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The Timeless Lessons of Hollywood Dads

From Atticus Finch to Furious Styles, movie dads have always spoken to the changing times of their decade.

by Rod Bastanmehr
Jun 21 2015, 4:59am

It's A Wonderful Life. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Dads, much like movies, are the best when they're not the absolute worst. When they preach a certain gospel, it can be tempting to plug your ears. When they dazzle you the right way, you can turn into a kid again. The form and function of fatherhood changes with the ages, and Hollywood has often served to cement new paternal roles and reflect back on old ones. Some of film's most important works over the last 70-plus years have provided a rich tapestry of fatherly archetypes, over the course of world wars, urban violence, and radical shifts in gender roles. Here is a look at some of the most culturally significant dads Hollywood has given us and what they tell us about our changing world.

Post-War Dad: Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Produzioni De Sica

Before Roberto Benigni, there was one truly devastating portrayal of Italian fatherhood on the fringes of World War II: Antonio Ricci in Bicycle Thieves. Released in 1948, the film was met with surprising hostility. Many criticized the film's sentimentality as reductive. Even fellow Italian neo-realist filmmakers were left indifferent, criticizing the film for being artistically bankrupt and favoring schmaltz over storytelling.

The backlash didn't last for long. A mere two years later, the Academy Awards would highlight the film with an honorary Oscar. Four years after that, Sight & Sound's annual poll, taken by both critics and filmmakers, would dub Bicycle Thieves the greatest film of all time. Today, the film sits pretty at number six on the list.

It's not hard to see why. Lamberto Maggiorani's portrayal of stern but driven Ricci embodies the strange impasse of Italian life in the lingering days after fascism. The country's shifting notion of leadership is best exemplified through an intimate portrait of one man navigating the rubble of a new frontier. The rich history of the country's love language is traded for something more guttural and primal. Paternal instinct remains a pretty evocative image of a country in the midst of reconfiguration. By condensing the action into a few short hours, the father-son story doubles as a "day in the life" of one man's attempts to build a life out of poverty, an allegory of an entire country looking to rebuild.

Father of the Civil Rights Era: To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

Brentwood Productions

Atticus Finch is easy to love. He looks great in a three-piece, rocked rounded eye frames long before Warby Parker, and generally champions good vibes in a non-McConaughey way. He's been called the Greatest On-Screen Hero of All Time by AFI, and one of the great characters in literature. His name is synonymous with a certain self-flattering vision of America As It Should Be.

Immortalized by OG DILF Gregory Peck, Finch is the avatar for America's most hopeful vision. Our country is in no position to claim that Finch's nobility has rubbed off on us yet, and considering that Mockingbird was released just two years before the passing of the Civil Rights Act, the film was ensconced in some of contemporary America's tensest climate even when it first hit theaters.

Fatherhood in Mockingbird is used as a totem for American nobility and liberal exceptionalism.

That conflict of when the film was released vs. when it takes place proves crucial in understanding Atticus Finch's cultural appeal. The 1960s were the decade that turned the 'Generation Gap' from sociological principal into cultural conflict, and as a result Mockingbird, and Finch himself, prove to be the cinematic end of the "Father Knows Best" era. In this way, Finch is a father figure straddling two different generations, but naturally on the right side of history. Fatherhood in Mockingbird is used as a totem for American nobility and liberal exceptionalism, establishing the value of fatherly wisdom in an era of radical change and parental disconnect.

Finch's lens of "treat others well; do good" is powerful, if still in-keeping with Hollywood's "white savior" school of thought. Meanwhile, the film's historical preservation is a touch precious: It was filmed in black and white when most films in 1962 were being shot in color, infusing Mockingbird with instant nostalgia. In Finch, our cultural imagination manifested a father to guide us through times of radical change.

Father of New Hollywood: The Godfather (1972)

Paramount Pictures

The Godfather is the definitive film about the messiness that comes with fatherhood, and has since its release become the common language across generations of men, with grandfathers, fathers, and sons all buckling under the film's enormous influence and quotable moments. Forty years from now, "Leave the gun, take the cannoli," is still going to be a favorite punchline among dads.

Almost everyone I know watched The Godfather for the first time with their dads.

If the 1970s carried on the tradition of generational conflict, with sons desperate to distance themselves from the types of men they saw their fathers to be, The Godfather uses blood ties and mob honor to get to the heart of that conflict. The transformation of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), the recently returned World War II soldier who initially wants no part of his family's nefarious business, is the film's core conflict. And the intimacy of the film's sprawling saga, which would go on to span two sequels with the second also serving as a prequel, is what makes it a profound meditation of the relationships between fathers and sons.

Even considering its final message—that we are bound to repeat our father's mistakes, symbolically becoming the very people we pushed away—the film's historic ties to manliness help give it a powerful secondary meaning. Almost everyone I know watched The Godfather for the first time with their dads.

Father of Changing Tides: Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979)

Columbia Pictures

When you consider that just eleven years earlier, the Hays Code—a set of industry guidelines meant to establish a moral code for American film—made the topic of divorce taboo for filmmakers, Kramer vs. Kramer comes off as surprisingly radical.

Jewish dreamboat and eternally underrated Dustin Hoffman as Kramer captures the sweet spot of a dad nearly fraying at the edges. Meanwhile, the other Kramer is played by Meryl Streep, and for the first and only time, the audience finds itself rooting against Streep because she's trying to tear this makeshift family of two apart.

Kramer vs. Kramer is a crucial moment in paternal cinema. Not only is the film one of the first on-screen depictions of single-father households, but it's also a film rooted in the era's new wave of feminism. The catalyst for the film's conflict is Streep's desire to find herself outside the role of both mother and wife. And when faced with single dad duties, the undercurrent of Hoffman's transformation is tethered to the idea of "having it all." In the aftermath of Gloria Steinem and in the same year as Margaret Thatcher, identity, leadership, and family were all buzzwords, and Kramer vs. Kramer managed to be a meditation on the evolving meaning of fatherhood in a world where women were beginning to rebel against traditional gender roles.

Father of the Streets: Boyz N Da Hood (1991)

Columbia Pictures

On April 30, 1992, America bid adieu to one of television's most influential (and, recently, most disgraced) fathers with the series finale of The Cosby Show. At the same time, April 30 became the most violent night in the LA Race Riots, the six-day aftermath of the Rodney King verdicts. Nothing captures the strange schizophrenia of American race relations at the end of the 20th century better than Cosby's vision of black promise ending on the most violent night of a six-day race riot.

Furious Styles is the zen-like voice of reason for an entire community and a powerful subversion of absent father narratives.

Just one year before the riots would overtake South Central Los Angeles, sparking a nationwide debate over police brutality that still rages today, there was John Singleton's Boyz N Da Hood. The film, which depicted the complicated ties of life in South Central, would eventually earn Singleton an Oscar nomination, making him the first African American and youngest Best Director nominee in history. Today, Boyz N Da Hood is arguably one of the most important dramas of the 1990s.

But it's Lawrence Fishburne as Furious Styles who stands tallest, the king of dad-like figures. Furious Styles is the zen-like voice of reason for an entire community and a powerful subversion of absent father narratives. As our anchor in a city complicated by gang violence and urban change (he rallies against 'gentrification' before it became a buzzword), Furious is like James Baldwin for the MTV generation. "Is something wrong? Yeah," he says to an LAPD officer checking in on a dispute. "It's just too bad you don't know what it is." Two years after NWA dropped "Fuck The Police," and one year before LA would be engulfed in flames, Fishburne's paternal speeches serve as the steady, aware calm before the storm.

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