Hollywood relishes portraying women in the role of wife and mother. Unsurprisingly, these women are often conflicted about the demands placed upon them and the freedom they have lost. Unhappy cinematic moms and wives go back decades. Perhaps the most celebrated of them is Mrs. Robinson from THE GRADUATE. True, Mrs. Robinson makes a false accusation of rape and betrays her only daughter, but she nonetheless remains a character worthy of our compassion. She seduces a young man because she is isolated, lonely and angry with the knowledge that her life should have been more. It’s her gender, not her scruples (or lack thereof) that’s held her back. She tells Benjamin, in a rare moment of emotional intimacy, that she once attended college but had to abandon it when she became pregnant with her daughter, Elaine, and was forced into marriage.
She demonstrates no maternal feeling of love or warmth toward her youthful daughter who represents the bright future she herself was denied. In one especially memorable scene, Mrs. Robinson says to Elaine on her wedding day, “It is too late,” to which Elaine responds, “Not for me.” Mrs. Robinson then slaps her daughter across the face. It;s an honest reaction from a woman who feels cheated and disappointed with life. In that moment, Mrs. Robinson knows it is too late, there’s no going back from the choices imposed upon her. A contemporary audience might find it difficult to find any real sympathy for Mrs. Robinson—after all, she does enjoy a luxury lifestyle with a beautiful home in Southern California, but Anne Bancroft plays the role with such great nuance that her humanity betrays her cold facade. Mrs. Robinson will perhaps always be remembered as one of cinema’s most unhappy and unsatisfied “homemakers” who personifies what Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique labels “the problem that has no name.”
A few years later, the 1970s brought us great performances from two actresses who also explore the impact of marriage and motherhood on a woman. Ellen Burstyn won an Academy Award for Best Actress in ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, one of the first films to examine the struggles of a single mother. The untimely death of her husband poses a great burden to the financially strapped Alice, now solely responsible for her son, but she perseveres and even pursues the singing career she abandoned when she married. Like Mrs. Robinson, Alice is not a product of the second wave women’s movement—too old to reap its benefits. Rather, it’s the death of her husband that forces her to make her own way in the world and in doing so, she becomes a liberated woman. Alice almost repeats the same mistake when she becomes involved with another domineering male, but in her new context learns from her mistakes and kicks him out, choosing to stand on her own.
By the end of the decade, cinema began depicting women in these roles who were young enough to benefit from the new women’s movement. Meryl Streep also won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, playing Joanna Kramer, an educated woman living with her career driven husband and young son in New York City. Unlike Alice, she makes a conscious decision to leave both her husband and child in order to pursue her own career and opportunities. Before marriage, Joanna had a career but left it to care for her husband and son. She wanted to return to work, but her husband discouraged her career ambitions because he wanted his wife in the role of a full-time homemaker. She left them because she lost her identity. She later testifies at a custody trial, “I was incapable of functioning in that home.” Some will view Joanna as a villain, a self absorbed baby boomer who coldly abandons her young son, but Streep displays her torment and pain with such humanity we feel compassion for her plight. It’s a brave, admirable and uncompromising performance for which Streep deserves a great deal of credit. She does not portray Joanna Kramer as a selfish, uncaring woman. That would have been the simplistic portrayal of a complicated woman who was unfulfilled in her full-time role as wife and mother and only abandoned her family when she felt that she had no other options.
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