Monday, October 11, 2010

Single Father Films

Single Father is a new BBC four-part series starring David Tennant (trying to distance himself from Doctor Who as far as possible) as the eponymous father, whose wife is killed in a road accident, leaving him with four kids to raise.

Traditionally I guess it's unusual for a father to raise his children alone; I don't know, perhaps the BBC thinks it's being original or even daring, but there's a long tradition of motherless movies, and the concept seems to have gained in popularity in recent years. Mostly, the films are either pretty lame (A Simple Twist of Fate, Jersey Girl, Big Daddy, Mall Cop, The Holiday, Inkheart) or portray the father as incapable (Jack and Sarah with Richard E Grant, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 10 Things I Hate About You); usually a bit of both (an exception may be Michael Douglas as a single father in American President; he has a pretty responsible job and it's not a bad film).

(Certainly, single mums in movies are portrayed as capable and managing to have some fun too: Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, Kate Winslet in Hideous Kinky, Juliette Binoche in Chocolat, Keri Russell in Waitress, Renée Zellweger in Jerry McGuire).

Each decade seems to have its blockbuster single father film: in the 1970s it was Kramer vs Kramer (1979) with Dustin Hoffman; the 80s gave us Three Men and a Baby (1987); in the 90s it was Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and Mrs Doubtfire (also 1993); the jury's still out on the 00s – perhaps Love Actually (2003) with Liam Neeson providing the single father strand or The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) with Will Smith?

I occasionally wonder who decides (and why) to make a child motherless in a film: (presumably male) writer, studio executive, director? In the case of Knowing (2009), it was the actor Nicolas Cage. A single father himself for some eighteen years, Cage wanted to expel the movie myth that a man couldn't capably raise his child on his own. I'm not sure having a film about a boy who hears whispers from aliens and eventually leaves earth in a UFO is the best way to go about re-addressing the balance, but full kudos to Cage for trying.

Indeed, either having the father and child in an extreme situation (it's the end of the world in Knowing) or the father being less than fully in charge of his faculties seems a convenient way out for some films. The Road, based on the book by Cormac McCarthy, has Viggo Mortensen and son trudge through a bleak post-apocalyptic landscape. I am Sam (2001) has Sean Penn as a mentally retarded father; Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) stars Dick Van Dyke as crackpot inventor Caratacus Potts who doesn't bother sending his children to school; Nanny McPhee (2005), a Mary Poppins ripoff, has Colin Firth as a bumbling dad. But what runs through these films, no matter the circumstances, is how much the father loves his child.

Disney films, surprisingly perhaps, considering they're meant to be 'family' films, have a long tradition of broken families and in particular single dads, from Pinocchio (1940), Bambi (1942) and Cinderella (1950, though the single father dies at the start of the film) through to more recent classics like King Triton in The Little Mermaid (1989), (another) crackpot inventor, Maurice, in Beauty and the Beast (1991), the Native American tribe chief in Pocahontas (1995), the neurotic clown fish dad in Finding Nemo (2003) and Patrick Dempsey in Enchanted (2008). Indeed, single fathers far outweigh single mothers in Disney films, with only Dumbo (1941) and Toy Story (1995) featuring lone mums. The Sony Pictures Animation feature, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009), also features a single father, who speaks in fishing metaphors and has very little control over his son.

One Fine Day (1996) and The Parent Trap (1998) get points for being about both a single mum (Pfeiffer and Richardson respectively) and a single dad (Clooney and Quaid respectively).

The Guardian Weekend magazine recently had an article written by a father of four children whose wife had died. He said women now found him irresistibly attractive and he could get any woman he wanted (unsurprisingly, this provoked something of a backlash in the letters page the following week). There's an assumption that the father hasn't got a clue how to raise children; that he needs help; that he's also caring and sensitive. Apparently women love this kind of stuff. Perhaps this is why many leading men are lining up to play single fathers.

I wonder how many are going to line up to play Bunny Monroe in a possible TV-adaption by John Hillcoat of Nick Cave's The Death of Bunny Monroe. Bunny becomes a single dad when his wife commits suicide and he's forced to acknowledge his son's existence; even then he's more interested in getting laid.

Given the influx of single dad films, you'd think mothers are leaving their families (or simply dying) in droves. They're not. It's still the father who is far more likely to walk out (or die).

Abrams's and Spielberg's sentimental, retro monster movie, Super 8 (2011), contained two single fathers: one uptight, the other a mess.


Unknown said...

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Unknown said...

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