Femmes like those in 'Brockovich,' 'Dancer,' and 'Gift' are gaining attention

A decade after Vice President Dan Quayle all but declared that TV’s fictional “Murphy Brown” character — unmarried and pregnant — represented the deterioration of the nuclear family, and therefore a negative role model, single mothers have become woven into the fabric of modern society.

Whether never married, divorced or widowed, single mothers today are no longer unique. And if cinema at all mirrors contemporary culture, then the past year’s crop of single moms in movies represents a sea change in how these characters are depicted, and how we perceive them.

In her book “From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies,” Molly Haskell wrote about the single mother in relation to “the sacrifice film,” as personified by the heroines of such pics as “The Sin of Madelon Claudet,” “Stella Dallas” and “Mildred Pierce”: “They embrace the audience as victims, through the common myths of rejection and self-sacrifice and martyrdom as purveyed by the mass media.”

Although these filmic images emanated from the ’30s and ’40s, Haskell intimated these myths had not changed, “nor has the underlying assumption: that these women are stuck, and would rather be stuck than sorry.”

Well, much has changed since Haskell’s book was published in 1973, even if this change took until the dawn of a new century to fully flower. The female as single parent today is a far cry from the long-suffering heroine of yore: she’s more likely to have a career, and is therefore less reliant on charity (or alimony) than self-sufficiency.

When asked to comment recently on the surfeit of single moms in movies released over the past year, Haskell’s only question was: why had it taken so long? “I can remember when ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ came out,’ she recalls, ‘and I said, ‘Well, we’ve finally got a movie about how hard it is to hold down a job and take care of a kid alone and the whole three-ring circus,’ and who plays it? Dustin Hoffman.”

The build-up to the single-parent femmes of “Erin Brockovich,” “Dancer in the Dark,” “Bounce,” “The Gift,” “Almost Famous,” “You Can Count on Me,” “Chocolat,” “Requiem for a Dream” and “Pay It Forward,” among others, has been gradual but pronounced. That most of the actresses who play these roles are gaining Oscar buzz is not coincidental. History shows that Academy voters have been intrigued by these women, to say the least.

Helen Hayes and Joan Crawford were awarded statuettes for the title roles in “Madelon Claudet” and “Mildred Pierce,” respectively, and the tradition has continued through the years with Ellen Burstyn (“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”), Sally Field (“Places in the Heart”), Shirley MacLaine (“Terms of Endearment”), Holly Hunter (“The Piano”) and Helen Hunt (“As Good as It Gets”).

Last year, Susan Sarandon and Janet McTeer more or less played the same roles in “Anywhere But Here” and “Tumbleweeds,” respectively: single mothers who ran from their problems and whose relationships with their teenage daughters represented classic cases of role reversal. Although these itinerant moms might have been considered somewhat irresponsible, Haskell instead focuses on their more positive aspects.

“These women see themselves as young, just as we see them as young,” she notes. “Women’s careers still don’t last as long as men, and men are still considered attractive much later in life than women. Nevertheless women are (now) perceived as being younger and romantically viable longer. So these women are not just sacrificial mothers, they’re trying to live their own lives too.”

If single moms are much more prevalent in mass media, statistics support the image. In her most recent book, “The Whole Woman” (1999), U.K. feminist author Germaine Greer (best known as author of “The Female Eunuch”), citing recent Brit surveys, writes that “mothers are 91% of lone parents, most of them separated, divorced or widowed; 35% have never been married, 10% are under 20.”

Carla Santis Shamberg, executive producer of “Erin Brockovich,” says the prevalence of single mother roles is a healthy sign that Hollywood is taking pains to reflect real life. “It’s evidence that films are trying to relate to how people actually live as opposed to making people think they’re the exception,” Shamberg says. “The idea of, ‘Oh God, I’m a single mother and everybody else’s life is so nice, what’s wrong with me,’ is outdated. There’s over 2-1/2million families (in the United States) that are headed by women, and the number is not getting smaller, it’s getting bigger.”

Cate Blanchett, who plays a single parent with clairvoyant powers in “The Gift,” says the growing incidence of such characters reflects the increasing dimensions of female roles in general. “We all come from the divorced generation, so that’s not unfamiliar to me,” she says. “It’s very easy to marginalize films with central female characters as being so-called ‘women’s films.’ People are used to seeing actresses play the girlfriend, or something that only concerns women. But these women are in films where the story is the central character, and it’s not necessarily their relationship to a man that is the core theme of the film.”

Laura Linney, whose breakthrough performance as a widowed mother in “You Can Count on Me” has generated buzz, was attracted to the role’s depth and nuance. “You have a mother, who has her needs and desires to be a good parent and to provide for her child,” Linney says. “Then you have a single woman, who has needs as a woman — to be with a man, to have a family, and all that. So you’re able to explore both sides at the same time, as opposed to someone who’s married and their life is set.”

Many of the current crop of actresses playing these roles were able to tap into their own lives. Linney was raised by a single mother, while Ellen Burstyn — who this past year played single mothers in “The Yards” and “Requiem for a Dream,” and previously in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and “The Exorcist” — has drawn from her own experiences. “When I worked in ‘Alice,’ I was a single parent myself, so a lot of where we were going in that film was parallel to my own life situation, and I think a lot of mothers struggle with being both parents to their children.”

In “Requiem,” the tension between mother and son — who suffer parallel chemical dependencies — is palpable to the point where we hardly see them together, although he’s all that she’s got left in her life. “I think one of the tragic parts of the mother/son relationship is that it’s very close but then a part of a mother’s job is to help the son separate from her. And that’s very painful; when mothers keep their sons too close it cripples them emotionally and ruins their marriages,” says Burstyn.

For pop star-turned-actress Bjork, a single mom herself, the idea of such a character as embodying a unique ideal is in itself an anachronism: “I would like to think that the reason that we are talking about this now is because it’s not taboo anymore,” says the Icelandic talent who won best actress at Cannes for her bigscreen debut in “Dancer in the Dark.” “It was with my mother’s generation, for sure, and my grandmother — she was a single mom, and that was really hard-core. But today I don’t think it is.

“Almost all of my friends have kids, and almost none of them have stayed with the parents of the child. I also think that after 100 years of feminism we have to appreciate all the work that’s been done. If a woman today finds out that she’s pregnant, it’s not a sign of martyrdom.”

It’s also important to note that in many cases, the single-role aspect of these parts is not the overriding trait in establishing their characters. For Linney’s character in “You Can Count on Me,” it’s just as important to establish a bond with her brother as it is to protect her son. In “Chocolat,” Juliette Binoche’s influence on a provincial French town is both liberating and threatening — and has more to do with her culinary powers and atheistic leanings than anything else. And in “The Gift” and “Erin Brockovich,” the maternal instincts of the lead characters extend to their communities in ways that are selfless, courageous and positively ennobling.

“I saw this as a David and Goliath story, which appealed to me because I like movies with messages,” Shamberg says of “Erin Brockovich,” in which Julia Roberts plays the real-life title character who took on PG&E in a major lawsuit involving the poisoning of a community’s groundwater. “It didn’t have to be a single mother, and I don’t think of it as a women empowerment film, I really think it’s a people empowerment film — she just happens to be a woman.”

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