Mother’s Day is this coming Sunday, so it’s that time of year for movie sites to list their favorite movie moms and what not. As we pointed out yesterday, it’s also Teacher Appreciation Week, which should make it all the more special for those millions of Americans whose mothers are also educators. Back when I was a kid it seemed everyone’s mom was either a nurse (like mine) or a schoolteacher. So why was it so difficult for me to think of screen roles in which an actress played both parent and teacher? Look at most lists of great teacher characters and they’re primarily made up of men. And many of the prominent female teacher characters are young single women or old ladies who rarely are linked to any children. Often in the former case the teacher acts as a mother figure to one or more students. Sometimes, as in “Matilda,” they even end up adopting one.
Well, I found at least more than a handful examples of actual mother-teachers. There must be more out there I simply can’t recall or find, perhaps some minor characters or cases where it’s not all that important to the story if they’re one or the other. Fill me and the list in if you think of anything additional.
And, of course, thank a teacher or many this week, as well as honor your mother this weekend.
Roberta Guaspari (Meryl Streep and herself) in “Music of the Heart” and “Small Wonders”
The one teacher on this list to feature on nearly every online recognition of great educators in film, Streep’s twelfth Oscar-nominated role is largely ignored as a maternal figure to boot. If it were not a true story, I doubt the two sons would even exist in the film, and maybe that’s why a lot of fictional schoolteacher parts are not also written as parents. It’s enough that they have the students to take care of. But I find it more interesting when the characters are both, because there’s great drama in the experience of a teacher devoting so much energy to kids who aren’t hers or his that the children at home might feel neglected or less loved (though that’s not necessarily the truth with Guaspari).
Elaine Miller (Frances McDormand) in “Almost Famous”
Or the kids will end up being overprotected, as in Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical work. Interestingly enough, Michael Angarano is again playing the son of a teacher here, this time the also-acclaimed McDormand, who has trouble letting her bright boy (by this point Patrick Fugit) go on tour with a wild rock band — but how many moms would be okay with such a thing?
Clara Clayton Brown (Mary Steenburgen) in “Back to the Future III”
Doc Brown’s damsel in distress is the new schoolteacher in Hill Valley, 1885. And thanks to the inventor, she’s able to actually fill the position rather than die at the bottom of a canyon. Later the couple have sons, Jules and Verne, but it’s unclear in the movie if she’s still working at the school or not. Fortunately, there was an animated series spin-off, in which we find out the Brown family settled into the 20th century and Clara began teaching at Hill Valley Elementary School. Hopefully she caught up to speed on everything that happened and had become known in the past hundred years.
Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) in “Notes on a Scandal”
Not all of these characters have to be good mothers, or good teachers. Hart is neither, as her decision to become involved with a student is unfair and unwise to both her family (including Juno Temple as her daughter) and her pupils.
Alicia (Norma Aleandro) in “The Official Story”
She’s not a biological mother, and that’s the problem in this Oscar-winning film from and important to Argentina. Alicia, who ironically teaches history at the high school, has difficulty figuring out events of the past, specifically as they relate to where her adopted daughter comes from. More intense than any typical adoption/custody drama we could know in the U.S., “The Official Story” deals with the nation’s infamous Dirty War and the disappeared persons whose children were given away to those closely aligned to the junta government of the 1970s. And it’s not a film to be easily forgotten, especially since many Argentinean people in their 30s are still coping with the truth today.
Kathleen Quigley (Helen Mirren) in “Some Mother’s Son”
Another very difficult parenting situation is faced by the fictional Quigley in a dramatized film about the 1981 IRA hunger strike. Her son is one of the prisoners in Belfast and can’t support his choice to starve himself for the cause.
Voletta Wallace (Angela Bassett and herself in “Notorious” and “Biggie & Tupac”
Bassett (who is also in “Music of the Heart”) was one of the better, under-appreciated elements of the Biggie Smalls biopic, and the real-life Mama Wallace is the best reason to seek out Nick Broomfield’s controversial documentary about the feud between Smalls and fellow rapper Tupac Shakur. Wallace is less remembered for her many years as a preschool teacher, obviously, than for her being the parent of one of the greatest music icons of the 1990s, but her continued role in education is also noteworthy. She founded a foundation in her son’s name which raises money for school equipment for underprivileged children.