Best and Worst Movie Moms

RT celebrates Mother's Day with our favorite good (and evil) cinematic moms.

by | May 9, 2008 | Comments

Mothers are precious. In fact, they’re super-heroines…except when they haunt you, beat you or sell you into government office. (And even then, there’s some love there.) From nurturing and strong to manipulative and murderous, moms do some crazy things in the interest of protecting (or betraying) their brood, and this list — hotly contested in the RT office, by the way — features five good eggs and as many rotten, with a few honorable mentions and iffy selections thrown in for good measure.

Not that this list could (or should) change your Sunday plans, but it might make you feel differently about your where your mom lands on the tolerability index. She may not be Mrs. Incredible, but your dear old mom can’t be so bad she doesn’t deserve a call on the one day a year that’s dedicated especially to her, right?

Well, maybe you’ll feel differently after you read about Bad Mom #1.

1. Helen Parr

The Incredibles (2004)

Moms perform superhuman feats every day. They dispense valuable advice. They’re protective of their children, but know when to let go and allow them to forge their own paths. And they’re always true
to their own values. Thus, Elastigirl (voiced by Holly Hunter) in The Incredibles is the distillation of maternal excellence — and she’s great at crime-fighting to boot. (Alas, she probably shouldn’t have left the poor babysitter alone with super-infant Jack Jack.)

2. Joan Crawford

Mommie Dearest (1981)

If Christina Crawford is to be believed (and some claim she isn’t), her adoptive mother Joan was a better actress than a parent. Much better. Frank Perry’s camp classic Mommie Dearest shows Crawford hacking off Christina’s hair, giving away her birthday presents, slapping her, using her (and her siblings) for public relations purposes, and tackling her with a force that would make Lawrence Taylor wince. (And let’s not even start on those wire hangers.) In a scenery-chewing — nay, gobbling — performance, Faye Dunaway became one of cinema’s most notorious examples of bad parenting.

3. Mrs. Gump

Forrest Gump (1994)

Six years may not seem like a long time,
but for Sally Field, they were the difference between playing Tom Hanks’ friend (in 1988’s Punchline) and playing his rock-solid, long-suffering mother (in 1994’s Forrest Gump). From the film’s first act, in which she does some implied horizontal boppin’ with the dean of a private school to ensure her son’s admission, you know you only wished your mom loved you as much as Mrs. Gump loved Forrest. For Field — who is, for the record, only 10 years Hanks’ senior — the role capped a string of positively received roles that brought her back from the squishy rom-com territory she’d wandered into during the mid-’80s (1987’s
Surrender, anyone?).

4. Mama Bates

Psycho (1960)

Poor Norman Bates. All he wants to do is listen to Beethoven and devote time to taxidermy. And yet his mom nags him all the time into maintaining his failing motel. (Spoiler Alert!) No wonder business is slow; Mrs. Bates demands that Norman take a Ginsu to anyone foolish enough to stop by. (At least she taught him how to do housework, since the shower in room #1 is clean as a whistle.) A lot of moms are possessive of their children, but most are at least kind enough not to take up residence in their sons’ brains — or badger them from beyond the grave.

5. Peg Boggs

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

How’s this for maternal instinct? Tim Burton’s 1990 suburban fable hinges on Peg Boggs, the housewife/struggling Avon lady played by Wiest, and her impulsive decision to enter the local Creepy Old Mansion on a Hill on a sales call. She doesn’t sell any makeup, but she does wind up adopting the house’s sole resident, a lab-created boy with scissors for hands, and taking him home to live with her family. It sounds positively daffy if you’ve never seen it — or even if you have, actually — but all of Burton’s best movies need a sweet anchor to keep them from drifting completely off into Weirdsville, and Wiest — whose early addition to the cast Burton credits with helping to get Edward Scissorhands made — plays that role perfectly here.

6. Eleanor Iselin

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

It’s never a good thing when parents try to live out their ambitions through their children. It’s especially uncool to use your kids as pawns in a plot to overthrow the government. In the chilling Cold War drama/satire The Manchurian Candidate, Angela Lansbury plays Eleanor Iselin, the wife of a bombastic senator and fellow communist sleeper agent, uses a deck of cards as a trigger to control her son, Korean War vet Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey). Raymond is forced into a plot to assassinate a presidential candidate (and his mother even kisses him far too deeply, just to prove how much she loves him). Lansbury was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but it’s unlikely she’d get a seal of approval from Parenting magazine.

7. Sarah Connor

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

It’s easy to forget now, but before Linda Hamilton’s bicep-flexing turn as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2, women in science fiction films — heck, in pretty much all films — were relegated to stereotypical domestic support roles, or damsels in distress (Ripley excepted). Hamilton may not have been the first of the fairer sex to hit the gym and kick a little bad-guy tush in a major motion picture, but she was certainly one of the most convincing — and the film’s $500 million-plus gross helped convince filmmakers all over Hollywood that maybe the time had come to write female roles that involved more than screaming and baked goods.

8. Margaret White


You thought your mom was a pain in the neck during high school? She was June Cleaver compared to Margaret White. Carrie’s backwoods fundamentalist mother believes just about everything is sinful — including puberty, the act that conceived Carrie, and, well, Carrie herself. She isn’t terribly fond of the prom, either — and although she ends up being proven more or less right on that count, that doesn’t exactly help her case in the end. In giving life to one of Stephen King’s most hateful characters, Piper Laurie holds nothing back; watching her performance, you’d almost never know she viewed Carrie as a comedy, or that her ill-timed laughter ruined several shots.

9. Elaine Miller

Almost Famous (2000)

Early on in Almost Famous, Mrs. Miller’s hard-nosed mothering is hard to read; however, when she lays down natural selection to a presumptuous Billy Crudup, you can’t help but marvel. She doesn’t just protect her 15-year-old son, a rising celebrity music journalist; she extends the stern rules to his possible bad influence. Even a rock star can become a “person of substance,” if properly guided. Lioness mothers don’t typically quote Goethe, which is only a tiny part of why this one is so memorable.

10. Beverly R. Sutphin

Serial Mom (1994)

In her defense: She just wanted to keep order. It’s crucial, after all, that fashion rules (no white after Labor Day!) are upheld, and pesky neighbors are dealt with accordingly (Mrs. Jensen deserved to be clubbed like a seal with that leg of lamb). This Martha Stewart of Murder is part homemaker, part Waters-Guttersnipe-Baltimorean. Her kids were ideal, and she was too — until a parent teacher conference gone wrong sent her perfectly coiffed suburban existence into a life of celebreality violence. Like Birdie said: “You know, Mrs. Sutphin, you’re bigger than Freddy and Jason now, except that you’re real.”

11. Bren MacGuff

Juno (2007)

GOOD MOM BAD MOM To be determined
Okay, so her dialogue during the first third of the film drifts perilously close to the brink of the stilted, see-how-hip-we-are patois traditionally favored by screenwriters putting words in the mouth of “real” teens — but Diablo Cody’s script quickly redeems itself, giving Ellen Page the rare opportunity to play a pregnant teenager whose journey to delivery avoids all the stereotypical Afterschool Special plot devices that Hollywood can’t seem to live without.  In fact, Juno’s decision to give the baby up for adoption is one of the least dramatic decisions she makes during the course of the film; it takes her no time at all to decide that she is, in her own words, “ill-equipped” to give her progeny the life she wants for it. If that isn’t motherly love, folks, what is?

12. Elaine Robinson and Mrs. Stifler

American Pie

Mrs. Robinson didn’t just personify the cringe-inducing ideal of the sexually aggressive mom, she was the original cougar, hunting for prey her daughter’s age. She was sultry, “mature,” had some righteous lingerie — and then refused to share her lover with her daughter. Does this make her a bad mother? Technically, loverboy Ben (Dustin Hoffman) had little association with Elaine (Katharine Ross) prior to his affair with her
mom. It’s not as if she actively seduced her kid’s buddy — that was the work of the first-ever MILF, Stifler’s mom (Jennifer Coolidge in American Pie). She did more than contribute a new category to porn. She was unabashed (on the pool table!), indiscreet, and unlike Mrs. Robinson, unwed. Then again, it’s not like she would ever stand in the way if her son ever wanted to get it together with Finch. 

Written by: Jeff Giles, Tim Ryan, and Sara Schieron