The Path to Oscar Passes Through Motherhood

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Being a bad mother, or even a controversial one, is one of the cardinal sins of the 21st century. But it’s not all hopeless. If you write about it, you might find yourself with a best-seller, as Amy Chua did. And if you play one in the movies, you might get an Oscar nomination.

Around Oscar time, there are many analyses of who got robbed and who was unfairly rewarded — the best of which is usually by TIME’s Richard Corliss — but it’s actually just as telling to examine the type of roles that attract Oscar nominations. (More on Breaking: Don’t Mess With the Marital Bed)

Used to be you were a shoo-in if you played someone with a physical adversity (Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot; Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man). Another way to increase your odds, as Ricky Gervais notoriously pointed out, was to be in a film about the Holocaust (Kate Winslet in The Reader; Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List). There’s often a slot for a crusty old man (Jeff Bridges gets a bunch of these), and for a while, beautiful women who played ugly had a hot streak (Charlize Theron in Monster; Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry; Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball).

This year, the surest thing seems to be playing a difficult mother. Three of the five women who are up for a Best Actress statuette are playing troubled mothers. Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole), Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right) and Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine) play moms, all of whom are flawed women struggling to figure out how to cope with a situation that roils their lives and their ability to do what’s best as a parent.

In the Best Supporting Actress category, the maternal figures are even more colorful. Those played by Melissa Leo (above, with her Golden Globe for The Fighter) and Jackie Weaver (Animal Kingdom) are so spectacularly awful that you can almost imagine them in a Bad Matriarch Cage Match. Helena Bonham Carter (The King’s Speech) plays a mom who unexpectedly has to raise the future queen, which must have ratcheted the pressure up just a notch. (More on What Your Brain Looks Like After 20 Years of Marriage)

Two of the other female nominees, Jennifer Lawrence (Winters Bone) and Haille Steinberg (True Grit), while too young to be mothers, play the caretakers of their family, girls who have been thrust into a position of responsibility and protection before their time.

This trend is not entirely new — Mo’Nique won an Oscar last year playing the hideous progenitor of an overweight girl with dreams of a better place, in Precious — but it’s growing.

Why the uptick in focus on moms? It could be that as a few more women have infiltrated the upper echelons of Hollywood, there are more moms among them, so more stories about being a mom get made.

More probable, though, is that Hollywood is reflecting back a general societal anxiety about the maternal role. A century after Freud changed the way we think about childhood and 40 years after women began to enter the workforce in greater numbers, motherhood is near the top of the country’s panoply of anxieties. (More on The Divorce So Bad it Made the Family Judge Flip Out)

Elsewhere in the culture, a semicomic memoir about being a tiger mother has sparked a robust national conversation. Meanwhile, people are openly arguing over the parent-worthiness of Nadya Suleman, the Octomom; Ayelet Waldman, who dared to say she loved her husband more than her kids; and the various reality show moms. TV shows such as Modern Family, The Middle and Parenthood center many of their storylines around the often comic attempts of modern women to nurture their young.

In short, the Mother-hood has become a very judgmental part of town. Moms have moved from being the fount of all that is good (see Bewitched or Happy Days), to challenging, difficult, interesting, controversial characters. In other words, Oscar bait.

There are moms that didn’t get noticed by Oscar too: Barbara Hershey in Black Swan and the, um, interesting mom in the Italian film La Prima Cosa Bella, Italy’s wannabe for Best Foreign Film. But the high proportion of nominees playing mothers is noteworthy.

None of this is much help to male actors hoping for an Oscar berth — although if a man seriously tried playing a mom (and by “seriously,” I mean un-Mrs. Doubtfire-style), I bet the Academy would notice.

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