Being ordered by your mother to “Go to your closet and pray” is hopefully not a parenting technique of which too many of us have had first-hand experience. But then, hopefully also, few enough of us are supernaturally-inclined telekinetic teenaged victims of social exclusion and bullying either. This week “Carrie” is released, the remake of the Brian de Palma stone-cold classic, or the reworking of Stephen King’s wildly popular bestseller, however you choose to look at it. And indeed, however you initially came to it, it’s a story that’s probably familiar to you and its pigs-blood-at-the-prom-scene provides some of the most iconic horror imagery in popular culture.
But underlying the story of the Carrie White’s sudden, destructive use of her powers is something much less uncanny and inexplicable, though no less terrifying—her totally fucked up relationship with her mother, played in 1976 by Piper Laurie and in the new version by Julianne Moore. Bad mothers have formed the focus of two of our previous features, (here and here), and while there’s naturally some crossover, this time we’ve chosen to highlight films that specifically deal with mothers and daughters and the oddly hot-housed, magnified and sometimes distorted relationships that can spring up between them. It’s fascinating, fertile territory and there is a huge volume of fiction dedicated to navigating it, but here are five particularly apropos films for anyone who’s ever been a daughter, or anyone who’s ever had a mother.
“Autumn Sonata” (1978)
It’s hard to trace the exact moment at which Ingmar Bergman‘s “Autumn Sonata” begins to break your heart (we’re going to suggest it’s about 5 minutes in, or just after the opening credits have faded) but once it begins it never, ever stops and will leave you in smithereens by its close. The utterly wrenching, devastatingly truthful story of a single day and night during which Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) a renowned concert pianist, comes to stay with her daughter, Eva (Liv Ullman), the film takes an ossified mother/daughter relationship and with a few quick cuts of Bergman’s scalpel-sharp dialogue lays it painfully bare in all its guilt, neglect, selfishness and repression. Charlotte hasn’t seen her daughter Eva for seven years, during which time Eva has married quietly devoted minister Viktor, and suffered the death of her little boy, whom Charlotte, it seems, never met. We get the impression that during this time Eva has been frequently writing to her mother, but Charlotte has often neglected to fully read the letters, caught up in a more glamorous life of world travel, career success and love affairs. Following the death of her longtime companion, Charlotte comes finally to visit, only to discover, to her unconcealed horror, that Helena, her other daughter, crippled and almost unable to speak due to a degenerative disease, is living with Eva, who took her from the home into which Charlotte had placed her.
Bergman employs certain narrative tricks, like allowing Viktor to address the camera directly, having Charlotte talk to herself and cross cutting, at a particularly vicious moment, between Eva’s evisceration of her mother, and Helena violently throwing herself from her bed and crawling across the floor in clear, vocal distress: how can the women, especially the caring, attentive Eva, not hear her? But the effect of these moments is never tricksy, instead they give depth and richness of allusion to, and occasionally even an odd relief from, the intensity of the emotional tug of war between the women. Both can be monstrous, yet neither is a monster, and the speed with which our sympathy swings from one to the other at times threatens whiplash, with almost every moment of grace and redemption immediately undercut by a look, or a casual, thrown-off comment of such pure malice that it makes you wince, and vice versa. With Bergman reportedly saying in 1995 ‘‘I was very much in love with my mother. She was a very warm and a very cold woman. When she was warm, I tried to come close to her. But she could be very cold and rejecting,’’ it’s clear the personal resonance that this story has for him. And yet perhaps what is most remarkable about this most remarkable of films is the evenhanded understanding (if not necessarily sympathy) that we come away with for both characters, by the end. These pin-sharp accurate portraits of Charlotte and Eva as fully rounded, self-contradictory individuals inextricably in each others’ orbit are what makes the film feel so eternal: they’re different in every way from each other, but united by tethered histories and a few stubborn strands of DNA. We do not always like the family we’re doomed to love, and “Autumn Sonata” embodies that truth with flawless, cut-diamond clarity.
“Imitation of Life” (1959)
Not enough handkerchiefs in the universe for this one—Douglas Sirk’s unbelievably manipulative and luscious “issues movie” is an extraordinary example of a film that so completely defines its genre (the “women’s picture”) that it practically transcends it. Of course Sirk has been thoroughly and rightly reclaimed in recent years as an absolute master of the form, (our Sirk Essentials can be found here) imbuing syrupy melodrama with honest depth of feeling, and clothing it all in such dazzling, skilful technicolor photography that his films become so much more than the maudlin, chocolate box confections they were initially dismissed as. And “Imitation of Life,” the director’s last Hollywood picture, is certainly one of his masterpieces, and fits our purposes here entirely, dealing with not one but two mother/daughter relationships as central themes, but using them to highlight gender and race issues in a remarkably fearless and, certainly at the time, provocative manner.
Struggling actress Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) meets homeless, penniless Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) on the beach one day when their daughters, Susie and Sarah Jane run off to play together. Although times are tough all round, an immediate bond springs up between the women, across racial lines (in fact an alternate read on the film is almost as a love story between these two), and Lora offers mother and daughter a place to stay for the night. It’s an arrangement which becomes long-term, with Annie eventually (voluntarily) settling into a kind of housekeeper role, while Lora pursues her career. Sirk, however shifted the focus of the 1934 Claudette Colbert-starring film of the same name, more onto the daughters, and so we get to know Susie, the sweet, blonde daughter of Lora’s who’s chief gripe with her mother is the benign neglect she suffers as the ambitious Lora becomes more in demand. And Sarah Jane, a complicated, often resentful young girl whose light skin allows her to pass for white (which she desperately identifies with), but only at the cost of rejecting and repudiating her deeply loving mother Annie. The filial relationships become more central as the film goes on, and its second half is largely devoted to their maternal issues: Susie inevitably falls in love with her mother’s boyfriend (the extraordinarily handsome John Gavin) while Sarah Jane becomes wilder and eventually runs away to be a burlesque dancer, changing her name and denying all ties to her heartbroken, saintly mother.
The sanctification of Annie as the film’s central black character is of course problematic, but the hatefulness of Sarah Jane’s treatment of her, which of course reflects her own self-hatred and societally mandated shame at her black heritage, is an incredibly weighty topic to deal with so overtly. But Sirk doesn’t stop there, also knitting in an edge of class commentary and a sympathetic portrayal of Lora’s independence and ambition (for which she would surely be punished in another film). It’s a heady, affecting and lavishly laid-out buffet (Turner’s costume budget, for example was the highest ever for a picture to that date) topped off by an extraordinary Mahalia Jackson gospel performance which you will, we guarantee, be watching through tears.
While we’re definitely out of step with the near-universal praise and acclaim that was heaped upon Catherine Hardwicke’s directorial debut, there’s no denying that it’s a film that at its heart is about a messed up mother/daughter relationship. Chronicling the rapid devolution of it central character, the unbearably self-involved 13-year-old Tracy from happy, healthy tween to Whip-It-huffing, promiscuous, self-harming wild child, the film’s unquestioning allegiance to the validity of her point of view is, for our money, its main shortcoming: Hardwicke plays it out with all the music-video shallowness and woozy histrionics that a self-indulgent teen might indeed display, which is no doubt part of the point, but it does yield a film that, like its central protagonist, we just spend the entire running time wanting to slap. However, it does have one interesting facet in the relationship between Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) and her mother Melanie (Holly Hunter), and the way in which Tracy’s turbulent coming-of-age in fact marks the figurative coming of age for her mother too. What’s key here is the characterization of Melanie: a young mother, and a financially insecure recovering alcoholic with bohemian leanings who has relationship with Tracy that seems more like a friendship than mother-and-daughter. And so some of Melanie’s initial inaction in the face of Tracy’s changed behavior can be chalked up to this free-spirit tendency, however what actually happens is that the light-switch change in Tracy will reveal Melanie to be less youthful than immature, and frighteningly ill-equipped to curb her daughter’s sudden excesses.
Tracy is a good girl, on the cusp of “that difficult period” who suddenly notices the different (ie more provocative) way the popular girls at school dress and talk and act. Forcing her mom to buy her some tight jeans and a “cute” shirt, Tracy pursues a friendship with queen bee Evie Zamora (Nikki Reed, credited as co-writer here, on whose experiences the film is reportedly loosely based) which sees Tracy transform into a cigarette-smoking, purse-stealing, scowling bad girl and beyond. A cycle of drug and sex one-upmanship begins between Tracy and Evie, in that peculiarly competitive way of teenage best friends, just as Melanie reestablishes a romantic relationship with an ex-junkie (Jeremy Sisto). Eventually the volatile nature of the relationship between the girls begins to tell on them both though, and Tracy’s escalating criminality, failing grades and self-destructive tendencies force a cathartic but emotionally devastating confrontation with Melanie. Leaving aside our issues with the film (and they are myriad, in case you hadn’t noticed), at the very least it can be lauded for trying to portray that often traumatic period in a girl’s life when she shifts gear from childhood to adulthood, and when, paradoxically, she may start to reject her mother at exactly the point she needs her most. “Thirteen” does a decent job of inhabiting the mind of a troubled teenage girl, but whether that’s a place you want to spend any time is another question.
“Mommie Dearest” (1981)
Estranged, even abusive mother daughter relationships aren’t entirely new to Hollywood as evinced by this list and several many other cinematic examples (here’s five horrible movie mothers we’ve covered in the past and another five to boot), but one of the most memorable and borderline Grand Guignol is “Mommie Dearest,” Frank Perry‘s 1981 drama about actress Joan Crawford and her daughter Christina (even if it’s ultimately not that successful). Based on Christina Crawford’s scandalous 1978 autobiography of the same name—one of the more infamous Hollywood tell-alls to bring plenty of juicy dirt — the film stars Faye Dunaway as Crawford and Mara Hobel and Diana Scarwid as the younger and older versions of Christina respectively. Adopted by Crawford at a young age, the film (like the exposé) alleges that the diva movie star was a shamelessly publicity-hungry, domineering, hyper-controlling and physically abusive mother that took in the child for selfish matters of loneliness (and suggests perhaps she did it to get press too). The notorious “wire hanger” scene—wherein Joan beats her daughter for having the audacity to hang expensive clothes on cheap wire hangers—is both genuinely disturbing and comical (though obviously it isn’t meant to be funny). There’s a lot of histrionics—“Don’t fuck with me, fellas!” being a rather for-the-ages ridiculous line—and it doesn’t always work, but Dunaway does play a convincing and rather insecure and troubled movie star whose vanity and need for attention is a poisonous by-product of her industry.
The young Crawford (and her brother Christopher) were famously left out of Joan’s will “for reasons which are well known to them,” and it’s been speculated by several industry pundits, this act of parental rejection from the grave was what inspired Christina’s book and not actual abuse. But even 30 years later the surviving Crawford contends that it’s all true. “I can’t tell you how many times I have been told in person and with letters that reading the book made people realize for the first time that they weren’t alone,” she said in a 2013 interview.
Perhaps falling short of the macabre horror-melodrama that Robert Aldrich perfected with the beautifully twisted twofer of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962) and “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” (Perry just isn’t an auteur of that rank unfortunately, though he was nominated for Best Director in 1962 for the already forgotten “David And Lisa”), it does come close thanks to Dunaway’s operatic go-for-broke performance. Perhaps because it was meant to be a drama, it doesn’t go for the Aldrich grotesquerie of aging stars that we love so much, but we really wish DP Paul Lohmann would have actually lit the picture with even a slight ghoulish edge instead of its almost TV-flatness. And therein perhaps the fatal flaw of “Mommie Dearest,” it is melodramatic, shrill and over-the-top, but it has no real flair for camp or sense of sly humor. It takes itself deadly seriously (which often makes it unintentionally funny) and just isn’t very artful. Critics panned it at the time (Roger Ebert said in his review, “I can’t imagine who would want to subject themselves to this movie”) and “Mommie Dearest” has become a cult classic, but aside from “Thirteen” it’s easily the weakest film on this list (amusingly enough Paramount switched gears in the marketing and embraced irony when they discovered audiences taking to its unintentionally funny moments). Still there are delights in the performance just for its sheer scene-chewing and as far as delicious depictions of monstrous, but vulnerable mothers, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Dunaway as Joan Crawford. Christina’s own final word? “It’s not a very good movie.”
“Postcards from the Edge” (1990)
Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Carrie Fisher’s screenplay (based on her book of the same name, which was in turn loosely inspired by her own life with her famous mother, Debbie Reynolds) is a film that feels like it’s fallen somewhat out of fashion, but is probably ripe for rediscovery. Directed with typical comedic nuance and sympathy by Nichols, it’s also a sterling showcase for its performers, of course, with Meryl Streep gaining an Oscar nomination, but Shirley MacLaine maybe even stealing the show, at least according to our recent rewatch. They play daughter-and-mother Suzanne Vale and Doris Mann, both actresses, with Vale (Streep) only really hitting her career stride, while Mann is a bona fide old-school star, with all the attendant publicity, wealth and tribute drag acts that come with it. The contradictory nature of their relationship is heightened by the fact that they both are of the same profession, and that that profession is one that itself fosters an unusually high degree of drama and volatility in its practitioners (you can’t imagine quite the same conflicting currents of jealousy, vanity and ageism flowing through, say, a film about mother-and-daughter dental hygienists). But the film is also remarkable for the real warmth that exists between the women, even though their relationship is fractured and can be fractious: Suzanne’s joy at her mother’s showboating performance at the unasked-for post-rehab party Doris throws her is as genuine as her age-old anger at how Doris lifted her skirt to flash the attendees at Suzanne’s 17th birthday (“IT TWIRLED UP!” snarls her mother). And ultimately, it’s a hopeful film, in which admissions in hospital rooms can lead to rapprochement and forgiveness and each can learn, despite tangled histories to appreciate the other for the magnificent mess-ups they both are.
The film begins as Suzanne fluffs a word (tellingly, she says “Mummy” instead of “money”) during a long take shot of a movie she’s working on for director Lowell Kolcheck (Gene Hackman), after which Kolchek discovers she’s on drugs. Later overdosing during a one-night stand with Jack Faulkner (Dennis Quaid), Suzanne is admitted to rehab by her mother Doris, where she (without too much difficulty, it must be said) gets clean and tries to go back to work, only to be told that she’s uninsurable unless living with a responsible parent, i.e. her mother. We can forgive the film it’s rather glossed-over take on addiction and recovery because it’s really not the central focus, instead the story’s main fascination is with the love-and-loathing tussle that exists between the two women—at no point is it suggested that either has been a monster to the other (contrasted with, say “Mommie Dearest” which gets a shout-out), but neither is either one totally blameless. And so the story actually works quite evenhandedly, delivering in the end less an overcoming-obstacles-to-find-success narrative than a satisfyingly balanced, and still inside baseball-funny, tale of the older generation learning the grace to pass the baton, and the younger generation learning how to accept it gracefully.
In addition to “Coraline,” “Precious” and of course the first “Carrie” which we’ve written about in roughly this context previously (those links again are here and here), “Mildred Pierce” is another film we adore which takes as its central theme a completely borked mother/daughter bond, and which, in having Joan Crawford portray the heroically self-sacrificing and infinitely loving mother, provides a nice counterpoint to “Mommie Dearest,” above (and the Todd Haynes miniseries is pretty fantastic too). “White Oleander” is another female-ensemble-led drama of a hard mother spawning troubled offspring, while the horror genre has also provided a few entries, with “Mama” and “Orphan” being some of the more recent examples. Aside from that there are many, many films in which a fucked-up maternal relationship with a daughter forms a subplot, but two we found particularly memorable were “Wild at Heart” which scores extra points for featuring real-life mother and daughter Diane Ladd and Laura Dern, and Hitchcock‘s misogynist, mother-hating marvel “Marnie.” With the sole caution that we did try to focus on films in which both mother and daughter a full characters (as opposed to the daughter being a baby or small child, for example) feel free to get all Electra complex on us and shout out your favorites of the ones we’ve missed below. – with contributions by Rodrigo Perez