Madame Anna Sebastian (Leopoldine Konstantin) in NOTORIOUS (1949) and Bernice Edgar (Louise Latham) in MARNIE (1964) but his most menacing creation was undoubtedly the mother we never see in PSYCHO (1960). Even though we aren’t allowed to actually see the living Mrs. Bates we are introduced to her mummified corpse and the results of her mothering that manifest in her very sick son Norman (Anthony Perkins). Mrs. Bates haunts every frame of PSYCHO and is the driving force behind every horrible deed committed by her deeply damaged offspring.
Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Iselin in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)
Angela Lansbury received an Oscar nomination for her fearsome portrayal of Mrs. Iselin, the domineering mother of Raymond (Laurence Harvey) in this tense and highly-stylized cold war thriller directed by John Frankenheimer. Mrs. Iselin is a ruthless power hungry woman willing to do anything to help her second husband become president of the United States, even if that involves the mental torture, psychological abuse and brainwashing of her only son.
Tallulah Bankhead as Mrs. Trefoile in DIE! DIE! MY DARLING aka FRANTIC (1965)
Long before Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) was tormented by her pious mother Margaret (Piper Laurie) in CARRIE (1976), Patricia (Stefanie Powers) suffered a somewhat similar fate in Silvio Narizzano’s DIE! DIE! MY DARLING (1965) at the hands of Mrs. Trefoile (Tallulah Bankhead). In this black-humored British thriller produced by Hammer Films, 63-year-old Tallulah Bankhead plays a crazed religious zealot mourning her deceased son. When his onetime fiancée Patricia (Stefanie Powers) comes for a visit, Bankhead’s character proceeds to kidnap the young woman and starve her to death in the hopes of reuniting poor Patricia with her dead boy. Bankhead threw herself into this morbid gothic melodrama and despite the critical beating the film received, her performance as a mad mother in mourning has often been singled out as the one bright spot in DIE! DIE MY DARLING.
Shelley Winters as Rose-ann D’Arcey in A PATCH OF BLUE (1965)
Shelley Winters played a lot of bad mothers during her impressive career including Charlotte Haze in LOLITA(1961) and Ma’ Kate Barker in BLOODY MAMA (1969), but in Guy Green’s A PATCH OF BLUE (1965) she takes bad mothering to a whole new height. Shelley Winters won an Oscar for her unhinged portrayal of Rose-Ann, a boozy, bigoted prostitute who physically and verbally abuses her helpless blind daughter (Elizabeth Hartman). It’s an ugly and utterly unflattering role but Winters gives it her all and proves why she’s one of cinema’s best bad mothers.
Kate Reid as Hazel “Mama” Starr in THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED (1966)
Natalie Wood was often the victim of unscrupulous mothers in films such as SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS(1961) and GYPSY (1962) but she finally met her match in THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED (1966) where she played Alva Starr, the daydreaming daughter of Hazel “Mama” Starr (Kate Reid). Dear old Mama is the selfish madam of a whore house in Mississippi who drives her daughter into prostitution and proceeds to destroy any bit of happiness that comes her way. Reid plays the part with gusto and her “Mama” is one of the most unsympathetic characters I’ve had the (dis)pleasure of spending time with.
Sheila Keith as Dorothy Yates in FRIGHTMARE (1974)
In Pete Walker’s bloody British horror film FRIGHTMARE, Sheila Keith plays Dorothy Yates, a farmhouse dwelling mother with cannibalistic tendencies. After being institutionalized for her crimes, Yates returns home to her two daughters (Deborah Fairfax and Kim Butcher) but as the film progresses we discover that Dorothy’s appetite hasn’t diminished and her daughters may have inherited their mother’s preference for human flesh. Sheila Keith might not be all that familiar to American film audiences but she appeared in a number of Peter Walker’s films establishing her as one of the most recognizable faces in British horror and in FRIGHTMARE Keith is at her diabolical best.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published on TCM.com in 2014