Bad Movie Mothers We Love to Hate

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TCM is celebrating Mother’s Day (Sunday, May 11th) with a great program of classic films showcasing notable mothers. While looking over Sunday’s line-up I was surprised to spot NOW, VOYAGER (1942), which features Gladys Cooper as the incredibly cold and domineering mother of Bette Davis. Cooper won an Oscar nomination for her memorable performance and went on to play another overbearing mother in SEPARATE TABLES (1958) who torments poor Deborah Kerr. While considering Gladys Cooper’s portrayal of two heartless mothers I started thinking about other horrible movie moms that I’ve enjoyed watching over the years. Many good actresses have portrayed nurturing mothers who treasure their children but it takes incredible range, a lot of skill and a strong backbone to portray the kind of rotten mother that Gladys Cooper was so apt at playing. In honor of Mother’s Day I decided to pay tribute to a few of my other favorite bad movie moms. These women would never be nominated for a Mother of the Year Award but a few of them were nominated for an Academy Award.

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Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham in GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946)

Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations features one of the literature’s most monstrous adoptive mothers, the wraith-like Miss Havisham. After being abandoned at the alter as a young bride, Miss Havisham turns her home into a cobweb-riddled cocoon and adopts a young orphan girl named Estella. Havisham intends to save Estella from misery but instead she “stole her heart away and put ice in its place.” But Estella isn’t the only victim of Miss Havisham, who plays a self-serving and cruel game of chess with a number of people’s lives in an effort to fill the aching gap in her own decrypted heart. And while it’s hard not to sympathize with the sad revenged-obsessed spinster to some degree, Miss Havisham remains one of the most frightening mothers I’ve ever encountered and few actors have inhabited the character as well as the late great Martita Hunt did in David Leans’ adaptation of GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946)

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Margaret Wycherly as “Ma” Jarrett in WHITE HEAT (1949)

Arthur “Cody” Jarrett (James Cagney) is no angel in Raoul Walsh’s WHITE HEAT (1949) but as the movie progresses it quickly becomes apparent that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and that tree happens to be the intimidating “Ma” Jarret as played by Margaret Wycherly. Cody thinks he’s the tough leader of a bunch of crime-loving thugs but his dear old Ma is quietly barking orders in his ear and encouraging him to commit all kinds of awful offenses. When Cody faces death at the end of WHITE HEAT in a fiery gun battle with police and shouts “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” he immortalized one of the nastiest mothers in movie history.

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Beulah Bondi as Ma Bridges in TRACK OF THE CAT (1954)

There aren’t many likable characters in William A. Wellman’s bleak winter western TRACK OF THE CAT (1954) but Beulah Bondi is particularly unsettling as the bitter and bigoted matriarch of the Bridges family. She sees sin and depravity everywhere and enjoys spitting incoherent bible verses at her long-suffering children (Robert Mitchum, Teresa Wright, William Hopper and Tab Hunter). Her alcoholic husband (Philip Tonge) is no prize either but after spending a few hours with Ma Bridges it’s easy to see why the man might be driven to drink.

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Constance Ford as Helen Jorgenson in A SUMMER PLACE (1959)

It’s hard to see any redeeming qualities in the uptight and aggressive Helen Jorgenson. She’s married to a nice guy (Richard Egan) and they have a cute daughter (Sandra Dee) but she treats them both appallingly and you’re left wondering why her husband ever found her appealing in the first place. Maybe she was a nice and nurturing woman once, but by the time that we’re introduced to Helen in Delmer Daves’ A SUMMER PLACE, life has transformed her into a coldhearted shrew who seems to enjoy belittling her only child. With very little screen time Constance Ford was able to give the character of Helen Jorgenson plenty of depth but those depths are murky black and full of bile.

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Katharine Hepburn as Violet Venable in SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (1959)

The venerable Violet Venable is the mother of a deceased young man named Sebastian who is determined to keep the sordid and gruesome details of his death a secret. But in order to do so she must have her traumatized niece Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor) locked up in a mental institution and lobotomized. Any normal mother wouldn’t consider committing such a horrible act just to protect the family name but Violet Venable isn’t a normal person. She’s a conniving, controlling and delusional woman who should be receiving the medical help that she forces on poor Catherine in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (1959). Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress thanks to her stomach-turning portrayal of Violet Venable.

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Mrs. Bates in PSYCHO (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock introduced film audiences to a number of terrible mothers including Madame Anna Sebastian (Leopoldine Konstantin) in NOTORIOUS (1949) and Bernice Edgar (Louise Latham) in MARNIE (1964) but his most menacing creation was undoubtedly the mother we never see in PSYCHO (1960). Even though we aren’t allowed to actually see the living Mrs. Bates we are introduced to her mummified corpse and the results of her mothering, which manifest in her very sick son Norman (Anthony Perkins). Mrs. Bates haunts every frame of PSYCHO and is the driving force behind every horrible deed committed by her deeply damaged offspring.

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Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Iselin in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)

Angela Lansbury received an Oscar nomination for her fearsome portrayal of Mrs. Iselin, the domineering mother of Raymond (Laurence Harvey) in this tense and highly-stylized cold war thriller directed by John Frankenheimer. Mrs. Iselin is a ruthless power hungry woman willing to do anything to help her second husband become president of the United States, even if that involves the mental torture, psychological abuse and brainwashing of her only son.

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Tallulah Bankhead as Mrs. Trefoile in DIE! DIE! MY DARLING aka FRANTIC (1965)

Long before Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) was tormented by her pious mother Margaret (Piper Laurie) in CARRIE (1976), Patricia (Stefanie Powers) suffered a somewhat similar fate in Silvio Narizzano’s DIE! DIE! MY DARLING (1965) at the hands of Mrs. Trefoile (Tallulah Bankhead). In this black-humored British thriller produced by Hammer Films, 63-year-old Tallulah Bankhead plays a crazed religious zealot mourning her deceased son. When his onetime fiancée Patricia (Stefanie Powers) comes for a visit, Bankhead’s character proceeds to kidnap the young woman and starve her to death in the hopes of reuniting poor Patricia with her dead boy. Bankhead threw herself into this morbid gothic melodrama and despite the critical beating the film received, her performance as a mad mother in mourning has often been singled out as the one bright spot in DIE! DIE MY DARLING.

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Shelley Winters as Rose-ann D’Arcey in A PATCH OF BLUE (1965)

Shelley Winters played a lot of bad mothers during her impressive career including Charlotte Haze in LOLITA (1961) and Ma’ Kate Barker in BLOODY MAMA (1969), but in Guy Green’s A PATCH OF BLUE (1965) she takes bad mothering to a whole new height. Shelley Winters won an Oscar for her unhinged portrayal of Rose-Ann, a boozy, bigoted prostitute who physically and verbally abuses her helpless blind daughter (Elizabeth Hartman). It’s an ugly and utterly unflattering role but Winters gives it her all and proves why she’s one of cinema’s best bad mothers.

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Kate Reid as Hazel “Mama” Starr in THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED (1966)

Natalie Wood was often the victim of unscrupulous mothers in films such as SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS (1961) and GYPSY (1962) but she finally met her match in THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED (1966) where she played Alva Starr, the daydreaming daughter of Hazel “Mama” Starr (Kate Reid). Dear old Mama is the selfish madam of a whore house in Mississippi who drives her daughter into prostitution and proceeds to destroy any bit of happiness that comes her way. Reid plays the part with gusto and her “Mama” is one of the most unsympathetic characters I’ve had the (dis)pleasure of spending time with.

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Sheila Keith as Dorothy Yates in FRIGHTMARE (1974)

In Pete Walker’s bloody British horror feast FRIGHTMARE, Sheila Keith plays Dorothy Yates, a farmhouse dwelling mother with cannibalistic tendencies. After being institutionalized for her crimes, Yates returns home to her two daughters (Deborah Fairfax and Kim Butcher) but as the film progresses we discover that Dorthy’s appetite hasn’t diminished and her daughters may have inherited their mother’s preference for human flesh. Sheila Keith might not be all that familiar to American film audiences but she appeared in a number of Peter Walker’s films establishing her as one of the most recognizable faces in British horror and in FRIGHTMARE Keith is at her diabolical best.

Have some favorite Bad Mothers of your own? Feel free to share them in the comments below!

17 Responses Bad Movie Mothers We Love to Hate
Posted By Ben Martin : May 8, 2014 8:47 pm

I knew you had to include Shelley Winters who may hold the bad mother record. I love her turn as a less obvious but no less atrocious mother in Night of the Hunter. Good luck kids.

Posted By kingrat : May 8, 2014 11:15 pm

Loved the post, Kimberly! You came up with some of the best possible choices in the Horrible Mother Sweepstakes. Loved your descriptions.

Katina Paxinou in ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS scares the willies out of me. No sooner does she get to Milan than she breaks up her son’s engagement to the sweet Claudia Cardinale and alienates Claudia’s parents. She just goes downhill from there. If you see this movie, you will learn the Italian word for prostitute (“putana”) because that’s what she calls any woman one of her sons finds attractive.

Blanche Yurka as Gilbert Roland’s mother in THE FURIES is pretty scary, too, as she is in A TALE OF TWO CITIES.

1950s/early 1960s movies (the era when people were concerned about “Momism”) have a lot of unpleasant domineering mothers like Patricia Collinge in TERESA and Neva Patterson in DAVID AND LISA. Often these movies have a subtext of the belief that domineering mothers make their sons homosexual.

Posted By LD : May 8, 2014 11:17 pm

Glad you included Constance Ford on your list. Ken Jorgenson’s response to her comment about Swede’s is for me the best part of A SUMMER PLACE. No end to that character’s bigotry.

On my list I would add Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine in THE LION IN WINTER. Although everyone is flawed in that film.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 9, 2014 12:41 am

Thanks for the great comments & suggestions everyone. Loving your additions to the pantheon of Bad Movie Mothers!

Ben – I can’t imagine how you anyone compile a list of their favorite Bad Movie Moms and leave out Shelley Winters. Love her and she played them so often!

Kingrat – ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS is one my favorite films but I completely forgot about how awful the mother was. I focused on English language films but now you’ve got me thinking about bad mothers in foreign language films as well. Love your inclusion of Blanche Yurka too. Funny you should mention A TALE OF TWO CITIES, which was one of my own mother’s favorite films. My mom had a crush on Ronald Coleman until the day she died. And speaking of moms, I hope you and your family enjoy the holiday weekend.

LD – Ford was terrific in A SUMMER PLACE. Horrible mother and a nasty bigot but so fun to watch.

Posted By Emgee : May 9, 2014 8:28 am

Am i the only one who immediately thinks of Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest? Surely not!

Posted By Marjorie Birch : May 9, 2014 3:18 pm

Bette Davis as Fanny Skeffington. But at least her hapless daughter (who grew up to be a lovely and dignified young woman in the movie) had Claude Rains (Mr. Skeffington) to look after her. Though Mrs. Skeffington was more clueless than cruel.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 9, 2014 5:44 pm

Emgee – MOMMY DEAREST isn’t a favorite film of mine so I didn’t mention it in my post but I *did* think about it and I’m glad you brought it up. But truthfully, I think Cartoon Crawford was a pussycat compared to some of the mom’s mentioned above.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 9, 2014 5:50 pm

Marjorie – Glad you brought up Bette Davis because I thought about including her Regina Giddens from THE LITTLE FOXES in my own picks since I love the film & her performance. The problem I have with including Davis is that I always sympathize with her, even in her most cutthroat roles she makes me want to root for her. Maybe I’m crazy or just a blind Davis devotee?

Posted By CitizenKing : May 9, 2014 7:49 pm

When I put together a “Bad Mother:” film series for some friends a few years back,I included Ma Jarrett and Mrs. Iselin and I considered several of your other choices. I also used Agnes Moorehead, who specialized in shrewish women, in the lesser known 14 Hours. This tense little movie is about a man on a ledge, and guess who played the mother who put him there.

I also included Ethel Merman in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World as a comic contrast. Not only is she a bad mother who is responsible for Dick Shawn’s hilarious character, she also serves as the stereotypical mother-in-law from hell.

I want to comment as well on Beulah Bondi. She played mothers a lot in movies, both good and bad. In addition to the above, she was a terror in Shepherd of the Hills. And she was sweetness and light in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Then in It’s a Wonderful Life you got to see her both ways. As the real Ma Bailey she was a doll, then in the alternate reality she was frightening. An underrated actress in my opinion.

Posted By Shuvcat : May 10, 2014 2:26 am

I thought Margaret Johnston in 1966′s The Psychopath made a great scary mom. Maybe not evil, just way too obsessed with keeping her son with her… forever.
Off topic, are the TCM message boards offline for good? I really liked revisiting the list of B and Worse Juvenile Movies. Be cool to have them back. Just a suggestion.

Posted By Jason Varney : May 10, 2014 5:42 pm

Louise Latham from Marnie came to mind while reading this.

Posted By george : May 10, 2014 7:41 pm

What about Piper Laurie in CARRIE? How many other screen mothers literally stabbed their daughter in the back?

Where I live, the local art house is sardonically showing De Palma’s film as their Mother’s Day attraction.

Posted By Tommy : May 11, 2014 4:36 pm

Lansbury again, playing a cold fish of a mother in “The World of Henry Orient.”

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : May 11, 2014 10:21 pm

I like to imagine that Gladys Cooper’s fiery comeuppance at the end of the 1941 version of THE BLACK CAT is an unused scene from NOW VOYAGER.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : May 11, 2014 10:23 pm

And to add my own to the mix, how about Elizabeth Russell as the ghost of the mother in THE UNINVITED? Chilly bitch!

Posted By swac44 : May 12, 2014 3:16 pm

I immediately thought of Angie Dickinson in Big Bad Mama. Then I remembered her love scene with William Shatner and wished I hadn’t.

Posted By Muriel : May 24, 2014 7:48 am

Shelley Winters was also good as a shrew in “Diary of Anne Frank”. Hiding in a crowded atticfor a few years does that to you.

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