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Review: 'Mom in the Movies' offers a smart history of cinematic mothers - good, bad and ugly

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"Mom in the Movies: The Iconic Screen Mothers You Love (and a Few You Love to Hate)" (Simon & Schuster), by Turner Classic Movies and Richard Corliss

Don't go thinking this is a hardcover companion to a sickly sweet greeting card designed to give you-know-who a good cry on her special day. The smartly written and nicely illustrated "Mom in the Movies" is appropriate for any occasion, an entertaining slice of movie history that's served up by one of film's best writers and a few special guests.

Time magazine critic Richard Corliss, working with the cable channel TCM, takes us through the cinema's treatment of motherhood from the silent films of a century ago to the IMAX-size moms of today. That's a long string of depictions that include Lillian Gish as "eternal motherhood" rocking the cradle in the classic "Intolerance" (1916) and Diane Lane calming a young Clark Kent in last year's "Man of Steel."

In spite of that stretch of time, Corliss argues that the mother movie often seems near extinction these days. One reason he offers is that modern movies present stories wrapped in danger and physical triumph, not the stuff of home and hearth. The shift from realism to fantasy after the success of "Star Wars" (1977) also has helped thin the herd of mother movies, he writes, as has the industry's catering to the young male demographic.

"In real life, mothers far outnumber superheroes or serial killers in this country," he says, "but not on this country's multiplex screens."

Corliss neatly divides his subject into several types — perennial moms like those in the many film versions of "Anna Karenina" and "Stella Dallas" and great American moms like Ma Joad (Oscar winner Jane Darwell) in "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940). As we know, not all mothers are perfect: Piper Laurie as the insane mother in "Carrie" (1976), Anjelica Huston as the swindling mother in "The Grifters" (1990) and the unseen and unhinged Mrs. Bates in "Psycho" (1960) are among those he places in the ranks of criminal moms and horror moms.

In separate essays, actresses Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, Eva Marie Saint, Illeana Douglas, Jane Powell and Tippi Hedren join actor Sam Robards in offering their unique views on movies and motherhood.

"Movie mothers were neat, organized, energetic, and seemed always ready to be a perfect spouse and parent," Reynolds observes. "They made most of us forget the areas in our life we weren't so happy with, for a movie moment."

Make mother proud by testing your knowledge of movie moms by answering these five questions inspired by Corliss' text:

1. Shirley MacLaine was nominated for Oscars when she played mothers in what two films?

2. In what 1934 film and 1959 remake with the same title does a black mother die of heartbreak because her light-skinned daughter rejects her to "pass" for white?

3. After she plays a mother saving her daughter from the devil in "The Exorcist" (1973), what actress won an Oscar the next year for playing a mother who takes her son on the road in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore"?

4. Who won the best-actress Oscar — and in what 2000 movie — for playing a twice-divorced, unemployed mother of three who turns whistle-blower?

5. Who played Debbie Reynolds' mother in "The Catered Affair" (1956) and whose mother did Reynolds play four decades later in "Mother" (1996)?

Answers:

(1) "The Turning Point" (1977) and "Terms of Endearment" (1983), winning an Oscar for the later film.

(2) "Imitation of Life."

(3) Ellen Burstyn.

(4) Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich."

(5) Bette Davis and Albert Brooks.

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