The Mother Of All ’80s Movie Mothers

May 8, 2010

Some time ago, I happened upon the movie Gremlins. As I watched the zany antics of the titular creatures, I took note of the actress who played the mother of the main human character.

She looked familiar.

By the time she went all Sarah Connors on the marauding gremlins – even making a mess of the family microwave to kill one of them – I had to consult IMDb.

Frances Lee McCain was the name of the actress.

Scanning her credits, it was quickly apparent as to why she looked so familiar as I hit a stretch of movies in the ’80s.

In 1984, she was the care-worn mother of Kevin Bacon in Footloose. Was she recently divorced or widowed – I think it’s only noted that his father is not in the picture – when she dragged Ren off from Chicago to Sticksville?

Footloose was one of the biggest movies of the summer. One of the other must-see movie for us high school kids that year?

Gremlins.

A year later, there was Michael J. Fox going back to the ’50s and fending off the amorous advances of his teenaged mother in Back To The Future.

And in the role of the Lea Thompson’s mother was Frances Lee McCain.

So, in a span of a year or so, this actress was cast as the mother of main characters in three movies and hits the trifecta with all three flicks among the highest-grossing of the time, drawing sell-out crowds during the summers of ’84 and ’85.

Along the way she was there for an angst-ridden Kevin Bacon, slaughtered gremlins with household appliances, and narrowly avoided an incestuous love connection between her daughter and her grandson.

Nobody knows the trouble Francis Lee McCain has seen.

(and my mom used to complain about laundry)

But McCain wasn’t through, yet. As summer ended and I headed off to college in 1986, she appeared in another iconic movie of the ’80s as Gordie Lachance’s mother in Stand By Me.

For a moment, I considered throwing up a track from each soundtrack, but…have you seen the tracklisting for Gremlins?

Here are four songs mentioning mothers…

Journey – Mother, Father
from Escape

One of the biggest albums of my musically-formative years, Journey’s Escape had a handful of songs which got a lot of airplay on radio (some to the point of burnout). The disquieting Mother, Father – a tale of a family in disrepair – was a favorite partially because it didn’t get played into the ground.

Paul Simon – Mother And Child Reunion
from Negotiations And Love Songs

Paul Simon had already reached his commercial peak by the time I truly began listening to music (though, his career would get a second wind in the late ’80s with the mammoth success of Graceland). So, though I know a lot of his more popular stuff, he remains an artist whose catalog I’ve mentally tagged for further investigation.

The winsome Mother And Child Reunion was inspired by a Chinese dish consisting of egg and chicken which I always thought was rather clever. The song also features a prominent line-up of guest musicians including members of reggae superstar Jimmy Cliff’s backing band and members of Toots & The Maytals as well as Cissy Houston, mother of Whitney, providing backing vocals.

Tracy Bonham – Mother Mother
from The Burdens Of Being Upright

In the mid-’90s, there was a tremendous wave of female artists and female-led acts – so many that a new one seemed to arrive every twenty minutes only to be elbowed out of the way twenty minutes later. Naturally, the music industry chased the trend with its usual lemming-like singlemindedness.

One of the acts that broke through was singer/songwriter Tracy Bonham. Mother Mother was inescapable during the summer of ’96 and is an insanely riveting peek into the mindset of someone having a come apart.

The Police – Mother
from Synchronicity

On the rare occasion when Mother pops up on shuffle, Paloma and I laugh and crack wise for the the song’s full three minutes. The chaotic track arrives in the middle of side one of The Police’s mega-selling Synchronicity and, at the time when I had recorded the album from Frog’s Midnight Album on WEBN, it was the one song which I was guaranteed to skip over.

I’m still not a big fan of the song. It still seems noticeably out of place on Synchronicity like some strange hiccup in the album’s flow, but, should I ever relent and get a cellphone, Mother – with guitarist Andy Summers screaming “Is that my mother on the phone?” – is going to be the ringtone I set for my mom.

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"I’m talkin’ about earnin’ a livin’. I’m talkin’ about sharkin’"

May 3, 2008

Maybe it’s a guy thing, but, it’s damned near impossible for me to stumble across the movie Jaws while channel surfing and not get drawn into watching. Such was the case early this morning when, while enjoying my first cup of coffee, there was Chief Brody frantically clearing the beach in Amity – which, as you undoubtedly know, means friendship – to the chagrin of Mayor Vaughan.

Paloma walked into the living room, groggily rubbing sleep from her eyes, quickly recognized Richard Dreyfuss’ bearded mug, and shook her head. Much of her dismay stems from having been slightly traumatized by viewing the movie as a young girl while growing up within a frisbee toss of the beach. She will also tell you that I have logged more hours watching the movie than your average New England fisherman has spent at sea.

Again, maybe it’s a guy thing. The record store in which Paloma and I worked for several years had an adjoining video department where my friend Rob would ritualistically show the film at least once during every shift he worked.

Here in the States, I am certain that, between three or four of our cable stations, Jaws is always showing at any given time. TNT will occasionally devote an entire day to screening the four films of the series in marathon fashion (and to slog through number four has certainly got to be akin to gritting out the final miles of an actual marathon). However, if Roy Scheider isn’t involved, I abandon ship.

The film is a classic, a wonderful piece of cinema for which I have more appreciation since reading Peter Benchley’s novel – an abysmal mess of cliché and melodrama – some time ago. Every deviation Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Carl Gottlieb made from the source material was superior and the movie still holds suspense for me no matter how many times I’ve seen Ben Gardner’s waterlogged head pop out from the hull of his boat.

Although I am capable of reciting it almost at will, Quint’s tale of the USS Indianapolis’ sinking hooks me the moment he recounts how a “Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into her side” and I remain riveted until he concludes – “Anyway, we delivered the bomb.”

[I fear that someday soon there will be the inevitable CGI-riddled remake with a cast including Keanu Reeves as Chief Brody, some young cookie-cutter stud as Hooper, and Will Farrell as Quint.]

Beyond my appreciation for the artistry of the film, there’s also a psychological reason I watch. It’s hot here. The heat here today was so stifling it was as though God tossed the planet into the back of Her car and left it in there with the windows rolled up while She popped into the supermarket for a few things.

As we are landlocked, the images of cooling waters off the shores of Amity provide me with mental refreshment. It’s almost like I’m there and I don’t have to fear ending up as chum like Chrissy did while skinny dipping or that little Kintner boy (despite his mother’s admonishment that he was beginning to prune).

Blue Oyster Cult – Shooting Shark
This Blue Oyster Cult song, with it’s mysterious lyric and haunted feel, mesmerized me when I first heard it in 1983. Several years later when Patti Smith became one of my favorites, I learned that she had dated their keyboardist and written this lyric.

Tracy Bonham – Sharks Can’t Sleep
Bonham gained fame with her song Mother, Mother (off the same The Burden Of Being Upright album as this song), but seemed to get lost in the glut of post-Lilith Fair female artists. I always felt she deserved a better fate.

The Call – A Swim In The Ocean
Peter Gabriel once apparently referred to The Call as “America’s most important band,” but they never really were able to achieve more than a cult following. Lead singer Michael Been played the role of the apostle John in the movie The Last Temptation Of Christ which had a score written by Gabriel (everything’s connected). Thanks to the efforts of Roy Scheider, it is possible to go swim in the ocean off Amity Island.

Lyle Lovett – If I Had A Boat
An amazing live performer, I was fortunate enough to see him with his Large Band at the Ryman Auditorium (the original home of The Grand Ol’ Opry) in Nashville. This song was always a favorite, although it should go with saying that Quint would never have allowed a pony (or a large band) on the Orca.

Split Enz – Six Months In A Leaky Boat
If I recall correctly, this song was inspired by the conflict in the Falkland Islands. That aside, it’s a jaunty and infectious number, but probably not enough so to have kept Roy Scheider on the Orca for six days, let alone six months.