Who's your daddy?
Steve Martin, the silver fox?
Or Darth Vader, asthmatic?
Who comes to mind when you think about fatherhood on film?
The gentle father figure?
Or the tough-love sort?
It's simplistic, for sure. Those choices leave no room for a father with a booming Go-To-Your Room throat and a nurturing nature. But this being Father's Day - one of those days when you're more likely to take dad out to the movies - it's worth considering how the movies treat dear papa.
In short, not all that well.
Steve and Darth may be polar extremes when it comes to parenthood - as well as the two most persistent images of male parenting in film from the past 30 years - but at the movies in general, there's rarely much in the way of a happy medium. Actually, film rarely offers anything about dad at all. It's much easier, for instance, to draw up a list of good and not-so-good fathers from television than from film.
Fathers on television (think Bill Cosby, Fred MacMurray) can simply exist as lead characters - though usually on sitcoms, and almost always in large family situations. Fathers in movies, if they have any significant role at all, tend to represent something about virtue or parenting itself: the fact that they are a father is not merely a fact to be noted, it's a launch pad for ruminating on lineage (The Godfather) and sacrifice (The Bicycle Thief) and tradition (Meet Me in St. Louis).
Television fathers reflect the nature of television - they're domestic and familiar. Movies have less room for dad because movies are more likely about storytelling and wish fulfillment, and few audiences are going to the movies to wish they had kids, or wish they taught life lessons.
They go to rebel against bourgeois dads (The Graduate, Rebel Without a Cause), stand up to mean fathers (The Great Santini) - and run screaming from even scarier ones (The Shining). The complex father who comes with no emotional baggage is so rare in film history I can think of only two: Paul Winfield's sharecropper in Sounder and Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, roles that make Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life look like a louse.
And yet, look again.
This is a guess, but as America has gone more suburban and domestic in the past half-century, the role of the father in film has gotten slightly larger. Either that, or movies have become slightly more like television: It's not much of a leap from the Steve Martin of Parenthood, Cheaper by the Dozen, and Father of the Bride to the same material as a sitcom. Same with Robert DeNiro's protective dad in the Focker films. On the other hand, Denzel Washington was made for movies, and one of his specialties, rarely mentioned, is the decent dad who does right.
An even tastier example: the most movie-ish movie person of post-World War II Hollywood, Steven Spielberg, is famously something of a bard of suburbia. Think Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Think Jaws, or even Saving Private Ryan: Tom Hanks had a family back home. In this month's War of the Worlds, as well as his previous collaboration with Tom Cruise, Minority Report, the hero just happens to be a good father. And like Cruise in real life (and Spielberg's father), these dads are divorced.
In fact, the multiplex has been crowded lately with characters who are complicated first and fathers second: Russell Crowe's Depression dad in Cinderella Man, Dennis Quaid's good-guy businessman from In Good Company. Adam Sandler was convincing as a timid chef in Spanglish but even more memorable as a sympathetic father.
And the best new film dad?
You want well-rounded. You want a flesh-and-blood father who reminds you of your own father, for better and for worse:
Get a pencil and pixels.
Albert Brooks' fretful Marlin in Finding Nemo and Craig T. Nelson's Mr. Incredible in The Incredibles are fierce protectors of family, but what Pixar does that is truly revolutionary - on the parenting front, anyway - is refuse to make these dads stoic and rock solid and all-knowing.
They made them human.
Which made them fathers.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6117.