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Looking back at seven memorable mothers in the movies

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Stella in Stella Dallas (1937) The perfect movie mother is always selfless to a fault. In this Depression-era potboiler, Barbara Stanwyck is painfully believable as the uncultured factory girl Stella, who weds the Ivy Leaguer Stephen (John Boles) even though she knows the marriage is doomed. Once her husband splits for New York, Stella’s sole source of joy becomes her daughter Laurel (Anne Shirley), for whom she desperately wants a better life. Get out the hankies for the closing scene as Stella watches her daughter’s high-society wedding from a respectable distance and then walks off into the rainy night.

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“Ma” Kate Barker in Bloody Mama (1970) Loosely based on the real-life story of bank-robber matriarch Ma Barker, this low-budget crime drama demonstrated that a good mother always loves her kids, no matter their flaws. The late Shelley Winters chewed up the scenery as Kate “Ma” Barker, who routinely robs banks with her four sons: sensitive Arthur (Cling Kimbrough), semi-psychotic Herman (Don Stroud), might-be-gay Fred (Robert Walden) and drug addict Lloyd (Robert De Niro in one of his first movie roles). Most of the movie follows Ma and her boys on the lam all over the American Midwest. What does Ma do when a smalltown girl threatens to report one of her beloved boys to the coppers? She drowns her, because that a mob mama did back in the thirties.

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Alice Hyatt in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) Directed by Martin Scorsese, this film earned a Best Actress Oscar for Ellen Burstyn, whose portrayal of an indomitable widow and mother redefined Hollywood pluckiness. Alice’s truck-driver hubby dies in the opening frames, so she packs up her precocious son Tommy (Alfred Lutter) and sets off for the West Coast in hopes of resuming her long-abandoned singing career. Instead, they get as far as Tucson, Arizona, where Alice has to take a job at the rundown Mel’s Diner. Along the way, Alice has a brief fling with a psychotic (Harvey Keitel) before eventually finding true love with a hunky rancher (Kris Kristofferson). The movie was so influential that it spawned a spinoff TV series that ran nine seasons.

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Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) All mothers are fiercely protective of their kids, but Sarah Connor took things to an extreme level. In fact the entire plotline of this sequel to the 1984 sci-fi hit The Terminator revolved around feisty Sarah–played by the very well-muscled Linda Hamilton–protecting her only son John (Edward Furlong) from killer robots sent back in time from the future. And since John Connor was the only person capable of saving the planet from an apocalyptic future, Sarah wasn’t just saving her kid, she was saving the entire human race. Now that’s an earth mother.

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Beatrice Henderson in Mother (1996) Smart, honest and at times achingly funny, this comedy was written and directed by Albert Brooks, who naturally also took on the role of John, a middle-aged writer convinced that his repeated failure with women is somehow connected to his erratic relationship with his dotty mom Beatrice, played with by Debbie Reynolds. To help solve his problem, John moves back into his old room and discovers that the old gal is completely normal and newly independent, much to his neurotic chagrin. The scene of son and mother in a department store’s lingerie section is priceless.

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Erin Brockovich in Erin Brockovich (2000) Julia Roberts won the first and only Oscar of her career for her portrayal of the iron-willed single mom Erin Brockovich in this fact-based drama. The film repeatedly shows Erin interacting with one or more of her three young kids while singlehandedly bringing down a California power company accused of polluting a town’s water supply; she’s even shown toting a baby in the movie’s poster! And for anyone aghast at Roberts’ ample display of cleavage throughout the film, keep in mind that the real Erin Brockovich wore even lower tops.

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Jackie Harrison in Stepmom (1998) Talk about your tolerant mother figures. In this effective big-screen drama, Susan Sarandon is imminently believable as Jackie, a terminally-ill mom who decides to make the best of things when her ex-husband Luke (Ed Harris) hooks up with his new girlfriend Isabel (Julia Roberts). In fact, good ol’ Jackie actually attempts to teach Isabel how to be a good stepmom to her two kids, who naturally bridle at the presence of the interloper in the household. The movie shifts from one soapy tableau to the next, but the story itself is saved by the scene in which Jackie and her kids dance joyously to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

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