THERE was something about Mary long before Cameron Diaz spiked her hair with questionable ‘gel’ in the Farrelly brothers’ 1998 film.
In fact, the origins of the name can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt until it was eventually fixed into our culture by its numerous appearances in the New Testament.
One of those New Testament Marys, second only in notoriety to Jesus’ virgin mother, is Mary Magdalene – the focus of Garth Davis’s latest film starring Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix.
Mara’s role as Mary Magdalene bares the heavy weight of history. Even more so when you consider this is the latest in a line of over forty big-screen depictions of Jesus’ female disciple, dating back to Alice Hollister in From the Manger to the Cross (1912) – and including the likes of Irina Miroshnichenko in Andrei Rublev (1966) and Monica Bellucci in The Passion of the Christ (2004).
Yet Mary Magdalene is not the first Mary we think of when we look to the big-screen. With a spoonful of sugar, Mary Poppins firmly holds the position of cinema’s favourite – and most iconic – Mary. The delightful super-nanny, first portrayed by Julie Andrews in 1964, will soon glide onto our screens with umbrella in hand as Emily Blunt takes up the role later this year.
The motherly warmth exuded by Poppins has been shared by other cinematic Marys – from Mary Meh (Jennifer Coolidge) in The Emoji Movie and Mary Lake (Rachel McAdams) in About Time to Mary Brown (Sally Hawkins) in Paddington and Mary Bailey (Donna Reed) in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946).
Mary Kane (Agnus Moorehead), from Orson Wells’s 1941 classic Citizen Kane, gets little chance to show her warmth. Mrs. Kane only appears in one heart-wrenching scene as she gives away her son for a better upbringing.
Mary Lennox (Kate Maberly) is on the opposite end of paternal separation when both her parents die in an earthquake at the start of Secret Garden (1993).
Elliot’s mum Mary (Dee Wallace) in Steven Spielberg’s E.T (1982) appears to be a caring mother – even if she is completely oblivious to the glowing-fingered alien living in her house for much of the film.
Likewise, Ray (Jason Bateman) is oblivious to a secret force within the home in 2008 film Hancock. His wife Mary (Charlize Theron) hides her incredible capabilities until she is uncontrollably drawn to Hancock (Will Smith) and her superhuman truth comes out.
Mary may not sound like the most action-friendly name, but Theron’s character is not the only adventurous one in cinema history. Tomboy Mary Katherine Bomba (voiced by Amanda Seyfreid) took on the leaf world in 2013’s Epic. Also, Mary Margaret Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) boxed her way to prominence, at least before tragic injury, in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby.
First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) even got in on the action in Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer (2012). This axe-wielding Mary was a far cry from Sally Field’s reserved performance as the respected first lady in Lincoln (2012).
Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) was never far from danger in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. This was not the first Mary that Dunst played, having portrayed a receptionist by the same name in Charlie Kauffman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).
Another Mary Jane appears in Scooby-Doo (2002). This time played by Isla Fisher, Mary Jane meets the Mystery inc van gang on the flight to Spooky Island and soon becomes romantically intertwined with Shaggy.
Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland) is another romantically sought-after Mary. Like many conveniently double-entendre named women, Goodnight soon ends up in the suave spy arms of James Bond in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).
Mary Reilly (Julia Roberts) has slightly more unpredictable arms to fall into in Stephen Frears’ 1996 film of the same name. Told from Mary’s perspective, the film follows her romance with Dr. Jekyll as she slowly begins to learn the terrifying truth about his darker side – Mr. Hyde.
The name Mary has formed its own through cinema history – both memorable and forgettable. Whether it was scary like bloody Mary in Dead Mary (2007) or remarkably unfunny like Mary Horowitz in All About Steve (2009).
Rather annoying like Mary Corleone in The Godfather III (1990) or quite impressive like Mary Adler (2017) in Gifted and Mary Mapes in Truth (2015). Or heart-warmingly compassionate like Sister Mary Patrick in Sister Act (1992).
But no one appears to be drawn more to the name Mary than Heather Graham. The actor has played a Mary five times on the big-screen (My Dead Boyfriend, From Hell, Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, The Ballad of Little Jo and Twins).
To cap this off, it feels fitting to think of Mary Cagney (Joan Leslie) in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) singing in her angelic voice. Yes, Mary truly is a grand old name of cinema.