Archive | May, 2016

On Letting Mothers be Mothers

2 May

Well, Mother’s Day will be a little different, a little sadder, this year.  No IHOP. No Hallmark. No mother. Not my own, anyway, though I still play Mother Hen when I get the chance.

I think a good friend and I will duck into the nearest multiplex one of these days to catch Mother’s Day, the latest holiday-themed ensemble piece from director Garry Marshall (New Year’s Day and Valentine’s Day). Of the star-studded cast, I am most intrigued by Julia Roberts, seemingly having a grand time channeling matronly HSN realness.

Of course, even before Marshall and his latest cinematic bouquet, Hollywood long loved paying tribute to the women with whom, for better or worse, most of us will form the most complex, yet loving, relationship(s) of our lives.  Fans of classic cinema no doubt have a favorite movie mama, everything from Barbara Stanwyck’s noble Stella Dallas (an Oscar nominee from 1937) and Joan Crawford’s indelible Mildred Pierce (a 1945 Oscar winner) to the likes of the most recent Best Actress Oscar winner, Brie Larson in Room. The decades in between are packed with the likes of Jane Darwell’s formidable Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940’s Best Supporting Actress honoree), Juanita Moore and Lana Turner–but mostly Best Supporting Actress nominee Juanita Moore–in 1959’s platinum-hearted Imitation of Life, Rosalind Russell as the stage mother of all stage mothers in Gypsy (1962), Mary Tyler Moore, the epitome of impeccably tailored WASPish reserve in Ordinary People (another Oscar contender, 1980),  Shirley MacLaine pulling no punches as headstrong Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment (Best Actress, 1983), Sally Field fully immersing herself in the thickness  of the mother-daughter conflict at the heart of the otherwise sassy Steel Magnolias (1989), and local fave Darlene Cates as the indomitable “Mama” Grape (Bonnie, that is) in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993). Of course, I could go on and on and on….

You probably have your favorite–or favorites.

On the flip-side, Hollywood often serves less flattering portrayals of motherhood, such as Mrs. Bates (Psycho, 1960), Harold & Maude‘s snooty socialite (the sublime Vivien Pickles, circa 1971),  Margaret White (Oscar nominee Piper Laurie in 1976’s Carrie), Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest (1981), and Oscar nominee Anne Ramsey as the cantankerous “Momma” in Throw Momma from the Train (1987), among others.

On this Mother’s Day, however, I want to recognize two of my favorite portrayals of motherhood from the past few years though “few” is a relative term since one of them is actually a decade old as of this writing. Nonetheless,….

Meet Little Miss Sunshine‘s Sheryl Hoover (from 2006), the woman who tries valiantly to play peacemaker to one and all: husband, daughter, son, father-in-law, brother and even–the unseen–sister. As played by ever-versatile Toni Collette, Sheryl is hardly an ordinary woman caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Instead, she’s more like a resoundingly ordinary woman coping as best she can on life’s merry roller-coaster. Look at her. She dresses nicely, not overly-styled or beyond  her means. Not cheap but definitely budget-conscious. In the first scene, we see that she wears a slim skirt topped by a simple blouse, barely more than a shell. She certainly looks professional and well-groomed, nothing fancy but also, blessedly, nothing that reads as a caricature of what it means to be working class. I don’t think we ever learn where she works, exactly, but it appears she’s required to wear a name tag. My guess is bank teller, possibly real-estate agent, maybe retail, somewhere on the order of Macy’s or Kohl’s–possibly where she buys her clothes. My point is that a lot of times Hollywood gets it wrong, and many female characters are outfitted in clothes that seemingly have more to do with a given actress’s upscale taste than what seems appropriate for the character, or the costumers, again, strain to evoke dowdiness or financial hardship. Not in this case. Kudos to costumer Nancy Steiner.

Sheryl Hoover tries to take care of her family, but she’s a little frazzled–and you would be also if you’d had the kind of day she’d had just as the movie opens. Her brother, a widely respected scholar, has tried to commit suicide, and Sheryl is tasked with bringing him home to temporarily share quarters with her spouse and children for safety concerns. This means that she has to walk a precarious line with her husband, a good looking but slightly clueless aspiring motivational speaker. Richard Hoover is a big dreamer, and he means well,  but he’s also a bit of a prig, and his goal of being the next Tony Robbins or Dr. Phil is a risky endeavor that keeps Sheryl on her toes as she is the sole breadwinner for the time being. She tries to fight back desperation, but her will is tested any time money enters the conversation. For now, the Hoovers live comfortably, but the meter is running. Her household challenges also include a  dark-haired teenage son who worships at the altar of Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence until he is admitted into pilots school; a father-in-law with a randy mind, a filthy mouth, a drug problem, and nothing but love for his granddaughter; finally, Olive, the title character, a sweet-faced girl and kiddie pageant hopeful without a mean, or untrusting, bone in her body. Sheryl wants Olive’s pageant dreams to come true, but she’s hardly a micro-managing pageant mom. She just wants to do the best she can by Olive even if that means figuring it out along the way.

Like many moms on the go, Sheryl Hoover can barely catch a break. She, like many of us at one time or another, I’m sure, doesn’t necessarily smoke, but she likes to keep a pack handy for especially stressful times, something which her husband understands but does not approve. There she is, cruising along, trying to beat rush hour traffic after a day at work, but she needs to make that detour, the mission of mercy for the sake of her brother. Frantic, she puffs a cig  while trying to carry on a conversation with her husband–and I’m pretty sure she knows she shouldn’t be talking on the phone while driving–but her husband’s wise to her, so she covers as best she can. See? We’ve all been there. I’m not saying what she does is right, but it’s relatable.

Furthermore, like many harried moms in the 21st century, Sheryl Hoover frequently brings home dinner in a takeout bag. Her default choice is a bucket of fried chicken. And, once again, why not? After all, she’s only barely getting used to her eccentric–to put it mildly–father-in-law; now, she has another mouth to feed thanks to her brother’s devastation. You’d probably want to snag a bucket of chicken also. Still, Sheryl pushes on, throwing together a salad and encouraging everyone to have a least a bite or two of the green mix. She knows the pre-fab mashed potatoes in the family combo-pak do not constitute a real vegetable. And aren’t her mismatched drinking glasses, leftover from jelly jars and other assorted freebies (or special offers), a familiar sight? We had more than our share of those glasses when I was a kiddo. Home sweet home. Oh, and ever the gracious hostess, she serves dessert even if that means popsicles.

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Toni Collette’s remarkable career includes everything from award winning work in her native Australia to prestige entries in England and in the U.S. She boasts 11 Australian Film Institute nominations, with six wins, most notably for Muriel’s Wedding (1994) and Japanese Story (2003). Interestingly, she was even nominated for Little Miss Sunshine in her home country. In America, her award clout extends to an Oscar nomination for playing Haley Joel Osment’s weary mother in The Sixth Sense (1999) and an Emmy, among three nominations, for The United States of Tara. Her BAFTA, or British Academy, nods include Little Miss Sunshine and 2002’s About a Boy. Clearly, her work in The Sixth Sense, About a Boy, and Little Miss Sunshine  (even 2013’s Sunshine-esque The Way, Way Back) qualifies her as a movie motherhood all-star.

What I love most about Sheryl Hoover is her dedication to her children. I think she wages constant doubts about her ability to be an effective parent. We can see this when she weighs the cost of how much her brother should share about his recent suicide attempt when asked about it by his niece at the diner table. Of course, Sheryl understands that her brother’s tale is not an easy one for a small child to grasp–it involves a same sex lover–but Sheryl believes, much to her husband’s protestations, that there is no substitute for the truth, and she’s right. Sheryl also knows her daughter, a wee-bit on the chubby side, should enjoy being a kid even if that means splurging on fats and calories with a hearty helping of waffles a la mode for breakfast. No fat shaming or body image issues for her little girl for the sake of a crown, however valued. No ma’am. Besides her daughter, Sheryl supports her son (from a previous marriage) and his military aspirations even though she’s perplexed, maybe even fearful. Maybe she doesn’t try to dissuade him because she’s holding out for the possibility that he’ll change his mind as long as she doesn’t force the issue. Smart for her.

I love Sheryl the most when she rails against the naysayers who want to discourage Olive from competing in the pageant, especially since those naysayers are not more seasoned pageant veterans but members of her own family. Guileless Olive is a charmer, and she might win a pageant one day, but it’s obvious that she’s simply not as polished as her fellow contestants, but that’s okay with Sheryl because she’s not afraid of Olive failing or embarrassing herself (or her family). What Sheryl, this great compassionate mom, sees is that Olive has worked hard to be as prepared as possible AND enjoys what she’s doing. Winning is not as important to Sheryl as it is to others. She wants Olive to be a regular kid and have fun. “We have to let Olive be Olive,” Sheryl exclaims, and that is the moment I most cherish in this whole funny flick. I just wish more parents saw the world and their children as simply and as lovingly as Sheryl.

Little Miss Sunshine scored an impressive number of Oscar nominations back in the 2006/2007 Oscar race, Best Picture among them. The kitty also included trophies for Alan Arkin (Best Supporting Actor) as the loose-cannon grandpa and Best Original Screenplay for Michael Arndt’s miracle of a script; a miracle in that it looks so easy even though it breaks many of the standard rules for scriptwriting. Additionally, Little Abigail Breslin earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination, but she was up against powerhouse Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls, so the nomination had to suffice.

Actually, I think the whole cast was Oscar worthy, including Greg Kinnear as Richard and Steven Carrell as Sheryl’s brother. That noted, Toni Collette is the force that holds the movie together for this viewer. Abigail Breslin’s pageant girl might very well be the story’s catalyst, but Sheryl is the anchor, the protector. I could have easily supported a Best Actress nod for her in a year dominated by Helen Mirren’s exacting performance as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen. Mirren was unstoppable, for reasons I never understood, other than members of the press as well as the Academy determined that after decades of superb work she had topped herself with a super-size big screen role and was overdue. To be clear, I never hated Mirren or her movie, but, as distinguished as it was,  the performance never struck me as a singular achievement. Mirren’s only competition that year seemed to be Meryl Streep, practically reinventing herself as a legendarily demanding fashion magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada. At the time, Streep was my personal fave among the favored five though with the passing of the many years since, I appreciate more and more the dark genius of Judi Dench as a miserable school marm in Notes on a Scandal. Now, there’s a performance that rocks for the ages. By the way, Kate Winslet (Little Children) and Penelope Cruz (Volver) rounded out the final ballot.

Among the 2006 also-rans were Annette Benning (in the otherwise problematic Running with Scissors) Beyonce (better than her detractors might allow in Dreamgirls), and, as noted, Collette. My guess is that the role of Sheryl Hoover is simply not flashy enough to dazzle Academy voters. Again, in many ways, Sheryl is resoundingly ordinary–the charm of which likely escaped jaded Hollywood viewers–and what Collette does best is react to the antics surrounding her. Every actor learns early on that all acting is reacting–this is essential to the craft–but for some reason, the Academy almost always favors acting that looks like acting. As Sheryl, Collette has her moments, but the role isn’t about those moments. You know, martyrdom, harrowing ordeals, long-winded impassioned speeches, tearful soliloquies, or fits of rage and righteous indignation. What we get instead is a woman  for whom body language says a lot and whose big blue eyes seemingly take-in everything. Study her face in closeups.

Collette aims to find truth in the heart of a basically good yet flawed woman doing the best she can as wife, daughter-in-law, and, yes, mother. I recently found a great quote from Little Miss Sunshine co-director Valerie Farris on LondonNet: “Toni is an amazing actress who plays the strongest character in the film. You identify with her,” says co-director, Valerie Faris. “She is smart and capable and makes good choices. She supports everybody in the family for who they are. Toni really understands this character. She has a big heart and she is a very open person and in the film, that comes across.” Well stated, Ms. Faris. Thank you.

My number two pick for a great cinematic modern American mother is Patricia Clarkson as Rosemary Penderghast, mother of–coincidentally–Olive Penderghast, played by Emma Stone, in Easy A, 2010’s high school update on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Truthfully, I think Clarkson and Stanley Tucci, as Clarkson’s hubby/Olive’s dad, both deserve great big heaping piles of accolades for playing the freshest, smartest pair of parents in almost any teen movie of the last decade or more; however, this day is about Mom.

After racking up more than 20 years in film exhibition, I well understand that makers of teen comedies understand exactly which audience they hope to reach with their products. At the same time, audiences, even teen audiences, likely benefit from being challenged rather than pandered (to). For example, in many teen comedies parents just come across as (pick one): dolts, stiffs, morons, absentee, self-absorbed twits, etc. Look no further, for instance, to Amy Poehler’s bimborella in the otherwise smart, Tina Fey penned, Mean Girls. Sure, Poehler is funny, but her character, straining to be hip and with-it, is pathetic. On the other hand, Clarkson in Easy A is refreshingly cool. She doesn’t try too hard to be her daughter’s bff because she already is her daughter’s friend on top of being a concerned, pro-active parent. Yes, she really likes her child and enjoys spending time with her even if that means hanging out in the kitchen, preparing dinner–and it’s not just the two girls; dad and little brother are right there, the way we like to think families should be during meal time. (Of course, one can argue that the family’s affluence–living comfortably in beautiful, tony Ojai, California–plays a HUGE role in their ability to spend so much time together compared to, say, traditionally working class or single parent households. Duly noted.)

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Some of the most refreshing moments in Easy A feature Olive Penderghast ( Emma Stone on the left) and her sweet-n-sassy mom Rosemary (Patricia Clarkson to the right). Ironically, and in spite of multiple performances as movie moms, including an Oscar nominated supporting turn in 2003’s Pieces of April, Clarkson is not a mom in real-life , nor has she ever been married. In 2010, she was surely a long-shot for another Best Supporting Actress nod for her fine work in Easy A. Competition was stiff, and Easy A, in spite of healthy box office and enthusiastic reviews, just didn’t register as a significant achievement. Too bad because to this viewer, this is exactly the kind of crackerjack portrayal that seems truly supporting and, likewise, tailor-made for supporting character awards consideration. For years, Clarkson, the dusky-voiced New Orleans native, has worked tirelessly to launch a film project in which she would star as Tallulah Bankhead,  the colorful Golden Age stage and screen actress with even more pronounced Southern roots, hailing from a prominent, politically well-heeled family in Alabama. Kathleen Turner and Valerie Harper have portrayed Bankhead onstage, but Clarkson seems born for the job.

What I also like about Rosemary Penderghast is that she knows how to communicate with her daughter in a way that seems just about on-target even in awkward situations. In other words, Rosemary understands that her child isn’t perfect and needs a little guidance, but she doesn’t want to intrude–too much–but she also needs to exert parental stewardship. That is, after all, her responsibility, so Rosemary learns to deflect some of these conversations with a dose of humor, and I applaud her for that. Rosemary also doesn’t mind tossing out, almost as casual asides, some of her own juvenile escapades. Of course, Olive is a wee bit embarrassed, and that’s okay because she now knows her mother won’t judge her–too much–for the mess she has created for herself by pretending to be, you know, “easy.” This is smart parenting.

The beauty of Clarkson’s performance is that she never goes too far. She doesn’t sacrifice the heart of the character for the sake of a laugh or vice versa. Once again, think back to Ana Gasteyer’s globe trotting zoologist mom in Mean Girls. While she’s definitely more grounded than Poehler’s character, she’s almost equally clueless about her daughter even though she appears to be cut from the same touchy-feeling peacenik cloth as Clarkson’s Rosemary. And, again, I actually enjoy Gasteyer. My point is  to show how Clarkson as Rosemary rises above the rest of the fray by playing a funny character that also represents positive parenting. What’s so bad about that? After all, we have to let mothers be mothers.

Thanks for your consideration…