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Maternal Conflict a Common Theme in This Year’s Oscar Screenplay Contenders

As pretty much anyone who has ever spent time either watching a movie or in a therapist’s office can attest, mothers aren’t always perceived in the best light.

“When I first read the screenplay, I was really struck by the complexity of the role of the mother,” says “Lady Bird’s” Laurie Metcalf. She is nominated for supporting actress Oscar for her portrayal of Marion McPherson, a Sacramento nurse trying both to understand her teenage daughter and keep their family financially stable. Metcalf says, as opposed to other scripts that cast progenitors in the “peripheral” or “only to show a slice of home life for the teenage protagonist,” she got to play someone “with her own frustrations and regrets.”

Metcalf isn’t alone. This awards season has been particularly kind to women who have played well-rounded, three-dimensional mothers.

Frances McDormand both won the Golden Globe and is nominated for the lead actress in a motion picture Oscar for playing Mildred Hayes, a woman who can no longer stand idly by as the case of her daughter’s rape and murder goes unsolved in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” She not only offers a tongue lashing to whoever she believes deserves it, but she also expresses her freedom of speech on the aforementioned highway advertisements.

But supporting actress Oscar nominee Mary J. Blige had a different challenge. As Florence Jackson, the matriarch of a sharecropping family in the poor and blatantly racist post-World War II South, her forlorn eyes and grimaces of ancestral trauma were often the only ways she could articulate what her character didn’t feel safe actually uttering.

“As a mom, there is no time for being the victim because your children can’t see you that way,” says Blige, who recognizes parts of the character in women like her grandmother, Catherine Miller, and mother, Cora Blige. “You want your children to see you strong so they can be happy.”

This isn’t to say that you always root for these characters. Allison Janney’s LaVona Golden in the biopic “I, Tonya” may have sucked some of us in with the veiled impression that she’s a struggling working-class waitress with a Mama Rose complex when it came to her figure-skating champ daughter (Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding). But she lost any remnants of most viewers’ sympathy when she threw a steak knife at her child.

“For me, in trying to connect to LaVona’s motives and find some humanity in this character, I imagined that LaVona probably experienced similar abuses in her childhood,” says Janney, who won the supporting actress in a motion picture Golden Globe for the role and is nominated in the same category for the Oscars. “I also tried to rationalize, as LaVona, that being singularly focused on developing and exploiting Tonya’s God-given talent was the only way to give her daughter a better life. ”

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