There have been so many bad movie mothers that it’s hard to know where to begin with a list like this, so I tried to focus less on “bad moms” and more on “Bad Mothers.” What’s the difference? A “Bad Mother” is serious business and severe, possibly played by Nicole Kidman, and definitely representative of a larger trend in society.
Ambiguous Mother: Scarlett O’Hara, Gone with the Wind…Scarlett O’Hara is a terrible wife, backstabbing sister, self-absored daughter, and not a great person in general, but is she a “Bad Mother?” Before her only child dies, it’s clear her daughter is much closer to her father, and Scarlett can’t be bothered much to parent since she’s too busy trying to steal her best friend’s husband, and so it may look like a classic case of negligent parenting, but Scarlett’s the one who councils against horse-riding and it’s clear she’s devastated by the loss of her daughter, so it’s not so cut-and-dried.
Contemporary Disgrace(s): Naomie Harris, Moonlight…Lupita N’Yongo, The Queen of Katwe…Both of these are from movies that came out last year, and there’s no disputing Harris’ drug-addicted mother is awful: negligent, self-absorbed, and a mean-spirited bully towards her gay son. [Though I still found there to be a better–i.e. worse–example of her “Bad Mother” type in the number 1 spot on this list.] While Lupita’s “Queen of Katwe” character may seem like an odd choice for a list like this, there are scenes in “Katwe” reminiscent of many, many movies about bad parents that goes like this, Parent: “You can’t follow your dreams, you have to help me work crappy work for the family.” Parents that force their children to think of how best to “support the family” rather than following a passion they’re actually good at and that is much more likely to actually lift them out of poverty are not only putting unnecessary pressure on their kids but actually being pennywise and pound foolish.
Runner-Up: Mary Tyler Moore’s Beth Jarret, Ordinary People…Perhaps the most realistic “Bad Mother” on this list knows her blacksheep son played by Timothy Hutton–tortured by the accidental death of his favored brother–is drowning in misery, but is unwilling or unable to help him. Hers is an icy portrayal of perfection over anything else, devoid of any real maternal warmth and you can find echoes of that in later pop cultural incarnations like Annette Bening’s “American Beauty” character.
5. Norma Bates, Psycho…Forget the horrible TV series “Bates Motel,” everything we need to know about Norma Bates can be found in the original film. Hers is a mean, nasty voice of doubt and scorn that follows her son Norman even after she’s dead. A classic example of how bad parents can mess up their children’s psyches so that they don’t even need to be in the room (or alive) to make them feel bad. The only reason she’s so low on this list is because we never actually see her, which almost makes it worse: the “Bad Mother” as mythical figure.
4. Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford, Mommie Dearest…A “Bad Mother” that jumps out at most when they make these lists because this is literally a film all about an iconic real-life bad mother, as alleged by Joan Crawford’s eldest adopted daughter. This is a wildly disputed take and I don’t know if all of the things in the film actually happened, but the “Joan Crawford” presented here is as vain about appearances and jealous of her daughter outshining her as a classic Evil Disney Stepmother. Of course, Joan comes by it earnest as the Hollywood of her time was so cruel towards women’s appearances that Joan had some of her molars removed to make her cheekbones set in. To me, this idea of a culture so casually cruel towards women’s appearances that it can’t help pitting daughter against mother inspired Charlize Theron’s take on the Evil Queen Raveena in the live-action Snow White movies.
3. Angela Lansberry’s Eleanor Iselin, The Manchurian Candidate…Eleanor brainwashes her son into being an assassin, manipulates her husband (clearly based off Joseph McCarthy during an early 60’s time period where “red” paranoia was still rampant) into outing “communists” while secretly being pushed for the presidency by them in-between witch hunts, and then gets her son (while brainwashed into subservience) to kill the senator father of the girl he loves in a botched hit that also has him killing his fiancee. A not-so-subtle allegory for parents that force their kids to end relationships that actually make them happy but get in the way of family business.
2. Carrie’s mom played by Piper Laurie, Carrie…Is there anything more terrifying than a religious nut for a parent? Carrie’s mom takes the grand prize of “the worst” in this department, locking her daughter in a closet to become more devout, telling her that her period is the result of “impure thoughts,” and trying to kill her at the end when her telekinetic powers are revealed. Carrie’s mom is the stand-in for every “Horrific Mother” who ever drowned their kids in a bath tub because they thought the devil had possessed them into “talking back.” The religiously devout are scarier than the worst kind-of villain because they truly believe their own voice is God telling them what to do.
1. Mary played by Mo’Nique, Precious…What is the hallmark of every truly lousy parent? Someone that doesn’t want their kids to have more than they did. You can find it in Denzel Washington’s bitter ex-athlete in “Fences” denying his kid a chance at sports glory. You can find it in countless “follow your dreams” movies like “October Sky” where a kid can be a rocket scientist but their dad would rather they dig coal. And you can see a pure, unfiltered example of that in Mo’Nique’s Mary, who seems to truly hate the idea of her daughter getting off welfare, and who is actually jealous of her ex’s incestuous raping and impregnation of Precious. More than any monster movie of the last twenty years, you’re rooting for Precious to run and get as far away from her mother as possible.