On Mother’s Day, we take the time to call our mothers, send flowers, and attend overpriced brunches. We do it to celebrate all that is good about our mothers. In contrast, cinema finds stories more interesting when it celebrates horrific mothers, the kind of mothers that make your mom look like June Cleaver in comparison.
The bad mom is a classic archetype. Euripides hit the jackpot when he wrote the story of Medea, who killed her children, cooked them, and served them to her unfaithful husband, Jason (and you thought your mom held a grudge). Awful mothers captivate an audience.
The first contemporary bad film moms that come to mind are Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest and Margaret White in Carrie. It’s hard to beat an actual autobiographical depiction of being tortured by a film star or a narrative featuring a religious zealot willing to kill her daughter. But, the following list offers up a few more examples.
When you talk to your mom, take a minute and remind yourself how much worse her parenting could have been.
Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead
This movie features a mom who thinks an eighty-year-old woman is up to the task of watching five children for an entire summer. Plus, the kids that need supervision are a mess. The oldest is a pretty typical teen (Christina Applegate), but there is also the slacker stoner (Keith Coogan), the adolescent lothario, the conflicted tomboy, and the game show addict. It could be argued that these kids were hard to raise, but that doesn’t seem to be the case since her 17-year-old daughter whips the house, the kids, and a failing business into shape over the course of a few months. Mom (Concetta Tomei) isn’t so much an actively terrible tyrant as she is a poor parent. Those kids were better off raising themselves.
She (Catherine O’Hara) left her youngest child home alone while she and her family flew to France. Done. John Hughes, Chris Columbus, and company can play up the difficulty of getting an entire family ready and to the airport during the holiday season all they want, there is no reason that a mother would make it all the way on the plane before realizing her son wasn’t with her. But, who knows what’s logical with a mom who let the entire family attack her eight-year-old for the night? And, as soon as the family gets back to little Kevin and greets him after leaving him alone for three entire days, she gives him a hearty hug and wanders off to do something else. Quality parenting. Even worse? She does it again in New York.
Lilly Dillon (Anjelica Huston) ignores son Roy (John Cusack) for eight years, kills his girlfriend, attempts to seduce him, and, finally, robs and kills him. Sometimes parents and children have conflicts that don’t allow them to communicate. It happens. Sometimes your son’s girlfriend tries to kill you and you kill her in self-defense. This has to be a thing, right? You might even rob your son and kill him by accident. But, short of Greek drama, is there ever a call to try to con your kid by getting them to have sex with you? The answer that should spring immediately to mind is “no.” So much “no.” All the “no.”
Perhaps it isn’t fair to malign old lady Bates, since she isn’t alive to defend herself. But, when your son (Anthony Perkins) spends his free time chilling with your desiccated corpse and assumes your persona by dressing in your musty garments, it’s seems like bad parenting can be held, at least partially, accountable. And, if the Mrs. Bates Norman hears in his head is any indication of how she talked to him when she was alive, then she was definitely a bad mom. And she isn’t much of a hotel proprietress either. You really want to root for a single mom who managed a business alone in the 1950s, but she seems to have been terrible at both.
Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) is a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, she is a predatory female. For others, she is a symbol of mature female sexuality. For her daughter (Katherine Ross), she is the worst. Mrs. Robinson’s dalliance with Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) may have pre-dated Benjamin dating Elaine, but when Mrs. Robinson paints the sex as non-consensual, she makes her daughter’s beau into a rapist. Later, when he tries to find Elaine, Mrs. Robinson calls the cops and reports a break-in. At this point, your mom made the man in love with you into a mom raping break-in artist. Is there a Mothers’ Day card for that?
Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury) is unquestionably one of the worst mothers in film. There are neglectful mothers; there are abusive mothers; and, there are mothers who have you brainwashed into being a communist assassin so they can achieve their political aspirations. Eleanor Iselin may tell her son (Laurence Harvey) that she didn’t know he was going to be chosen by the communists as a pawn, and maybe she didn’t. But, she does continue to use his broken mind for her own ends.