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Friday, March 14, 2008

Mothers and Daughters (originally published 10/02)

Of all the allegiances forged by society or ordained by nature, none is more potent than the bond between a mother and daughter. When it is healthy and flourishing, it can grow into a tightly woven cocoon of mutual nurturing that can justly be described as nature's masterpiece. When it goes wrong, however, it can degenerate into a nightmare.

The newly released "White Oleander," based on the novel by Janet Fitch, relates a sobering tale of a mother-daughter relationship gone tragically awry and the daughter's struggle to cope with the daunting task of defining herself without a mother's guidance. It's a harrowing story, but by no means a new one. Indeed, troubled relationships between mothers and daughters are as old as humankind. Naturally, "White Oleander" is far from being the first film to deal with the subject. To see how earlier filmmakers have portrayed dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships, look for these titles on home video.

"Autumn Sonata" (1978). Ingmar Bergman's grim meditation on mother-daughter alienation stars Ingrid Bergman as the mother and Liv Ullman as the daughter. Mom is a celebrated concert pianist who hasn't seen her daughter in seven years. When they do meet again, they are almost like strangers. Then old resentments begin to reassert themselves, culminating in a long night of revelations and recriminations. It's a virtuoso performance by two of the screen's finest actresses under the guidance of world cinema's most unrelenting interpreter of emotional pain.

"Gypsy" (1962). If you prefer something a bit less emotionally intense than Bergman, let Gypsy Rose Lee entertain you with this musical version of her early years under the influence of the ultimate stage mother. Gypsy is portrayed by Natalie Wood, while Rosalind Russell plays her mother, Rose Hovick. Rose is herself the product of a rocky mother-daughter relationship, and now she's determined to take over the lives of her daughters by being single-handedly responsible for their success.

"Now, Voyager" (1942). This Bette Davis soaper is remembered primarily for the love story that develops between Davis and Paul Henried. The early scenes, however, present one of the most chilling examples of an unhealthy mother-daughter relationship in any film. Gladys Cooper plays Davis's cold and distant mother. She is acidly and unrelentingly critical of her daughter and sternly withholds any glimmer of affection on any level. With Davis's character on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the psychiatrist who is called in immediately recommends an ocean voyage to remove her from her mother's influence.

"Stella Dallas" (1937). Olive Higgins Prouty, who wrote the novel on which "Now, Voyager" was based, was also the author of this film's literary source. Barbara Stanwyck gives one of her best performances as Stella, a working class woman who marries into a well-to-do family. They have a daughter, whom Stella loves dearly, but ultimately the differences in their backgrounds prove fatal to the marriage. As they go their separate ways, the daughter, gravitating toward the upper class lifestyle of her father, begins to think of her lower class mother as an embarrassment. Thus the stage is set for one of those noble sacrifices that are a fixture in the three-hanky genre. This is an oft-filmed story, adapted for film both before and since this Samuel Goldwyn production, but the Stanwyck version remains the definitive interpretation.

"Mildred Pierce" (1945). This is a fascinating film on all kinds of levels. It's primarily remembered for the remarkable feat of combining the soap opera genre with the dark and morally ambiguous film noir genre. The effect of this synthesis on the film's mother-daughter relationship is striking, combining the soapiness of "Stella Dallas" with the venom and bile of "Double Indemnity." Mildred (Joan Crawford) is a successful businesswoman who obsessively dotes on her daughter, Ida (Ann Blyth). But when young Ida becomes romantically involved with Mildred's second husband, the plot really starts to thicken.

William Shakespeare probably had the best line on the special intensity of the mother-daughter relationship. "Thou art thy mother's glass," he wrote, "and she in thee calls back the lovely April of her prime." But movies are also a kind of mirror. And as long as humans look into that mirror, it will always reflect the somber warning that a mother's love, one of nature's finest blessings, retains the frightening potential to morph into something as poisonous as oleander.

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