Hollywood’s Treatment of Fathers

Behind the ambivalence lies an awareness of their importance.

This month, over Father’s Day weekend, Disney releases Toy Story 3, the much-anticipated third installment in the groundbreaking Pixar series that made childhood icons of Woody the cowboy and Buzz Lightyear. Early buzz on the threequel suggests it is good if not brilliant, and I’m moderately enthused about seeing it; I might even wind up taking my family to see it on opening weekend. There is, though, 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 thirdact 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 post-marital 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. 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 Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, with its über-failure father.


Does the Hollywood of today have a problem portraying strong, effective father figures? That question was recently put to me by an interviewer, with the parenthesis “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.

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 to Jem in his sickness.

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. Stella Bruzzi in Bringing Up Daddy argues 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. Atticus’ 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, 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 paterfamilas is his true self—a self he lost with the death of his first wife.


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 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’s imagination.

Even in 1950, the father figure had feet of clay, though Tracy’s Father films were in general 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 is a symptom 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.

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 (named Nina in the remake) 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.

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 similarly 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 over-fond 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 tell-tale 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, Nina 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.

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. 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. 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.


Even so, looking at the fortunes of father figures in other remakes reinforces a sense of fatherhood diminishing over time.

In the 1950s, actor Van Heflin played a couple of variations on a similar father figure in a pair of classic Westerns, Shane and 3:10 to Yuma. Heflin’s character in both films is a subtly impotent homesteader struggling to provide for his family, when his life is complicated by the arrival of a lone man of action whose virility poses a challenge to Heflin’s husband/father figure. In Shane the lone man is a friend, a gunslinger who takes up as Heflin’s hired hand and eventually guns down his enemies; in 3:10 to Yuma the lone man is an enemy, a charismatic outlaw whom Heflin must bring to justice.

In both films Heflin is somewhat outclassed, but still man enough to contend with the lone wolf at least as an underdog, and to win respect in the end. Fifty years later, the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma presents a completely different scenario: not just impotent but thoroughly emasculated, Christian Bale’s homesteader is despised by his son for his weakness and inadequacy, and utterly unable to contend with the virtually supernatural prowess of Russell Crowe’s outlaw.

Again, in 1962, in To Kill a Mockingbird and Cape Fear, Gregory Peck played an upright lawyer and family man whose children are physically threatened by a mortal enemy with a vendetta against their father. The menace is far more intense in Cape Fear, where (like Heflin) Peck’s character, Sam Bowden, is outmatched by the toughness of ex-con Max Cady, but not so much that he is completely incompetent to protect his family. More insidiously, Cape Fear explores how far Bowden is willing to stoop to Cady’s level in order to fight him; in the end, when Bowden has Cady at his mercy, he 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.

In Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear, much like the 3:10 to Yuma remake, the Cady character is elevated to Mephistophelian cunning and power, while Bowden is not only no match for him physically, but is fatally compromised morally as well. An unfaithful husband with a wandering eye, Bowden earned Cady’s undying enmity by betraying his oath of attorney while defending Cady, suppressing evidence that might have aided Cady’s cause. In the overwrought climactic confrontation, Bowden lies helpless while his teenaged daughter takes drastic action to stop Cady. Then, when he has Cady at his mercy, Bowden fully intends to kill him—but fate takes a hand, and so Bowden is impotent to the last, and can only watch Cady die at the hand of God.


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 who has disappointed him.

The original Star Wars trilogy likewise ended in 1983 with a 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 bogged down in the third film.

Other recent films attest to 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. 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.

Recent 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 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 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

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.

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 for worthy fathers as well as frustration and resentment over the unworthy ones. Even when Hollywood’s fathers let us down, there is often, behind the disappointment, a longing to believe in fatherhood, a yearning for a father who will not let us down.


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About Steven D. Greydanus 50 Articles
Steven D. Greydanus is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, and the founder of DecentFilms.com. He has degrees in media arts and religious studies. He and his wife Suzanne have seven children.