If there was one mother-daughter television date my busy mum was always willing to down tools for, it was a Bette Davis movie. Her favorite—and mine, for the preteen period when I gave the thumbs-up to anything my mother loved—was Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager, in which Davis plays Charlotte Vale, a middle-aged frump stranded in submissive fealty to a domineering mother. Not the most well-fitting role for an edgy glamour-puss like Davis. But under the protective wing of a broad-minded psychiatrist played by Claude Rains, Charlotte soon flowers into an independent dame with upswept hair, power shoulders, and an out-of-wedlock romantic arrangement that made the film something of a pioneering feminist moment for the 1940s maternal melodrama.
Based on a 1941 novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, Now, Voyager is a fascinating creature of its time, not least for its formidable ambivalence toward motherhood and its pitting of women against one another. Davis was rather too cool and aloof a cat to entirely persuade as a woman who ends up wanting self-sacrificing motherhood even more than she desires a passionate liaison with unhappily married Paul Henreid.
Now, Voyager’s real badass mom, and not in a good way, is her mother, a snobby Boston Brahmin played with quietly rabid conviction by British actress Gladys Cooper. Mrs. Henry Vale is a prime example of how melodrama of the period rendered the horrid mothers in classic fairy tales—the witch, the wicked stepmother, the predatory crone. The prototype pops up not infrequently down the subsequent years—in Mary Tyler Moore’s ice-cold mother in such films as Ordinary People (1980) and as recently as 2005 in Jane Fonda’s over-the-top interferer in Monster-in-Law. Escalating into an efficiently chilling cruise missile while barely moving a muscle, Cooper fully commits to a role few women of her generation could be expected to read as misogynist.
of the biggest hits of the maternal melodramas that churned off the Hollywood
assembly line during World War II, Now,
Voyager offered Charlotte Vale as a versatile role model to wartime women,
some of them already widows raising children alone, some falling into affairs
with married men in the absence of their own partners, many savoring newfound
independence as, however briefly, they took on the work of men. Yet even during
this heyday for forward-looking, strong women, mothers tended to fare poorly at
the movies, where they languished somewhere along the Madonna-Whore-Monster
continuum. (Davis plays her own piece-of-work mater in The Little Foxes and a credulous mother surrogate in All About Eve.)
That is surely due in part to the fact that most of these movies were directed by men, but also to the popularity of an Americanized dilution of Freudian psychoanalysis (Prouty was an early fan of psychotherapy), which all too often laid the blame for a daughter’s troubles at the feet of her mother. Contrast this with the forgiving generosity shown to difficult mothers today as women begin to write and direct movies in greater numbers. Consider the overwhelmed young widow unraveling in Jennifer Kent’s horror movie The Babadook; Kristen Wiig’s heedless hippie mom in Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl; and Laurie Metcalf’s wonderfully sharp-tongued, demanding—and loving—parent in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird.
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