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Celebrating malignant movie mothers at the Brattle and Coolidge

Katherine Turner in director John Waters 1994 film "Serial Mom." (Courtesy Savoy Pictures/Photofest)
Katherine Turner in director John Waters 1994 film "Serial Mom." (Courtesy Savoy Pictures/Photofest)

With the Brattle Theatre back open for business, it’s time to resume the most perversely amusing of their annual programming traditions, screening “Psycho” on Mother’s Day. (The only thing funnier is on Father’s Day, when they show “The Shining.”) And as an added bonus for Hitchcock aficionados, this year they’ll be running Universal’s new restoration that contains just under a minute of recently rediscovered footage snipped by censors 60 years ago following the film’s first theatrical run. Alas, the idea of an even stabbier “Psycho” is not exactly the selling point I needed to talk my mom into post-brunch viewing plans.

But in case a stay in the Bates Motel isn’t on your Mother’s Day menu either, the Coolidge Corner Theatre is spending the rest of the month spotlighting other memorable movie matriarchs. Every Tuesday and Wednesday night in May, “MOM!!!” showcases an unconventional mother from a wickedly clever lineup of films. The series starts off, as it presumably must, with “Mommie Dearest.” A caterwauling catastrophe that’s been reclaimed over the years as a queer camp classic, director Frank Perry’s astonishingly miscalculated 1981 adaptation of Christina Crawford’s score-settling memoir of childhood abuse set ablaze the careers of pretty much all involved. Faye Dunaway’s ferocious, fearless performance as screen legend Joan Crawford has been rightfully enshrined in the overacting hall of fame, and to this day remains a thing of wonder. Whether wailing about wire hangers or taking an axe to the rose garden in her evening gown, Dunaway stomps all over every scene like it’s Tokyo and she’s Godzilla in high heels.

Faye Dunaway in "Mommie Dearest" (1981). (Courtesy Paramount/Photofest)
Faye Dunaway in "Mommie Dearest" (1981). (Courtesy Paramount/Photofest)

It's not a popular position, but I think Dunaway’s actually pretty great in “Mommie Dearest,” going for broke with a baroquely stylized turn a galaxy away from the low-key naturalism so fashionable in boring biopics intending to bring icons down to earth. She’s not just playing Joan Crawford, she’s playing a larger-than-life idea of John Crawford as imagined by someone who grew up seeing her on a giant screen. That’s why every mood and movement is so massive, the slathered-on eyebrows like Kabuki makeup. She’s big, it’s the pictures that are small. Especially this one. The whole movie around her is so disastrously airless and muted that Dunaway’s performance appears even more deranged, cranked up to 11 while everyone else is mumbling somewhere around four. The picture’s torpid listlessness makes her volcanic explosions of temper even more shocking and awe-inspiring, as they seem to erupt genuinely out of nowhere.

Part of what made the movie and memoir “Mommie Dearest” so scandalously delicious was that Crawford’s most celebrated role was playing one of the saintliest, most selfless cinematic moms of all time, in director Michael Curtiz’s 1945 noir-inflected melodrama “Mildred Pierce.” Programmed as part of the Coolidge series as I’m assuming something of a rebuttal, the film stars Crawford as a waitress and put-upon single mother to one of the most spoiled, ungrateful little brats in film history. Fortunes rise and fall, usually due to the greedy grifts and manipulations of Mildred’s daughter Veda, while Crawford won her only Oscar for stalwartly sniffling and suffering with such style.

Often left off the list of most devoted movie moms is Betsy Palmer’s poor Mrs. Voorhees, who took up a machete to avenge her son Jason’s drowning death at Camp Crystal Lake while all those horny teenage counselors were off having sex. The “Friday the 13th” series is pretty much the bottom of the barrel as far as slasher pictures go, but kudos to the Coolidge for reminding us that the franchise began out of maternal love. Not quite as bloodthirsty (though close) is Kim Hye-ja as the title character in Bong Joon-ho’s twisty 2009 thriller “Mother,” playing a widow who will do anything to get her intellectually disabled son cleared of murder charges, no matter if he’s guilty or not. It’s an unsettling little psychological study that sort of slipped by in between the splashier sci-fi shenanigans of Bong’s “The Host” and “Snowpiercer.” It’s very much worth another look.

Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate" (1967). (Courtesy Embassy Pictures Corporation/Photofest)
Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate" (1967). (Courtesy Embassy Pictures Corporation/Photofest)

The Graduate” is an unassailably great movie, but I’ve always been one of those guys who wondered why Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock would fall for a drip like Elaine when he had such a groovy thing going with her mom, Anne Bancroft’s sultry, sophisticated Mrs. Robinson. It’s true what they say about how the older you get, the more captivating her character becomes, and I’ve grown to slightly resent the way the movie makes her become a monster to motivate the plot. Still, the only way to really see “The Graduate” is on a big screen, as director Mike Nichols’ groundbreaking cinemascope compositions require space to stretch out. (For decades, the barbaric practice of pan-scanning to reformat films for your TV made it very easy to misinterpret the film’s haunting, ambiguous ending as a triumph. I remember finally seeing the whole picture at The Brattle when I was in high school and realizing that despite half-a-dozen VHS viewings, I hadn’t understood the movie at all.)

It seems unthinkable now, but there was a brief window in the late 1980s and early ‘90s when studios were actually giving proud pervert and bad-taste icon John Waters budgets to make movies that played in shopping malls. His 1994 box office dud “Serial Mom” put an end to all that, I guess. But viewed again, this screamingly funny suburban satire is surprisingly prescient about the tabloid conflagrations that were about to overtake that particular decade, and its skewering of the country’s voyeuristic true crime fixation may be even more relevant today. Kathleen Turner gives it her all as a Stepford-esque housewife who, behind the pearls and picket fences, is secretly a psychopathic mass murderer. It’s garishly, obscenely amusing, and not to mention a hoot seeing venerable Hollywood stars such as Turner and Sam Waterston mixing it up with Waters’ freakshow favorites like Mink Stole and Traci Lords.

Piper Laurie as Margaret White in "Carrie" (1976). (Courtesy United Artists/Photofest)
Piper Laurie as Margaret White in "Carrie" (1976). (Courtesy United Artists/Photofest)

Finally, the series closes out with one of the movies’ most memorable malignant moms. Piper Laurie’s Margaret White is the first and still the best of author Stephen King’s wild-eyed religious fanatics, taunting and torturing her telekinetic daughter (Sissy Spacek) in Brian De Palma’s “Carrie.” Adam Sandler named his first comedy album after Margaret’s oft-repeated admonition, “They’re all gonna laugh at you,” and I bet all those kids who got roasted at the prom are wishing that they hadn’t. Hilariously, the Coolidge is throwing their own “Love Amongst The Stars” ‘70s prom afterparty at the nearby Brookline American Legion following the screening. Formal wear required. Pig’s blood optional. I’m hoping Tommy Ross asks me to go with him. But don’t tell my mom.


Psycho” screens at the Brattle on Sunday, May 8. The Coolidge Corner Theatre’s series “MOM!!!” runs from Tuesday, May 10 through Wednesday, May 31.

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Sean Burns Twitter Film Critic
Sean Burns is a film critic for The ARTery.

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