Celebrate Mother's Day by having some fun with our guide to the good, the bad and the very, very ugly depictions of mums on screen.
Stephen A. Russell

7 May 2014 - 2:03 PM  UPDATED 12 May 2017 - 2:41 PM

Wonder Mothers

Holly Hunter in The Incredibles, 2004

Sometimes, when everyone is against us and nothing’s going right, our mums seem like superheroes. And then sometimes they are superheroes. Voiced by Holly Hunter, Helen, aka Elastigirl, is the bendy stretchy wonder mum of Pixar’s Best Animated Feature Film Oscar-wining triumph.

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Dianne Wiest in Edward Scissorhands, 1990

For a while there, Dianne Wiest was basically the best mum in every movie going, whether she’s, ahem, helping herself out in 1989’s Parenthood or protecting her brood from her vampire boyfriend in 1987’s The Lost Boys, but it’s her turn as Avon lady Peg in Edward Scissorhands that bowls us over. Not only does she put up with having Winona Ryder for a daughter, but she also takes in poor emo Edward (Johnny Depp), unwieldy scissor hands and all.

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Vanessa Paradis in Café De Flore, 2012

A wilfully mysterious tale of soul mates lost across time, French-Canadian writer-director Jean-Marc Vallée’s dreamlike Café De Flore is strongest during the segments set in a gritty 1960s Paris. Single mum Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) struggles to provide the best life possible for her Down’s Syndrome son Laurent (Marin Gerrier) in quite achingly beautiful scenes experienced as phantom fragments by another mother, Carole (Hélène Florent), in contemporary Montreal.

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Judi Dench in Philomena, 2013

Fifty years, another continent and, ultimately, death can’t stop one mum forcibly separated from her son in the Magdelene laundries of Ireland from reconnecting in this heart-wrenching true story directed by Stephen Frears. Adapted by Jeff Pope and Dench’s co-star Steve Coogan, from the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by journalist Martin Sixsmith, her graceful performance has our hankies at the ready. We wish Judi was our mum.

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Mary McDonnell in Donnie Darko, 2001

Jake Gyllenhaal’s Donnie had the weight of the world on his shoulders, what with the promise of apocalypse delivered by terrifying demon bunny Frank. Thankfully, he had the best mum in the world in McDonnell’s Rose. Despite all his flat out morose weirdness, she defended him to the ends of the earth against the many small minds of town. When he asks her, “How’s it feel to have a wacko for a son?” she replies, “It feels wonderful.” Bless.

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Let's discuss the ending of Donnie Darko

Fighter Mothers

Kim Hye-Ja in Mother, 2009

In between upcoming dystopian sci-fi epic Snowpiercer and 2006’s monster mayhem classic The Host, South Korean writer/director Bong Joon-ho delivered this sterling subversion of the murder mystery genre. Kim Hye-Ja turns in a powerhouse performance as the mother in question, who goes all out to protect her intellectually disabled son, played by Won Bin, when he’s accused of brutally murdering a schoolgirl. Frustrated by both the lawyers and the cops, she takes matters into her own hands and the consequences in this surreal thriller are as unpredictable as they are immensely satisfying.

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Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, 1991

Sarah Conner might not have known what hit her when pursued by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s malevolent cyborg assassin in the 1984 franchise opener, but by the turbo-charged sequel she was a mean mother fighter. This time ‘round, the big Austrian is fighting to protect her son, future resistance leader John (Edward Furlong), but we’re not so sure she really needs him. This is one mum who knows how to accessorise with a machine gun.

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Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, 1968

When Farrow’s eponymous mum figures out that her new apartment building is overrun by a creepy coven of pensioner witches with nefarious designs on her unborn baby in Roman Polanski’s potboiler horror, she fights back. That is, until it turns out that said baby is, quite literally, the spawn of the devil. If you can’t beat them, join them. It’s all about baby, after all.

Shelley Duvall, The Shining, 1980

Stephen King was famously irate about what he perceived as Stanley Kubrick’s weakening of his much-put-upon mum Wendy Torrance in seminal horror flick The Shining, but this is an adaptation after all and a disturbingly atmospheric classic in its own right. Regardless, when Jack Nicholson’s unhinged writer hubby goes off the deep end, we cheer on Shelley Duvall as she stabs him with a big kitchen knife and locks him in the deep freeze.

Hubba Mothers

Anne Bancroft in The Graduate, 1967

The smoking hot Anne Bancroft, as the iconic Mrs. Robinson, basically broke the MILF mould with her sizzling seduction of naive college grad Ben (Dustin Hoffman) in this Mike Nichols classic, his sophomore effort which rightfully scored him that year’s Best Director Oscar. Of course, Ben only has eyes for her daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross) and pursues her cross-country. Why he’s romantic but Mrs Robinson is predatory could fill a few gender studies binders.

Jennifer Coolidge in American Pie, 1999

Before the term cougar was coined, “Mrs. Robinson” was essentially the catchall until this seminal teen gross-out comedy from director Paul Weitz and writer Adam Herz. From that moment on, “Stifler’s Mom” was synonymous for an entire generation, as the voluptuously alluring Coolidge conquered her son Stiffler’s (Seann William Scott) buddy, Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas). Not really comparable to the previous gem, but daft fun nonetheless.

Juliette Binoche in Ellles, 2011

Gotta love the French for refusing to retire their female actors at around 40. Binoche might just be one of the sexiest women alive, and her characters certainly know how to juggle motherhood with a busy career, whether she’s a war photographer in A Thousand Times Good Night or a scientist in the upcoming Godzilla. We’ve plumped for Elles because Anne, a mother of two, is a freelance feature writer for the famous magazine who also manages to find time to shadow a young escort, Alicja (Joanna Kulig), for a feature. Yet another self-help scene in here, this time immediately after seafood.

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Cecillia Roth in All About My Mother, 1999

Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar is in love with women on film, enthusing his creations with an effortlessly attractive sexuality that transcends traditional expectations of beauty. Roth shines as Manuela, the mother who loses her son Esteban tragically but then ends up caring for another baby boy by that name, and a handful of lost souls along the way. Penelopé Cruz, as the young nun who gives birth to Esteban v.20, is pretty easy on the eyes, too.

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Smother Mothers

Luminita Gheorgihu in Child’s Pose, 2013

Scooping the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival last year, Romanian writer/director Calin Peter Netzer's film delivers one cinema’s most overpowering smother mothers in Luminita Gheorgihu’s Cornelia. Disapproving of her son Barbu’s (Bogdan Dumitrache) choice in wife Carmen (Illinca Goia), she asserts her superiority when she makes his manslaughter disappear after his speeding kills a young kid.

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Barbara Hershey in Black Swan, 2010

Taking on the dual roles of Swan Queen and stage mom from hell, Barbara Hershey gets to chew the scenery with aplomb in Darren Aronofsky’s way-out camp melodrama. She gets her fingers jammed in a door for good measure by her less than impressed daughter Nina (Natalie Portman), and the pair also appears in a rather creepy, if thankfully momentary, self-help scene.

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Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom, 2010

That same year Australia’s Queen, Jacki Weaver put in a toweringly malicious performance as the Cody matriarch Janine in writer/director David Michôd’s incredible debut. She clearly loves her criminal bad boy sons (played by Ben Mendelsohn, Sullivan Stapleton and Luke Ford) just an icky bit too much. Family comes first, after all.  

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Anthony Perkins, kinda, in Psycho, 1960

Though we never see anymore than her skeletal remains, we can only assume that Mrs. Bates has a somewhat unhealthy hold on her son in Alfred Hitchcock’s suspenseful masterpiece. After all, her quiet, unassuming lad Norman (Anthony Perkins) has kept said remains in the basement and dons her dresses to butcher unsuspecting motel guests like poor Lila Crane (Vera Miles). Serious. Issues.  


Monster Mothers

Piper Laurie in Carrie, 1976

Julianne Moore as tripped out bible basher Margaret White may have been the best thing about the incomprehensibly underwhelming remake, but she still can’t bring the cray cray like Piper Laurie in the Brian De Palma’s original adaptation of Stephen King’s novel (who approved of this one, by the way). Her brutal physical and psychological abuse of poor telekinetic time bomb Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is the stuff of legends, and the final showdown, kitchen knife arsenal and all, is testament to both women’s incredible prowess.

Meryl Streep in August: Osage County, 2013

As dysfunctional families go, the Weston’s of Tracy Lett’s play, which he adapted for John Well’s film, are pretty out there. Towering over all of them is the sheer manipulative bile of pill-popping monster matriarch Barbara, played with maniacal glee here by Meryl. By the time she’s wholesale smashing diner plates it’s like a fabulously messy bit of road kill that you can’t help but stare in awe at.

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Mo’Nique in Precious, 2009

As mums go, those who pimp out their illiterate daughters (Gabourey Sidibe) to their fathers are pretty much the lowest. Mo’Nique won a best Supporting Actress Oscar for her outstanding performance as the wicked mother Mary in Lee Daniels’ adaptation of Sapphire’s novel Push. Thank goodness for the transformative influence of Mariah Carey. That’s the first and last time we ever write that.

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Blog: Why You Should Watch Precious

Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom, 1994

We were tempted to list this amazing creation under fighter mum and even under hubba mum (hello, Jessica Rabbit’s voice), but ultimately Turner’s majestically malevolent Beverly Sutphin belongs with the psychos. After a teacher suggests her son Chip (Matthew Lillard) needs therapy, she runs him down in the car park in John Waters’ darkly funny romp. And when a bloke stands up daughter Misty (Ricki Lake), he’s not long for this world either. Seriously, don’t mess with her kids.

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Maribel Verdu in Blancanieves, 2012

Okay, so this is technically wicked stepmother territory, but Spanish writer/director Pablo Berger’s sumptuously magical relocation of the Snow White fable to 1920’s Seville allows Verdu as nurse-turned-second-evil-wife to stomp all over the travesty that was Charlize Theron’s meh take on the same character in Snow White and The Huntsman. Verdu in silhouette downfall is perfection.

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Dianne Ladd in Wild at Heart, 1990

David Lynch’s Palme d’Or-winning surreal triumph, adapted from Barry Gifford's road novel, scored a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Dianne Ladd’s lasciviously sleazy, former beauty queen and current committed money-digger Marietta Fortune. On-screen daughter Lula Pace Fortune was played by real life daughter Laura Dern.

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Alien queen in Aliens, 1986

And finally, for the mother of all monsters, who could go past the egg-laying xenomorph queen in James Cameron’s sci fi epic? One of the most horrific creations in the genre, every inch of the hulking, drooling beast screams run away, and she doesn’t take too kindly to Sigourney Weaver’s best fighter mum Ripley blowtorching her babies. Ripley’s real daughter grew up, had two kids and died before her mum was reawakened from hyper sleep following the events of the first instalment, but she forms a strong motherly bond with young Newt. When the queen goes for her, Weaver straps herself into a power loader for the ultimate smack down: “Get away from her, you bitch!

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