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Hollywood father figures & movie dads


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Last week I pitched a piece to a publication I write for, planned for June to tie into Father's Day, about father figures in mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, especially (but not exclusively) family films.

Over the next couple of weeks I'm going to be researching father figures in movies for at least the last half-century or so, though I don't know how much I'll be able to get into the piece.

Looking over the recent landscape, my overall impression is this: Feet of clay.

A few patterns and broad categories, with examples off the top of my head:

  • Absent / divorced / deceased dads (E.T., The Spiderwick Chronicles, The Princess Diaries, Toy Story, The Iron Giant, Up, The Karate Kid, The Sixth Sense, Forrest Gump, Where the Wild Things Are, Elf, Akeelah and the Bee)
  • Decent but impoverished fathers who struggle to provide for their families (The Pursuit of Happyness, Cinderella Man, Kit Kittridge: An American Girl, Charlie & The Chocolate Factory)
  • Overbearing, authoritarian, unsympathetic/unsympathizing dads (The Little Mermaid, How to Train Your Dragon, Pocahontas, Happy Feet, The Rookie)
  • Sympathetic but flawed dads on a learning curve (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles)
  • Decent dads who die quickly (The Lion King, The Princess and the Frog)
  • Comic/Silly/Ineffectual dads (Beauty and the Beast, Back to the Future, Aladdin, Kung Fu Panda)
  • Scary dad (Star Wars, Charlie & The Chocolate Factory)
  • Basically admirable dads not necessarily clearly fitting any of the above categories (Robots, Spy Kids, Because of Winn-Dixie, The Emperor's New Groove, The Rookie, Stuart Little 2)

I'm not LOOKING for negative patterns. I'm just as eager to highlight positive examples. And in fact some of the negative examples of father figures I still consider positive overall in how they highlight parental failure as failure rather than papering it over as "just the way things are" (e.g., The Spiderwick Chronicles, E.T., Up).

Thoughts? Arguments? Examples? Counter-examples? Resources? Roads not taken?

Ahems?

Edited by SDG

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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A thought. As you know from years of reading my posts, I'm not real good with details, even in films that make a huge impression on me. When I started reading your post, I immediately thought of the dad in In America. He's largely admirable, isn't he, but also sort of desperate. And he's grieving. That's the main thing I remember about him.

I think there may be a category of grieving dads -- Finding Nemo included.

Note that you have The Rookie in two categories. You're referring to the man who plays Quaid's character's dad (Brian Cox, wasn't it?) but also to Quaid's character himself, no?

EDIT: BTW, looking over your list, it's startling how many films you cite are animated features.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Thx, Christian. Yes, my off the top of my head examples are largely family films (and thus largely animated features) because [a.] the piece will probably focus on family films and [b.] that's where I've already done the most systematic thinking on this kind of question over the years. (Plus, [c.] I was working in haste on my way out the door to a screening. I'm currently replying on my iPhone.)

As I begin to actually research the subject, I expect to balance out my examples somewhat, though still with a focus on family films.

The category of grieving fathers is an interesting one, I'll look at that. Perhaps a subset of fathers who are notably struggling in some way.

Lots of other thoughts and angles not yet discussed here, wanted to get this question on on the table.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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I was thinking instantly about Wall Street, partially because it played real life father/son off of each other (also, Hot Shots Part Deux)....

Dirty Dancing should also be touched upon, as there's an overprotective father who shows co

passion on a girl who had a botched abortion--this complicates things considerably...

I would think The Breakfast Club touches on five different types of fathers.

How about some of the great characters in film history--Rhett Butler and Charles Foster Kane? And George Bailey? And Thomas (Red River) Dunson?

Nick Alexander

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Sympathetic but flawed dads on a learning curve:

Tim Lockwood (Flint's father) in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. Their relationship is strained especially after Flint's wonderfully supportive mother passes away but he is there for Flint and even pulls himself out of his comfort zone to bridge the cap between them.

Decent dads who die quickly:

Spyros - Perseus' father in the 2010 remake Clash of the Titans. Played by Pete Postlethwaite.

I don't know what type this would be:

The Stranger as played by Gerard Butler in Dear Frankie.

Edited by Phill Lytle

"The greatest meat of all. The meat of friendship and fatherhood."

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The dad in The Return.

Not sure what category that goes into. "Weird God-figure fathers"?

Just off the top of my head, the mute, distant but secretly affectionate father seems to be the most common trope in the movies I've seen.

Everything that matters is invisible.

-- Robert Bresson

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I have no idea why, but the first film that came to mind on seeing this thread was 10 Things I Hate about You (1999), which concerns (among other things) a single dad and his two teenaged daughters. It's a comedy told from a predominantly teenaged point of view, but the dad, as I recall, is a pretty sympathetic fellow, and indeed the daughter who reacts to him most negatively is, if memory serves, the younger girl whose older sister is just as protective of her, in her own way, as the father is. What I'm saying is that the film's main character, i.e. the older sister, is positioned somewhere BETWEEN the protective father and the yearning-to-be-free younger sister, and this sort of allows the film to see both sides.

I remember liking Eugene Levy's dad in the American Pie movies (1999-2003), too, but he was clearly more of a bumbler.

My third-favorite film of all time, The Family Way (1966), is primarily about a couple of newlyweds, but there's an interesting dramatic shift about two-thirds of the way into the film, where our focus turns to the bridegroom's parents, and the focus of the final scene -- a scene that sometimes gets my eyes misty just THINKING about it -- is the bridegroom's father.

In fact, some years ago, when I composed one of my earlier lists of all-time favorite films, I noticed that several of the titles on that list revolved around father-son relationships, including The Godfather, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Stand by Me and the Star Wars trilogy. (And then there is Fiddler on the Roof, which is about a father who has five DAUGHTERS rather than sons -- which, as Steve Sailer noted the other day, could also be said about Pride and Prejudice.) You could even throw Lawrence of Arabia into the mix, even though we never see Lawrence's dad, because the fact that Lawrence was an illegitimate child (a fact that is revealed when Lawrence briefly discusses his dad with Ali) sets the stage for many of his identity-confusion issues.

Come to think of it, you could even throw The Terminator into the mix, since in a weird way it is about an unseen son who sends his father on a mission to BECOME his father. But now I'm stretching things a tad, no doubt.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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My third-favorite film of all time, The Family Way (1966), is primarily about a couple of newlyweds, but there's an interesting dramatic shift about two-thirds of the way into the film, where our focus turns to the bridegroom's parents, and the focus of the final scene -- a scene that sometimes gets my eyes misty just THINKING about it -- is the bridegroom's father

I am going to watch this as soon as I can. Along with your other two favorite films.

I wrote and deleted a post about "well-intentioned dads dealing with stuff" because I thought you had that covered in the "dads on a learning curve" bit (Mr. Mom for that latter category?). Films that came to mind were To Kill a Mockingbird, Ponette, and The Secret Lives of Dentists.

I think an interesting sub-category of this would be "dads that are dealing with their dads."

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

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BTW, links (and possible quasi-ahems) to our previous threads on:

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Sympathetic but flawed dads on a learning curve:

Tim Lockwood (Flint's father) in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. Their relationship is strained especially after Flint's wonderfully supportive mother passes away but he is there for Flint and even pulls himself out of his comfort zone to bridge the cap between them.

Yeah, it's interesting how this one subverts the expected stereotype. Flint's dad seems all dressed up to be an overbearing, authoritarian, unsympathetic dad, but then it turns out that he's a more sympathetic sort -- unlike his near counterparts in How to Train Your Dragon (and The Secret of Kells, but that's not Hollywood and so out of scope).

Decent dads who die quickly:

Spyros - Perseus' father in the 2010 remake Clash of the Titans. Played by Pete Postlethwaite.

Well, okay, but I guess I'm mainly thinking of father figures as they relate to children. Perseus's adoptive/foster dad is there for him into adulthood, so I'd tend to classify him as a basically sympathetic dad. Simba's dad dies while he's a child, that's what matters there. With the heroine of The Princess and the Frog we don't know when her father dies, but the last we see of him she's still a little girl, so we're probably meant to suppose that she was without her daddy for a significant chunk of her growing up years. Same with Burton's Alice in Wonderland, I guess.

The Stranger as played by Gerard Butler in Dear Frankie.

Surrogate father figures will need some categories of their own -- but Dear Frankie is out of Hollywood scope. (Hm, would In America count?)

The dad in The Return.

Not sure what category that goes into. "Weird God-figure fathers"?

Just off the top of my head, the mute, distant but secretly affectionate father seems to be the most common trope in the movies I've seen.

Yeah. But of course The Return is way out of scope.

My third-favorite film of all time, The Family Way (1966), is primarily about a couple of newlyweds, but there's an interesting dramatic shift about two-thirds of the way into the film, where our focus turns to the bridegroom's parents, and the focus of the final scene -- a scene that sometimes gets my eyes misty just THINKING about it -- is the bridegroom's father

I'll see if I can take a look at this for the earlier stuff. The main piece will focus on more recent stuff tho.

I think an interesting sub-category of this would be "dads that are dealing with their dads."

Uh huh, that would neatly cover the dynamics in The Rookie for example.

Wow, that's pretty bleak. I'm way out of touch with recent mainstream Hollywood, but I'm having a hard time coming up with better examples. SDG, can I talk you into changing the subject of your article? A Late Spring (Ozu) and 35 Shots of Rum (Denis) double-feature would highlight two of my all-time favorite movie dads.

Yeah, I've seen both and would love to write about that piece ... but of course it wouldn't be the kind of mainstream cultural assessment I'm trying to do here, which is basically my pitch here.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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Peter's already mentioned The Godfather, but in some ways I wonder if part 3 isn't the more fertile ground for what you're writing.

No-one's mentioned The Simpsons yet, which obviously does have a movie now

Fantastic Mr Fox would also fit. In fact several of Anderson's films have interesting Father figure roles.

And a few others might be Gladiator, Life is Beautiful, Les Miserables, Whale Rider, An Education,

Matt

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Thanks to all who've commented so far. Other takers? I'm interested in all suggestions of Hollywood father figures in film, especially father figures of children or in family films, and especially comparatively recently (e.g., last quarter century). The more the merrier!

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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Teen movies are usually about the moments when the kids escape the watchful eye of their parents, but I've always loved the late-night scene in Sixteen Candles when Samantha's father comes downstairs to apologize for forgetting her birthday. It's a pretty genuine moment, and Molly Ringwald is good at showing that, despite Sam's teen angst, she's still so grateful to have her father's love and attention. Harry Dean Stanton in Pretty in Pink is another deeply-flawed but well-intentioned father.

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Teen movies are usually about the moments when the kids escape the watchful eye of their parents, but I've always loved the late-night scene in Sixteen Candles when Samantha's father comes downstairs to apologize for forgetting her birthday. It's a pretty genuine moment, and Molly Ringwald is good at showing that, despite Sam's teen angst, she's still so grateful to have her father's love and attention.

Paul Dooley is terrific in that scene. He is also terrific as Dave Stohler's frustrated dad in Breaking Away (a film that deserves to be dusted off every once in a while), a supporting role that was better than any of the other five that were nominated for a supporting actor Academy Award that year. Barbara Barrie was also terrific as Dave's mom. These two feel like real people, and not just obstacles to be placed in their kids way. This is especially true of a scene between Dave and his dad walking through the University of Indiana campus, where Dave's dad points out the stone work that he and the fathers of Dave's best friends cut from the quarries.

Dad: I was proud of my work. And the buildings went up. When they were finished the damnedest thing happened. It was like the buildings were too good for us. Nobody told us that. It just felt uncomfortable, that's all. You guys still go swimmin' in the quarries?

Dave: Sure.

Dad: So, the only thing you got to show for my 20 years of work is the holes we left behind?

Dooley's character is funny, ironic, sad, and most of the times overwhelmed by the strange thing that used to be his son, but he never stops worrying about him or loving him, and really wants his son to succeed in ways that he was unable to.

Edited by Baal_T'shuvah

Formerly Baal_T'shuvah

"Everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You just can't let the world judge you too much." - Maude 
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The brief cameo of Cptn. Kirk's dad at the beginning of the Star Trek reboot moved me greatly.

I think Life is Beautiful has probably also made it mainstream enough for the father in this story to be considered also in this "self-sacrificial dad" theme.

I'm sure there are more self-sacrificial dads out there but I'll have to dig at my memory to find them.

Also consider Mel Gibson's character in Signs (although he's not self-sacrificial). I especially remember the scene when he holds his son in his arms and helps him to breathe.

I hear what you are saying about the article's scope -- BUT I truly hope that a brief mention can be given to Totoro's warm, loving father figure.

That's just how eye roll.

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