In his new book, “Mom in the Movies,” critic Richard Corliss takes an affectionate and illuminating look at the movie icon of the title. Mothers, he notes, have reigned supreme on the screen since “regal mom Mary Queen of Scots was shown being beheaded in an 1895 trick film.”
His book whimsically, but insightfully, categorizes these roles in 17 chapters with titles ranging from “The Great American Mom” to “Semper Mom!” And though his tone is celebratory, it is also nostalgic.
In his introduction, Corliss asks, “Where have all the mothers gone?” In the last half century of film “mothers have nearly become an endangered species.”
He adds that “in real life, mothers far outnumber superheroes or serial killers — but not on this country’s multiplex screens.”
But a look at those screens in recent weeks suggests that Corliss’s lament may be premature. You can see mom in movies such as “Devil’s Due,” “Gloria,” “Gimme Shelter,” and “Labor Day,” not to mention the greatest mother of all, the Virgin Mary, in the biblical epic “Son of God,” coming Feb. 28.
And then there are the Oscars. As Corliss notes, “mother roles have become the surest route to Oscar gold.” Never more so than this year, in which all five best actress nominations are for portrayals of mothers and wannabes.
Why is mom so popular with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? Corliss credits the demographics. The average age of members, he points out, is 58. Hence members are likely to favor roles for women of “a certain age,” i.e., mothers.
But he doesn’t mention that around 75 percent of Academy members are male, and that their choices of the year’s best actress nominees reflect the image of women that the men who control Hollywood wish to promote.
And this year that role, more than ever, is motherhood.
Corliss’s book helps put this year’s nominations in a historical perspective, as each one falls into one of the categories described in his book. Here, then, is a roundup of the nominees, each assigned to one of Corliss’s categories, and with some personal speculation about why the Academy might have chosen them.
Amy Adams’s portrayal of Sydney Prosser in David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” for example, might beef up Corliss’s chapter titled “A Mom by Any Other Name,” alongside other stepmoms and surrogates like Natalie Portman in “The Other Woman” (2011).
In this (more-or-less) true story, Prosser is the partner and paramour of Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a ’70s con man. A master of impersonation, Sydney takes on different guises to help pull off the scams, which grow more ambitious and lucrative. What Sydney really wants, though, is to convince Irving to dump his bimbo spouse, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and marry her instead. But he refuses because he is attached to his stepson, Rosalyn’s boy from another marriage. It proves a crucial dilemma, because only after Sydney can abandon her false identities and accept her true role as a respectable wife and nurturing stepmother, or so a brief scene at the end implies, can she find happiness.
Why nominate this performance, other than for Adams’s nuance and vivacity? Perhaps the Academy saw this as a cautionary tale warning women not to put career before family because it can lead to trouble, in this case with the Feds, so it’s best to become a stepmom and marry the guy you’re two-timing with, even if he has a bad comb-over.
Another role involving a stepson and financial fraud is that of Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” a performance that might be added to Corliss’s chapter “When Moms Collide (With Their Kids).”
A pill-popping, alcoholic nutcase, Blanchett’s distraught Jasmine seeks refuge with her working-class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), and her boyfriend. She still hasn’t comprehended that her ritzy lifestyle went poof after her husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), got busted for a Ponzi scheme, a disaster that also shatters Jasmine’s already strained stepmother relationship with Hal’s son from a previous marriage. And that is just the start of Jasmine’s tragic comeuppance.
Blanchett’s sweaty intensity alone deserves Oscar recognition, but the Academy might also see her role as an example of what awaits a parvenu snob who puts luxury before maternal instinct, and has the poor judgment to marry a character played by Alec Baldwin.
Sandra Bullock’s performance as Ryan Stone in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” — a space thriller with the mystical subtext of “2001” — qualifies for the chapter “Sci-Fi Moms,” joining such performances as that of Sigourney Weaver in “Aliens” (1986) and Linda Hamilton in “The Terminator” (1984).
Like those heroines, Stone is self-reliant, an engineer assigned to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. Unlike the usual Hollywood stereotype, her work is not an obstacle to motherhood, but a replacement for it, filling the void left by the death of her daughter. When a spacewalk ends in disaster, and not even George Clooney’s fellow astronaut can save her, Stone draws on the memory of her lost child in order to survive.
Bullock’s nomination might be the most feminist of the bunch, as she plays a woman who can successfully combine both career ambition and maternal instinct, as long as she has the good judgment not to get romantically involved with a character played by George Clooney.
A candidate for the chapter “The Mother Martyrs of Pre-Code,” Judi Dench in the title role of Stephen Frears’s “Philomena” could qualify as a 21st-century counterpart to such masterpieces of maternal martyrdom as Helen Hayes in “The Sin of Madelon Claudet” (1931) and Sylvia Sidney in “Madame Butterfly” (1932).
It’s based on the true story of Philomena Lee, who fell victim to the Irish “Magdalene Laundries,” a system in which Catholic nuns took in unwed teenage mothers, indentured them to virtual slavery, and then sold their children to rich Americans. Fifty years after losing her son in this way, Philomena enlists Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a down-and-out journalist, to help her find him. During the search, Philomena’s maternal determination and her capacity to forgive impress — and infuriate — the atheist Sixsmith.
Though some have seen this nomination as an example of Hollywood’s liberal, humanist, and secular prejudices, it in fact confirms such conservative values as the primacy of motherhood and obedience to authority. Though the nuns come off badly in their self-righteous cruelty and cupidity, so does Sixsmith when his cynicism is compared with Philomena’s self-sacrifice and generosity of spirit.
The antithesis of Philomena’s saintliness, Meryl Streep’s venomous Violet Weston in “August: Osage County” is the consummate “Malevolent Mom,” and could be included in that chapter along with such maternal monsters as Angela Lansbury in the 1962 “The Manchurian Candidate” or even Streep’s rendition of the Lansbury role in Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake of the movie.
A multi-addicted, manipulative monster at the rotten heart of a spectacularly screwed-up family, Violet has already driven her husband to suicide in the first 15 minutes of the film. Then things really deteriorate when family members show up, animosities escalate, and secrets spill.
Why honor such a desecration of motherhood? Maybe because it offers the Academy a release from the usual sentimentality. It is also a Meryl Streep performance, one of 18 that have received Oscar nominations (she’s won three times).
Of all those nominated films, nine have been for portraying mothers. In fact, Corliss has set aside a separate chapter for Meryl Streep mother movies alone. She established herself in that role back when she won her first Oscar (supporting) for “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), ensuring a career that would endure for decades.
But not all actresses have been as lucky, or talented.
As Corliss writes, “Forty is a dangerous stage in a film actress’s career. . . . If they find a reprieve, it is usually playing a mother.”
While opportunities expand in the rest of society, for women in Hollywood, motherhood remains the ultimate role.Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.