Oscar certainly loves mothers. All five of this year’s Best Actress nominees — Jessica Chastain (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”), Olivia Colman (“The Lost Daughter”), Penelope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers”), Nicole Kidman (“Being the Ricardos”) and Kirsten Stewart (“Spencer”) — play mothers. Ditto four out of five supporting nominees: Jessie Buckley (“The Lost Daughter”), Judi Dench (“Belfast”), Kirsten Dunst (“The Power of the Dog”) and Aunjanue Ellis (“King Richard”); the fifth contender is Ariana DeBose (“West Side Story”).
Actresses love getting maternal sinking their teeth-and sometimes claws-into mother roles whether they be good, bad, ugly or downright evil. Here’s a look at some early memorable mother performances that made Oscars history.
The mother of all mothers was Ruth Chatterton. Though she is not as well-remembered as other actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood, she was extremely popular in the late 1920s and early ‘30s. Though no nominations were officially announced for the second annual Oscars, unofficial nominations are based on in-house records. Chatterton was in the running for 1929’s “Madame X,” a creaky fun melodrama about a fallen woman who longs to be reunited with her son.
The following year, Chatterton was up for another heavy-hangs -the-heart drama “Sarah and Son.” The pioneering Dorothy Arzner, the only female director in Hollywood at the time, helmed the hit which showcases Chatterton as a woman frantic to reconnect with her son who had been given away by her boozy husband. Chatterton, who was also a renowned flyer, wasn’t nominated for her best mother role in 1936’s “Dodsworth,” as the ultra-narcissistic wife of a retired auto magnate (Walter Huston).
Helen Hayes, one of Broadway’s brightest lights, she won an Oscar for her first starring role in a motion picture for 1931’s two Kleenex-box tearjerker “The Sin of Madelon Claudet.” Talk about suffering! She has a child out-of-wedlock and ends becoming a street walker to scrubwoman to give her son a good life. It’s so good, he becomes a doctor (Robert Young). Hayes in always wonderful to watch but warning-this movie creaks louder than an arthritic knee. Thirty-eight years after she won for “Madelon,” Hayes picked up the supporting award for her comedic turn as a stowaway in 1970’s “Airport.”
Barbara Stanwyck earned her first of four Oscar nominations for the 1937 version of the old chestnut “Stella Dallas.” She plays a working-class, uncouth woman who marries a wealthy man on the rebound and find she has a strong maternal instinct when she has a daughter (Oscar-nominee Anne Shirley.) She sacrifices herself so her daughter can, you guessed it, have a better life with her father and stepmother. There are some terrific moments in the film such as when Stella throws a birthday party for her daughter only to have no one show up or when she is crying as she stands in the rain outside the church as she watches her daughter get married.
Jane Darwell, who made her last screen appearance as the Old Birdwoman in 1964’s “Mary Poppins,” won Best Supporting Actress for her role in John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” This 1940 masterpiece was based on John Steinbeck’s landmark novel about denizens of the dust bowl. Darwell’s Ma Joad exudes strength and love, she is the moral and emotional center who keeps her family together as they trek from Oklahoma to start a new life in California. “Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good an’ they die out. But we keep a’ comin.’ We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ‘cause we’re the people.”
If Ma Joad is one of the greatest mothers, the wealthy tyrannical Mrs. Vale of 1942’s “Now, Voyager’ is one of the vilest: a wealthy matriarch who hates her frumpy daughter, emotionally fraught daughter Charlotte (Oscar-nominated Bette Davis) and drives her to a nervous breakdown. Mrs. Vale was brought to brilliant seething life by the great British actress Gladys Cooper who earned a supporting nomination. Twenty-four years later, she reaped another bid as a vastly different mother to Henry Higgins in the Oscar-winning “My Fair Lady.”
Greer Garson was all of 33 when she played the strong, loving housewife and mother of an adult son and daughter who keeps the home fires burning World War II-torn England in William Wyler’s 1942 multi-Oscar-winner Mrs. Miniver.” Garson, who gave an acceptance speech lasting over five minutes, ended up marrying Richard Ney, the young handsome actor who played her son in the film; he was 12 years her junior.
Renowned stage actress Ethel Barrymore, sister of Lionel and John, hadn’t made a film since 1932’s “Rasputin and the Empress” with her siblings when she returned to movies for 1944’s “None but the Lonely Heart.” She made the movie starring an Oscar-nominated Cary Grant during her vacation from the Broadway hit “The Corn is Green. She won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as the firm, no-nonsense but loving mother of a cynical Cockney wastrel (Grant). Get out those hankies: she has terminal cancer and ends up dying in a prison hospital.
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