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Fall Sneaks

Dear Old Mom? Hardly

Talk about tough love. This season, actresses specialize in, um, hard-to-like parents. The primal experience never looked so scary.

September 08, 2002|MICHELE WILLENS

I'm sorry Mama, I never meant to hurt you. I never meant to make you cry but tonight I'm cleaning out my closet.


As the young hero (Kieran Culkin) of "Igby Goes Down" is--how to put this delicately?--beating on his mother's (Susan Sarandon) corpse, he finally feels a moment of remorse: "Why is it the first time I feel remotely affectionate toward her is when she's dead?"

Likewise, when the young heroine (Alison Lohman) of "White Oleander" finally emerges from the oppressive shadow of her mother (Michelle Pfeiffer), her emotions are mixed: "No matter how much she damaged me, I know my mother loves me."

Mothers. We hate them, we love them, we need them, we hate that we need them. And for those of us who become them, we hopefully grow to better understand our own. The movies have certainly given us their share of memorable moms from Joan Crawford's Mildred Pierce (rhymes with fierce) to Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford, who became infamous for inappropriate use of a clothes hanger.

Susan Sarandon, who plays mothers in three fall films, points out that when she played one in "Pretty Baby" 24 years ago, "it was considered sort of a kiss of death to your career. Apparently your sensuality was supposed to dwindle."

Several actresses have won Oscars playing mothers with kids in tow while eking out a living, serving tables, forming the union, fighting the corporations. Think Ellen Burstyn in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," Helen Hunt in "As Good as It Gets," Shirley MacLaine in "Terms of Endearment," Sissy Spacek in "Coal Miner's Daughter," Sally Field in "Norma Rae," Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich," Halle Berry in "Monster's Ball."

Even the absence of mothers in movies is worth mentioning. If little girls have grown up believing they didn't need one, remember that Snow White, Ariel, Cinderella, Belle and Pocahontas either had no mothers or had the evil step variety. OK, Bambi had one but they shot her.

Up to now, 2002 movie moms have been generally sympathetic although hardly complicated. Diane Lane was a devoted mom whose real interests lay elsewhere in "Unfaithful." Jodie Foster went buff and tough to protect her daughter in "Panic Room." We've had the loving, wise moms overseeing monsoon and big fat Greek weddings. "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" offered mushy tears of reconciliation between a mother and her daughter. Hugh Grant did better mothering than Toni Collette's suicidal mess in "About a Boy," but you still had to love her. So far this year, only those vain and self-absorbed moms in "Lovely & Amazing" have dared venture into dark places.

But there are plenty others coming, and mothers may not choose to recognize themselves. We are talking selfish. ("Why would my son do this to me?" Candice Bergen asks of her newly engaged son in "Sweet Home Alabama." "Did you ever for a second think how this reflects on me?" demands Susan Sarandon of her son's poor school performance in "Igby.") Overprotective, overbearing, often cruel. ("You are fat and ugly," says the mother of America Ferrera in "Real Women Have Curves.") Desperate. (Just watch Faye Dunaway and Swoosie Kurtz drink and pill-pop themselves under the table in "Rules of Attraction.")

Of "8 Mile," need we say more than that the November drama stars Eminem with Kim Basinger as his mother? ("This is not his biography," a studio publicist insists, "and let us say Kim's character is simply flawed.")

These mothers are portrayals that may, as Sarandon says, "exaggerate how most of us are in real life," but at least they attempt to create fully formed portraits of human nature.

Maybe we should applaud the fact that movie moms are getting closer to the bone. In "White Oleander," it is Pfeiffer's tough love, not her beauty, that makes the skin crawl. As Ingrid, a mother who spends most of the film behind bars, she still manages to nearly destroy any semblance of happiness her daughter may find. Her creator insists, however, that she is not all bad. There is both a pivotal moment of selflessness and a stubbornly admirable strength.

"The best mothers look at their children without expectations," says Janet Fitch, author of the novel "White Oleander." "Ingrid, in my story, is a shaper, which is more traditionally the father's role. It's about mother as the central core, and Astrid, her daughter, ultimately can survive because she has that image of her mother's strength inside her."

Her story bears similarities to "Real Women Have Curves," which also deals with a suffocating, rigid mother and the daughter who has to finally break free to find herself. "The mother's logic is based on her own cultural experience," explains Lupe Ontiveros, who plays the mother. "And even though her daughter finally must go far away, we see they are very much alike. She has her mother's strength but with an academic orientation."

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