If you’re a mother AND a writer, does that necessarily mean that you’re a narcissistic and potentially emotionally neglectful mom? That’s a question that was plaguing me as I recently left the theater after watching the latest indie flick from filmmaker Noah Baumbach, “Margot at the Wedding ,” starring Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jack Black.
Kidman played Margot Zeller a short story writer from New York City who seemed to exist in her own world where she has no notion of how her hurtful and brutal non-stop commentary, largely aimed at her son Claude (Zane Pais) and her sister Pauline (Leigh), whose Hamptons wedding she was slated to attend with Claude, wounded all of those who she supposedly loved. As she openly toyed with the notion of leaving her two sons and her writer husband Jim (John Turturro), Margot was engaged in an affair with another writer, who just so happened to live near her sister’s home in the
As I watched the film unfold – I won’t spoil plot surprises for those of you who will wade through the well-acted-though-melancholy and occasionally darkly amusing scenes – I wondered if we were in the midst of some kind of mini-trend when it came to silver screen depictions of writers who happened to also be mothers with young kids. Was it just this character, who only saw herself and her own desires, who was portrayed as a mom-writer-on-the-edge, or were there other theatrical portrayals of mom-writers in recent films?
The first obvious mom-writer character who came to mind as I walked to my car came from writer/director Baumbach’s critically acclaimed 2005 movie, “The Squid and the Whale ” about two writers and parents of 10-year-old and 16-year-old sons who got divorced and opted not to shield their children from the ugliness that sometimes accompanies the dissolution of a marriage. The mother, Joan Berkman (Laura Linney) was an up-and-coming scribe and, as she was trying to extricate her life from her selfish novelist husband’s -- Bernard (Jeff Daniels) -- on whom she cheated, she emotionally pulled away from her sons in order to establish her independence. However Joan wasn’t as verbally cruel to her children as Margot was to her teenaged son Claude in “Margot at the Wedding,” where Margot criticized her child’s appearance, his personality and virtually everything just shy of the way in which he breathed, making it seem as though he had to constantly win anew her affection and attention. Baumbach, who has said he’s fond of writing about writers  (his parents were writers), compared the parents in “Margot at the Wedding” and “The Squid and the Whale” by telling the New York Times  , “I was interested in how adults and children occupy the same space,” adding that, in life, there’s a lot of blurring and “messiness of the parent-children dynamic.”
The next film mom-writer who popped into my head was Annette Bening’s role in last year’s similarly espresso–dark fare, “Running with Scissors ”, based on writer Augusten Burroughs memoir  of the same name. Bening, in a Golden Globe nominated performance, played Deirdre Burroughs, a mentally ill egomaniac who believed she’d one day become a beloved writer and poet. When her alcoholic husband Norman (Alec Baldwin) left her and their young son Augusten (Joseph Cross), Deirdre slipped even further into her own delusional world, focusing almost entirely on herself and essentially ignoring her son to such an extreme that she handed custody of him over to her lunatic therapist, abandoning Augusten to live in a filthy, emotionally toxic home. “Every mother needs a little help,” the film’s trailer said.
Yikes. Are all mom-writers nuts, or just the ones in these particular movies?
Then I remembered one more film that featured a mother with young kids who was also a writer that was decidedly of a different vein: The 2003 remake of “Cheaper by the Dozen ,” starring Bonnie Hunt as the mom of (*gasp*) 12 who wrote a book and, when she had the temerity to leave the house that was teeming with children to go on a book tour, hilarity, not dark insane-asylum material, ensued. (Any time Steve Martin is the dad figure in a movie, it’s a safe bet that chaos and slapstick will be involved.) Now that feature didn’t make the mother look selfish or like a mentally ill woman on the verge of a bad mom breakdown. At least that’s one.
So, do mom-writers always equal selfish bad parents? Only in those dark, independent films, apparently.