Fatherhood and Hollywood: Dads in the Movies

Note: A version of this article originally appeared in Catholic World Report.

By Steven D. Greydanus

Over this Father’s Day weekend, Disney releases Pixar’s Toy Story 3, the much-anticipated third installment in the groundbreaking series that made childhood icons of Woody the cowboy and Buzz Lightyear. As expected, it stands head and shoulders over the best animated fare other studios have to offer. Still, there’s something ironic about marking Father’s Day with an installment in an animated series revolving around a household headed by a single mother, with a boy named Andy (and his kid sister) growing up fatherless.

Pixar has given us two of the most sympathetic and well-developed father figures in recent family-film history: the widowed Marlin in Finding Nemo and the family man Mr. Incredible in The Incredibles. In Ratatouille, on the other hand, the human protagonist and his father never knew one another, while the rat protagonist’s father is one of the movies’ most familiar paternal stereotypes, the old-school reactionary authoritarian who regards his progeny’s unique aspirations with dismissive incomprehension (though like many such fathers he is redeemed by a third-act breakthrough).

Last year’s Pixar release, Up, featured an elderly widower, Carl Fredrickson, who becomes a surrogate father figure (or grandfather figure) to a young boy named Russell who lives with his single mother and is initially in some denial about the neglect and unreliability of his absentee father, who is with another woman. Russell’s fond memories of trivial moments spent with his father, and his wishful anticipation of his father being there for him at special events when deep down he knows he won’t, is one of the most melancholy evocations of the absent father in any family film since E.T.

Films like Up and E.T., though hard on individual fathers, are acutely conscious of the importance of the father, of the tragedy of paternal abandonment and the loss of the intact family. Other “broken family films” are less poignant in this regard, from Tim Robbins’ matter-of-fact acceptance of part-time parent status in Zathura to Ben Stiller’s inability to accept and cope with the post-divorce reality in Night at the Museum. Going further back, there’s the postmarital snarkiness of the first Santa Clause movie and ultimately the paternal buffoonery of Mrs. Doubtfire, which ends with a homily for the children about why it’s better for Mommy and Daddy to live separately, but love still binds them all together.

Looking beyond family films, fatherhood has taken some hard knocks lately on the big screen. This year features a pair of romantic comedies, May’s The Back-up Plan and August’s The Switch, about women who conceive by that most unromantic means, artificial insemination. The hit remake Clash of the Titans is all about a mythic hero with an absentee father in heaven, Zeus. Along with Up, last year’s Best Picture nominees included Precious — a nightmare story about a monstrous father who abuses his teenaged daughter, impregnating her twice — and the Coens’ A Serious Man with its the über-failure father.

The Search for the Ideal Father

Not long ago I was asked by an interviewer whether the Hollywood of today has a problem portraying strong, effective father figures “such as Atticus Finch or Captain von Trapp.” The examples chosen, both from the 1960s, highlight the problem of the search for Hollywood’s ideal father figure. Both characters are widowers, to begin with — no fault of their own, surely, but it would be a melancholy thing if fathers appear at their best only where there are no mothers.

Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) is unquestionably one of Hollywood’s most beloved father figures, and in many ways he does ideally embody the archetypal traditional father. He is strong but gentle, self-sacrificing but not emotionally demonstrative, adored by his children but somewhat distant. His daughter Scout admires his ability to analyze and explain anything, but has no idea that he’s also the best shot in the county.

As an idealistic lawyer, Atticus embodies the principles and ideals of society while at the same time taking an enlightened stand against the entrenched bigotry of his time and place. He parents by example, modeling upright, responsible behavior while also standing between his children and the cruelty of the world they live in. At the same time, while he has the aid of the family’s black housekeeper in caring for his children, Atticus sacrifices himself for them as well, sitting up all night tending Jem in his sickness. He is even humanized by his failure in the film’s central trial — as idealized as he is, he is no Superman.

Unlike other cinematic widower fathers, Atticus shows no interest in remarrying. Through his dedication to his children Atticus has transcended the personal need for a wife. Film scholar Stella Bruzzi argues in her study Bringing Up Daddy: Fatherhood and Masculinity in Postwar Hollywood that To Kill a Mockingbird presents Atticus as the ideal “composite parent,” both father and mother to his children, with no need to seek a new wife and mother for his children (though were he so inclined he is not without prospects, such as Miss Maudie Atkinson living right across the street). Atticus’s indifference to the lack of a mother figure in the lives of his young children is at least an element of ambiguity in an otherwise idealized figure.

Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music (1965) is a more typical Hollywood widower father, one whose fatherhood is incomplete and defective without an appropriately complementary maternal presence. (Other examples include Houseboat (1958), The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).) Von Trapp’s parenting style is an exaggerated comic variation on a familiar stereotype, the rigid disciplinarian.

To be fair to the Captain (no one calls him “Georg” but the false bride, Baroness Shrader, whose style punningly echoes her attitude toward children), the film suggests that the pseudo-military order he brings to his household is not necessarily his “true” paternal style; rather, he takes refuge in rigidity from the grief of widowhood, banishing play, music and everything proper to a happy family as painful reminders of his departed first wife. The humbled, chastened spirit with which he finally accepts and rejoins the harmonious spirit that Maria brings to the house indicates that this kinder, gentler paterfamilias is his true self — a self he lost with the death of his first wife, and recovers only through the intervention of an appropriate mother figure.

Soundings in Hollywood Father Figures: Spencer Tracy vs. Steve Martin

The 1950s are popularly remembered as the age of the omnipotent patriarch. There is truth to this, as far as Hollywood is concerned, but it’s also true that 1950s Hollywood is a world rife with paternal failure and youthful rebellion. Filmmakers like Elia Kazan, Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray made films about variously weak or overbearing fathers, absent or domineering mothers and the misunderstood youths who reject their authority, such as Kazan’s East of Eden and Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, both starring James Dean and both released in 1955. Westerns like Broken Lance (1954) and The Big Country (1958) depicted ruthless, domineering patriarchs whose ways have become obsolete and must be rejected by the next generation.

Spencer Tracy’s role as Stanley T. Banks in Father of the Bride (1950) and Father’s Little Dividend (1951) cemented his status as the quintessential Hollywood 1950s patriarch — a role on which he rang changes in various other films, including his last, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). (Carl Fredrickson in Up was modeled after Tracy.)

Both Father films were remade in the 1990s with Steve Martin as George Banks; Martin also played a new kind of archetypal father in films from Parenthood (1989) to his remake of another 1950s film, Cheaper by the Dozen (2003), and its 2005 sequel. Comparing and contrasting Tracy with Martin, then, offers an interesting benchmark in how fatherhood has changed over the years, at least in Hollywood imagination.

Even in 1950, the father figure had feet of clay, though Tracy’s Father films were generally affectionately indulgent toward Father’s foibles and insecurities. The limitations of 1950s fatherhood are evident from the outset in Father of the Bride, as Stanley Banks learns belatedly of his daughter Kay’s interest in a young man named Buckley only after the engagement is a fait accompli. The blustering indignation with which Stan greets this announcement are symptoms of Stan’s paternal buffoonery, but could also reflect anxiety over his own disconnectedness, his ignorance and sense of powerlessness regarding his own family’s affairs. (At least Kay’s mother Ellie was aware of Buckley’s existence before the announcement; perhaps she knew more than she was letting on.)

Ellie initially dismisses Stan’s darkly irrational worries (that Buckley might turn out to be a con artist, etc.) — but the next day the roles are reversed as Stan’s humor improves and Ellie now begins to fear the worst. Ellie now eggs Stan to question Buckley about his financial position; when he initially resists, she even accuses him of being afraid of confronting the boy. (Kay, notably, considers such a discussion a silly anachronism, but she’s willing to humor the old man.)

The 1950 film thus divides parental foibles, not necessarily evenly, between both parents. In the 1991 remake, by contrast, George Banks bears the entire burden of parental angst and absurdity alone. There is never a moment when his wife Nina is ever anything but joyously receptive to their daughter Annie’s surprise engagement, or anything but tolerantly critical of George’s worst-case-scenario fears. For what it’s worth, the remake gives the surprise engagement more context (the happy couple meet in Europe, and Annie hasn’t seen her parents in months), making the father’s surprise less poignant (and affording less excuse for the contrast between his consternation and the mother’s joy).

In the original, when Stan insists on cutting down the guest list to save money, he also demands to keep his own favored guests, such as a long-time client — but Ellie equally wants to include members of her garden club, where she’s running for president. This selfish squabbling provokes exasperation from Kay at both of her parents. In the remake, George is the only one unreasonably exempting his own favored guests from the chopping block that he mandated in the first place.

Stan turns out to be rather a garrulous old fool, and a bit overfond of drink. His concerns about Buckley turn to affectionate approval principally because Buckley is a polite listener. Meeting the in-laws for the first time, embarrassingly, Stan becomes tipsy, erratically voluble and finally somnolent.

Such social gaffes would apparently have been too tame for the first visit to the in-laws in the remake. In this version, after snooping in his hosts’ bathroom medicine cabinet and their bankbook, George winds up scrambling out a second-story window, crashing through an arbor, and finally tumbling fully clothed into a swimming pool, along with the telltale bankbook. Later, George’s behavior becomes so egregious that he is actually arrested and thrown in jail — and, as a condition for bailing him out, Ellie makes him solemnly promise, repeating after her, to act his age and think of his daughter first. Such abject humiliations far exceed anything that Stan is subjected to in the original.

There is one way in which the remake softens the father’s powerlessness and irrelevance, a consistent theme in the original. (“From now on, don’t answer the phone,” Ellie instructs Stan, and a friend facetiously says, “From now on, your only function is to pay the bills.”) Dramatically speaking, as far as the wedding is concerned, Stan has almost no constructive part to play. This can’t quite be said of George, who is given the dignity, in a conflict expanded from the original, of playing a minor role in reconciling the young lovers after a silly squabble (silly in the original, but sillier in the remake).

In the original, Stan not only accomplishes nothing toward the reconciliation, but very nearly delays it by trying to bundle Buckley out the door before Kay witnesses his contrition and changes her mind. (Was he trying to prolong their lovers’ squabble?) In the remake, after Annie refuses to see Bryan, George takes him out for a drink, and (despite contemplating maneuvering Bryan into giving up) finds himself prodding Bryan and Annie back together again.

With respect to fatherhood, the remake’s most notable innovation comes in a pair of scenes in which George and Annie shoot hoops one-on-one in the driveway — something they evidently did many times when she was growing up. (They also play two-on-two, Annie with Bryan and George with his young son.) The first such match, scored to the Temptations’ “My Girl” (a typical selection from the nostalgic soundtrack), is a sweetly sentimental portrait of a playful father-daughter bond scarcely imaginable in the 1950s world of the original.

Endearingly, George cheats shamelessly (traveling, interference), positively relishing his paternal buffoon role while simultaneously delighting in Annie’s athletic ability. These matches provide some consolation for George missing his dance with Annie at the reception; at least he “danced” with her the night before the wedding in the driveway.

Would the respectable patriarch of the 1950s film have played sports even with his boys? Certainly a proper young lady wouldn’t have played such a game in those days. The decades between the two films have obliterated such precepts of decorum. In the process, doubtless, something valuable has been lost; even so, it’s hard not to feel that something has been gained too.

Fatherhood and Masculinity

The archetypal Hollywood father has always been a good man, but he is not always the most manly man. He needs a certain strength, but his masculinity is of a caring, domesticated sort. The toughest breed of masculine strength belongs to the lone man — ideally the lone hero, but sometimes the lone villain.

This sort of lone man’s man has long been a cinematic counterpoint to the father figure, at turns representing what the father has given up in becoming a family man, or a side of himself that the father has suppressed, or simply the wildness of the world with which he must contend as his family’s protector.

At times the contrast is benign: Family man George Bailey, with his bad ear, stays in Bedford Falls during the war in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), while his dashing kid brother Harry wears his country’s uniform, goes to war and becomes a decorated hero (reversing their childhood roles in which George heroically saved Harry after the sledding accident on the thin ice).

Proud George is anything but threatened by his brother’s heroism, but the contrast becomes more problematic in a movie like Shane (1953), even though Shane is befriended by Joe Starrett and his family, and is on their side against their enemies. Both Starrett’s wife and his son feel the effect of Shane’s virility — an uncomfortable state of affairs that remains tolerable only as long as Shane takes a subordinate role as Starrett’s mild-mannered hired hand. Once Shane has saved Starrett’s life by knocking him out, going to town in his place and killing those who would have killed Starrett, Shane must leave town. Despite young Joey’s plaintive calls for Shane to “come back,” Shane the hero is too much for Starrett the homesteader to live down, and they both know it.

Other examples of fathers contrasted with manlier men include Brody and Quint in Jaws, George McFly and Biff Tannen in Back to the Future and Murtaugh and Riggs in the Lethal Weapon movies. The most difficult variation on the theme involves films like 3:10 to Yuma (1957) and Cape Fear (1962) that pit the father against a tougher, more virile rogue who cheerfully puts the family man to the test like a boy pulling wings off flies.

These last two films offer interesting illustrations of cinematic fatherhood, for two reasons. First, the fathers in both are played by actors known for similar roles in even more iconic films: Van Heflin, who plays Starrett in Shane, plays a similar character in 3:10 to Yuma, and Gregory Peck’s character in Cape Fear is an upstanding lawyer and father not unlike Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (released in the same year). Second, both films were remade, Cape Fear in 1991 and 3:10 to Yuma in 2007, offering another suggestive case study of fatherhood’s shifting fortunes in Hollywood history.

Like Shane, 3:10 to Yuma casts Heflin as a subtly impotent homesteader, Dan Evans, whose life is complicated by the arrival of a virile man of action — not a soft-spoken gunslinger, but a charming outlaw named Ben Wade. Struggling to provide for his family and shore up his ebbing sense of self-worth, Evans agrees to escort the captured outlaw to justice for a $200 reward. Wade’s charisma overshadows Evans from the start; the outlaw subtly flirts with Evans’ wife during an uncomfortable dinner at the Evans homestead, and Wade, half ashamed to speak to his wife because of his poor performance as a provider, is unable to respond effectively.

Even so, Evans is man enough to contend with Wade at least as an underdog. On one occasion, Evans repulses an abortive escape attempt by Wade; on another Wade is attacked by a kinsman of one of his victims, and Evans saves his life. Evans sticks to his duty, rejecting bribes and even refusing the original reward regardless whether or not he goes through with what has become a near suicide mission — for a very specific reason, to leave his sons a legacy of honor to follow. In the end, Evans has his self-respect and the respect of his wife, as well as the outlaw’s respect, which makes a crucial difference. Wade may be, by some measures, the better man, but Evans has his honor and his reward.

The 2007 remake exaggerates the contrast between the two men to the point of grotesquerie, diminishing Evans (Christian Bale) to a figure of crippling pathos and glorifying Wade (Russell Crowe) to a figure of superhuman virility. Evans is thoroughly emasculated, literally crippled (with a wooden leg from Civil War service), and despised by his teenaged son for his weakness and inadequacy.

If Evans managed any sort of redemption, his initial weakness might heighten the drama of the reversal — but he doesn’t. Self-respect as well as the respect of his family and of Wade elude him to the end. The remake gives Evans no chance to save Wade’s life, or to stop Wade from escaping — as if Evans could. The new film deprives Evans of all the moral triumph of the original; he is given purely practical reasons for rejecting Wade’s bribes (which are vastly less than what he was offered in the original anyway) and for going through with what may be a suicide mission (with a far larger payoff for his family). The family man remains a figure of pathos to the end, dying with nothing but the pity of his son and the outlaw.

A similar transmutation takes place in the remaking of Cape Fear. In the 1962 original, Gregory Peck brings all the paternal righteousness of Atticus Finch to the character of Sam Bowden, a lawyer and family man who becomes the target of a vendetta by an ex-con, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), who harbors a grudge against Bowden, who testified against him in the trial that put him away for eight years for rape.

Bowden isn’t a weak man by any means, but his respectable gentility is no match for the insidious figure that ex-con Cady has become. When Cady starts stalking Bowden and his family, Bowden uses his connections with local police to try to get at Cady through charges like vagrancy, but Cady has studied law in prison and knows exactly how to stay on the right side of the law. As the tension escalates, Bowden begins to grapple with the uncomfortable possibility that to protect his family from Cady he may have to become more like him.

Bowden tries buying off Cady, and even hires thugs to beat him up — a tactic that backfires when Cady gets the better of his attackers and manages to pin the assault on Bowden, leading to his disbarment. The conflict culminates in a nail-biting cat-and-mouse game in which Bowden uses his family to lure Cady to a secluded backwater on North Carolina’s Cape Fear River, where Cady eludes Bowden’s traps and terrorizes his wife and daughter on their houseboat until Bowden intervenes. In the end, Bowden gets lucky and has Cady at his mercy, but refuses to kill him — though to what extent this reflects his principles and to what extent he simply wants Cady to rot in jail isn’t entirely clear.

Flawed, conventional and somewhat exploitative, the original Cape Fear isn’t a masterpiece — nor is the far more stylish and lurid remake directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro as Cady and Nick Nolte as Bowden. Much like the later 3:10 to Yuma remake, the Cape Fear remake elevates its villain to Mephistophelian cunning and power while undercutting its hero, in this case not just physically but morally as well.

An unfaithful husband with a wandering eye, Bowden earned Cady’s undying enmity not by honestly testifying as a witness for the prosecution, but by betraying his oath of attorney while defending Cady, suppressing evidence that might have aided Cady’s cause. As in the original, Bowden seduces and viciously assults a woman — but here it’s a colleague of Bowden’s with whom he had an improper relationship that was at least emotionally adulterous. Cady also verbally seduces and even kisses and paws Bowden’s teenaged daughter.

In the overwrought climactic confrontation, instead of defending his family, Bowden is rendered helpless while his teenaged daughter takes drastic action to stop Cady. Cady, however, is virtually unstoppable by mortal means, and keeps coming back for more. When Bowden does get Cady at his mercy, it’s only another opportunity to compromise Bowden morally, as he fully intends to kill him. Then fate takes a hand, depriving Bowden of effectively carrying out his malign intent. Impotent to the last, Bowden can only watch Cady die at the hand of God.

The Persistence of Fatherhood

These are extreme cases. Even when fatherhood is compromised, it isn’t always in such a reductive, nihilistic way. Few films express disappointment with paternal inadequacy more openly than Back to the Future (1985) — but that film is also about the redemption or restoration of the father, about the son’s wish to be proud even of a father that has disappointed him.

The original Star Wars trilogy likewise ended in 1983 with The Return of the Jedi’s bold redemption of one of the most iconic problematic fathers of all time, Darth Vader. More recently, the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy attempted to chart a similar course with Will Turner’s compromised father, Bootstrap Bill, though the series ultimately lost its way.

Other recent films attest the durability of the father in today’s Hollywood. One of the most sentimental father–son stories in recent Hollywood history, Frequency (2000), reveals how hero Jim Caviezel’s capacity for loving relationships is determined by the absence or presence of his father throughout his early life. Another baseball-themed movie, The Rookie (2003), features a good and loving father with a strained relationship with his own emotionally unavailable father, whose approval belatedly means so much.

The ubiquity of this pattern of paternal approval delayed but finally received in stories of paternal–filial conflict, especially in family films, from Ratatouille to DreamWorks’ Happy Feet (2006), Madagascar 2 (2008) and How to Train Your Dragon (2010), is a measure of the father’s stature, even the problematic father.

Conversely, movies from Batman Begins and Robots (both 2005) to The Princess and the Frog (2009) and Alice in Wonderland (2010) dramatize the lifelong impact of loving paternal encouragement, even if (as in each of these films but Robots) the child loses his or her father to tragedy. Again, the tragic absence of faithless fathers in The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008) and Where the Wild Things Are (2009), as with Up and E.T., plaintively highlights the defining importance of the father for both good and ill.

There is still a sense that a father is meant to be a hero. In films like Spy Kids (2000) and The Incredibles he is literally a superhero, albeit not without flaws, and not meant to go it alone. Domestic conflict is an ever-present pitfall, but when the heroic father and mother stand united, together with their children, they become an irresistible force and an immovable object.

For more vulnerable fathers, heroism is an underdog struggle to care for their families amid hardship, as per films like Cinderella Man (2005), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (2008), The Road (2009) and The Princess and the Frog. (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory also features a typically Burtonesque flourish involving the emotional crippling of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka by the mistreatment of his own nightmare father.)

Other movies in recent Hollywood history with sympathetic father figures include The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), Because of Winn-Dixie (2005) and even the Twilight saga (despite divorce). Even silly, comic father figures, a family film staple, are usually at least loving and lovable, and often exemplify positive virtues of one sort or another. Examples can be found in Stuart Little (1999) and especially Stuart Little 2 (2002), Holes (2003), Kung Fu Panda (2008) and (once again) The Princess and the Frog.

Even Homer Simpson, the archetypal ridiculous, loser father of our times, evolved over the course of the hit TV show early seasons from being the butt of Bart’s rebellious humor into the true hero of the show, a beloved figure in which absurdity and boorishness coexist with more admirable traits — both exemplified in The Simpsons Movie (2007), which highlights Homer’s capacity both for catastrophic stupidity and actual heroism.

Then there are the crude comedies, like Knocked Up and Juno, that depict immature young men struggling to come to terms with the responsibility of having fathered a child. (At this writing it’s anyone’s guess where this fall’s Due Date, starring Robert Downey, Jr. as an expectant father on a cross-country road trip trying to arrive in time for his child’s birth, will go with its premise. Are the parents married? Will they be?)

Hollywood’s ambivalence about fatherhood is deeply entrenched. Ambivalence, though, is not mere hostility; often it is rooted in a real awareness of the irreplaceable importance of fatherhood, and in melancholy or anger over paternal failure in a fallen, broken world. Ambivalence includes love and hope as well as frustration and resentment; even when Hollywood’s fathers let us down, there is often, behind the disappointment, a longing to believe in fathers, a yearning for a father who will not let us down.

Tags: Fatherhood

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