Ann Hornaday Recommends

The word "hysteria" derives from the Greek word for womb, suggesting that the cinematic tendency to stigmatize women -- especially in their reproductive capacities -- as irrational has deep historical roots. Here are three movies that present mothers (real or imagined) at the end of various psychological and emotional tethers:

Rosemary's Baby (1968, 136 minutes) -- Roman Polanski's thriller stars Mia Farrow as an actor's pregnant wife who tries to save her child and herself from what looks like a satanic cult. Farrow's haunted portrayal of the title character is one of her finest performances, and in Polanski's hands, New York's storied Dakota apartment building becomes a character in itself, making "Rosemary's Baby" a creepily definitive example of Manhattan Gothic. (Rated R for adult themes and disturbing images.)

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, 131 minutes) -- Ah, George and Martha -- not the father and mother of our country, but a different set of parents entirely, perhaps of a child that never existed. Elizabeth Taylor chews every piece of scenery in Mike Nichols's adaptation of the Edward Albee play, in which the neurotic mind games of a troubled couple turn increasingly pathological over the course of an inebriated evening. (Not rated, contains adult thematic material.)

Mildred Pierce (1945, 111 minutes) -- You thought I was going to say "Mommie Dearest," didn't you? In Michael Curtiz's delectable melodrama, Joan Crawford is at her steely, sexy best as a divorced mother determined to do the best for her two daughters. In addition to its portrayal of motherhood as the ultimate self-sacrifice, "Mildred Pierce" is a fascinating social history of California at the dawn of its postwar real estate boom and burgeoning car culture. (Not rated)

Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes in "Rosemary's Baby."