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How many great moms on film can you think of? They fall into categories. The first is the best kind, the mom who figures out motherhood along the way. There is the saintly mother – Grapes of Wrath, It’s a Wonderful Life. And the evil mother – Psycho, Mommy Dearest. They are all equally wonderful, wouldn’t you say? TIME Mag has a pretty good list.

You aren’t born a parent, you’re made one through your experience raising kids. Hollywood likes to make unlikely mothers into heroes and often these aren’t women at all, but men, like Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer.

Herewith, a list of my favorite mothers depicted on the big screen in good, bad and ugly ways.

Full disclosure, most of mine are mother and daughter relationship films, but not all.

20. Shirley MacLaine in Postcards from the Edge.

19. The miracle that is Meryl Streep in One True Thing is just insane. The greatest. She gets number 3.

18. And Meryl Streep again with Sophie’s Choice.

17. Sally Field in Forrest Gump.

16. Barbra Streisand in The Guilt Trip, a movie no one saw. Too bad.

15. Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.

14. Faye Dunaway, Mommie Dearest

13. Anjelica Huston, The Grifters

12. Faye Dunaway, Chinatown

11. Piper Laurie, Carrie — “I can see your dirty pillows.”

10. Shelly Duvall in The Shining. “As soon as possible!”

9. Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment, lest we forget.

8. Shelley Winters in Lolita

7. Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist

6. Katharine Hepburn in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

5. Angela Lansbury, The Manchurian Candidate

4. Barbara Stanwyck, Stella Dallas

3. Joan Crawford, Mildred Pierce

2. Viola Davis in Doubt

1. Kathy Bates in Dolores Claiborne – really and truly my favorite mother in film of all time, but as you can see, all of these women are great.

And Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment. For all of the scenes in this movie, but particularly this one:

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  • Bryce Forestieri

    Eh… to me only 6-7 out of these 20 are really inspired choices. I nominate Kate from EAST OF EDEN.

  • Shirley MacLaine might be the all-time grand-champion movie mom of all time.

    Terms of Endearment (as Emma’s mom Aurora)
    Postcards from the Edge (as Susanne’s mom Doris)
    The Turning Point (as Emilia’s mom Deedee)
    Bewitched (as Samantha’s mom Endora)
    The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (as Walter’s mom Edna)
    Downton Abbey (as Lady Grantham’s mom Martha)
    Irma la Douce (as Irma — giving birth to unnamed baby girl 15 seconds after walking down the aisle at her wedding)

  • Al Robinson

    Nah, the All-time best “Mother” in film history is and will always be Norma Bates in Psycho. 😉


  • Igor Sousa

    I’m sorry but this is probably the worst list ever done

  • Al Robinson

    Oh, Damn!! AND (of course), Mrs. Pamela Voorhees in Friday the 13th.

    Great moms indeed.

  • I’m sorry but this…

    Igor, you don’t really sound all that sorry.
    Pro tip: I find that I can often save myself a lot of sorrow by being less of a dick.

  • Al Robinson

    Igor, I ask this sincerely:

    Who are your best mothers of world cinema?

  • Al Robinson

    And, Catherine O’Hara as Kevin’s mom in Home Alone.

  • Al Robinson

    I just remember the wonderful mom of Mo’Nique in Precious. (Joking of course).

    She probably takes the cake.

    Mary: Precious! PRECIOUS! PRECIOUS! Get down here, bitch! You brought that white bitch up in my house? You wrong to bring that bitch up in here!
    Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones: I ain’t bring her in here.
    Mary: Well, why the fuck did she ring my buzzer? I can’t here you, Precious. Since you got so much mothafuckin’ mouth and you gon’ bring a bitch up in my house… why did that bitch ring my goddamn buzzer?
    Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones: I ain’t tell her to come here!
    Mary: See, I think right now you think you becomin’ a grown woman. ‘Cause that shit you pulled in the kitchen… I shoulda fucked you up. But I let you walk away. And I let you get yourself together. But, bitch, I’mma let you know, don’t you ever pull that shit again. That’ll be your last mothafuckin’ day stayin here. I promise you that. You gon’ send a white bitch to my mothafuckin’ buzzer? Talkin’ ’bout some higher education? You’re a dummy, bitch! You will never know shit! Don’t nobody want you, don’t nobody need you! You done fucked around and fucked my mothafuckin’ man? And had two mothafuckin’ children? And one of ’ems a goddamn animal, runnin’ ’round lookin’ crazy as a mothafucka? Bitch, you know what? See, I think you… I think you tryin’ me. I think you tryin’ to fuck with me. You fuckin’ with my money… and you gon’ stand up there and look at me like you a mothafuckin’ woman? I’mma show you what real women do, bitch. See, you don’t know what real mothafuckin’ women do. Real mothafuckin’ women sacrafice! I shoulda aborter your mothafuckin’ ass! ‘Cause you ain’t shit! I knew it when the doctor put you in my goddamn hand you wasn’t a goddamn thing! You wear that smirk on your face, bitch? Get outta…!
    [throws object at Precious]
    Mary: Now smile about that! Smile about that, you fat bi –
    [Precious kicks a shoe at Mary]
    Mary: I’mma kill you, bitch!
    [Mary chases Precious up the stairs]
    Mary: Fuck!

  • no love for the mommy alien in Aliens?

  • Al Robinson


    That alien was a great mom. 🙂

  • Al Robinson

    “The Bride, “Kill Bill: Vols. 1 and 2″: While we only get a wee glimpse of the Bride being cozy and cutesy with her daughter, the entire point of her sword-wielding journey is to seek her revenge on the man who stole her away. Gotta love a mommy toting weaponry.”

  • Al Robinson

    “Leigh Anne Tuohy, “The Blind Side”: Sandra Bullock stars as Southern mom Leigh Anne Tuohy, a no-nonsense woman who welcomes a homeless young man into her family. With her guidance, her adopted son Michael Oher shares the family’s love for football and eventually makes it to the NFL.”

  • Al Robinson

    Or, Alice Ward (Melissa Leo) in The Fighter. She was a pip.

  • Al Robinson

    “Sheryl Hoover, “Little Miss Sunshine:” Sheryl’s got a lot on her plate: Her suicidal brother just moved in, her father-in-law is an addict, and her husband’s steps-to-success program is tanking. But she still shines as Olive’s mom for the big things (road-tripping to the beauty pageant) and the seemingly small things (the infamous ice cream scene).”

  • Al Robinson

    “Sarah Connor, “Terminator 2″: The ultimate mama bear, Sarah will do anything to save her son’s life, including go into the seedy underworld and end up in a mental institution in an attempt to keep her son safe and teach him how to defend himself for the upcoming war between humans and cyborgs.”

  • Al Robinson

    “Elaine Miller, “Almost Famous”: At first Elaine seems overprotective of her teenage son, William, but when it comes down to it, her mothering makes sense. Her 15-year-old was off gallivanting with rock stars, and when he eventually brought one home, Elaine has no shame in laying down the law with rocker Russell.”

  • Kane

    Ok I swear I thought this was a list of the 20 best “movie moms you could ever ask for”…until I saw Mrs. Robinson…and then Faye Dunaway…and then Faye Dunaway again. Once I got to Kathy Bates I was like “hmm something is amiss.” I’ve been had!

  • Matt

    Don’t let anyone tell you differently – this is a fantastic list! Great moms – great performances. Love everyone, except I’m one of the many who didn’t see The Guilt Trip.

    I’ll substitute Dorothy McGuire in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for Barbara – or maybe Katherine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter.

    I’m not sure if this counts, but how about Elizabeth Taylor as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But come to think of it, George said their son couldn’t stand Martha fiddling with him all the time.

  • Joey

    Tilda Swinton in The Deep End is one of my favorite mom performances ever.

  • John

    Great list. Love Love Love the Dolores Claiborne shout out. Amazing.

    I would add Irene Dunne from 1948s I Remember Mama. So beautiful.

  • filmboymichael

    One True Thing is one of those underrated gems that I can’t believe isn’t a classic. I remember seeing this in the theater and being completely wrecked for days of the movie and Streep’s performance.

  • cyrus

    Shirley MacLaine’s role in Terms belonged to the great Jennifer Jones who had the rights to the film. Stupid James L Brooks said she was too old and she sold the rights. Grrr!

    Some great moms in film history…

    Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver

    Claudette Colbert in Since You Went Away

    Bette Davis in The Little Foxes

    Patricia Collinge in The Little Foxes

    Anna Magnani in The Rose Tattoo

    Jane Darwell in Grapes of Wrath

    Anne Revere in Song of Bernadette

    Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama

    Jo Van Fleet in East of Eden

    Nancy Kelly in The Bad Seed

    Lana Turner in Peyton Place

    Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life

    Shelley Winters in A Patch of Blue

    Susan Hayward in I Want to Live

    Lauren Bacall in Murder on the Orient Express

    Gladys Cooper in Now Voyager

    Judith Anderson in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

    Katharine Hepburn in both Suddenly, Last Summer and Lion in Winter

    Sophia Loren in Two Women

    Olympia Dukakis in Moonstruck

    Sally Field in Steel Magnolias

    Audrey Christie in Splendor in the Grass

    Kim Stanley in Seance on a Wet Afternoon

    Edith Evans in The Whisperers

    Patricia Neal in Subject Was Roses

    Cicely Tyson in Sounder

    Gena Rowlands in A Women Under the Influence

    Ingrid Bergman in Autumn Sonata

    Susan Sarandon in Lorenzo’s Oil

    Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore in The Hours

    Shohreh Aghdashloo in House of Sand and Fog

    Sareh Bayat in A Separation

    Brenda Blethyn in Secrets and Lies

    Carmen Maura in Volver

    Sissy Spacek in In the Bedroom

    Cecilia Roth in All About My Mother

  • cyrus

    I think of the list I made, my top mommas are Patricia Collinge in Little Foxes as Birdy, Dorothy Maguire in Tree Grows in Brooklyn (LOVE that film), Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama, Juanita Moore who is the epitome of mother in Imitation of Life (robbed of Oscar too), and Cecilia Roth in All About My Mother.

    As for the evilest moms, Angela Lansbury hands down wins for Manchurian Candidate, followed by Shelley Winters in A Patch of Blue and Monique in Precious.

  • joe

    Shirley mclaine in terms piendearment
    Catherine O’Hara in home alone
    Rosie cotton in lord of the rings
    Jayne Atkinson in free willy
    Sally field in Forrest gump
    Joan Crawford in Mildred pierce
    Juilets mother in heavenly creatures
    Caroline burnham in american beauty
    Gloria Stuart in titanic
    Norman bates In psycho

  • munro202

    Damn, that clip from Doubt. I forgot how amazing Davis is in her relatively small amount of screen time–fully deserved her nom that year. I wish Doubt had been more appreciated.

  • SeattleMoviegoer

    i still think back on the loving, selfless, clever, gosh darn good mom that Julianne Moore played in THE PRIZEWINNER OF DEFIANCE OHIO. it was one of those truly “good person” parts that you never see in a movie because a person without guile is supposed to be completely lacking in interest. but it also worked for Olivia deHavilland as Melanie in GWTW and Jennnifer Jones in BERNADETTE.

  • murtaza

    one of the mother roles and iconic ones too was of Mary Tyler Moore in Redford’s ORDINARY PEOPLE. Excellent angle of mother and son relationship was explored, i loved it.

  • steve50

    Have to go with Swinton in The Deep End, Crawford in Mildred Pierce, and Lansbury in Manchurian Candidate, with a nod to Alien. Mothers with balls.

  • Cameron

    Mrs. Jumbo from Dumbo…Baby Mine is still one of the most heartbreaking sequences in any film

  • Joey J Glover

    Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), We Need to Talk About Kevin…

  • Koleś

    When you say Aliens I know what you mean, but when you say Alien I assume you mean the ship’s computer MU-TH-UR 6000 the crew refers to as “Mother”, right?

  • Simon Warrasch

    Cher in “Mask” and Susan Sarandon in “Stepmom”!!!! No Words for those 2 Performances!

  • Cristhian

    The lack of international films in these lists is very disappointing.

  • TOM

    The Injustice of Kathy Bates being selected as #1 and not having her photo displayed.

  • John Oliver

    I’d have to go with
    Juanita More in Imitation of Life
    Sophia Loren in Two Women
    Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce
    Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas
    Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest
    Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment
    Lana Turner in Madame X
    Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate
    Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (even though she was the aunt)
    Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby
    Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple
    Diahann Carroll in Claudine
    Katherine Hepburn in Suddenly Last Summer
    Claudia McNeil in A Raisin in the Sun
    Ann-Margaret in Tommy
    Ann-Margaret in Who Will Love My Children (even though a tv movie)
    Cicely Tyson in Sounder
    Monique in Precious
    Meryl Streep in Kramer vs Kramer
    Greer Garson in Blossoms in the Dust
    Shelley Winters in A Patch of Blue
    Shelley Winters in Lolita
    Hye-Ja Kim in Mother
    Gena Rowlands Woman Under The Influence
    Debbie Reynolds in Mother
    Susan Hayward in Smashup
    Leslie Caron in The L-Shaped Room
    Nancy Kelley in The Bad Seed
    Rosalind Russell in Gypsy
    Bette Davis in Where Love Has Gone
    Kimberly Elise in For Colored Girls
    Oprah Winfrey in Beloved

  • cyrus

    @ John

    Props to Ann-Margret inclusion for Who Will Love My Children. Ultimate true story of the sacrifice of one terminally ill mother who finds homes for all of her ten children. Can you say TEARJERKER!! Beautiful performance, even acknowledged by Stella Dallas herself, Barbara Stanwyck when she won the Emmy over Ann for The Thorn Birds.

  • Sonja

    What? No mentioned for Meryl Streep as Gail in The River Wild?
    Please replace her with OTT.
    She couldn’t get any more badass with that fearless water rafting performance!

    And maybe Miranda Priestly counts?
    All bitchyness aside, she gets her twin girls the unpublished HP manuscript. *lol*

  • jim

    You forgot Bambi’s mother.

  • keifer

    Judy Davis in “The Ref”,


  • casey chapman

    Im going to go with Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom – downright terrifying

    (and of course Mo’Nique in Precious)

  • I think ‘The Help’ should have been on this list. The motherly maid that takes care of Emma Stone’s character was one of the most emotional parts of the movie.

  • Alan of Montreal

    The moms from The Joy Luck Club
    Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web
    Bambi’s, Dumbo’s, and Nemo’s moms
    Naomi Watts in The Impossible
    Octavia Spencer in Fruitvale Station
    Julianne Moore and Annette Bening in The Kids Are Alright
    Debbie Reynolds in Mother
    Joan Chen in Turtle Beach
    Sharon Stone in The Mighty
    Samantha Morton in In America
    Hue-ja Kim, Mother
    Jo Beth Williams, Poltergeist
    Kristin Scott Thomas, I’ve Loved You So Long
    Holly Hunter, Thirteen and The Piano
    Sharon Stone, The Mighty
    Anne Marie Duff, Nowhere Boy
    Hanna Schygulla, The Edge of Heaven
    Toni Collette, About a Boy and The Sixth Sense
    Julianne Moore, The Hours
    Sarah Polley, My Life Without Me
    Mimi Abonesh Kebede and Yael Abecassis in Va, Vis et Deviens
    Dee Wallace in ET
    Rosalind Russell in Gypsy
    Definitely Shelley Winters in A Patch of Blue
    Joan Chen in Saving Face and Turtle Beach
    Olivia de Haviland in To Each His Own
    Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby
    Emma Thompson in Brave
    Jodie Foster in Panic Room and Little Man Tate
    Lubna Azabal in Incendies
    Vivica A Fox in Independence Day
    Mary Tyler Moore and Lily Tomlin in Flirting with Disaster
    Amy Adams in Junebug
    Talia Shire in I Heart Huckabees
    Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball
    Vivian Wu in Eve and the Fire Horse
    Maureen O’Hara in Only the Lonely
    Dianne Wiest in Parenthood
    Shoreh Aghdashloo in House of Sand and Fog
    Kate Winslet in Little Children, Finding Neverland, and Hideous Kinky
    Beah Richards in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
    Sigourney Weaver and Joan Allen in The Ice Storm
    Joan Allen in Pleasantville
    Debra Winger in Rachel Getting Married
    Nicole Kidman in The Others and Rabbithole
    Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Margo Martindale in August: Osage County
    Margo Martindale in Million Dollar Baby
    Celia Weston in Dead Man Walking
    Susan Sarandon in Lorenzo’s Oil
    Betty Hutton in Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
    Marjorie Main as Ma Kettle
    Mary Astor in Meet Me in St. Louis
    Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake
    Sissy Spacek in In the Bedroom
    Geena Davis in The Accidental Tourist
    Andie McDowell in Short Cuts
    Kathleen Turner in The War of the Roses
    Lili Taylor in The Conjuring
    Brenda Blethyn in Secrets and Lies and Little Voice
    Glenn Close in Hamlet
    Lana Turner, Peyton Place
    Kate Nelligan, Prince of Tides
    Jane Alexander in Testament
    Jessica Lange, Music Box
    Ellen Burstyn, Requiem for a Dream
    Ellen Page, Juno
    Melissa Leo, Frozen River
    Judi Dench in Philomena
    Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle

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