Movie moms: The 50 most classic movie mothers of all time

We rank the sweetest, saltiest and most downright toxic moms to ever grace the big screen.

Mother's Day is upon us—don't get caught in a shame spiral by not sending her some flowers, a nice card, even a phone call. (We have sweeter ideas.) Having spent many hours considering the most classic movie moms of all time and ranking them, we're well aware of the ramifications of disobeying Mother. Sometimes they involve more than harsh words. So please excuse us if this list skews toward the monstrous: We love our crazy matriarchs as much as the calming ones. You'll find plenty of honest-to-goodness nurturers on the countdown, too, but if your favorite movie mom didn't make the cut, please strike a stern tone and nag us in the comments below. Not that our mothers nag us; that was just a clever figure of speech.

50–41

Bloody Mama (1970)

Just because this film comes under the signature of trash king Roger Corman doesn’t mean it lacks for virtues, particularly the force-of-nature turn by Shelley Winters in the title role. Her criminal children (including a young Robert De Niro as a junkie) are a source of pride; she even bakes them cookies.—Joshua Rothkopf


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Throw Momma from the Train (1987)

We’ve all entertained the thought, but Danny DeVito’s black-comedic twist on Strangers on a Train’s I’ll-kill-yours-if-you-kill-mine plot gives hilarious form to our matricidal urges. As the parent from hell with a target on her back, Oscar nominee Anne Ramsey is the perfect mix of spittle-inflected rancor and leery-eyed maliciousness.—Keith Uhlich


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A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Even a robot boy deserves a mother’s love, but it isn’t easily won in Steven Spielberg’s heartrending sci-fi fantasy. Frances O’Connor lends many vulnerable shades to the adoptive guardian who rejects her surrogate cyborg son. The wrenching sequence where she leaves him behind in the woods is a harrowing abandonment nightmare come to life.—Keith Uhlich


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“Oedipus Wrecks,” New York Stories (1989)

For the most part, Jewish mothers don’t loom so large in Woody Allen’s work. (His therapists may say otherwise.) But when Allen does go there, he goes big, with this Freudian riff about a lovably nagging mom (the peerless Mae Questel) who scolds her son—and the whole of Manhattan—from over the skyline like a whiny Godzilla.—Joshua Rothkopf


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Sounder (1972)

Forced to take care of the family solo when her husband is sent to prison, Cicely Tyson’s Depression-era sharecropper shoulders the burden with dignity and fortitude. It’s as graceful a portrayal of an African-American mother fighting the injustice of a Jim Crow–era South as cinema has ever delivered.—David Fear


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40–31

Tarnation (2003)

From home movies, photographs and answering-machine messages, Jonathan Caouette stitches together this intensely personal documentary about his painful upbringing. At the center of the emotional whirlwind is Caouette’s mentally ill mother, Renee, whose frequent schizophrenic outbursts push her son away, only to draw him devotedly back.—Keith Uhlich


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The Reckless Moment (1949)

Joan Bennett’s middle-class housewife is so concerned for her daughter that she disposes of the corpse of the adolescent girl’s shady older boyfriend, an accidental fatality. Then James Mason’s smooth-talking blackmailer comes on the scene and Max Ophüls’s film noir deepens into a portrait of a lady who will do anything to maintain the familial status quo.—Keith Uhlich


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30–21

Wild at Heart (1990)

Plenty of parents don’t approve of their child’s girlfriend or boyfriend. Then there’s literal wicked witch Marietta Fortune (Diane Ladd) in David Lynch’s hard-R riff on The Wizard of Oz. With her Southern-fried outfits and psychotic outbursts (that incredible lipstick-as-Kabuki-mask freak-out), she’s a memorably twisted picture of overbearing motherhood.—Keith Uhlich


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Serial Mom (1994)

Chipper suburban housewife Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) is all apple pie on the surface—and all scissor-stabbing kook underneath—in John Waters’s delightfully vicious satire. Criticize her children, forget to buckle your seatbelt or wear white after Labor Day, and you’ll unleash the mother of all psychos.—Keith Uhlich


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Grey Gardens (1975)

A former socialite turned shut-in, “Big Edie” (as she’s nicknamed) is the nagging older half of the mother-daughter act that makes up this iconic cinema vérité documentary. Verbally sparring with middle-aged child “Little Edie” while turning a blind eye to their decrepit living situation, she’s a hypnotically disturbing portrait of a parent gone to seed.—Keith Uhlich


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Bambi (1942)

Hearing a hunter approach, the mother of Disney’s titular fawn urges him to flee, running beside the scared white-tailed deer. “We made it!” Bambi cries upon reaching the woods, until the youngster realizes he’s alone—a traumatic moment that’s taught generations of underage viewers about parental sacrifice.—David Fear


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The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

When her paroled son, Tom, comes home, she’ll be there. When her family needs a backbone, she’ll be there. And when the time comes to haul everybody out West, why, she’ll be there too. Jane Darwell turns John Steinbeck’s Ma Joad into the definitive Dust Bowl matriarch: steadfast, optimistic and determined to make a better life for her kin.—David Fear


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20–11

Places in the Heart (1984)

To the film’s disservice, Sally Field’s Oscar speech (“You like me!”) is what’s remembered most these days. Take some time to set the record straight: Few onscreen widows keep it together as strongly as Field’s Texas matriarch, and the movie vibrates with stirring toughness. Our hunch is that you really will like her by closing credits.—Joshua Rothkopf


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The Brood (1979)

Abuse begets abuse in this early David Cronenberg chiller about Nola Carveth, an ill-treated woman who, despite the best psychotherapeutic efforts, bears a brood of killer children. As the institutionalized, extremely disturbed matriarch, Samantha Eggar is gloriously unhinged, especially after she reveals what she’s hiding underneath her dress.—Keith Uhlich


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Mask (1985)

Cher won raves for her portrayal of “Rusty” Dennis, the saucy, drug-addicted motorcycle mom of a skull-deformed teenage son played by Eric Stoltz. Peter Bogdanovich’s heartstring-tugging drama doesn’t shy away from Rusty’s flaws even as it exalts her tough-as-nails devotion to her child’s well-being.—Keith Uhlich


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Pink Flamingos (1972)

Just because the transvestite star of John Waters’ trashterpiece is the filthiest person alive doesn’t mean she’s a bad mother: Divine’s parody of a ’50s melodrama heroine certainly loves her son, albeit in a way one usually associates with Oedipus. Still, she’ll do anything to protect her family’s good name—including eating dog shit. (No, really.)—David Fear


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10–1

Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

By all means, see this Japanese mom-sterpiece, but maybe not on Mother’s Day—you’ll run the risk of seriously alarming the lady of the day with your tears. Kenji Mizoguchi’s feudal tragedy is, to many, the most emotionally ruinous movie ever made. It begins in catastrophe with a family torn apart, the father exiled and, sometime later, the mother, Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), carried off, her two children sold into slavery. The plot then becomes a survival story, as hope yields to more practical modes of getting by, like forgetting and brutality. But as years pass, there is word of Tamaki’s legend and a daring quest begins. We’ll say no more, except to note Mizoguchi’s unerring instinct for depicting strong (if compromised) women. The time we have with our mothers may be cut short, but, as this film shows, they mark us forever.—Joshua Rothkopf


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Cinderella (1950)

There were evil females in Disney toons before this animated retelling of the Charles Perrault fairy tale; who could forget the vengeful queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? But it’s this heartless harridan of a stepmom that really sets the template for the Mouse House’s horrible mother figures. She’s a permanently scowling woman who enslaves her late husband’s daughter, goads her own offspring to rip Cinderella’s makeshift gown off her body (a rape by any other name) and eventually locks her in a tower to keep her from her one true love. This was the flip side of the kind, loving mom from children’s movies, and the character’s nightmarish parody of Mother as cruel taskmaster would color every happily-ever-after princess story from then on.—David Fear


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Sophie's Choice (1982)

We live in the Golden Age of Streep, in which film after film, America’s most accomplished actor seems unable to hit a false note. But hard as it is to fathom, there was a time when Meryl had to prove herself, and even after supplying sharp supporting work in late-’70s triumphs like The Deer Hunter, Manhattan and Kramer vs. Kramer, there was still a mountain for her to climb. Sophie Choice was that breakthrough, the elusive peak attained. Most of the film takes place in a Brooklyn boardinghouse, where the title character (Streep), a Polish Holocaust survivor; her manic lover (Kevin Kline); and their neighbor, a young writer (Peter MacNicol), come to a kind of familiarity. Slowly, the movie begins to probe the cracks of their intimacy, and a secret tears the trio apart. Sophie’s choice, as we learn in a powerhouse climax, is no choice at all—it’s the apocalypse to any parent. Essentially, we bear witness.—Joshua Rothkopf


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Mamma Roma (1962)

Italian moms—those loud, smothering, how-come-ah-you-no-eat-enough caricatures—have always been an easy go-to for filmmakers. As played by the larger-than-life Anna Magnani, the title character of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s second feature is certainly a force of nature. But now that she’s almost done paying her dues as a streetwalker (like all good Catholics, Pasolini makes this heroine a Madonna and a whore), she can finally give he son the good life he deserves. We know things won’t turn out as planned, but that doesn’t stop Magnani from investing a rainbow of emotional shadings in what could have been a stereotype. This is the nation’s everymom, transformed from a stock character into a tragically intimate example of familial dysfunction, Italian style.—David Fear


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Stella Dallas (1937)

Barbara Stanwyck frequently cited her title role in this Samuel Goldwyn–produced melodrama—a true no-dry-eye-in-the-house affair—as a personal favorite. She’s a loudmouthed working-class woman who marries and has a daughter with a down-on-his-luck high society man (John Boles). But as her family’s fortunes shift, Stella finds her plebeian instincts (not to mention her terrible taste in clothing) hampering her child’s chances at a more refined life. Sacrifices must be made to stop all the disdainful stares and barely concealed whispers from others—the scene where a garishly made-up Stella parades around an upper-crust country club is particularly mortifying—and there’s barely a false note as the film shows us the lengths to which a mother will go to secure her daughter’s future.—Keith Uhlich


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Mildred Pierce (1945)

Who was Joan Crawford, really? Conflicting stories swirl, but on one point, there can be no disagreement: She was a survivor. Even after Crawford found herself dumped by MGM, her contract terminated because she was deemed too old (at age 39), she campaigned vigorously for a competing studio’s prize role, won the part and wrote another chapter in her career. Mildred is the movies’ definitive transitional character, relying on an actor’s sense of youthful confidence as well as an ability to subsume ego to give way to the next (perhaps unworthy) generation. A waitress-turned-proprietor, Mildred lives for her children and suffers for their sins; she is a new kind of American businesswoman who is still trapped by sexist expectations. Crawford’s performance quakes with pain; it will always resonate with moms who go for it all.—Joshua Rothkopf


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Carrie (1976)

“They’re all gonna laugh at you!” screams Margaret White (Piper Laurie) to her introverted teenager Carrie (Sissy Spacek) on what will turn out to be a fateful prom night. Giggles are scarce whenever this maniacal, religiously obsessed guardian appears in Brian De Palma’s lurid, lustrous thriller, based on Stephen King’s first novel. Mrs. White hovers over Carrie in lunatic fervor, locking her in a crucifix-adorned closet for the slightest transgression (getting your period is a punishment that must be prayed away) and generally lamenting what she sees as her daughter’s slow descent into the devil’s grip. She’s the overprotective mother of every child’s nightmares.—Keith Uhlich


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The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Most moms play with their children’s affections. In John Frankenheimer’s paranoiac Cold War parable, undercover subversive Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury) takes manipulation to a terrifying extreme: Her son Raymond (Laurence Harvey) is an assassin conditioned to kill by a foreign power, and Eleanor is the operative responsible for controlling him. The trigger she uses is a Queen of Diamonds playing card, which complements her character’s icily regal bearing. With her hawklike stares, frosty diction and willingness to kill to get ahead, Eleanor is a vision of motherhood disturbingly devoid of tenderness.—Keith Uhlich


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Psycho (1960)

“A boy’s best friend is his mother,” claims Norman Bates, proprietor of the family-run Bates Motel. For most of Alfred Hitchcock’s era-defining horror film, we only see glimpses of Mrs. Bates via a furtive rush through the frame here, a knife-wielding silhouette there. But her specter hovers over every scene that follows Janet Leigh’s entrance to this roadside establishment—right up until the moment we finally meet the lady of the house. Hitch’s tale of the ultimate mama’s boy tries to explain away their unique bond courtesy of a notoriously wonky epilogue, but viewers have already tap-danced through a Freudian minefield regarding the mother-son relationship and its potential for psychological dependency. Still, for all the damage done, it’s not like Mrs. Bates is a maniac or a raving thing. She just goes…a little mad sometimes.—David Fear


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Mommie Dearest (1981)

To our own mothers: Please forgive us for crowning Faye Dunaway our queen. She’s not like you—of course not!—but maybe that’s part of why we’re so transfixed—she’s not like any human being. (Even Joan Crawford couldn’t have been this bad.) Dunaway, already a genius compiler of nervous tics and hysteria in movies like Chinatown and Network, plunged into the role of a lifetime, based on Christina Crawford’s controversial tell-all, and was shunned by Hollywood for it. Their punishment was too harsh: To appreciate Dunaway’s performance is to recognize an incantatory aspect of acting—the unhinged love of sheer craziness that can carry away the speaker (it’s also the part of an actor’s craft that once made the profession seem like channeling evil spirits). Cultists will forever swoon over “Tina…bring me the ax!” and the terrifying no-wire-hangers meltdown, but even Dunaway’s quieter scenes throb with explosive potential, her head swaying like a cobra’s about to bite. Dunaway deserves more than mere camp love for her turn; she’s the worst mom ever and that can’t have been easy.—Joshua Rothkopf


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