What, you might rightly ask, qualifies me, a man, to write about movies featuring mothers and daughters? Well, first of all, I am the father of six daughters. Second, roughly around the time my oldest was a mere eight weeks old and screaming, my wife said to me: “I don’t know what is wrong with this girl!” And at that moment I learned an important lesson: DO NOT OFFER AN OPINION!
You, the father—the man!—have no idea what is going on between the two of them. And offering an opinion, or sage counsel, or especially a gently intended wisecrack can only lead to trouble. They both will turn on you.
Why is this? It’s an unsolvable mystery because of the lunkheadish nature of fathers, who cannot possibly comprehend the complexities underway here. Sure, they’re yelling and crying right now, but they’ll be comforting each other in a matter of minutes. Your role in all of this: do nothing. This is why broadsheet newspapers were invented. They offered men an item to hide behind during these civil wars. Now that everything is digital, grab a pair of headphones and don’t plug them into anything. Just sit quietly and if they turn to you for support, just point at your headphones and say you can’t hear them. After the final door has been slammed and then reopened an hour later, and they are sitting together watching Gilmore Girls, you are in the clear to go into the kitchen, make yourself a sandwich, and sit outside on the stoop with all the other dads in the neighborhood.
Here are my favorite mother/daughter movies.
This movie is just about perfect. It’s very human. It has some laugh-out-loud parts, a wonderful script, and outstanding performances throughout. James Brooks won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Shirley MacLaine won for Best Actress, and Jack Nicholson won for Best Supporting Actor. So there’s that. And then there’s the fact that everyone who has ever seen this movie has laughed and cried their way through it. Ask them if you should give it another rental. I bet I know the answer.
The movie is based on Larry McMurtry’s 1976 novel of the same name and is very real in its portrayal of a daughter trying to break free of her mother’s oppressive and judgemental ways. But in the end, we find that both of them needed each other more than words could ever say.
I first rented this movie back in the late 1990s and watched it with four of my daughters and two of my sons. At one point, I stepped away to make a call and came back about twenty minutes later. My daughters were all crying and my son was sitting there blankly watching the movie. “What’s going on?” I asked him. “Nothing,” he said. “Why are your sisters all crying?” I asked. He shrugged. Director Wayne Wang approached novelist Amy Tan about making a movie based on her complex and beautiful novel about four Chinese immigrant women in San Francisco and their families, and the screenplay that Ronald Bass reshaped from Tan’s draft is powerful and affecting.
This film was an artistic and commercial success. Why did we have to wait another 25 years (Crazy Rich Asians) for a major studio film to star a majority Asian cast and be told from that perspective? That’s a whole other issue altogether. Suffice to say, if you aren’t done crying from Terms of Endearment, time to watch this one. Just don’t have a ten-year-old boy sitting on the couch with you; the whole thing will be a mystery to him.
Yes, there was a remake done of this movie with Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis in 2003 (along with a 1995 TV version with Gaby Hoffman and Shelley Long). You needn’t worry about those. The original is still the best. Barbara Harris and a teenage Jodie Foster play the mother/daughter pair who switch places with each other for a day. Reviews of the film were mixed, but for the life of me, I can’t see why. This movie is relentlessly charming and Jodie Foster is excellent as a mom in a teenage girl’s body.
Another mother/daughter movie with Shirley MacLaine—but this one is very different from Terms of Endearment. This was written by the late Carrie Fisher (sigh) and based on her semi-autobiographical novel of the same name from 1987. It tells the story of an actress (Meryl Streep) who emerges from rehab trying to kick a cocaine and painkillers addiction and is told the only way a studio will hire here is if she lives with “a responsible adult” during filming. Enter Mom (Shirley MacLaine). Neil Simon has a theory about comedy: if you put two people with unalterably opposed views in a room they cannot leave, then you have comedy. That’s what you have here. And loyalty and frustration and the realization at the end of the day that when everyone else fails them, they will always have each other, no matter how outrageous the other is. A wonderful movie.
Debbie Reynolds (Carrie Fisher’s real mother) reportedly said just before she died (a few days after Fisher): “I want to be with Carrie.” So if you aren’t already tearing up, remember the real-life unbreakable connection that runs beneath this story. And how the real story turned out...
A fantastic movie, this one! Katie Holmes stars as April, a rebellious 20-something living in a tenement in the Lower East Side, estranged from her family in the suburbs. She invites them all over for Thanksgiving, knowing it probably will be the last one the family will spend together because her mother (Patricia Clarkson) is dying of cancer. “But funny!” That’s what we used to say in a comedy writing room when someone pitched an idea that just sounded sad. At the end of the sad pitch, someone would invariably yell “But funny!” And this movie is funny (the oven stops working while the turkey is roasting); there’s arguing, nothing goes right, and yet, in the end, everything turned out perfectly on an emotional level as the mother and her daughter reconcile. It’s a little off-beat, but this movie, written and directed by Peter Hedges, is worth every minute.
It’s impossible for me to be objective about this movie because I worked with Laurie Metcalf for more than four years when I was a writer on Roseanne, and she’s just one of those people who can do anything. Here she plays Marion McPherson, a wife and mother who works hard to keep her family and her sanity together while raising Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, her rebellious and impertinent daughter (Saoirse Ronan). See what I did just there? I summarized the movie not from the daughter’s perspective, but from the mother’s. It’s a perspective that Lady Bird can’t seem to accept until the very end when she realizes that mom has always been pretty incredible, even though she seemed like such a drag in boring Sacramento.
If you watch this movie with your adult daughter, give her the “do you have something to say to me?” look, and see if she admits the same perspective on the movie.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and theBBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.