• Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size
  • default color
  • cyan color
  • red color


Member Area
The art of Randy Thom

 Sound designer (FW35)

Fatherhood and Masculinity in Post-War Hollywood
Stella Bruzzi’s new book (Bringing Up Daddy - Fatherhood and Masculinity in Post-War Hollywood) examines for the first time the cinematic representation of such a seminal character as the father. Interview by Marco Zee-Jotti

Marco Zee-Jotti – What brought you to write a book about fathers in Hollywood films?

Stella Bruzzi – I was interested in the fact that no one had written one before, and also intrigued that men have not done themselves. There had been books on mothers and Hollywood likes fathers much more that mothers, especially single, problem mothers. So, my initial impulse was to fill a gap, there are so many films that centre on the father and no one has ever talked about them very much. I realised that I had to write a kind of historical survey, though the book also offers a theorisation of the father, I could not do just modern films, as the first book you need to offer some grounding. So I started with the II World War because that seemed like the obvious thing in terms of the American society.

MZJ – Why do you think the book had not been written before?

SB – Probably, because of how film theory has theorised masculinity. Masculinity has been defined in relation to the body, muscle, action and that’s not the father. The father keeps his clothes on most of the time, he is a kind of social entity. There is a whole range of books about masculinity that do not discuss the father.

MZJ – You mentioned mother films and father films. Can you say something more about the maternal ones?

SB – There is a range of films that suggest that Hollywood does not like the single mother. In Stella Dallas (1937) Barbara Stanwick gives up her daughter to a better mother, a woman who cannot see that the most important thing in her life is her child. The maternal is something that Hollywood hasn’t liked, supported. On the whole mothers tend to be positive when they are in a stable domestic situation, where there is a father. In the film Since You Went Away (1944) the father holds the family together. What interested me is that the perfect father in Hollywood movies was the single father. The most positive image is Atticus Finch: he can do everything, he is lawyer, he is liberal, he doesn’t seem to want a second wife, he is great with his kids, he is also clever with the gun when he had to shoot a rabid dog, he got everything. However, the figure that best articulates what the single father represents is Ted Kramer in Kramer vs Kramer (1979). In the beginning of the film you have a negative father who works until late, swaps sexist jokes with his boss, and comes home to find that his wife is leaving him. He is not very good for the first few days, but fatherhood changes him and he becomes perfect. The way he becomes perfect is to completely supplant the mother, she has become dispensable, what fathers can do, in Hollywood terms, is that they can hold down a job, do all the domestic stuff, care for their children and basically become the perfect working mother. In a film made a couple of years ago, Martin Scorses’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), similarly influenced by feminism, Alice (Ellen Burstyn) can’t cope very well as a single mother, she hasn’t got as much money as Ted Kramer, and she quickly finds another dad.

MZJ – Your book starts with the father in films after the war, what kind of father is Hollywood presenting in the 1940s?

SB – What I found really interesting in terms of the research that I did was when there was agreement about Hollywood and the general trend outside and when there was disagreement. One key disagreement is in the post-war period. Susan Falludi in her book Stiffed puts it very well: American society after the war wanted the strong father. They did not want troubled men to come back from the war, like Al in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and you can see that in popular fiction and women’s magazines, which were very evocative of that age. They were very confident that the men coming home would become the focus of the family again and that the family would be ok. Obviously, the divorce rate was very high, in 1947 there was a real peak. Men came back and family had changed, there were disagreement about who should be the head of the household, mothers had been earning money for quite a few years and did not necessarily want to go back to the old life. Fathers came back and they were suffering from traumas, they were psychologically damaged. Fred Zinnemann’s film Teresa (1951) is the example I chose of someone who comes back to New York with his Italian bride, who cannot adjust to society. In films like Teresa you have the older dad unable to be strong, the son who runs away and is unable to confront the fact that he is about to become a father himself, this led me to think what the father was in this period and that there is a whole issue in the post-war period about being afraid of the weak father. However, in the late 1940s you don’t get that many fathers, Best Years of Our Lives is the only key example.

At the end of the decade there is a cluster of films: Fort Apache (1948); The Heiress (1949); and House of Strangers (1949) in which there is an incredibly authoritarian father, a throwback to a pre-war era. The dad in the Heiress is one of the most loathsome fathers in the whole of Hollywood, but Col. Thursday in Fort Apache goes pretty close, just because he has a rather happy daughter, he is no less authoritarian. In House of Strangers you have this Italian-American dad who dominates his family in a particular way, and because of him his favourite son ends up in prison. You get a virtual dramatisation of Freud’s Totem and Taboo. There is a mob of sons who decide collectively to destroy the father, and what he stands for, in order to become him. There is a return to a very traditional father, and films like Teresa with its forgiving and troubled attitude, both of men and to men, are marginalized. Hollywood seems to perpetuate the myth of the strong, perhaps negative, father who doesn’t crumble.

MZJ – I wonder if this is connected to the rise in power of women…

SB – It is, and by the time you get to the 1950s, when women have lost that power, there is still the strong man but he is not so violent. It is linked to the idea of re-asserting the man as the head of the household and by and large that had happened in America by then. In Steven Cohan’s book Masked Men he refers to characters like Tom in Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) as the kind of hegemonic male image of the 1950s. In many ways people still believe that, they say that the big 1950s man was the breadwinner, the guy who comes in to the front door having got on the train back from New York and says ‘Honey, I’m home.’ What in fact Hollywood does with the breadwinner is to suggest that he is really unhappy. Rather than saying that this is what men aspire to be, Hollywood portrays them as miserable. I looked at three films all made in 1956: Bigger Than Life (1956), There Is Always Tomorrow (1956) and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. In them family life is disrupted on account of either work pressure or extra-marital affairs. So, this is a moment in which Hollywood goes completely against what is being suggested in newspapers and books at the time, that is that men were happy as head of the household. And also in the 1950s you get a whole range of very different dads. The father increased prominence in films generally suggest a resurgence of male power, a feeling of security about the man’s role. In the 1950s you have a lot of very strong dads in the westerns, while the contemporary set movies tend to be the troubled movies, and they have very different sort of dads. In the Big Country (1958) for example, there are two pretty negative fathers, the film shows their attempt to hand down their status to the next generation, but, basically, the fathers completely screw up their kids, all they can do is to be violent, kill people, to the point that one father of the two feuding families kills his son, because the son is not honourable, while in the second family, the daughter’s attachment to her father is clearly repressed but sexual and she can’t separate from him and go and marry because the father doesn’t want to, so he has trapped his daughter in this quasi erotic relationship. Despite all this, sometimes you get a feeling that the men who have survived these awful dads might end up as good dads themselves. In a film like Home from the Hill (1959), you get a sense that, having survived the monstrous Robert Mitchum, his illegitimate son will be a good father and he has learnt from the bad father.

MZJ - You mentioned father-son relationships being different to father-daughter ones. How?

SB – Hollywood, up to quite recently, found the relationship between father and daughter quite difficult. The most extreme example is a film like Bonjour Tristesse (1958) in which the father (David Niven) is very vain, and his daughter is fixated on him. It looks like various Freud’s case studies, like in her hatred of her future step-mother. Fathers are either completely confused or send out confusing signals, an example is Judy’s dad in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), who kind of brushes her off when she went to kiss him, saying: "Aren’t you too old for that kind of things?" to which she replies "Girls don’t love their fathers? Since when" As Judy tries again to kiss him. Her father slaps her and she runs off, only for the father to call after her "Hey, glamour puss..." blurring the boundaries between sex and affection. In To Kill a Mocking Bird, there is more straightforward father-daughter relationship, however, we find a father who is teaching his daughter an incredibly traditional view of gender, saying "You won’t get my watch, but you’ll your mother’s pearls." What Atticus is saying is I will take you safely to a very traditional world.

In a few more recent films, like The Silence of the Lambs (1990) , Contact (1997) and Twister (1996) the daughter is doing almost the same job as her dad, and what she is doing is somehow tied up with wanting to reach her father. But on the whole the big father narrative is the father-son narrative.

MZJ – In your book you talk about the inadequacy of the father as not being a man of action. Surely the father is something more than action…

SB - The beginning of Rebel Without a Cause is again an interesting film in this respect. The James Dean character turns against his dad, he thinks he is weak. And there is the classic moment when he goes up and his dad has got the apron on. Dad also leaves the apron on when they are going to have a man-to-man chat. Jim can’t cope with this image of the ‘weak’ father. However, despite the fact that the father cannot offer the son a strong role model - what makes a father inadequate is not having taught his son to be a man. But in the end the father is there for the son and so they reconcile. However, that happens after Natalie Wood declares that what she wants is a strong but also a kind man. Simply having a strong man without anything else is not enough. So the son learns that he also needs things that he thought previously were signs of weakness. In a way maturity comes to some sons through acceptance of what they thought was inadequate as an image of masculinity.

In the separation between father and men what comes thorough very clearly is that something of a renunciation of masculinity happens when one becomes a father. Hollywood for me makes it very clear that what the father renounces is basically desire. There is a sense in which the father becomes emasculated, despite, and this is the huge irony of it all, becoming a symbol for what men supposedly aspire to be.

MZJ – How did feminism impact on father films?

SB - Women’s liberation clearly altered what could be said about men. If you compare the early 1960s to the late 1960s films, even if some films in the same period have suggested that feminism had got it wrong, the films do not ignore what women learnt through the women’s liberation movement, even if such a successful film like Kramer vs Kramer is incredibly negative in its portrayal of the feminist woman. Meryl Streep only had one big scene, right at the beginning, when she comes back towards the end of the film she is the she-devil and at that point we all love Ted Kramer. That’s how Hollywood dealt with that, the feminist idea that every man is a potential patriarch and that they are to be despised, I think, must have been kind of unsettling. Patriarchy is in a real state of flux in the late 1960s and 1970s and there are some very confused, ambivalent and even violent images of the father.

The rejection of the older generation can be seen in The Graduate (1967), for example. You get rid of what the 1950s stood for. But Hollywood in a sense was always there trying to bring back the 1950s. In Sometimes a Great Notion (1971) what the dad stands for is very destructive, the kind of Neanderthal masculinity that feminism was trying to stamp out completely, and yet at the end father and son reconcile. There are films that are liberal and also a whole series of films that seem to be critical of the authoritarian, regressive father, but at the end you get this volte-face with all these children seemingly saying: well, it’s not too bad after all.

MZJ – You quote Kramer vs Kramer as a key film of the period, do you think it was so successful for a specific reason?

SB - Kramer vs Kramer is such a cruel trick: what it was saying was that men are better at being mothers than women are. It is a masterly film, it’s very moving and you love this father. Robert Benton on the DVD interview was surprised at how many teenagers went to see the film. And I thought it is not surprising given the amount of families without fathers, and then you go to the movies and you see what a dad could be, this is the dad who is willing to sacrifice his entire life to his children. However, it is a very insidious film because it makes you love this guy who is basically saying: we can do without women, women make such a big meal out of it. It is the ultimate film in terms of feminism.

MZJ – Another category of fathers we find in the 1980s is that of Indiana Jones, Stallone, Terminator, etc, the macho attitude. How did they negotiate masculinity and fatherhood?

SB – I think in the 1980s you get a return to the notion of the hypermasculine ideal. It is a very old fashion patriarchy, it is quite regressive, it goes back to the 1950s. Indiana Jones is quite interesting, the father only present in the third film, a man who has refused to accept parental responsibility and still wants to be this action man. Susan Jefford links the hypermasculine films of the 1980s to Reagan politics, but I think it is more complicated than that, Reagan himself was such an ambiguous icon for that generation… yes, he was a movie star, but he was pretty old, not a young hunk. In the action films of the 1980s men tends not to attached. Die Hard, for example, doesn’t deal with fatherhood very well, the main character is always estranged with his family he is a dad and macho as well. It is significant that you don’t see the children, these children exist but they are not really part of the narrative. How you negotiate masculinity and fatherhood is very interesting in Terminator. In Terminator 1 you get that very strange moment when because of the use of flashbacks (as in Back to the Future) the father is physically younger than the son. And again you get the father as action man simply by virtue of being young. However, when you get to Terminator 2 and you get the Terminator as the potential father, this sort of killing machine becomes a dad because he is the best around - again you have another mother who is unable to handle her son on her own.

However it is also important how the 1980s does negotiate the domestic father. You need to look at Fatal Attraction (1987) where you get someone who, by the end, is unproblematically re-integrated into the family despite what he has done, and again how this is done is by making the woman into a figure of evil. Glenn Close’s character has been discussed endlessly while little has been said of what Michael Douglas stands for. Here we do not have an action man, who is in fact inept because he doesn’t manage to kill Glenn Close, it’s his wife who does. However, obviously he couldn’t kill Glenn Close otherwise he would have been negative, and the film wanted him as the strong centre of the family, if he’d killed her he would have just become one of those fathers in the westerns.

MZJ – I was struck by reading in your book that the Athena poster (L’enfant) of the half naked man holding the little baby was the most popular poster ever.

SB – That was a very interesting moment towards the end of the 1980s beginning of the 1990s when there was this very young, virile, muscular man with the baby, but there were a couple of other similar images like the cover of an Observer magazine with boxer Barry McGuigan holding his child with his boxing gloves. The Athena poster I think it appealed to gays and women, but what was this appeal? I think because it is the feminizing, the softening of the muscly man image, though the softening comes from the baby. It is amusing that in the film Three Men and a Baby (1987) when they go out to the pub with their baby and all these women gaze adoringly at them: basically, fatherhood became trendy. When in Look Who Is Talking (1989) Kirsty Allen goes out with her baby she is seen, rather like many other women in real life, a walking trouble. The father with a baby is seen extremely positively, it makes the father more desirable because it fulfills the ideal of the tough man with a soft core.

It is quite an interesting moment when this more tender masculinity becomes aspirational. In Look Who Is Talking the best father is not the biological one, who is rejected. In Baby Boom (1987) again a single mother is able to find an attractive and socially acceptable replacement father. It might be tied up with how the biological father’s relationship with the daughter is problematic. With the non-biological father you do not handle that baggage.

MZJ – Couldn’t it be also seen as a denial of the (biological) father. They dodge the issue. The gay father, for example, also seems to be part of this picture.

SB – For whatever reason it is dodging the issue. I think the gay dad is very fascinating. In a way they are ‘perfect’ because you can have children without the sex, it gets rid of a complication. I find it very intriguing that this became a sort of romantic ideal, like in The Object of My Affection (1996) and The Next Best Thing (2000). In terms of biology, Rupert Everett in The Next Best Thing thinks he is the biological father, but he is not. What is it about the gay man who is a better father? The suggestion that gayness is good for fatherhood has always been there, a man who is in touch with his feminine side has always been a female ideal. We are talking about very fundamental ideas about what men might think is an ideal and what women may think it is an ideal. For women, as expressed as far back as in Rebel Without a Cause, the ideal seems to be a kind, caring man, one who quite likes to stay at home, shares the cooking and the childrearing. A gay man is typically ‘the best friend’ like in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997). There are a couple of surrogate father movies, although the son on his own with the father is a bit dubious, especially if the father is Montgomery Cliff in The Search (1948), it is a lovely potential father but I think that the film has to locate the biological mother, these were almost like the antecedents of the gay father. The man who is willing to make the child the main focus of his life.

MZJ - In your last paragraph you conclude by saying that Hollywood is ambivalent about what to do with the traditional father and that in the 1990s it dispenses with him but ultimately seems to protests that it is traditional fathers that we want.

SB –There has been a real diversification of the father image in Hollywood, trouble father, strong father and for the first time ever there are quite a few black dads, but on the whole Hollywood’s good fathers are basically middle class and white, apart from Breaking Away (1978) where the father is working class. Basically, Hollywood explores all the other possibilities and quite likes them and can see the deficiencies in the traditional father but ultimately it still displays a real attachment to the traditional father.