Hollywood: still tough on moms.
It seems appropriate that Columbia Pictures chose to show a trailer for the upcoming "Spanglish" before a recent screening of "The Forgotten." The former, a comedy by writer-director James L. Brooks, features Tea Leoni as a former corporate go-getter who has been downsized and is now an ambivalent full-time mom. In the trailer, Leoni's character is addled by a near-constant barrage of, uhm, "advice" from her own, hypercritical mother, played by Cloris Leachman. If the promotional montage is to be believed, "Spanglish" will be yet another portrait of motherhood at its most mythically messed up and toxically enmeshed. After all, Brooks virtually invented the form with his 1983 film "Terms of Endearment." Another Brooks (Albert) paid amusing homage to the stereotypical overbearing mother in his 1996 comedy "Mother."
At the other end of the spectrum, consider "The Forgotten," which opened Friday. In this supernatural sci-fi thriller, Julianne Moore plays Telly Paretta, a thirtyish woman who is grieving the recent death of her 9-year-old son. According to Telly's husband and psychiatrist, the boy is a figment of Telly's imagination, a hysterical delusion triggered by a miscarriage months earlier. But as "The Forgotten" progresses, it becomes clear that something sinister is afoot involving Telly's family, her memories and some very mysterious characters from the National Security Agency.
Moore's ability to save the day in "The Forgotten" hinges not on some physical superpower, but on something far more potent and mystical: Mother Love. Does she possess the maternal devotion necessary to win out over evil? (The implicit question to the rest of us: Do we?)
Hollywood seems stuck on the same old seesaw when it comes to motherhood, one that bears a striking resemblance to the Madonna-whore dichotomy into which it routinely relegates female characters. Of course, movies tend to capture all characters, not just moms, in extremis; otherwise, where's the drama? Still, it must be a measure of the anxiety level of filmmakers and studio executives (whose ranks are still overwhelmingly male) that mothers are cast either as monsters of "Mommie Dearest" or "Manchurian Candidate" proportions or icons of fierce, even superhuman protectiveness. Consider Uma Thurman in last year's "Kill Bill." Her character is called the Bride, but it's the primal urges of her role as the Mother that motivates her epically vengeful killing spree.
Can mothers ever get it right, at least by Hollywood's distorted standards? For every hip, single-mom-as-best-buddy a la TV's "Gilmore Girls" there's payback in the form of Holly Hunter's slightly loco parent in "Thirteen." (In addition to the heroic Mother of Mystical Connection in "The Forgotten," Moore has played almost every version of Hollywood Moms, from the giddily expectant mom in "Nine Months" to the tortured Bad Mothers of "Boogie Nights" and "The Hours.")
But perhaps a better question is: Can Hollywood ever get mothers right? In recent years, some encouraging portraits of motherhood in all its ambiguity and complexity have emerged, from Frances McDormand's messy but loving mom in "Laurel Canyon" and Brenda Blethyn's slightly addled matriarch in "Lovely & Amazing," to the character portrayed by Patricia Clarkson in "Pieces of April" last year. In each of these films, mothers aren't monsters or superheroes. They're individuals, flawed and lovable to differing degrees, but always recognizably human. They're the mothers we so rarely see reflected in the camera's unforgiving gaze. They're good enough.