This Mother’s Day, the classic options are out: No one will be squiring their mother to brunch, flower delivery seems an iffy choice at best and even something as standard as a hug or in-person quality time is off the table for many of us.
May I suggest a movie night?
It’s how my mom and I have been spending quality time together lately — and reviving a childhood tradition in the process — without being physically together. It goes like this: We pick out a movie, pour our own glasses of wine, locate streaming versions of the film of the week, check in on FaceTime, press play on our respective screens from our respective couches, and text throughout the movie. Then we check in again on FaceTime to debrief.
Though we’ve only returned to this routine recently and under duress, we used to do a version of it all the time. One of the fondest memories I have of my childhood is an utterly ordinary one: On Sunday afternoons, when I was done with my homework, my mother and I would sit on the floral sofa in the TV room and put on an old movie while she folded our family’s laundry for the week ahead. We did this starting when I was in middle school, and carried it on as much as possible with each intervening year, as I oscillated in and out of Washington state for college, graduate school and a job at an alternative weekly in Portland.
As a kid, watching movies with my mom was an exciting way to think about the strangeness of being alive and all of the things a person can be, and while we occasionally veered into the current cinema with “The Matrix” (if my nascent-Buddhist little brother was with us) or the 1994 version of “Little Women” (if it was Christmas), we had a thing for the heroines of screwball comedies.
This was by design. I grew up in the late ’90s and early ’00s, at a time when, as my mom put it, movie heroines were often limited to characters like Julia Roberts as Vivian in “Pretty Woman” — problematic not because she was a sex worker, but because she’s framed as needing rescue, and, indeed, that is the movie’s entire plot. Not great if you’re hoping to instill confidence and independence in a bookish 11-year-old.
And so my mother sought out alternatives in the classics section at our neighborhood video store, which was how I became acquainted with the flawed, outspoken and entirely self-confident heroines of my childhood and early young adulthood.
Even within the limited parameters of the Hays Code, these women were three-dimensional. There was Rosalind Russell as the dogged, morally ambiguous reporter Hildy Johnson in “His Girl Friday,” with a crashing, un-self-conscious physicality to rival even the heroine of Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s “Frances Ha.”
There was Claudette Colbert’s prissy but self-possessed heiress waking up to the realities of economic inequality in “It Happened One Night,” a role that set the stage for every fish-out-of-water comedy ever, and also the steerage-has-more-fun scene in “Titanic.”
There was pretty much every role Katharine Hepburn ever played, from the badass lady golfer of “Pat and Mike” to the wild-animal enthusiast of “Bringing Up Baby,” which I’d argue is thematically similar yet a much more worthwhile use of your time than that blunt-instrument Netflix documentary “Tiger King.”
Once armed with the template, we found complex female characters even outside of the screwball genre. There was Grace Kelly in “Rear Window” — a character who seems blithely conventional until you realize she’s absolutely nosy, with “Harriet the Spy”-level devotion to the film’s central murder mystery and few scruples about breaking and entering to solve it.
There was Clarice Starling, the quietly competent, empathetic heroine of “Silence of the Lambs” (I choose to ignore the content of the sequels), who navigated a male-dominated workplace and saved the day without ever losing her humanity — and despite being underestimated.
Now, when I see movies like “Booksmart” and “Lady Bird” and TV shows like “Insecure” and “Jane the Virgin,” I’m glad that weird, smart examples of adolescence and young womanhood abound in ways they didn’t when I was a teenager.
But before that explosion in content was available, my mother was the person I got my taste in movies from (and books and music and art), and our old-movie Sundays were part of a steady intake of high and low culture, which also included things like Annie Leibovitz and Frida Kahlo exhibitions at the Seattle Art Museum, Mary Zimmerman plays at the Seattle Rep, trips to the Pacific Northwest Ballet (we liked the modern ones), Maureen Dowd’s column in The New York Times, a quasi-religious devotion to Nora Ephron, and a shared appreciation for all things Jane Austen. (The BBC adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” — the one that’s several hours long and features Colin Firth’s infamous swimming scene — is our favorite. Accept no substitutes.)
Movies have always been a way for us to connect, from crying throughout “The Hours” when it opened at Pacific Place (along with approximately every other woman who lived in Seattle in 2002) to my college-era horror movie fixation (it’s good to have a buddy for “Zodiac”).
Movies are also one thing we can still share during a time when we are physically separated, with the exception of a few visits from 6 feet away. So when my mom suggested, back at the beginning of Washington’s stay-home order, that we join The New York Times’ watch party of “His Girl Friday,” I instantly said yes. As we watched Rosalind Russell chase her story, and submitted our comments to The Times, we were reviving an old family tradition, one we would embrace of our own accord as the stay-home order continued.
Whereas, at 11, I might slump onto the flowered sofa in the TV room into a warm pile of freshly laundered towels, exhausted from playing soccer or doing homework, I now sink into my own small couch in my own small apartment, a glass of rosé and popcorn within easy reach, and I FaceTime my mom. We chat about how things are going in our lives, and sometimes my dad pops on to say “hi” and even to watch the movie with us if it captures his attention. And then we press play on the queued-up streaming service of our choice and sign off before the MGM lion roars. We text each other a running commentary while we’re watching, like an estranged Statler and Waldorf, and reconvene afterward on FaceTime.
As I’ve heard many bemoan over the past several weeks, watching while socially distant is not the same thing as watching a movie together in person. But maybe expecting anything to be the same sets our standards too high. I am not interested in platitudes right now — we are going through a global pandemic, nothing is OK, nothing is normal and I’ve never suddenly felt better because someone told me that everything happens for a reason.
It doesn’t. The world is chaos, perfection a myth. We will not be rescued. And so we must do our best, like Hildy Johnson, with her weird hats, extremely fast typing and disaster of a love life, or an emotionally squashed Claudette Colbert learning the correct technique for checking one’s privilege or dunking a doughnut. We need to cultivate our inner screwball heroines now more than ever. I’m grateful that my mother gave mine a head start.