Hollywood and the myth of mother courage

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Catchfire Catchfire's picture
Hollywood and the myth of mother courage

Why are Hollywood Mothers compelled to be saints?


The big screen certainly plays host to quite enough saintly moms whose devotion to their progeny knows no bounds. Generally, not much is allowed to divert them from their sacred maternal mission; occasionally, however, they may be permitted a selfless, Erin Brockovich-style campaign to win justice for the people.

In Changeling, Angelina Jolie's Christine Collins spares a moment from the search for her missing son Walter to clean up the LAPD. Then, however, it's straight back to what really matters - her quest to track down the fruit of her womb.


All in all, then, this film and its megastar are certainly doing their bit to sell us the magic of motherhood. So much so, in fact, that you begin to fear they might actually be overdoing it. Can the hallowed bond between mother and child really be quite as wondrous as they seem determined to have you believe?

1928 it may be, but Christine's concept of motherhood is thoroughly third millennium. She's fully signed up to the genetic absolutism that's seized so many of us since the DNA revolution. The only child she's interested in mothering is the one to whom she happened to give birth. The lad who turns up to impersonate her Walter is clearly a bit of a scamp. All the same, a woman who'd just lost her own son might have been expected to show him a little bit more compassion than Angelina's otherwise seraphic Christine manages to summon up.

Overcoming insistence on the idea of genetic parenthood used to be considered an essential social objective. For if this is the only kind of parenthood that counts, what's to happen to the many children unable to enjoy its benefits?


What nonsense, you may be thinking. Mothers are indeed completely wonderful, and cinema is right to celebrate this obvious fact, not least by recounting Christine Collins's amazing story.

Well, Changeling's account of that story isn't wholly complete. It pins the blame for the wave of killings that probably did for Walter on Gordon Northcott, a Canadian psychopath. Yet, someone else was also convicted of Walter's murder, and actually even confessed to wielding the axe. Like Christine, she was a mother.

Sarah Louise 'Louisa' Northcott was perhaps the most extraordinary player in the whole of the Wineville murders affair. Nonetheless, she's mysteriously absent from Clint Eastwood's film. Gordon believed that Sarah was his own mother. In fact, it emerged during their trial that she was his grandmother: she'd kept from him the news that he'd been begotten by her husband and her daughter.

Changeling could easily have embraced Sarah's role in the proceedings. If it had done so, it would have presented us with an altogether more rounded picture of just what motherhood can entail. What a pity that not one of the film's 141 minutes could have been spared to achieve this end.





Interesting, but "Mother Courage" was indeed a far less heroic and more complex character than any Hollywood mum. The critic should read or re-read Brecht.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Mother Courage and her Children is one of my favourite plays of all time. Of course you're right, lagatta, but I expect, since "Mother Courage" doesn't appear in the body of the article, that this was a casual allusion by a careless editor.

The poor need courage. They're lost, that's why. That they even get up in the morning is something in their plight. Or that they plough a field in wartime. Even their bringing their children into the world shows they have courage, for they have no prospects. They have to hang each other, one by one and slaughter each other in the lump, so if they want to look each other in the face once in a while, well, it takes courage.

George Steiner called Mother Courage the only true modern tragedy. He called her silent cry when she recognizes the dead body of her son but, in order to survive, she cannot admit as much to the soldier carrying him 'the same wild cry with which the tragic imagination (of classical Greece) first marked our sense of life. The same wild and pure lament over man's inhumanity and waste of man. The curve of tragedy is perhaps unbroken'.