Streaming: the best films about motherhood
‘Shot in the manner of a religious icon’: Sophia Loren, far left, with Eleonora Brown in Two Women; Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in the ‘bittersweet’ Lady Bird; Kim Hye-Ja goes to the brink in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother. Alamy
This Mother’s Day weekend, let’s celebrate self-sacrificing, feuding, exhausted, loving screen mums, from Stella Dallas to Lady Bird, Mommie Dearest to 20th Century Women
We often talk a bit flippantly about female movie stars past a certain age being consigned to “mum roles”: blandly supportive background figures who pop up merely to nag or nurture when required. “Mum” shouldn’t be a byword for mainstream cinema’s laziest, most ageist and least dimensional instincts when it comes to female characterisation; the best films about motherhood treat it as a state of being, not just as a balm for others.
Many of the so-called “women’s pictures” of Hollywood’s golden age hinged on complex, conflicted portrayals of motherhood. King Vidor’s excellent 1937 version of Stella Dallas (Amazon Prime Video) is the mother-daughter weepie to end them all, powered by Barbara Stanwyck’s wrenching performance as a working-class woman who gives up her daughter to ensure her a better life. Twenty-two years later, equivalent themes of personal sacrifice and class subversion merged with surprisingly sharp racial politics in Douglas Sirk’s magnificent Imitation of Life, in which a white woman and her black maid are bonded by fraught relationships with their respective daughters.