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Insights

Fatherhood for Fun and Profit

A screenwriter delves into cinema's fatherhood tropes

June 11, 2019

Father’s Day is a time for reflection or, if you’re a dad like me, self-reflection. What kind of father am I? Am I Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills in Taken: an absentee dad ready to make up for years of missed piano recitals with a pile of dead Albanian gangsters? Or am I Liam Neeson’s Jimmy Conlon in Run All Night: an absentee dad ready to make up for years of missed piano recitals with a pile of dead Irish gangsters?

Sadly, neither. My particular set of skills (stay-at-home-dad, film MFA) really only qualifies me to write dad-centric screenplays (write what you know!). Fortunately, there are more of us stay-at-home dads (SAHDs, HAHAhaha ha . . . hmmm) every day. Seventeen percent of stay-at-home parents are men, up from 10 percent in 1989. That’s not just a balancing of gender roles; that’s a target demographic.

Can films about men as the primary caregiver really make us screenwriters/me rich? They’ve done boffo box office in the past, as we’ll see. But past performance is not indicative of future results. To do this right, we must understand the history of cinematic solo dads relative to where we’re at today, so our scripts aren’t played out like a Betamax tape.

What Hollywood has to say about male caregivers largely depends on how they found themselves in charge of a kid. So let’s look at the various categories of dads in cinema and limit ourselves to films covering the formative years of a child’s life.

The Widower

The widower is Hollywood’s preferred male caregiver, the Cadillac of single fatherhood. Respected and pitied, even — dare I say — sexy? The ne plus ultra of widowers is Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) in To Kill a Mockingbird. He’s a conscientious father, a pillar of his community, and you know the ladies are bringing cobblers to his door day and night. We’re all trying to get like you, Atticus (minus the dead wife, of course).

But not every widower can be an Atticus. Some are too hard-assed like Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) in The Sound of Music. Others too whimsical, like Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke) in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Too this or too that — men who must find their complement in a wife to be complete. This era of films reinforced the value of a traditional family structure, and it continues right through Sleepless in Seattle.

Speaking of Tom Hanks, his turn as Mike Sullivan in Road to Perdition is another fine example of the widower. With his surviving son in tow, he runs around the Midwest like a Depression-era John Wick in pursuit of vengeance for his murdered wife and daughter. He may be an emotionally repressed gangland assassin, but he still comes across as one hell of a loving dad — that’s the magic of Tom Hanks.

Films in a more contemporary setting also preach the dangers of rearing kids outside the mainstream. Hanna, Captain Fantastic, and Leave No Trace feature widowers who reject society and choose to live off-the-grid. Men of strong opinions and weak people skills, these Grizzly Dads are so fiercely committed to parenting that they give up the Internet and hot showers to protect their children from the dangers of civilization. A return to society is usually prompted by the onset of puberty because, while killing a bear with karate is tough, it’s nothing compared to wrangling horny tweens.

Men of strong opinions and weak people skills, these Grizzly Dads are so fiercely committed to parenting that they give up the Internet and hot showers to protect their children from the dangers of civilization.

A recent batch of dramedies offer perhaps the most relatable depictions of widowers struggling with fatherhood: Morris from America, Eighth Grade, and The Descendants (technically, his wife is in a coma but hey). These tragicomic dads are dealing with their own grief while trying to be there for their kids. Think of them as the flawed heirs to Atticus Finch — the Mr. Pibb to his Dr. Pepper.

This batch of films gave us ten Oscar wins plus twenty-three nominations and the highest grossing film of 1965. Widowers get respect; widowers get paid. Invest now.

Custody Battle

If the widower is a Cadillac, then the divorcee is a rusty Corolla. Fathers facing tough times while struggling to care for a child well enough to maintain custody. Grab a box of Kleenex; you’re gonna need it.

An early example of the genre is the 1931 weepie The Champ starring Wallace Beery as a has-been boxer training for a comeback in Tijuana. The Champ’s devoted son, Dink, does his best to keep his dad on the straight and narrow, but The Champ is an inveterate drunk and a compulsive gambler. When Dink’s mother shows up with her wealthy new husband who offers Dink a better life, they must decide if separation is best. The Champ gets serious about his training in an effort to win a big fight and prove himself a worthy father. He wins the bout and regains self-respect but dies from his injuries.

Over the Top swaps the boxing for arm wrestling and eighteen-wheelers. Sly Stallone’s Lincoln Hawk fights his ex-wife’s family for custody of their son, crashing a semi-truck into their mansion. (It’s called Over the Top for a reason.) All parents face hard choices, but Lincoln Hawk is offered doozy: $500,000 plus a new semi if he’ll sign away custody of his son. (Remember: His kid kinda sucks.) But Lincoln sticks it out. He wins the arm wrestling tournament, a truck, and his kid, thereby ensuring his place in the pantheon of weird-ass 80s films.

The Champ proved himself in the squared circle and Lincoln Hawk in whatever shape people arm wrestle in, but the fathers in Kramer vs. Kramer and Daddy’s Little Girls must prove their worth in a court of law — to have society literally judge their parenting ability. Because that’s what divorce dad films are all about: a competition of some kind to determine fitness as a parent. It’s even seen in Pursuit of Happyness where Will Smith competes for a brokerage job through an unpaid internship.

If it seems like there’s an increased interest exploring custody battles, it may stem from men’s anxiety over losing that battle. In 1960, only 11 percent of children lived apart from their fathers. By 2010, that number was 27 percent.

This category has custody of seven Oscar wins and eight nominations. On the other hand, Over the Top garnered two Razzie “wins” and one nomination. The mileage you'll get out of this category as a screenwriter (and viewer) may vary. 

Baby on the Doorstep

The opposite of a custody battle, it’s not about who gets to keep the kids but who has to. These films are about men who’ve avoided responsibility only to have it suddenly thrust upon them when a child lands on their doorstep. Their hedonistic lifestyles — simultaneously enviable and spiritually bankrupt — are upended by the newfound responsibility.

Take Three Men and a Baby, which finds three womanizers attempting to care for a baby literally left at the doorstep of their New York City apartment. The main subplot involves a drug smuggling mix-up, but you can’t beat hiding a heroin shipment in a pile of dirty diapers as a metaphor for their clashing lifestyles. Giving you three male caregivers for the price of a single ticket, it’s no wonder this was the highest grossing film of 1987.

The Game Plan is pure Baby on the Doorstep. Pro footballer Joe Kingman (The Frickin Rock!) is an arrogant showboat at the top of his game and then Bam! Baby on the doorstep. Sorry, Joe, it’s time for some feels. By the end of the movie, he’s blowing endorsement deals just to hug his little crumb snatcher.

If that seems strange to you, it’s because you don’t have a kid. Paternal instincts are a real, physical thing. Mother Nature gets inside your head and starts messing around with the chemistry. Being with your kid is like being a little high all the time.

Orphans

Solo adoptive fathers are similar to Baby-on-the-Doorstep dads in that their children often arrive out of the blue. These adoptive fathers fall lower on society’s totem pole than the doorstep playboys, but they’re nobler because, you know, orphans.

The earliest example (and stone-cold classic) is Charlie Chaplin’s first feature, The Kid (1921). Chaplin’s Tramp finds an orphan baby and rears him to a five-year-old mini-Tramp. They’re a tight team. The kid throws rocks through windows, and The Tramp, a glazier, happens by with his tools. Meanwhile, mini-Tramp’s mom achieves fame and fortune and offers a reward for the boy’s return. Forces mobilize to separate The Tramp from his son and return him to the mother. Ultimately, the policeman who’s been The Tramp’s bane captures him, but instead of taking The Tramp to prison, the officer takes him to the boy at his mother’s mansion, where he’s welcomed inside.

The Kid’s influence can be felt in films like Paper Moon (one Oscar), Léon: The Professional, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. These fathers are emotionally stunted outsiders (con man, assassin, and hermit respectively) who reluctantly adopt and pass along their tradecraft to a young charge. By learning to love and be loved in return, they mature beyond their arrested state. 

There Will Be Blood (two Oscars, six noms) takes this basic set-up but gives it a significant twist: the rejection of the orphan. Oil baron Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) sends away his adopted son-slash-“business partner.” Closing his heart to orphan magic is Plainview’s downfall.

Stay-At-Home Dads

SAHD films flip the traditional gender dynamic by putting dad at home with the kids while mom brings home the bacon. The titles of these films (Mr. Mom, Mrs. Doubtfire) often underline this reversal by feminizing the men. This is the type of parenting that’s seen the largest cultural shift. Scenarios that at one time would have been humiliating are slowly becoming just another option for modern families.

Mr. Mom (1983) is the oldest of these films and the one most rooted in traditional social mores. Jack Butler (Michael Keaton) loses his engineering job with Ford Motors, and with the entire U.S. auto industry in the crapper, he can’t find a replacement. So Jack’s wife, who had left the workforce to raise their children, must step back into a career in advertising. Jack struggles with childcare and is threatened by his wife’s success. It’s a disappointing film because it takes the many real economic and social anxieties of the 80s and addresses them in the laziest possible way. In the end, Jack and his wife return to their traditional roles.

Mrs. Doubfire arrived a full decade after Mr. Mom with Robin Williams in the role of Daniel Hilard. His wife (Sally Fields) a working mother (progress!) tires of his unreliability, and when he walks off a job and then throws a disastrous birthday party, she files for divorce. The judge awards custody to Miranda (custody battle!) with shared custody dependent on Daniel finding a job and an apartment. Daniel, in disguise as Mrs. Doubtfire, becomes the children's’ nanny to be closer to them. We must allow the film its premise, but it seems that the world is so geared toward norms that a man must turn caring for his own children into gainful employment. Indeed, Daniel manages to monetize the character of Mrs. Doubtfire by making her the host of her own children’s show. You see the same kind of employment/parenting double-dipping in Daddy Day Care (and in me writing this article.)

Scenarios that at one time would have been humiliating are slowly becoming just another option for modern families.

I found Incredibles II to be the most entertaining and truthful depiction of SAHD parenting. Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), his wife Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), and their children are in desperate straits when the government cracks down on their superhero activities. Fortunately, a wealthy industrialist wants to change the laws and bring back supers through a well-funded PR campaign and is looking to recruit. Mr. Incredible is raring to go, while Elastigirl is ambivalent, but it’s Elastigirl they want. The family could stick it out if Mr. Incredible found a regular job, but in a terrific scene, he convinces Elastigirl to pursue this opportunity while he cares for the kids. 

The key element here is choice, one that they made as a family. It’s not easy for Mr. Incredible. What he knows (he needs to watch the kids) conflicts with what he feels (he should be out there fighting crime). He tamps down his frustrations and gives parenting his all. And pleasingly, his parenting plotline is every bit as engaging as the Elastigirl’s conflict with Screenslaver. Pixar nailed it, warts and all. It’s no surprise that they were awarded an Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

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Prison Dads

We’ve hit all the major dad caregiver categories, but I’d like to take a moment to touch upon some of the more esoteric varieties.

Prison Dads are incarcerated with their sons and must find a way to succeed as fathers when they’ve already completely failed as fathers. Starred Up (four BAFTA wins) and In the Name of the Father (seven Oscar noms, two BAFTA noms) prove the Brits love this category, but I think it’s ready to hop the pond. Cool Hand Luke Jr., anyone? It’s never too late to desecrate a classic!

I’ll admit to fudging a bit with this category as the sons are technically past their formative years, but a recent Fictional Research Center study reveals that Prison Dads are 1,000,000% more likely to get shivved than even the worst stay-at-home dad. That should make us all feel better about our parenting skills and is reason enough to include Prison Dads here.

Geppettos

Our final category eliminates the need for a mother altogether. The Geppetto crafts a child in his own image and is both God and father to his offspring. Geppetto is closest to the father end of the spectrum as it was his pure love that convinced the Blue Fairy to animate Pinocchio. Geppetto’s closest sci-fi equivalent is Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) in CHAPPiE. In the middle, you have Star Trek TNG’s Dr. Noonien Soong (Brent Spinner) inventor of Data (Spinner, again) who has the vanity to give his androids his face but exhibits caring paternal instincts as well.

Then come the creeps. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) of Blade Runner and Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) of Westworld fall closer to the God end of the spectrum. They craft (disturbing, false) childhoods for their androids and take great pride in their progeny’s achievements, which is akin to parenting. Nonetheless, they consider the androids more creations than children — and disposable creations at that. Finally, there’s Ex Machina’s Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaacs), who is just super, super gross.

I have no doubt that dudes will one day be raising little AI babies. Before that day arrives, we seriously need to find better role models, because there’s an interplay between media and the society it depicts. At times, media reflects that society, and other times, it conforms society to the images it presents. One of the most entrenched images in media is that of the American family. Leave it to Beaver, All in the Family, The Simpsons — they give us nuclear families with the husband at work and the wife at home with the kids.

Writers should consider how the structure of the American family has changed in the last half-century. A household might have two dads or two moms. They might have mothers who work and fathers who nurture. There might be a single parent content to remain single. The old way is no longer the only way. Remember this when you write your blockbuster Father’s Day classic, and Atticus will be proud.

A graduate of Columbia University's MFA film program, Avram Dodson has won awards at The Hamptons International Film Festival, Austin Film Festival, and SXSW for his films. His screenwriting has been acknowledged by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Columbia University’s Blue List. Avram was editor of a feature film by DGA award-winning director Miguel Silveira as part of the IFP Film Lab 2017. Currently a resident of Miami, Avram is editing a feature documentary on Tom Wolfe.
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