10 Best Movie Moms…or not

I want to thank Steven D. Greydanus of www.decentfilms.com for writing a column called “Top 10 Movie Moms”. He started me thinking: What makes a great Movie Mom?

Certainly she should be admirable, as Greydanus details. She should be real, he says. By that I think he means that Nathan Lane in “The Birdcage” can’t qualify as a mom. I agree, although Lane does play a pretty kick ass mama-figure.


He also would like the candidates for Top Movie Mom to be in mother-child relationships and, preferably, part of an intact family. (Again, I am guessing that “Birdcage” doesn’t meet this criteria and that “intact” means “nuclear”.) His subsequent list, which you can read at the link, includes Moms I admire and some Mom choices I question.

Really, though, we could all make a list that satisfied at least some of the people some of the time.

What I found most interesting was the notion that Top Movie Moms are few and far between, as Greydanus says. Also, I wondered about refining the criteria. If we’re going to play a Mother’s Day game about the movies, this is a perfectly good list. Can we learn anything, though? Can Movie Moms instruct us? To me, that’s a more interesting question. Why are admirable Moms hard to find in the movies? And what is it, specifically, that makes them admirable?

The travails of motherhood are certainly fair game in the movies. Women who can gracefully hold a family together make great examples of Movie Moms.

For exhibiting the pure fun (and folly) of motherhood I give you:

Annie (Goldie Hawn) in “Overboard”

Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) in “The Incredibles”

Helen (Lucille Ball) in “Yours, Mine and Ours”

As an added bonus and, I would argue, an integral part of their greatness, these women also display admirable wifely traits. A good mother is often a good partner.

Moving from the silly to the sublime, Movie Moms can be so admirable that they become iconic versions of motherhood rather than human beings. Just because writers have put some of the best lines in their mouths doesn’t diminish the greatness of these Movie Moms:

Mrs. Brown (Anne Revere) in “National Velvet”

I, too, believe that everyone should have a chance at a breathtaking piece of folly once in his life. I was twenty when they said a woman couldn’t swim the Channel. You’re twelve; you think a horse of yours can win the Grand National. Your dream has come early; but remember, Velvet, it will have to last you all the rest of your life.”

Marmee (Susan Sarandon) in “Little Women”

(imdb, shockingly, doesn’t record Marmee’s best line. Here it is, paraphrased:

Time diminishes all beauty. But what it can’t take away is your kindness, your humor and your moral courage. These are the qualities I prize in my girls.)

In my opinion the above five Movie Moms can sit comfortably on any 10 Best list. The characterizations are entertaining, truthful and wise. I could probably come up with a 20 Best list that met this criteria and we would all be happy. I suggest, though, that we dig deeper. A real mother must certainly go beyond this list. Without sacrifice as a criteria, I don’t think we’ve done the list justice. Sometimes a sacrifice involves putting our lives at risk and sometimes the sacrifice is to put our deeply held principles at risk. Either one involves upending whatever plan we thought we had for our life.

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in “Aliens”

Sara (Emily Blunt) in “Looper”

Doris (Maureen O’Hara) in “Miracle on 34th Street”

I don’t believe that the above three women would sit comfortably on everyone’s 10 Best list. Ripley is the protagonist in a violent horror movie (basically), Sara is a secondary character in a recently released film, and Doris is a prickly snob in a Christmas movie. They are not realistic mothers. Yet, their sacrifices make them more truly mothers to me than any women at the top of the list. While entertaining, as any good character should be, they also resonate at a deeper level.

The very best Movie Moms, by my set of criteria, are admirable, entertaining, and instructive. Add one more quality: conflicted.

Mrs. Thornton (Sinead Cusack) in “North and South” (TV mini-series, 2004)

Mrs. Smith (Mary Astor) in “Meet Me in St. Louis”

I love these two Movie Moms best because they are flawed: Great women played by great actresses having heart wrenching moments. When Mrs. Thornton’s son is rejected she says of the girl: Then I must hate her if you will not. (Again, paraphrasing due to imdb failure.) I love this woman’s loyalty to her son. And Mrs. Smith, after fighting with her husband goes to the piano and begins to play a duet that brings the family back together.

These are such small moments of motherhood that a 10 Best list will tromp right by them without a second glance. When you live motherhood (and wifehood) day by day, though, these moments strike true. These very small triumphs are the kind of events that real women have. Beating back pride actually feels like a very large triumph in a regular woman’s life. With this as our criteria for the best Movie Moms I think we could make a very long list. Every year it would change, depending on whatever flaws we’d had to face and correct since the last list was made.

It turns out that making a Movie Mom list can be a deeply personal event for real-life moms. I’ll save the universal 10 Best list for someone else to write.


  1. Excellent. I agree, of course, with this whole list.

    In particular, I see wisdom in your decision to include Emily Blunt’s character from Looper, but that reminds me that I’m pretty sure that counts as a spoiler. My memory’s hazy, but I don’t think we find out the character’s true nature until halfway through the film.

    Not that I would pull her from the list just because of that — like I said, excellent choice.

    You’re very right about the notion that this list must change every year, too — indeed, no “top best” list can withstand an annual look-over.

  2. Great lists, and criteria. Although I absolutely love Mrs Brown and Mrs Smith (from St Louis) they do tend to play on, and poke at, their husbands foolishness.

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