Working Mothers At The Cinema

From Erin Brockovich to American Beauty & Mrs Doubtfire, we pick out the best working mums in movies…

I Don’t Know How She Does It, cries the title of – not to mention, annoyingly, several characters in – Sarah Jessica Parker’s new movie, released last Friday.

In it, SJP plays harried working mother Kate Reddy, who is trying to find the right balance between being Carrie Bradshaw and being Carrie Bradshaw trying to be a mother.

Though this movie seems to believe otherwise, Kate Reddy is not the first struggling working mother in cinema – nor anywhere near the best or most interesting neither. Consider the following…

Norma Rae (1979)/Mrs Doubtfire (1993):

Long-before she became supermum/peace activist/radio host/Calista Flockhart-force-feeder/worrier-in-chief on the TV series Brothers and Sisters, Sally Field was giving cinema audiences vital lessons in how to be a movie working mother in these wildly different films.

How Does She Do It? In Norma Rae, textile factory-working mammy Field leads a worker revolt to get union rights for her colleagues, in spite of the toll it takes on her family life. Her protest works and her factory becomes unionised.

Meanwhile, in Mrs Doubtfire, architect-mum-of-three (four, if you include her infantile soon-to-be-ex-husband) Miranda Hillard (our Sally) sets about getting her harried life in order by tossing out loveable* hubbie Daniel (Robin Williams), hiring a life-saving Scottish nanny (you know how that turns out) and starting a new love affair with Pierce Brosnan. In the mushy hands of director Chris Columbus, it all works out pretty rosy for everyone in the end. Just like in real life divorce cases.

*Actual description may not match product.

Baby Boom (1987):

Diane Keaton brings her patented flustered kookiness to his very 80s story of Manhattan yuppie JC Wiatt – aka the Tiger Lady – whose life is thrown off track when she becomes guardian to a cousin’s baby daughter.

How Does She Do It? The new reluctant mother soon re-evaluates her priorities after driving herself half-mad trying to do everything. She quits her job and makes her new fortune developing baby-food products. Plus she lands a new BF in Sam Shepard. You go girl etc.

As Good As It Gets (1997)/Pay It Forward (2000):

Helen Hunt has twice played struggling single mums to sensitive children with enormously varied results.

How Does She Do It? In her Oscar-bagging role in As Good As It Gets, Hunt’s waitress-mom Carol manages some semblance of a happy ending for her and her sickly child thanks to the help of her mother (Shirley Knight) and an unlikely – very unlikely – burgeoning romance with misanthrope Jack Nicholson.

In Pay It Forward, however, Hunt plays an alcoholic single mother to the robotically angelic Haley Joel Osment. The kid’s do-goodery leads to a new relationship for his mum (with Kevin Spacey), but also shocking personal tragedy. That ending still divides audiences to this day.

American Beauty (1999):

Annette Bening is at her insecure, shrill, neurotic Annette Bening-y best as realtor-mum Carolyn Burnham in Sam Mendes’ pre-millennial suburban satire.

How Does She Do It? Erm, not very well, though nobody really comes out of this pitch-black comic story smelling of Mena Suvari-scented roses. In Carolyn’s case, she’s already cracking up thanks to the strain caused by her flailing career, dying marriage to mid-life-crisis-afflicted Lester (Kevin Spacey), and inability to connect with moody teenage daughter (Thora Birch).

After bonking the walking pair of eyebrows that is Peter Gallagher, Carolyn finally snaps and looks set to put a bullet in her husband. (Un)luckily, the closeted army sergeant next door (Chris Cooper) gets there first, and poor Carolyn ends up collapsed, crying on a closet floor. Sounds like a regular Monday evening to me.

Erin Brockovich (2000):

Julia Roberts’ Oscar winning performance in Steven Soderbergh’s true-to-the-extent-that-this-is-a-Hollywood-movie true story is one of recent cinema’s most lauded celebrations of resourceful working mums.

How Does She Do It? An early-adopter of utilising so-called ‘erotic capital’, broke single mother Erin slaps on her best push-up bra and short-skirt, and pushes her way into a clerk job in the firm of grumpy lawyer Albert Finney. Once there, using her charm and smarts she uncovers a cancer-causing environmental scandal that results in a landmark, multi-million-dollar class lawsuit.

Along the way sensitive biker Aaron Eckhart more than helps out with raising her kids, and kudos to the film-makers for at least attempting to show that not all men are useless idiots in this regard (pity the same can’t be said of I Don’t Know How She Does It).

Raising Helen (2004):

Successful Manhattan (where else?) fashion designer Helen Harris becomes guardian to her two nieces (Hayden Panettiere and Abigail Breslin) and nephew (Spencer Breslin) after the death of their parents in a car accident.

How Does She Do It? Much to the surprise of her surviving sister (Joan Cusack), Helen is determined to raise the three kids all while maintaining her busy lifestyle. She quickly becomes burned out, but finds herself loving the challenge as well as the opportunity their presence provides to flirt with school principal Yer-Man-Aidan-from-Sex and the City (played by Yer-Man-Aidan-from-Sex and the City). Eventually Helen must decide where her priorities lie, and this is where I’ll stop, seeing as the movie’s resolution is clearly up there with The Usual Suspects in terms of shock-twist endings.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006):

Meryl Streep’s dragon-lady magazine editor Miranda Priestly is, amongst other things, a working mother to probably-evil ginger twin daughters in this spiky office comedy.

How Does She Do It? Miranda is not pleased that she had to miss her daughters’ recital due to a missed flight, which she blames on ugly duckling new assistant Andrea (Anne Hathaway). However, Miranda – and Andrea for that matter – atones for that mishap by sourcing advanced copies of the new Harry Potter book. Alas, Miranda can’t have it all, and in her one moment of weakness confesses to Andrea her worries about how her latest failed marriahe will impact on her daughters’ lives. My guess is that they’ll get probably-eviler.

Motherhood (2009):

One of modern Hollywood’s most notorious flops – it only opened in one cinema in all of the UK, earning just £88 in total during its opening weekend – this alleged comedy stars Uma Thurman as a working (well, blogging) New York mother named Eliza Welsh who ends up coming all-a-cropper trying to plan her daughter’s birthday party.

How Does She Do It? It’s tough alright, living in that fancy Manhattan apartment and having to navigate such modern obstacles as stairs, a car, and a dog (all listed in the movie’s trailer as life-inhibiting hassles), but Eliza just about pulls it off with the help of her friend (Minnie Driver) and husband (Anthony Edwards, clearly in need of a trip to the career ER).

This she achieves all while trying to write a 500 word (!) competition entry for a ‘win-a-regular-magazine-column’ contest, and take in the odd sample sale to buy a new dress. This one makes I Don’t Know How She Does It seem like Mike Leigh kitchen-sink realism in comparison.