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Hitting the Mother Lode: The Oscar Race Embraces Its Maternal Side

Brie Larson in “Room.” Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side.” Halle Berry in “Monster’s Ball.” Shirley MacLaine in “Terms of Endearment.” Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice.” Katharine Hepburn in “On Golden Pond” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Sophia Loren in “Two Women.” Joan Crawford in “Mildred Pierce.” Greer Garson in “Mrs. Miniver.” 

What do these Oscar-winning roles featuring ten Best Actress performances that span decades have in common?

The characters involved are primarily motivated and defined by their status as a mother. Or, as envelope-shredding auteur Darren Aronofsky might prefer, as a "mother!"

Let’s define our terms when it comes mama-hood. Just having rugrats running around the house isn’t enough to qualify as a mother role. The character’s maternal instincts must loom large enough to earn the label. Trophy holders Sissy Spacek in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Sally Field in “Norma Rae” and Ellen Burstyn in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” all tended to their on-screen children now and then, but the main motivating factor behind their actions came from being a country music legend, a union activist and a diner waitress, respectively. Mother figures abound even more in the Best Supporting Actress category, from Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in 1940’s “Grapes of Wrath” to Viola Davis as Rose Maxson in last year’s “Fences.”

Why all this talk about movie mothers? Because the 90th edition of the Academy Awards might just be the mother of all Oscar telecasts, given how many potential female nominees are on the mommy track this year.

Fewer are among the ranks of possible Best Actress contenders, however. Right now, Frances McDormand‘s place on the list seems the most secure, given the high praise for her performance as a mother who badgers local law enforcers into finding her daughter’s rapist and murderer in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” The four-time nominee has piled up plenty of parental cred after taking home a lead Oscar as a very pregnant Midwest sheriff in “Fargo” and also claiming a ballot berth with her feisty single mom in “Almost Famous.”

Others who have an outside chance to make the cut in the Best Actress race, according to the names listed on the Gold Derby awards prediction site? Jennifer Lawrence in “mother!” (in spite of the public backlash to the film, she has 66 to 1 odds), Kate Winslet in “Wonder Wheel,” Nicole Kidman in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” Julia Roberts in “Wonder” and Michelle Williams as the mother of kidnap victim John Paul Getty III in the yet-unseen “All the Money in the World.”   

But the supporting category is jammed with potential candidates who play mothers, judging by the rich pool of possibilities at Gold Derby. Melissa Leo, who won a supporting Oscar as the matriarch of a large Boston Irish brood in “The Fighter,” is currently seen as the one to beat. However, her role in “Novitiate” as an iron-fisted Reverend Mother to a group of nuns doesn’t entirely qualify. But joining her currently in the top five are such actual mamas as Laurie Metcalf in “Lady Bird,” Holly Hunter in “The Big Sick” and Michelle Pfeiffer, the prime recipient of whatever acting praise was afforded “mother!” by critics. Odd person out is Kristen Scott Thomas, who is more wrapped up in wifely concerns as Winston Churchill’s supportive spouse, Clementine, in “Darkest Hour.” Other mothers who might find themselves squeezing in are newcomer Bria Vinaite in “The Florida Project,” Allison Janney in “I, Tonya,” Catherine Keener in “Get Out,” Mary J. Blige in “Mudbound” and Miranda Richardson in “Stronger.”

Given Oscar’s fondness for “great men” in biopics, epics and historical dramas, male winners in lead roles rarely are identified just as a patriarch. Among Best Actor winners, the closest you can get to characters defined purely by fatherhood are Dustin Hoffman in “Kramer vs. Kramer” and Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea.” A case could be made for Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird” or Marlon Brando in “The Godfather,” but they had other pressing obligations—one as a small-town lawyer taking a stand against racism and the other a mob kingpin whose idea of family goes beyond mere blood relatives.

There are a few more among in the Best Supporting Actor ranks who took home the prize for a paternal role: James Dunn in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Jack Albertson in “The Subject Was Roses,” James Coburn in “Affliction,” Alan Arkin in “Little Miss Sunshine” and Christopher Plummer in “Beginners.” But given that all these stars save for Dunn were at a grandfatherly stage of life age-wise when they were up for the award, sentiment probably played a larger part in their nabbing a statuette than did playing a dad.

There is more than a pinch of sexism afoot when it comes to Hollywood gender practices. Most truth-based stories tend to center around men and, since 2000, ten out of 16 male lead winners have portrayed real-life people. If they had a wife, as was the case with Eddie Redmayne as ALS-afflicted astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” she probably took care of their kids. In addition, she also tended to her ailing genius husband. And that is exactly what female lead Felicity Jones did as Jane Hawking, who put her own pursuit of a doctorate on hold, until she had enough and sought a divorce. Redmayne won an Oscar. Jones didn’t.

For a while, at the start of the 2000s, the winning female roles began to have more range and were less defined by a character’s family life. In the first five years of the new millennium, an environmental activist (“Erin Brockovich”), a suicidal writer (“The Hours”), a rare female serial killer (“Monster”), a woman boxer (“Million Dollar Baby”) and a country music singer (“Walk the Line”) were honored as leads. But mothers came back in vogue with a vengeance in the 2009 contest. Mo’Nique won for her supporting role as a mother from hell in “Precious” while Sandra Bullock triumphed as a wealthy Southern belle with a big heart who adopts a homeless teen and helps him achieve his football dreams in “The Blind Side.” As a result, there have been 13 mother-related lead nominees and 11 in the supporting lineup since 2010.

With the 2017 Oscar season is still in its infancy, the only lead actor currently favored to get on the ballot who plays a father is Mark Rylance, as he commandeers a tugboat with his son aboard in “Dunkirk.” The frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor, Willem Dafoe as a motel manager near Disney World in “The Florida Project,” has one scene with his adult son. At least Michael Stuhlbarg, as a professor whose male teen progeny has a passionate relationship with an older doctoral student in “Call Me by Your Name,” could represent some semblance of parental parity if he makes the cut.

One observation most pundits agree on? This season boasts a mother lode of great performances by women, whatever persona they are wearing. 

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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