From “Sugarland” to “The Fabelmans”: Mother Figures by Steven Spielberg

By Brian Skutle

In “The Fabelmans” (2022), Steven Spielberg finally turns the lens on his own family after spending nearly five decades taking bits and pieces of his upbringing for stories as varied as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989) and “Catch Me if You Can” (2002). Here, we follow his surrogate, Sammy Fabelman, as he discovers a love of cinema, as well as the fractures in his own family. Broken families are at the heart of many of Spielberg’s films, and one of the things that is so interesting about “The Fabelmans” is how he doesn’t sanitize his own family life growing up, and allows for empathy and understanding in everyone’s actions. Most importantly, that extends to his mother’s surrogate, Mitzi, played by Michelle Williams, but then again, he’s always had a soft spot for mothers in his films.

As Spielberg added another layer of complexity to his portrayal of mothers by showing us his own, I wanted to look at some of the most noteworthy mothers in his films over the years, and why they stand out.

-Lou Jean Poplin (played by Goldie Hawn), “The Sugarland Express” (1974): The first mother figure in Spielberg’s work is never once seen with her child. But as a woman who breaks her husband out of jail so that they can get their son Langston before he is put into foster care, Hawn shows the same devotion to her child as any of the other mothers I discuss here. She appears to have a youthful naïveté in thinking that, after taking a policeman hostage, it will be as simple as she thinks it will be to be reunited with her son, but we are assured by the closing title cards that she was reunited with Langston after a stint in prison (which happened for the real-life woman she was based on), and there’s no reason to think they won’t be alright after seeing her handle herself in this film.

Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) in “The Sugarland Express”

-Ellen Brody (played by Lorraine Gary), “Jaws” (1975): In the original modern blockbuster, it’s the actions of the men that carry the most weight with the film’s pursuit of a killer shark. But before her husband, Hooper and Quint take to the sea to hunt the shark, Gary’s Ellen helps make for some of “Jaws’s” most entertaining, and most textured, moments. Yes, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” “Smile you son of a bitch” and the Indianapolis speech are iconic, but who doesn’t remember the conversation Ellen and Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) have about Michael in his boat, and the second she sees that boats may not be safe from sharks, she changes her tune? Or the dinner table moment where she quietly watches Martin and Michael, with her son mimicking his father? Or when, at the hospital, she’s lovingly assuring Michael after his brush with the shark by getting him coffee ice cream? Every time I watch the film, I always smile when these moments come up.

Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary) in “Jaws”

-Ronnie Neary (played by Teri Garr) and Jillian Guiler (played by Melinda Dillon), “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”: I’m putting both mothers from Spielberg’s 1977 science fiction classic together because they are two sides of the same coin. Both Ronnie and Jillian go through Hell as the world is confronted by the prospect that they are not alone. Ronnie is trying to hold her family together when Roy (played by Richard Dreyfuss) has an experience he cannot explain, Jillian is just trying to survive when her son is taken. Both are trying to keep their families together, but at a certain point, Ronnie knows she must leave Roy to do that, while Jillian must get closer to him to get her son back. That duality in motherhood is fascinating in one of Spielberg’s most iconic films.

Ronnie Neary (Teri Garr) and Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”
Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and Barry Guiler (Cary Guffey) in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”

-Mary (played by Dee Wallace), “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”: The focus is on the kids as Elliot (Henry Thomas) finds an alien, and tries to take care of it, but Melissa Matheson’s screenplay, and Spielberg’s direction, gives Wallace plenty of room for wonderful moments. She is a single, working mother trying to do the best she can with her three kids, so it makes sense that she’s oblivious to the fact that she has an extra-terrestrial living with her, even if it’s staring right at her. But what makes Mary such an important part of the film is that she loves her kids, and is fine with them playing D&D in the kitchen, can’t help but laugh when Elliot calls Michael “penis breath,” and is positively delighted when she’s taking pictures of the kids before they go trick-or-treating. At the same time, her turn into concern and horror when it seems as though Elliot is in danger comes through, and the way Wallace plays Mary’s emotional evolution as we see her become aware of E.T. makes for, arguably, the most complete mother to date from Spielberg.

Mary (Dee Wallace) and Gertie (Drew Barrymore) in “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”

-Monica Swinton (played by Frances O’Connor), “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2001): Spielberg’s first film of the 21st Century, which he took over after Stanley Kubrick passed away, is my favorite film of his. No small part of that is in how he developed the role of Monica. A woman grieving after her son Martin is diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, and put in suspended animation, Monica is given an opportunity to be a mother again when her husband brings home a Mecha boy named David (Haley Joel Osment). David is programmed to express love, but he is still a robot, so as Monica acclimates to him, his inhuman aspects are unsettling. When she imprints with David, however, a bond is formed that will grow more complicated when Martin wakes up. After a series of misunderstandings, Monica is forced to get rid of David, but rather than have him decommissioned, she sets him free, inspiring a journey for David to become a “real boy” that she can love. O’Connor is terrific as a woman who has the love of a mother for both David and Martin, even when she abandons David, but whom knows that, at a certain point, she can only ever love Martin. David’s “reunion” with Monica is the fulfillment of a wish that any orphaned child has at some point- to have that perfect day with the one who loved them and accepted them first. Of all of Spielberg’s fictional mothers, Monica might be the richest.

Monica Swinton (Frances O’Connor) and David (Haley Joel Osment) in “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”

-Mitzi, “The Fabelmans”: If you ever watched the HBO documentary, “Spielberg” (2017), you saw his parents and sisters talking about their upbringing. That gives you a good idea in not only how honestly Spielberg shows his life in this memory piece, but his family. One look at, and listen to, Leah, his mother, and you can see how close he asked Michelle Williams to get to her. There are a lot of tropes in this story that would ring false when it comes to Mitzi- the free spirit, the wife who finds marriage suffocating, the over-emotional mess- if any other actress played the character. Watching Williams inhabit the role, you get a sense of this as a real individual, who loves her family, but also isn’t sure if she wants to be tied down “til death do us part.” She is chaotic for bringing a monkey home, and driving her children into a tornado, but when we see her struggling with the normal life she chose, to be a mother and wife over a renowned pianist, we empathize, because whom among us haven’t done some crazy stuff when we’re trying to cope with life? As the film goes on, Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) and Mitzi get closer, brought together by a shared secret, and the way Williams and LaBelle deepen that bond is some of my favorite character building in all of Spielberg’s career. Never one to only go halfway in making a film, “The Fabelmans” is a work of heart from a director whose heart has always been on display, and the cumulative love letter to his mother- who passed away in 2017- after a career built on caring for mother figures.

Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams) and Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) in “The Fabelmans”

There are other mother characters that Spielberg has given significant time to over the years. Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) in “The Color Purple” (1985) is stripped of her own biological children by an abusive father, and abused by Mister’s children, but Spielberg’s aim is to show Celie gain her agency and strength after a lifetime of abuse rather than her parenting. In “The Post” (2017), Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) is trying to keep her husband’s legacy in tact for her family during a challenging moment for journalism. Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) has no illusions about her relationship with her husband as he tries to save the soul of a nation, and her grief over the loss of their son is a big part of her role in “Lincoln” (2012). And I will never forget the images of mother Ryan being delivered the news of her sons’s deaths in “Saving Private Ryan,” or numerous Jewish mothers doing their best to protect their children during the horrors of the Holocaust in “Schindler’s List.”

Even when they do things other mothers would see as unfathomable, Steven Spielberg always sees these characters as their own individuals, doing what they need to do for their own happiness. Much like his own mother did.

Read Brian’s reviews for the following films at Sonic Cinema:
“The Sugarland Express”
“Jaws”
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”
“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”
“The Color Purple”
“Schindler’s List”
“Saving Private Ryan”
“A.I. Artificial Intelligence”
“Lincoln”
“Spielberg”
“The Post”
“The Fabelmans”

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