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The 15 Best (and Worst!) Moms in Movie History

Celebrate Mother's Day with cinematic odes to moms who deserve flowers (or not at all)

spinner image Faye Dunaway in the film Mommie Dearest, Sally Field in Forrest Gump and Diahann Carroll in Claudine
Faye Dunaway in "Mommie Dearest," Sally Field in "Forrest Gump" and Diahann Carroll in "Claudine."
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Sunset Boulevard/Getty Images; TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy Stock Photo

"A boy's best friend is his mother,” Norman Bates observed in Psycho. So for those who intend to shower Mom with some movie love this Mother's Day, we've compiled a roundup of some of Hollywood's most memorable maters: some good, some bad, and some whose suspect maternal instincts are somewhere in between.

spinner image Lorelei Linklater, Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane lying on a bed reading a book in the film Boyhood
Lorelei Linklater, Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood."
Photo 12/Alamy Stock Photo

Good Mom: Patricia Arquette in Boyhood (2014)

There's literally a lifetime in Richard Linklater's filmed-over-12-years Oscar winner. Not only did Patricia Arquette's single mom, Olivia, ultimately do a great job with her own son and daughter, but she unwittingly changed the life of the man who worked on her septic line, who on her advice returned to school and graduated from college. It's one milestone to the next until she is left alone in an empty nest. The film should really be called Motherhood, because Olivia is the most interesting person in it.

Watch it: Boyhood, on Criterion Channel, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, Apple TV

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Bad Mom: Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People (1980)

Mary Tyler Moore's Beth Jarrett is not going to turn on anybody's world with her cold, cold smile. The affluent, picture-perfect Jarrett household betrays a rotting core of grief that has left Jarrett emotionally (and in every other way) distant from her young son (Oscar winner Timothy Hutton), who holds himself responsible for his older brother's tragic death. For Beth, appearances are everything, and it tears her family apart.

Watch it: Ordinary People, on Paramount+, Amazon Prime, Google Play

Good Mom: Diahann Carroll in Claudine (1974)

A deglamorized Diahann Carroll was Oscar-nominated for her gritty performance as a single welfare mom who lives in Harlem with her six children. Her already chaotic life is further upended when she is pursued by a garbage man (James Earl Jones in a rare romantic leading role). Despite a series of familial and romantic crises, Claudine keeps it together.

Watch it: Claudine, on Vimeo

DON'T MISS THIS: 10 Celebrities Who Gave Their Moms the Star Treatment

spinner image Cicely Tyson stars in the film Sounder
Cicely Tyson and Kevin Hooks
Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

Good Mom: Cicely Tyson in Sounder (1972)

Cicely Tyson was nominated for an Oscar as Rebecca, a sharecropper's wife who does what she has to do to manage her family and the crops when her husband (Paul Winfield) is arrested and sent to a remote work camp. Roger Ebert called Tyson's performance “a wonder": “We know her strength and intelligence. Then we see her dealing with the white power structure, and her behavior toward it is in a style born of cynicism and necessity. She will say what they want to hear to get what she wants to get.”

Watch it: Amazon Prime, Tubi

spinner image John Cusack and Anjelica Huston star in the film The Grifters
John Cusack and Anjelica Huston
Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection

Bad Mom: Anjelica Huston in The Grifters (1990)

If Anjelica Huston's Lilly Dillon were to pass herself off as Mother of the Year, that might be the biggest con she has ever pulled, and she's pulled plenty at the cost of her relationship to her son, aspiring grifter Roy (John Cusack). But she is way, way out of Roy's league and a Freudian nightmare to boot: “What if I told you I wasn't really your mother? You'd like that wouldn't you?”

Watch it: The Grifters, on Hulu, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu

Good Moms: Tsai Chin, Kieu Chinh, Lisa Lu, France Nuyen in The Joy Luck Club (1993)

Inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry as “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant,” this get-out-your-handkerchiefs adaptation of Amy Tan's novel examines the loving but fraught relationships between four Chinese immigrant mothers and their hopes and dreams for their assimilated Chinese-American daughters. Though set in a specific culture, who can't relate to the line, “I want to understand my mother"?

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Watch it: The Joy Luck Club, on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube

On the fence: Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment (1983)

When it comes to being a helicopter parent, Shirley MacLaine's Aurora Greenaway is an AH-64E Apache. She is at once overprotective, willful and maddening. But if you're in the hospital and it's 10 p.m., and the nurse hasn't arrived with your pain medication, you want Aurora Greenway in the nurse's station screaming, “GIVE MY DAUGHTER THE SHOT!”

Watch it: Terms of Endearment, on Hulu, Starz, Philo, YouTube, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu

Good Mom: Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965)

Stepmothers have gotten a pretty raw deal in films and fairy tales. Enter Julie Andrews’ Maria, the new governess to the Von Trapp children. Before you can say do-re-mi, she brings laughter, love and song to the stoic household and melts the heart of widower Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer).

Watch it: The Sound of Music, on Disney+, YouTube, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu

Bad Mom: Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

The studio initially resisted bringing Richard Condon's novel to the screen because it was a political hot potato, but when Frank Sinatra mentioned to then-President John F. Kennedy that the book was to be his next project, Kennedy responded, “That's great; who's going to play the mother?” Angela Lansbury portrays Eleanor Iselin, who uses her own Korean War hero son (Laurence Harvey) in a treasonous Communist assassination plot. Our vote for Worst. Movie. Mom. Ever. Fun fact: Sinatra originally wanted Lucille Ball to play Eleanor.

Watch it: The Manchurian Candidate, on Amazon Prime, Vudu, Apple TV

On the fence: Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945)

Joan Crawford's self-sacrificing, long-suffering Mildred is a self-made woman who denies her daughter nothing and will do anything for her. And that's the problem. Veda is a monster, a spoiled, “cheap and horrible” social climber, unrelenting in her contempt for her mother. While mom would even take a murder rap for her daughter, her best friend knows better. “Veda's convinced me,” she states, “that alligators have the right idea; they eat their young.”

Watch it: Mildred Pierce, on VuduYouTubeAmazon PrimeApple TV

Good Mom: Sally Field in Forrest Gump (1994)

"He might be a bit on the slow side, but my boy Forrest will get the same opportunities as everyone else.” Sally Field's Mama Gump is fiercely devoted to her son, and she sets him on his extraordinary life's path to find his destiny. “Don't ever let anybody tell you they're better than you,” she tells him, just one of her inspiring aphorisms, along with “Stupid is as stupid does” and that thing about the box of chocolates.

Watch it: Forrest Gump, on YouTube, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu

Bad Mom: Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest (1981)

Faye Dunaway pulls out all the stops as Joan Crawford in this controversial biopic based on the memoir by Crawford's score-settling daughter. She's a monster (momster?), inflicting verbal and physical abuse on her hapless child. Don't let this film's designation as a “camp classic” emotionally distance you from the horrors of this unflinching Oscar-nominated portrayal that recast Crawford's legacy.

Watch it: Mommie Dearest, on Paramount+, YouTube, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu

On the fence: Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom (1994)

In John Waters’ black comedy, Kathleen Turner's Baltimore housewife Beverly Stuphin is by all appearances “as nice and normal a lady as you're going to find.” A meticulous and exacting wife, mother and homemaker, this woman would kill for her family. And that, too, is the problem. Woe be the boy who stands up her daughter, or the neighbor who won't recycle or even a stranger who wears white shoes after Labor Day. Good mom or psycho mom? The jury is out on this one.

Watch it: Serial Mom, on Peacock, YouTube, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu

spinner image Elastigirl sitting behind a steering wheel and wearing a headset in the animated film The Incredibles
Walt Disney/Courtesy Everett Collection

Good Mom: Holly Hunter in The Incredibles (2004)

Moms have to be flexible and will often bend themselves out of shape to care for their families. No one illustrates this better than the Holly Hunter-voiced Helen Parr (aka Elastigirl), the homebound superhero in Pixar's Oscar-winning animated classic.

Watch it: The Incredibles, on Disney+, YouTube, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu

spinner image Leopoldine Konstantin, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains in a scene from the film Notorious
(Left to right) Leopoldine Konstantin, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains in "Notorious."
Courtesy Everett Collection

Bad Mom: Leopoldine Konstantin in Notorious (1946)

What does it say that in Alfred Hitchcock's classic romantic thriller about a Nazi conspiracy, it's the mom who's the real villain? Leopoldine Konstantin's Madame Sebastian knows just what to do when her son (Claude Rains) inadvertently marries a woman (Ingrid Bergman) in cahoots with an American agent (Cary Grant). He wants to kill her. All in good time. “You're almost as impetuous as before your wedding,” she coolly calms her distraught son. “You barred me from that episode. Let me arrange this one."

Watch it: Notorious, on YouTube

Donald Liebenson has written on film and entertainment for AARP, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Times, Vanity Fair and Entertainment Weekly.

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