Often, in films, we see a character stand up for an underdog or the losing side in battle. Other times we get to see a character advocate for herself against a powerful foe. That can be tough when the enemy turns out to be Mom.
There’s no shortage of villainous mothers in films. The ones who send shivers down your spine, like Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate, and Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, rule by intimidation and cruelty. In the world of classic films, Gladys Cooper has the mean mom thing down pat. Two films showcase Cooper’s ability to play horrible mothers, Now Voyager (1942) and Separate Tables (1958).
In Now, Voyager, Cooper is the wealthy, aristocratic, Mrs. Henry Vale and Bette Davis is Charlotte, her plain, unwanted daughter. Mrs. Vale controls what Charlotte wears, where she goes, what books she reads, and what food she eats. She keeps Charlotte in unattractive clothes and a frumpy hairstyle to ensure she’ll stay unmarried and never leave her. Crippled by her mother’s constant belittling and her controlling nature, Charlotte finally breaks down and goes to stay at the nicest sanitarium in the history of film. She also gets to hang out with her doctor, played by Claude Rains. Mrs. Vale doesn’t let up. Even when Charlotte returns home, Mrs. Vale is still on the offensive, treating her like a servant in her own home, until Charlotte realizes her therapy and new experiences have filled her with the confidence it takes to stand up for herself.
Separate Tables, based on two one-act plays by Terence Rattigan, tells the story of lonely people longing for some connection in a society that dictates they remain apart. Nothing illustrates that better than the dining room of the Beauregard Private Hotel, where the film takes place. In the small British hotel, the permanent residents all dine at the same time, in the same room, at different tables. Although they greet each other and exchange pleasantries, they eat their meals in isolation.
When residents Major Pollock (David Niven) and Sibyl Railton-Bell (Deborah Kerr) connect, Sibyl’s mother, the snobbish Mrs. Railton-Bell (Gladys Cooper) objects and finds ways to denigrate the major at every turn. He is a blustering stereotype with his “Pip pip, cheerio!” demeanor and his tales of World War II battles and elite boarding schools. Despite the big talk, he’s a kind soul and it’s hard not to like him. Sibyl, an awkward and frail young woman, latches on to the larger-than-life major and basks in his stories even though she suspects they’re bogus. An item in the local paper threatens to destroy the tiny existence he’s carved out for himself and Mrs. Railton-Bell wastes no time in capitalizing on his misfortune and attempting to poison his relationship with Sibyl and the other residents of the hotel.
In Now, Voyager and Separate Tables, Gladys Cooper plays women who dominate their daughters, preventing them from maturing into adult women. In both films, her characters keep their daughters bound to them, not out of love, but out of a fear of loneliness. Both Mrs. Vale and Mrs. Railton-Bell are grasping and haughty and dismissive of all other points of view. Now, Voyager and Separate Tables also feature that old favorite, repression. Charlotte Vale can’t leave her awful mother and she can’t tell her off. She lacks the vocabulary to resist until she changes from a caterpillar to a butterfly, aided by the guidance of her doctor and the courage she gains out in the world. Sibyl can’t fight back either until she gets mad at her mother and is inspired by her own kindness to do the right thing.
Now, Voyager and Separate Tables have a lot in common. They both deal with sad repressed people trying desperately to bond with someone. At the beginning of each film, Gladys Cooper’s character appears to be a powerful figure, but as the films progress, we see the real strength belongs to the beleaguered daughters, who take a pounding, but emerge bolder and more self-assured. In both films, these changes in behavior surprise mother and daughter alike. Charlotte Vale and Sibyl Railton-Bell’s insubordination does not take the form of scenery-chewing defiance. They rebel in less dramatic, but equally effective ways, demonstrating with a word or a look that from now on, they control their own lives.