Mother's Birthday Wishes
The cusp of Mother’s Day weekend also brings the confluence of today marking the birthday of three gifted ladies who played mothers memorably coping with difficult homestead situations in a trio of well-regarded family dramas. She told biographer A. Scott Berg, “I would have been a terrible mother because I’m basically a very selfish human being,” but the legendary, childless-in-real-life Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003) didn’t let that stop her from delivering a beautifully modulated, Academy Award®-winning performance as a quite liberal and decidedly unselfish materfamilias in producer-director Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Opposite long-time screen partner and soulmate Spencer Tracy for the last time, she plays a loving mother committed to protecting the future happiness of her free-spirited daughter (Katharine Houghton), who has fallen for and wants to marry an accomplished and well-to-do African-American doctor (Sidney Poitier). The movie itself is a glossy, rather wistful debate about the practicality of such a union in a still-seething period of racial divides, but Hepburn’s Christina Drayton, while quite aware of the challenges her daughter faces, stands firm as a bulwark of unconditional love and common sense in a film whose impact – beyond its stellar box-office success – not incidentally contributed to the overturn of anti-miscegenation laws in the turbulent 1960s. Turning 79 today, Millie Perkins is far removed from her thoughtful, waiflike screen debut in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) as the mother of wayward sons Sean and Chris Penn in After Dark, My Sweet, Glengarry Glen Ross and Fifty Shades Darker director James Foley’s dark and dread-laced cautionary crime thriller At Close Range (1986). But in a few short scenes as a worried, put-upon parent fearful of the larcenous influence her charismatic but menacing ex-husband (Christopher Walken) has on her impressionable boys, The New York Times’ Vincent Canby found her to be “still beautiful and affecting (and elegant)” as a murderous chain of events overtakes them. In “exploring the theme of a malignant family unit where otherwise admirable codes of honor, loyalty and closeness have become evil and ultimately self-destructive over time,” Film Noir: The Encyclopedia contributor Adrian Martin wrote, “At Close Range now rates as Foley’s finest work.” In a heartland fable of loss and reconstitution whose tone and emotional palette resides squarely in between the ranges of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and At Close Range, our third birthday honoree, 69-year-old Lindsay Crouse, plays the Depression-era mother of a toddler, a homemaker/part-time beautician – and more central to the film – the solid, sisterly support of suddenly bereaved Texas widow Sally Field in writer-director Robert Benton’s meticulously executed Places in the Heart (1984). Whether coping with her sibling’s shattering loss, the troubling sexual infidelity of her wayward husband (Ed Harris) with the married local teacher and family friend (Amy Madigan), or the onset of a devastating tornado that slams their small town, Crouse is superb as a woman who bears her family troubles with a rock-ribbed admixture of faith, forbearance and hope – and captured one of this classic of screen Americana’s three Oscar® nominations for acting. Here’s to the birthday celebrant mothers of At Close Range, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Places in the Heart on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray – and mothers everywhere.