In “Shy,” the new book by, and about, Mary Rodgers, (the late daughter of composer Richard), she recalls her friend Stephen Sondheim “saying maybe the worst thing he could. That I had now become both my father and my mother.” Rodgers had always resented her mother, in particular, but later came to see her differently. “I began to understand, and even to my surprise, envy, the way my mother turned her dependency into immense steely competence. These were little clues I missed my whole life.”
The book is filled with deliciously famous names and backstage gossip, but its most poignant parts deal with the author’s takes on motherhood. Historically, there is no shortage of plays, books, series and films about mothers, from “Mommy Dearest” to “How I Met Your Mother” to “The Glass Menagerie.” But now, many — like Mary Rodgers — are recalling the formerly supporting maternal figure differently.
Another book sitting atop the bestseller list is “I’m Glad My Mom Died.” Debra McCurdy passed away in 2013, and Jennette, now 30, is still reckoning with complicated feelings about her mother. And then there is “The Personal Librarian,” about the woman hired to create J. P. Morgan’s New York literary and artistic holdings. (While passing as a white woman.) At one point, she says, “Mama speaks in terms of “we,” as if she were involved, as if she and my father were the sort of partners I never witnessed them being.” Here too was a woman who belittled her mother’s legitimate concerns until much later in life. New York novelist Sally Koslow’s yummy new book, “The Real Mrs. Tobias,” presents a family filled with mothers, mothers-in-laws and grandmothers, and they are all complex, empathetic characters.
The just-opened Broadway revival “Death of A Salesman” may not have changed its title, but it seems to get this matriarchal moment.. As one critic noted, “Even more striking is the way that motherhood is no longer relegated to second place in Miller’s drama. The role of Linda is finally given her due.” The Off-Broadway one-man show, “Everything is Fine,” has the narrator eventually paying tribute to the family member who clearly mattered. After his mother’s death, “the sparkle” left the kitchen table.
Ask anyone who watched the docuseries “The Last Movie Stars,” about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and they will likely mention the thing that stood out the most: Woodward’s statements about whether she would choose to have children again. Though their now-grown ones are proof the couple did something right.
In the current film world, “Till: A Mother’s Story” is earning praise for telling the story of Emmett Till, and how his murder kicked off the Civil Rights Movement. The title alone tells us who was the pivotal fighter for justice in that tragic tale. And Stephen Spielberg is receiving raves for his new one called “The Fabelmans.” It is autobiographical, about a young boy’s early fascination with cameras and the influence of Mrs. Fabelman, portrayed by Michelle Williams.
How interesting that having won an Oscar for focusing on a man saving a private, and another for one saving many Jews, Spielberg will likely win all these years later for celebrating — and thanking — his mother.
Michele Willens’ essay collection, “From Mouseketeers to Menopause” features one entitled, “What’s Wrong With Turning Into Our Mothers?”