Matriarch, maven … murderer?
To celebrate Mother’s Day, here’s a look at New Jersey mothers from film and TV — emphasis on fiction — who make us laugh, smile, cringe and cry.
Here’s looking at you, Livia Soprano. And you, Karate Kid mom Lucille LaRusso. And you, Mrs. Voorhees (who advocated more for her son than the “Friday the 13th” mom?!?).
They may scare or horrify, take up weapons or sling emotional insults, but they might also save the day.
They’ll even haunt from beyond the grave … because a mother’s work is never done.
This Mother’s Day and every day, never forget that “It’s all a big nothing,” courtesy of the mother of all mothers: Tony Soprano’s mom.
Livia was a dispenser of sage wisdom and depressive episodes. (Or, as her grandson A.J. put it, “you’re old and have wisdom and stuff.”)
The “Sopranos” character, played by Nancy Marchand before her death in 2000, was at the heart of the series, starring Park Ridge’s James Gandolfini and inspired by series creator David Chase’s relationship with his own mother.
Sure, Livia conspired with Uncle Junior and had Tony convinced they were going to kill him — but the bonds of family are apparently stronger than hit jobs. Laila Robins and Laurie J. Williams played young Livia in flashback episodes, and Vera Farmiga played her in the 2021 prequel film, “The Many Saints of Newark,” which tracked the making of young Tony (Michael Gandolfini) before he became a North Jersey mob boss.
So, “what makes you think you’re so special?”
Maysa Hassan in ‘Ramy’
Maysa, Ramy’s mom in the Hulu series “Ramy,” just wants her son to settle down with a nice girl and find stable employment.
“I told you if you finished the pre-med classes, you would be running the brain surgery at Hackensnack hospital,” she tells him in the first season of the dramedy, starring Rutherford’s Ramy Youssef, who won an Emmy for the role.
Maysa, played by Hiam Abbass (“Succession”), has some of the funniest and most cringeworthy lines in the show about Ramy and his Egyptian American family, and she’s much more than just a concerned/nagging mom.
With Maysa’s two kids now grown, she has more time alone at home, but her husband Farouk (Amr Waked) vetoes her suggestion that she join an exercise class. So she takes on a job driving for a ride-share service, with interesting — and sometimes disastrous — results.
This North Jersey mom, a proud immigrant who is both worldly and frequently lonely, multilingual and misunderstood, loves her family but is unappreciated. She also gets in trouble for her lack of a filter, extending unsolicited criticism not just to her family, but complete strangers. See Maysa-centric episodes “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (season one) and “They” (season two) for a closer look at Ramy’s mother.
Sometimes Jersey moms just have to tell it like it is.
Prymaat in ‘Coneheads’
Maybe she would rather be on Remulak, her home planet, but Prymaat is determined to make New Jersey a suitable home for her daughter in the 1993 movie “Coneheads.”
And when need be, she serves as the family’s voice of reason.
The character, played by Jane Curtin, was born in the Coneheads “Saturday Night Live” sketches with Dan Aykroyd, who plays Prymaat’s husband Beldar. After the couple gets stranded on Earth, they’re forced to make a life among the “bluntskulls” while they wait for a return trip (their cover story is they are from France). That lands them in suburban Paramus, where they build a happy home for their daughter, Connie (Michelle Burke).
Being a parental unit is never easy, even when achieving stability and contentment.
But when Beldar goes off the rails to discipline a teen Connie — father doesn’t always know best, cone or not! — Prymaat is there with a rational perspective. She is also a whiz in the kitchen, cooking up all the favorites, like flattened chicken embryos, seasoned patties of ground animal flesh and seared strips of swine flesh.
Mrs. Ferd Junko, Melvin’s mother in ‘The Toxic Avenger’
“Melvin, dear, are you all right? Is anything the matter?”
Mrs. Ferd Junko, mother of Tromaville gym janitor Melvin Junko (Mark Torgl), might not have any idea what is happening to her son in the bathroom, but even if she did, she can’t help him once his skin has been incinerated after a dip in toxic waste. A bandage won’t fix this one. His flesh is quaking. His hair is falling out in clumps. Even his skull is changing shape.
“Are you OK?” she asks again. “Melvin, dear, are you all right?”
No, Mom, he’s not OK. He is becoming the Toxic Avenger.
Sarabel Levinson played Melvin’s mom in the 1984 classic B-movie, which starts with the transformation of “98 pounds of solid nerd” to a musclebound superhero born of green sludge, one destined to fight crime in New Jersey.
Still standing outside the door, hearing him roaring as he undergoes the grim metamorphosis to become Toxie, she reaches the wrong conclusion about her “little Melvin.”
“He must’ve finally reached puberty!” she says, clasping her hands with a smile. Later, Melvin’s mother kicks him out when he tries to come back home in his new form, so he goes to live in a junkyard. Rent is not cheap.
Rene Petty in ‘New Jersey Drive’
Some moms just know. Moms like Rene Petty do, anyway.
Jason Petty (Shar-Ron Corley) is a Newark teen joyriding with his friends in stolen cars in the 1995 film “New Jersey Drive.”
“We were just trying to make our mark in the world, find something we can call our own,” he says in the Spike Lee-produced film, directed by Nick Gomez.
Daily life for Jason and his friends means having to dodge racist cops who threaten and beat them.
But Rene Petty, played by Gwen McGee, has no tolerance for his behavior or what he does with his friends.
She doesn’t hesitate to slap him in front of those friends, including Midget (Gabriel Casseus), whose car theft activities soon turn into carjacking.
Rene’s tough love is rooted in her keen awareness of the dangers facing her son from police, who won’t hesitate to shoot.
“I don’t want to get that call, OK?” she tells Jason, referring to someone else in the neighborhood who was just shot by officers.
Jason denies that he was there at the time. But the truth is that his mother was right to worry.
Mrs. Voorhees in ‘Friday the 13th’
Mrs. Voorhees wasn’t going to let it happen again.
She lost her son Jason to a drowning at New Jersey’s Camp Crystal Lake after two counselors neglected their jobs.
Now she’s out for revenge.
“Jason should’ve been watched every minute,” Mrs. Voorhees says in a key scene. “He wasn’t a very good swimmer.”
Voorhees can’t get the vision of Jason flailing in the water, crying out for help, out of her mind. She even hears him call to her.
She won’t let the camp (the real-life Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco in Hardwick) reopen. She just can’t, knowing what happened.
Knife in hand, she’d rather bump off each counselor, one by one, blaming them for her son’s death back in the ’50s.
“Oh, my sweet, innocent, Jason,” she says in her big reveal as the killer. “My only child.”
Lucille LaRusso in ‘The Karate Kid’ movies and ‘Cobra Kai’
Talk about a Jersey mother with staying power.
Lucille LaRusso, Daniel LaRusso’s mother in “The Karate Kid,” played by Randee Heller, was there for the first run of the movie franchise. And decades later, she is there again in the revival series “Cobra Kai.”
Lucille and Daniel, played by Ralph Macchio, move to Reseda, Los Angeles from Newark in the 1984 hit movie when she gets a job offer on the West Coast.
But Lucille is a mom who gets it.
After Daniel comes home battered by bullies, fed up and longing for home, his mother doesn’t dismiss his feelings. She listens.
The addled teen maintains that he needs some quality karate lessons to defend himself from the locals.
“Fighting doesn’t solve anything,” Lucille says.
“Oh, well neither does palm trees, Ma,” he says, taking a shot at his mother’s decision to pursue a change of scenery.
“That’s not fair,” she replies.
“Yeah, well, like it was fair coming out here without asking me how I felt about it, right?” he says. “That was really fair.”
Instead of launching into some “What I say goes because I’m the parent” speech, Lucille carefully considers her son’s comment.
“You’re right,” she says. “I should’ve asked.”
Lucille pledges to help figure out a way forward with her son, who wants nothing more than to forget L.A. and go home.
Thankfully, Mr. Miyagi happens to be listening, and the rest is “Karate Kid” history.
Now, Macchio and Heller are back in “Cobra Kai,” the series that revived the franchise, as Daniel, a father and karate teacher, and Lucille, a grandmother. The show, created by Jersey’s own Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald, is going strong on Netflix four seasons on, with a fifth on the way.
Carmela Soprano in ‘The Sopranos’
Sure, Livia is the show’s original matriarch.
But Carmela Soprano holds down the fort when things fall apart.
Carmela, played by the Emmy-winning Edie Falco in the HBO series, is much more than Tony Soprano’s long-suffering wife and mother to A.J. and Meadow. She’s often at the very heart of “The Sopranos,” key to the family life Tony tries to keep separate from the grisly tasks of his job in The Family.
Ensconced in her suburban palace, she is largely isolated from the many unsavory parts of Tony’s position. But she sometimes struggles with the source of Tony’s income. In this, she serves as something of the conscience of the show, though she largely accepts her role.
Carmela is a firm mom with a soft spot for her kids. She visits Meadow at college to bring her ziti, sausage and clean laundry (and have lunch with the dean, who is expecting a financial contribution), all while getting slammed by her daughter for “whatever bullsh-t accommodational pretense you got worked out with Daddy.”
Like any parent, she had highs and lows, but it’s her marriage to Tony that is a continual menace, especially given his many extramarital activities. Carmela brings us to the height of her joy and the depths of her despair and anger and everywhere in between. But after years of looking the other way — and routinely accepting gifts from Tony, his way of trying to “buy” her silence — she draws a line.
At one point, she calls him out and sends him packing.
“I might actually have gone on with your cheating and your bullsh-t if your attitude around here had been even the least bit loving, cooperative, interested,” she tells Tony in one episode.
Divorce is on the table, but it doesn’t happen. Carmela continues to devotedly care for her husband in sickness and health, including his brush with death.
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Marj Wiener in ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse’
Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) must endure all the indignities of Benjamin Franklin Junior High only to come home and face her parents, who don’t seem to care all that much for her, either.
The 11-year-old, derided as “Weiner-dog” at school, can’t seem to catch a break, not from her bullies, not from her teacher, and certainly not from her mother in “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” the 1995 dark comedy from Newark native Todd Solondz, set in the Jersey suburbs.
Angela Pietropinto plays Marj Wiener, Dawn’s mother. She always favors her younger daughter, Missy (Daria Kalinina), who prances around in a tutu and can seemingly do no wrong. But Dawn, the middle child, can never do right. When she tries to stand up for herself at school in the face of nonstop bullying, she mistakenly hits a teacher in the eye with a spitball.
“I was fighting back,” she explains in a meeting with her parents and the school principal.
“Whoever told you to fight back?!?” Marj blares.
Mrs. Wiener even commissions her other children to demolish Dawn’s beloved backyard clubhouse.
Mrs. Baskin in ‘Big’
Josh Baskin is 12 when his wish to be “big” transforms him into an actual adult in the form of Tom Hanks.
All hell breaks loose when Josh (David Moscow), in this bigger body, attempts to return home in “Big,” the 1988 hit comedy set in Cliffside Park.
His mother, played by Mercedes Ruehl, abandons her vacuum and frantically backs away. Josh tries to explain the impossible, that a Zoltar machine at a carnival granted his wish. He flashes his boy’s underwear as proof.
“Bastard, what did you do to my son?!?” she says, threatening Hanks with a knife.
Her confusion and panic is more than understandable, and she admirably goes to bat for Josh, who will spend quite a while in his new adult body.
“Where is my child?” she rages, chasing him with the blade. “Where is my son???”
Sherry in ‘Sherrybaby’
New Jersey mother Sherry Swanson is in recovery from heroin addiction and trying to get close to her young daughter after her release from prison in “Sherrybaby” (2006), written and directed by Mountainside’s Laurie Collyer.
Sherry, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal in a Golden Globe-nominated performance filmed in Essex County, is dismayed to find her daughter now calls her “Sherry.”
The stress of starting over and trying to overcome people’s low expectations puts her at risk of relapse.
Cassidy in ‘The Wrestler’
Tomei, in her Oscar-nominated role as Cassidy, is a devoted mother to her 9-year-old son.
Cassidy, aka Pam, becomes something of a love interest for Randy, a customer at the club, but also serves as a motherlike figure to the broken fighter from Elizabeth.
She both encourages him to reunite with his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) and discourages him from returning to the ring because of his heart condition.
Ultimately, though, Cassidy is always going to put her son first.
Rosalyn in ‘American Hustle’
“Don’t put metal in the science oven!” she says in the 2013 film inspired by the Abscam FBI sting. In Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated performance, she’s mocking her husband, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), who recently introduced a microwave to their home with the important warning.
But Irving isn’t there to stop her. She shoves a foil-covered aluminum tray in the microwave, which promptly becomes a ball of flames.
“Another fire!” cries her young son, Danny.
“No, Danny, not that one,” Rosalyn says. “That one’s empty, we gotta use the big one!”
Somehow she turns this incident around and uses it to insult her husband, saying she heard that microwaves can sap the nutrients from food.
“It’s empty, just like your deals,” she tells him. “Empty, empty!”
Olivia in ‘The Station Agent’
Mendham’s Peter Dinklage stars as Fin, a Hoboken railroad enthusiast who inherits the Newfoundland train depot in the 2003 indie film, written and directed by New Providence’s Tom McCarthy. He wants to be alone, but Olivia finds him by nearly running him over with her car.
Olivia’s marriage to her husband, David, has collapsed under the weight of her grief and depression, but she forms a bond with Fin and several local friends, including food truck vendor Joe, played by Union City’s Bobby Cannavale. They all seem to be in transition, starting or ending various parts of their lives. As Olivia mourns her son, Emily, a local librarian who Fin meets, is set to become a new mother.
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Wanda in ‘WandaVision’
Does being a mother count when your children are the products of your own brain?
Wanda, aka Scarlet Witch, played by Elizabeth Olsen, is joined by her love and fellow Avenger Vision, played by Paul Bettany. Even though he died in real life, they construct a new story with their “children” in Wanda’s idealized, decade-hopping Westview, which is contained in a huge bubble that investigators are trying to crack in the real world.
This mother has the whole world on her shoulders, literally, since her family’s fate is directly driven by her wants and desires, whether that means a black-and-white ’50s sitcom or ’90s suburbia.
However, control has its limits. There is bound to be a disturbance in her utopian vision, which frays at the edges … and everywhere else.
Portia in ‘Admission’
The film co-stars Passaic’s Paul Rudd as John Pressman, a teacher who brings Jeremiah, a child prodigy, to her attention. He wants to go to Princeton, and suddenly his case becomes all the more compelling when John tells Portia that the student is supposedly her biological son. Portia put her child up for adoption in college.
Now her job is at risk when she bends the rules to consider Jeremiah and his subpar transcript for admission.
Lillian Gilbreth in ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’
Before there was Gabrielle Union and Zach Braff, before there was Bonnie Hunt and Steve Martin, there was Myrna Loy and Clifton Webb.
Loy and Webb, stars of the first screen adaptation of “Cheaper by the Dozen” (1950), played Montclair’s Lillian Moller Gilbreth and Frank Bunker Gilbreth, parents of a brood of 12.
Loy is Lillian, a psychologist whose expertise compliments her husband’s skills as an efficiency expert keeping the family on schedule. In the film, she recalls the beginnings of their large family.
“You set the actual target, dear,” Lillian tells Frank after having a baby son. “Six boys and six girls. I believe you even made a memorandum of it.”
The 1950 comedy film is a work of fiction but uses the names and backstory from a real-life Jersey family, since it is based on the semi-autobiographical 1948 book “Cheaper by the Dozen” by two of Lillian and Frank’s children, Frank Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey.
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