Hollywood offers plenty of great examples of motherhood. These moms, just like the ones in real life, come in many forms—natural mothers, adoptive mothers, single mothers, widows. Some are strong, some are nurturing, and many are thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Most are the kind of mothers we’d like to have, and that some of us wish we could be. All of the moms on our “best” list would sacrifice anything for their children. Of course, not every movie mother is quite so wonderful, as demonstrated by the moms on our “worst” list. These truly terrible matriarchs will make you appreciate all those good mothers that much more. So, in honor of Mother’s Day, here’s our look at the most memorable big-screen mothers of all time.
Best: Stella Dallas (Stella Dallas, 1937)
Stella Dallas, a classic weepy starring Barbara Stanwyck, practically established the cinematic archetype of the selfless mother who sacrifices everything to give her child a better life. Stella is a single, working-class mom who willingly lets her daughter go, to the point of actively pushing her away, so she can have a better life with her well-to-do father and even wealthier fiancee. This wasn’t the first version of Stella Dallas (it was originally produced as a silent film in 1925) or even the last (a remake titled Stella starring Bette Midler came out in 1990) but it’s the most influential when it comes to depictions of motherhood in movies.
Best: Aurora Greenway (Terms Of Endearment ,1983)
The fraught relationship between mothers and daughters comes into sharp focus in Terms Of Endearment. Shirley MacLaine’s Aurora is the kind of mother who shows her love by getting way too involved in her daughter’s life. She’s also the kind who’s all too often infuriatingly right. As her grown daughter Emma (Debra Winger) makes bad choices in another state, Aurora takes the first tentative steps toward a relationship with her neighbor, a former astronaut (Jack Nicholson, at the top of his game). Despite all the superficial bickering and withering judgment, though, when Emma needs her mother most, she’s right there by her side.
Best: Edna Spalding (Places In The Heart, 1984)
What’s remembered most about this movie isn’t Sally Field’s Oscar-winning performance, but her acceptance speech, which gave us the forever iconic line: “I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you like me!” That’s not the reason it made our list, of course—it’s just a fun fact. In Places In The Heart, Field plays a widow raising two children on her own in Depression-era Texas. She’s on the brink of losing the family cotton farm, but with help from a blind lodger (John Malkovich) and a drifter handyman (Danny Glover) she pulls through. It’s a story full of strong, emotional beats that land thanks to the extraordinary cast, led by Field. Nearly 40 years later, we still like her.
Best: Ellen Ripley (Aliens, 1986)
In Aliens, Ripley (Signourney Weaver, in her most famous role) comes out of hibernation nearly 60 years after the events of the first film and discovers that her daughter has lived a full life and died while she was gone. But maternal instincts never really go away. Ripley gets a second chance at motherhood when she discovers Newt (Carrie Henn), a young orphan hiding from the creatures that “mostly” come at night. By the end of the film she’s ready to risk her life to save her surrogate daughter from the alien Queen (another mom who nearly made our list) to protect her, climbing into a power loader and uttering the famous line: “Get away from her you bitch!” If that’s not a prime example of motherly love, we don’t know what is.
Best: Sarah Connor (Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991)
Imagine being told you would one day give birth to humanity’s greatest hope in a post-apocalyptic war with machines that hasn’t even started yet. That kind of information changes you. Just look at the difference between Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in the original Terminator film, a frightened young woman on the run, and its sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, in which she’s evolved into a badass warrior prepared to run into the fight. She’ll do anything to protect her son, and the rest of the world, even if she comes on a bit too strong sometimes. No one truly appreciates her until it’s almost too late, something a lot of mothers can surely relate to.
Best: Dede Tate (Little Man Tate, 1991)
Jodie Foster not only starred in this drama about the relationship between a single mother and her genius son, she also directed it (the first of many successful efforts behind the camera by Foster). Aspects of Little Man Tate were even inspired by her own life growing up as a child prodigy. Her character, Dede, finds it hard to relate to her 7-year-old son Fred, whose intelligence is off the charts. She tries to do what she thinks is best for him—sending him to a school for gifted children and encouraging him to make friends—only to realize that even though his mind works on a higher plane, he needs his mother’s love just as much as any other kid. It’s not as sappy as it sounds.
Best: Molly Weasley (The Harry Potter series, 2001-2011)
Who wouldn’t want a mom like Molly Weasley from the Harry Potter films? Charmingly portrayed on screen by Julie Walters, she makes it look easy—although maybe that’s because she uses magic to get all the housework done. Still, she managed to raise a brood of seven magical children, mostly boys (save poor Ginny), in the cozy confines of the Burrow. She basically adopts Harry, too. Besides being a stellar mom, though, she’s also a member of the Order of the Phoenix and a pretty formidable witch. Taking a page from Ellen Ripley, she engages Bellatrix Lestrange in combat, snarling, “Not my daughter, you bitch!” Even Bellatrix looks shocked.
Best: Helen Parr (The Incredibles, 2004)
In creating the character of Helen, aka Elastigirl (voiced by Holly Hunter), The Incredibles writer-director Brad Bird came up with the perfect metaphor for motherhood. Moms need to be flexible, even when they feel like they’re being pulled in all different directions. They’ll stretch themselves thin in order to accommodate everyone in the family. At least, the best ones will. How refreshing to see a married, suburban mom celebrated in film without her having to experience some terrible family tragedy (other than, you know, her husband being kidnapped by a supervillain) to prove how strong she is. Running a household, getting dinner on the table, and keeping the family on track are all small acts of heroism in their own right.
Best: Tanya Anderson (Akeelah And The Bee, 2006)
Angela Bassett’s Tanya in Akeelah And The Bee is yet another widow trying to do what’s best for her children. In this case, one of them happens to be a gifted speller. Tanya is emotionally wrung out after the death of her husband and all the other disappointments in her life, so it’s understandable that she isn’t initially on board with Akeelah’s (Keke Palmer) quest to win the National Spelling Bee. She’s just trying to protect her daughter from the heartbreak of losing something important to her. Once she understands what her daughter is capable of, and what her success means to everyone in their community, though, she becomes her biggest supporter. The inspiration goes both ways, and Tanya starts to reconsider her own life goals. Moms can have those too, you know.
Best: Joy Newsome (Room, 2015)
The premise of Room is unsettlingly dark—a deranged man kidnaps a young woman named Joy and imprisons her in his garden shed. After two years of repeated sexual assault she becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son, Jack. Joy raises him inside the confines of the shed, which they call “Room,” until the age of five, when they finally escape. Out of that darkness comes a deeply moving story of a mother and son bound by shared trauma that no one else can understand. Joy’s decision to keep Jack in captivity with her weighs heavily on her, even as they start to build a life outside of “Room.” It’s not an easy adjustment for either of them. Brie Larson (who won an Oscar for her performance) and Jacob Tremblay make a great team, each delivering raw, complex performances at every stage of their emotional journey through the film.
Best: Evelyn Abbott (A Quiet Place, 2018, and A Quiet Place II, 2020)
Portrayed by Emily Blunt, who is just as comfortable holding a shotgun as she is a swaddled infant, Evelyn Abbott in A Quiet Place and its sequel is both a survivor and a protector. As the matriarch of a family living under constant threat from alien creatures with an acute sense of hearing, she is forced to step up more than most. In the original film’s most harrowing sequence, she goes through labor alone and in near total silence as the rest of her family tries to ward off an attack. In the second film, the responsibility of keeping the family safe falls to her, then expands to include what’s left of civilization. It’s a difficult burden that she bears gracefully, because that’s just what tough mothers do.
Best: Marmee March (Little Women, 2019)
What would the little women of Little Women be without their mother, Marmee? In the most recent of the many adaptations (seven, in all) of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, Greta Gerwig found a balance between being true to the timeless source material and crafting a story with appeal to a new generation. Fans focus on the stories of the March daughters, with all their professional and romantic ambitions, but Laura Dern’s saintly Marmee is the one who gives them the space to have such ambitions in the first place. Whether she’s encouraging them to share their Christmas breakfast with their impoverished neighbors or quietly worrying over her husband’s safety as he fights in a Civil War far from home, she’s a strong role model for her girls, and for all other mothers as well.
Best: Rosie Betzler (Jojo Rabbit, 2019)
The inner lives of mothers can be hard for the rest of the world to see, especially when they have to hide their true selves from a racist, authoritarian regime. In Jojo Rabbit the emotional depths of Jojo’s mother Rosie (played by Scarlett Johansson) gradually unfold over time. She lets him cosplay as a member of the Hitler Youth, because that’s what’s expected of them both, but she’s definitely not on board with the whole genocide thing. Rosie walks a careful line, caring for her son on her own and encouraging his military pursuits, while living a secret double life. Against insurmountable odds, she at least attempts to make a difference in the world. And even if she only succeeds in opening the eyes of one boy to the horrors of Nazism, at least that’s something.
Best: Evelyn Wang (Everything Everywhere All At Once, 2022)
Evelyn Wang’s love for her daughter crosses universes and spans realities. It’s so strong, you can feel it coming through the screen, even when the two of them are rocks. That might sound strange if you haven’t seen Everything Everywhere All At Once (if so, where have you been for the last year?), but it’s one of the things that makes the film so special. That, and Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh’s heartbreaking, life-affirming performance. “Of all the places I could be,” she tells her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) in the film’s emotional climax. “I just want to be here with you.” If you watched this film with your mom or daughter on Mother’s Day last year, here’s your chance to start an annual tradition.
Best: Mitzi Fabelman (The Fabelmans, 2022)
As a stand-in for Steven Spielberg’s own mother in The Fablemans, Mitzi Fabelman is a kind and nurturing muse who fully supports her son Sam’s interest in filmmaking every step of the way. Michelle Williams looks incandescent in so much of this movie, especially in the moment she hands Sam (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) a moving-picture camera for the first time, igniting a passion that will become his life’s purpose. She’s not a perfect person, but the movie asks us to understand and forgive her (as, we assume, Spielberg forgave his mother) for wanting a fuller, more creative life than her scientifically minded husband could give her. Thanks to Williams’ delicate performance, it’s not hard to do.
Worst: Norma Bates (Psycho, 1960)
We don’t ever actually meet the late Mrs. Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho (though she does pop up in subsequent prequels). What we know about her comes from her son Norman’s (Anthony Perkins) hallucinatory episodes. She was so cruel and controlling when she was alive that Norman internalized her scorn and, after her death, developed a secondary personality based on her. Whenever he found himself acting in a way he knew she wouldn’t approve of, her personality would take over, sometimes acting out violently. Perhaps Norman was always prone to mental illness, but his mother’s terrible parenting certainly contributed to the fracturing of his fragile psyche.
Worst: Margaret White (Carrie, 1976)
There was no one more ill-equipped to handle a child with paranormal abilities than Carrie’s mentally unstable, Christian fundamentalist mother (Piper Laurie) in the film Carrie. She already thinks her daughter (Sissy Spacek) got her period due to sinful thoughts, and accuses her of showing off her “dirty pillows” in a low cut dress, so a display of Carrie’s telekinetic abilities is enough to send her crazy mother into a murderous rage. A better mother might have averted that bloody killing spree at the prom, but alas, Carrie got stuck with Margaret.
Worst: Joan Crawford (Mommie Dearest, 1981)
The camp factor is high in this melodramatic adaptation of Christina Crawford’s shocking memoir about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her adoptive mother, actress Joan Crawford. That doesn’t make Mommie Dearest any less tragic. Faye Dunaway’s memorable (maybe for all the wrong reasons) portrayal of Crawford won her a Razzie Award for worst actress of 1981. But at least her gloriously over-the-top “No more wire hangers! Ever!” scene will live forever as part of Hollywood history. It also makes a great counter-programming choice for Mother’s Day (look for screenings on cable or at your local indie theater), as long as you don’t think too hard about the real story that inspired it.
Worst: Momma Lift (Throw Mama From the Train, 1987)
Matricide is generally frowned upon, but once you meet Mrs. Lift (Anne Ramsey) in the ’80s comedy Throw Mama From The Train, you can understand where Danny DeVito’s character Owen is coming from. Anne Ramsey, who also memorably played Mama Fratelli in The Goonies—she had a type—is devilishly despicable as Owen’s controlling mother, who constantly berates him and complains non-stop. The only way out he can see is murdering her, except he can’t bring himself to do it. Enter Larry (Billy Crystal), who has been having a few murder-y thoughts of his own about his ex-wife. Criss cross.
Worst: Mary Lee Johnston (Precious, 2009)
Mo’Nique’s character Mary in Lee Daniels’ Precious is a straight-up monster with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Just when you think she’s the worst mother you’ve ever seen, she proves she can be even more despicable. There’s no need to list all the horrible things she does, and lets others do, to her daughter (Gabourey Sidibe) in the film. Let’s just say that her reaction to her husband raping Precious is to be jealous and angry at her daughter for stealing her man. That gives you a pretty good idea of what Precious deals with for most of her life, which makes us appreciate her ability to rise out of it even more.