In homage to Mother's Day, My New Plaid Pants recently gave a quick rundown of the worst mothers in movies. Which got Lulu to thinkin' -- Oscar's Supporting Actress category does seem to hold a special place at the table for truly monstrous mothers. Not just messy mamas like Holly Hunter in Thirteen (2003), Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights (1997), or Eileen Heckart in The Bad Seed (1956). No, truly monstrous mothers whose voracious need for control over their offspring take things to a whole 'nother level of horror. StinkyLulu's thinking of nominated mothers like Anne Ramsey in 1987's Throw Momma From The Train; Piper Laurie in 1976's Carrie; and Angela Lansbury in 1962's The Manchurian Candidate. (Just to name a few of the most brilliantly garish.)
But among the many monstrous mothers to which Oscar has nodded (but never rewarded) in the Supporting Actress category, Gladys Cooper's nominated performance in Now, Voyager is just possibly the grandmama of all Oscar's monstrous mothers.
please note: above pic of Gladys is not from Now, Voyager
"My daughter Charlotte is no more ill than a molting canary."
Gladys Cooper plays Mrs. Henry Windle Vale, the domineering dowager mother of Charlotte Vale, a painfully nervous spinster in desperate need of a good pluck (played with arch genius by Bette Davis). Cooper's performance is simple: she's a steely aristocratic tyrant who wields her acid-tongued dis/approval as a sword. Of course, if you just tipped the bird over, she'd likely shatter into a billion bits but, somehow, her genteelly vicious bullying cows everyone into submission. The thrill of Now, Voyager is watching Charlotte's self-actualization in spite of this maternal tyranny. So, Gladys Cooper's job in the role is fairly forthright: be a bitch on (literally) wheels. Yet, here (as in 1958's Separate Tables in which she played essentially the same role), Gladys Cooper's able to lend a simple, undistracting, humanizing complexity to this monster in Victorian lace. Simply put, Cooper allows us to see that Mrs. Vale is desperately afraid that Charlotte ("My old age child.") will blossom into personhood & leave her. So -- using the swingbat of social convention to beat & bully the "gehrl" -- Gladys Cooper's Mrs. Vale keeps her "devoted daughter" on a short leash, a choke-chain that nearly hobbles Charlotte into neurotic spinsterhood.
Cooper's performance provides an elegant reminder of what great supporting work requires. Cooper gives us the cardboard cutout that the story needs (here, the shrill shreik of a Freudian nightmare mother) yet is also able to color & shadow the performance just enough that it doesn't descend into sheer caricature. Gladys Cooper offers a teensy glimpse into the character's vulnerability but doesn't overplay the hand. No scene-chewing "redeeming moment" here. At this point in her career, Cooper knew she was a contract player contracted only to play well her part. Yet, as she did, Gladys Cooper created a brilliantly brutal monster mother.
A testament to Cooper's performance comes in StinkyLulu's favorite scene in the flick. (No, it's not the giddy thrill of the heart-stopping argument between Charlotte & Mrs. Vale -- though that's a goody.) No it's the scene where Charlotte greets her assembled family -- each of whom is shocked to see the gorgeously transformed Charlotte yet also appalled to see Charlotte's hostessing defy the conventions of her mother's home. It's really Bette Davis' scene, though she plays every moment opposite the absent presence of Gladys Cooper. The very idea of Gladys Cooper's Mrs Vale is enough to be Bette Davis' scene partner. Strangely, the effectiveness of this scene is one of Cooper's greatest contributions to the film -- and she's not even in the scene.
So, lovely reader, even though most of Gladys Cooper's work on film looks, sounds & feels like this performance, don't let that stop you from appreciating the artistry of one of Oscar's greatest monster mothers. (Plus it'll make most of you grateful for the mother/s you got.) And even if you got stuck with a meanie mommy? Just play the Monstrous Mother Smackdown game! Who would win in a grudgematch? Mrs. Vale or Mrs. Voorhees? Charlotte's mother or Carrie's?
It's a whole new era of Mother's Day fun...