Once you’ve watched Faye Dunaway’s mouth-foaming meltdown over wire hangers in the Joan Crawford biopic “Mommie Dearest,” (1981) you can’t unsee it. The same goes for Shirley MacLaine’s hospital freakout over her dying daughter’s desperate need for pain medication right now in “Terms of Endearment” (1983).
The cinema is filled with complex portrayals of mothers, both bad and good, and according to author and film critic Michael Koresky, it’s no accident both those films were made in the 1980s. He refers to that decade as the Decade of the Actress in his new book “Films of Endearment: A Mother, a Son and the ’80s Films That Defined Us” (Hanover Square Press, $27.99).
“I’m tired of the ’80s being thought of as just a super-masculine, super-special effects, testosterone-fueled blockbuster era. There was much more to it,” said Koresky, editorial director of the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. “One of the things that defined it was that it was a time when studios were actually giving these really interesting parts to women in big-budget studio films for adult audiences.”
For his book, Koresky and his mother rewatched films from the ‘80s together, and he used them as talking points to learn more about his mother’s life. The result is a unique hybrid of memoir, biography and film history.
“My mother and I have this close bond through film,” said Koresky, who grew up with his parents and brother in a Boston suburb. “It’s one of those things we’ve always found easier to talk about than the actual difficulties of life, so whenever something terrible happens, whenever we’re kind of being evasive about things that are bothering us, we can always fall back on talking about movies, and they help us bring out the true emotions of our lives.”
One of the things that prompted Koresky to write the book was an epiphany he had while rewatching “Steel Magnolias” with his husband: His taste in movies was shaped by his mother.
“For me, the ’80s wasn’t about ‘Terminator.’ It wasn’t about ‘Ghostbusters.’ It was movies about women,” he said. “I realized that my mother had introduced me to all these films. I was coming of age at a time when the blockbusters and the special effects extravaganzas were really taking off, but I wanted to watch ‘Steel Magnolias.’ I remember watching ‘Beaches’ many, many times, and ‘The Color Purple.’ I think my mother was teaching me from an early age the kind of emotional films that I prefer to see. And I think it was really major in kind of defining who I am.”
Among the films featured in the book, several boast memorable mother characters. Naturally, “Terms of Endearment,” which inspired the book’s title, tops the list.
Koresky’s mother had long resisted watching the movie again because it is so sad. Directed by James L. Brooks, it depicts a prickly relationship between a mother (Shirley MacLaine) and daughter (Debra Winger) whose love for one another deepens when the daughter is diagnosed with terminal cancer.
“(My mother) said that when they went to see that movie, no one knew the sharp turn it was going to take, because it really starts out as a comedy. It’s very funny,” said Koresky. “Then it takes a sharp turn when her daughter finds out she has cancer.”
He described the scene in which MacLaine demands a nurse give her daughter morphine as “probably the most wrenching depiction of a mother’s passion for her child in film history.” Watching the movie with his mother led to conversations about how his father’s death had affected her. (“Terms of Endearment” streams on Starz and can be rented or purchased from Apple TV.)
“Mommie Dearest” also gets a chapter in Koresky’s book. Based on the memoir by Joan Crawford’s adopted daughter Christina Crawford, it alleges that the film star was a physically and emotionally abusive mother. But the film is so over the top, it borders on camp, and Koresky isn’t alone in viewing it as an unintentional comedy.
“The movie is certainly controversial, and I like that to this day, people still don’t know exactly what to make of it. It makes it an exciting movie to talk about,” he said. The film is streaming on Pluto TV and Amazon Prime.
For Koresky’s mother, watching “Mommie Dearest” opened the door for her to talk about her mother’s abusive behavior. “She kept a lot of that bottled up for many years,” he said. “Every movie opened up something I didn’t know.”
Koresky says his relationship with his mother has changed as a result of working on the book, “but in ways I haven’t been able to quantify yet. It’s certainly created a new kind of intimacy that we didn’t have before.”
Memorable mom movies
Are you looking for a fun way to spend quality time with mom? This year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution suggests you host a Mother’s Day film festival at home with these recommended mom-centric movies.
‘Boyhood.’ (2014) Patricia Arquette won an Academy Award for her portrayal of a mother whose heart is always in the right place despite her flaws in Richard Linklater’s epic drama that follows a boy’s life for 12 years from childhood to adolescence. Streams on AMC+ and IFC. Rent or purchase at iTunes, Apple TV and Amazon Prime.
‘Crooklyn.’ (1994) Alfre Woodard gives an indelible performance as Carolyn, a fearless mother raising four sons and a daughter, in Spike Lee’s semi-autobiographical drama. Set in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1973, it’s a heart-wrenching but hopeful tale about the power of family. Rent or purchase at Apple TV.
‘The Farewell.’ (2019) Awkwafina stars in this drama about a large extended family who gathers in China for a fake wedding to secretly say goodbye to their grandmother, who doesn’t know she has a terminal illness. Matriarch Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) is a plain-spoken paragon of unconditional love. Streams on Amazon Prime.
‘Home for the Holidays.’ (1995) Holly Hunter stars in this warm-hearted dramedy about the family dynamics that occur when an adult child returns home for Thanksgiving. In a film chock full of strong performances, Anne Bancroft stands out as the willful, loving matriarch who only wants the best for her children. Directed by Jodie Foster. Streams on Amazon Prime.
‘Imitation of Life.’ (1959) Directed by Douglas Sirk, this color-saturated melodrama about two mothers and their daughters stars Lana Turner as an ambitious actress who never has time for her angelic daughter. But it’s her kind, gentle housekeeper and nanny (Juanita Moore) who steals the show in this tear-jerker. Rent or purchase at Apple TV.
‘The Kids Are All Right.’ (2010) Julianne Moore and Annette Bening portray loving parents to two teenagers whose lives are turned upside down when the kids’ sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) tries to become part of the family in inappropriate ways. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Streams on Peacock.
‘Mother.’ (2009) Directed by Bong Joon-ho a decade before he won an Oscar for “Parasite,” this intricately plotted crime drama follows a widow (Kim Hye-ja) as she tries to prove her mentally handicapped son didn’t commit a murder. Streams on Hulu.
‘Spanglish.’ (2004) Another James L. Brooks movie, this one stars Adam Sandler and Téa Leoni as an unhappily married couple that hires Flor (Paz Vega) as a nanny and a housekeeper. An illegal immigrant struggling to survive, Flor will do anything to give her daughter a better life. Rent or purchase on Apple TV.
‘Steel Magnolias.’ (1989) The fierce maternal love M’Lynn (Sally Field) has for Shelby (Julia Roberts) isn’t enough to save her daughter from a tragic fate, but it gives this frothy portrayal of friendships among middle-aged Southern women its depth. Kenny Leon directed a remake in 2012 with Queen Latifah as M’Lynn and Condola Rashad as Shelby. The original streams on Starz. Rent or purchase the remake at Apple TV.
‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day.’ (1991) Linda Hamilton plays an action hero mom who not only saves her son but the future of humanity in this wildly successful sequel directed by James Cameron and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Rent or purchase at iTunes or Apple TV.