No one gets under your skin like your mother. But no matter how crazy, overbearing, sickly sweet, or judgmental you may find her to be, you can take comfort in the fact that she's not as bad as those on the silver screen. Sometimes all it takes is a quick look at a celluloid mom to appreciate the (comparatively) reasonable women in our own lives. Of course, most of the time we simply watch these films, sigh, and say, "Yeah, that rings a bell," but that's not usually something we bring up on Mother's Day. The best movie mothers and their legacies, good and bad:

Mermaids—Mrs. Flax (Cher)
Cher may have been an icon in the age of bell-bottoms, but the polka-dot dresses and bee-hive hair of the early sixties fit her like a glove. Her Mrs. Flax doesn't believe in cooking full meals—they represent too much of a commitment—but her marshmallow kebabs and finger sandwiches are divine. She doesn't put much more effort into her men, dating and dumping them quickly; it's no wonder her eldest daughter, a teenage Winona Ryder, wants to be a nun. Sure, Mrs. Flax's girls are starved for normalcy, but there is something about watching Cher bump and dance to sixties tunes in the kitchen that makes you wish you had been raised by an oversexed, mermaid-costume wearing commitment-phobe—she makes it look fun.

Maternal wisdom: "Charlotte, I know you're planning a celibate life, but with half my chromosomes, I think that might be tough." One has to wonder whether that was a shout-out to Cher's own daughter... named "Chastity."

Therapy fodder: When her daughter tells her she looks like "a woman about to go forth in sin," Mrs. Flax brightly replies, "Oh good, just the look I was going for!"

Terms of Endearment—Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine)
Just about everyone while watching this weeper classic, considers of Shirley MacLaine's Aurora and thinks "That is my mother." Aurora guilts, she cajoles, and she boycotts her own daughter's wedding. When her daughter is an infant, she pinches her awake to ensure that the baby hasn't been smothered to death—she's loving, sure, but maybe just a wee off-kilter. Aurora and Emma have the kind of relationship where honesty is king, even when that means discussing sexual conquests and criticizing each other's lives. We remember Aurora because MacLaine played her hovering and self-centeredness as real vulnerabilities rather than fatal character flaws. Like our own mothers, we can't quite decide if we like Aurora or not, but we know that we love her.

Maternal wisdom: She says, "I don't want to fight anymore," and it kind of seems like she means it. Well, for a moment, anyway.

Therapy fodder: The night before her daughter's wedding, Aurora tells Emma that her marriage will be "a mistake of such gigantic proportions it will ruin your life and make wretched your destiny." Not to be dramatic about it or anything.

Gypsy—Mama Rose (Rosalind Russell)
No stage mother ever out-smothered, out-resented, or out-pushed Mama Rose in Gypsy. Rosalind Russell's turn as Rose is a delicious blend of good intentions and overbearing parenting. Rose is so desperate to make it in show business that she pushes her daughters into productions from vaudeville to burlesque, her nomadic spirit taking them far away from any kind of stable life. No stage is too small and no act too off-the-wall for Rose, even though one daughter runs way, another becomes a stripper, and her loyal man finally gives up after years of patient support. Her bitter, frantic final number in the empty theater, "Rose's Turn," is a genius blend of desperation, regret, and still-kindled dreams of stardom. It's for anyone who ever felt that they were living out the dreams of their parents, or anyone who ever met a stage mom.

Maternal wisdom:"This is today, and everything else is just yesterday's mashed potatoes." Can't really argue with that.

Therapy fodder: Rose asks her daughter, "What did I do it all for?" Louise's accusatory answer: "I thought you did it for me, Mama."

Mommie Dearest—Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway)
Faye Dunaway redefines the word "camp" with her turn as the controlling, unstable Joan Crawford. Eyebrows raised and eyes ablaze, Dunaway plays one of the most demonic mothers in film with gusto. Her adopted children learn that life in her Hollywood family means giving away all your presents, cleaning the floors to perfection, and knowing how to soothe Joan's fragile ego. Dunaway holds nothing back as her steely Joan Crawford razes rosebushes and tortures her children with mental manipulation and physical abuse. If nothing else, the crazed madness of the Crawford character in Mommie Dearest gave us all reason to be thankful for our own un-glamorous upbringing.

Maternal wisdom: Well, if your mother can't teach you the many uses of Ajax, who can?

Therapy fodder: Three words: "NO! WIRE! HAAAAANGERS!"

The Manchurian Candidiate—Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury)

We love Angela Lansbury. In that singing-teapot and Bedknobs and Broomsticks kind of way. So it takes a few minutes for younger generations to fully accept her insidious Mrs. Iselin in this creepy political thriller. She tortures her son, played by Laurence Harvey, with such acidic precision that it matters little that the actors were only separated by three years in age. The movie may daringly suggest that brainwashing is possible, but the crux of the movie is the sinister hold Mrs. Iselin has over her son. The movie comes to a grand climax at the political convention, but it is Mrs. Iselin's last scene with her son Raymond that delivers the film's most inescapable twinge of creepiness. It's so uncomfortable that it's no wonder Lansbury was nominated for an Academy Award. We'll never quite look at that Murder, She Wrote dame the same way again.

Maternal wisdom: "Why don't you pass the time with a game of solitaire?" Well, we can think of a few reasons, but Mrs. Iselin makes it sound so reasonable.

Therapy fodder: Mrs. Iselin interferes with her son's love life like a pro, but she really earns her stripes in world-class instability when she gives Raymond a kiss that could keep him on a shrink's couch for decades.

Mothers Issue Features:

{ She's Having a Baby: The Lesbian Gayby Boom }
{ Universal Mother: An Interview With Writer Ariel Gore }
{ All About My Mother: The Greatest Movie Moms }
{ Somebody's Mother: A Photo Essay }
{ Losing the Almighty Mother }
{ A Grandmother's Lament }
{ Are You Going to Eat That? Mother's Cooking }

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