Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mother and Child: An Off-Screen Role


An actress, according to some, is more than merely a woman. Many actresses have tried to avoid playing mothers, perhaps in recognition that it means that Father Time is passing by and that typecasting is a distinct possibility. On screen during the studio era mothers were practically enshrined as paragons of unselfishness, but the complex reality behind the screen gradually filtered in. By mid-century, when the fear of "Momism" was prevalent in popular culture, along with some simplified Freudian notions of a mother's role in shaping her children, mothers became positively toxic in some instances (see Tennessee Williams' film versions of The Glass Menagerie and Suddenly, Last Summer, among others).

Off-screen, however, the reality of balancing private and public lives became even trickier as women who had pursued a career could not help hearing biology's siren call. Some public women became great Moms, others were less fortunate in that their failures within their families became public fodder. None of us can choose our mothers, nor can they really choose us...most of the time (certain well known stars adoption practices seemed to belie this). 

Both mother and child are surprised, wounded, delighted, and irrevocably shaped by the way we change each other. Among the women who took the once radical step of going on the stage and later the screen some had stage mothers but some eventually just wanted to follow that powerful visceral call and follow social norms by having a family, which could not have been easy. Sometimes this arrangement worked out well, no doubt helped somewhat by nannies that success made affordable),  but the glaring examples of children of fame whose lives did not pan out overshadow the majority of kids who survived having a mother who was constantly being treated like a creature from Mount Olympus in public. The magazines that published these pictures way back when were a necessary evil for most of these working women, who needed the publicity to continue their career...or so it was believed. These Moms were fortunate enough to be able to control the images of themselves and their most vulnerable family members in an era before microscopic examination of every flaw became the press' bread and butter. If we could ask Mary Astor, Lana Turner or some of the other ladies below how they really felt about being captured on film with their offspring, I suspect their replies might be bittersweet at best.

Below the break is a collection of thumbnail images capturing some familiar women in uncharacteristic roles as real life mothers with children, as well as those celebrated adults in the company of their Mom. Each of these captured moments seems  fraught with tenderness, awkwardness, and inescapable reality. I've included pictures that appealed to me for just those reasons along with those that underlined the human roots of life before and beyond the silver screen.

Enjoy and please click on the thumbnails to see the enlarged pictures with more info about the subjects.

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