The nursery is quiet — too quiet. ”Honey,” groans a husband’s voice from down the hall, ”it’s not good for you to be checkin’ on the baby every five minutes and imagining one terrible thing or another!” Barely listening, a young mother barges in and stares at the crib with a look of drained resignation. ”Rudyard, she’s not breathing,” she says. ”Honey, she’s sleepin’,” says the husband. ”The baby’s sleepin’.” ”No,” says the mother, played by Shirley MacLaine. ”Rudyard, it’s crib death.” MacLaine sidles up to the crib and shakes the baby out of a safe, peaceful slumber. The infant wails. ”That’s better,” says MacLaine.
This is just the first scene in 1983’s ”Terms of Endearment” — a quick preamble before the opening credits — but it sets in motion the whole perilous mother-daughter dynamic to follow, a who’s the parent? Ping-Pong match of smothering, scolding, fleeing, panicking, and mournful homecoming. Playing Aurora Greenway in ”Terms of Endearment” not only allowed Shirley MacLaine to cradle the Best Actress statuette in her arms; it also created a berth for Aurora in the rich and varied lineage of Oscar moms. From Irene Dunne’s saintly, selfless matriarch in 1948’s ”I Remember Mama” to Ellen Burstyn’s crumbling, hallucinating, diet-pill-gobbling widow in 2000’s ”Requiem for a Dream,” the Academy’s Best Actress category has a long tradition of finding itself in the family way.
Tom Wolfe once wrote about the kind of woman who tends to get shut out of posh urban cocktail parties, a woman ”who glows with plumpness and a rosy face that speaks, without a word, of home and hearth and hot food ready at six and stories read aloud at night…before the Sandman comes. In short, no one ever invited…Mother.” The Academy apparently harbors no such stipulation. In the last few years, actually, the Best Actress slot has started to look a bit like a PTA mixer sponsored by Versace. Frances McDormand won an Oscar for lugging around a gun and a pregnant belly in 1996’s ”Fargo”; Helen Hunt won the next year as a single waitress with a wheezy kid in ”As Good as It Gets.” Meryl Streep in ”One True Thing,” Annette Bening in ”American Beauty,” and Janet McTeer in ”Tumbleweeds” were all nominated, and last year’s ceremony spawned the mother of all lineups, with all of the five Best Actress nominees being tapped for going maternal: winner Julia Roberts in ”Erin Brockovich,” Burstyn in ”Requiem,” Juliette Binoche in ”Chocolat,” Joan Allen in ”The Contender,” and Laura Linney in ”You Can Count on Me.” This year, with ”In the Bedroom”’s Sissy Spacek and ”Monster’s Ball”’s Halle Berry battling for custody of the little golden guy, the Academy might want to consider rechristening it the Maternity Award.
But playing Mom doesn’t mean slipping on an apron and baking a meat loaf. Glance back at the Academy’s family tree and you’ll find, as you would with any family, the occasional dope fiend, criminal, or Main Street Medea. Weirdly, you’ll also find a near-endless array of hospital scenes: Movie offspring are always getting sick, and many an Oscar nomination has been secured by an actress’ devotional march into Florence Nightingale mode. Herewith, EW’s list of the top 10 Mom-ents — chronologically — in Oscar motherhood:
Joan Crawford, ”Mildred Pierce” (1945)
”I’d do anything for those kids, do you understand?” Mildred Pierce snaps at her first husband. ”Anything!” ”Yeah?” he snaps back. ”Well, you can’t do their crying for them.” ”I’ll do that, too!” she says. ”They’ll never do any crying if I can help it.” As Joan Crawford’s clenched-jaw tour de force (and her only Oscar win), ”Mildred Pierce” is a study in toxic devotion. Scorned, mocked, betrayed, and insulted (”You’ll never be anything but a common frump!”) by her bobby-socks gargoyle of a daughter, Veda, Mildred nevertheless can’t seem to shut off the love faucet. When she slaps dark Veda in a flash of film-noir rage, it only takes a second for Mildred to be flooded with guilt. ”I’m sorry I did that,” she moans. ”I’d’ve rather cut off my hand!” By now, Crawford’s art-of-sacrifice performance has become a springboard for portraits of the modern homemaker thrust into unforeseen turmoil. Like Tilda Swinton’s acclaimed, brittle turn in ”The Deep End.” ”I was looking for a melodrama,” Swinton said at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, where the movie premiered. ”I was looking for ‘Mildred Pierce’: ‘Bring me ”Mildred Pierce” on a plate!’ And I kind of found it.”