For these film dads, family matters

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Hollywood might have self-absorbed mothers in its crosshairs (see Tea Leoni's turn in Spanglish, Meryl Streep's master manipulator in The Manchurian Candidate and the greedy, trailer-park mom from Million Dollar Baby). But selfless fathers and father figures are being celebrated, if not canonized, on America's movie screens.

As a producer and a studio executive, Richard Gladstein was involved in any number of graphic and sadistic films, including Reservoir Dogs, Hurlyburly and Pulp Fiction. So what has he been up to lately? Finding Neverland, a tender account of writer J.M. Barrie's loving relationship with a fatherless family.

"Having made a lot of dark movies in my life, I can't really watch human suffering anymore," says Gladstein, the father of a 4-year-old boy.

Then there's Paul Haggis, who created a father-daughter estrangement subplot for the screenplay of Million Dollar Baby (set to open in Baltimore late this month), which tracks the relationship between the boxing coach Frankie (Clint Eastwood) and the essentially parentless pugilist hopeful Maggie (Hilary Swank). "Family is the most important thing in my life," says Haggis, also a dad.

And writer-director James L. Brooks, yet another Hollywood father, has created in Spanglish a saintly and sensitive character for Adam Sandler: a renowned chef who finds time to gently drill his daughter for a history test and converse movingly with his family's nanny about his aching love for his kids. "The marketing line of mine that I wanted that everybody threw out was, 'Decency Is Sexy,'" Brooks says.

Perhaps not since Dustin Hoffman whipped up French toast for his son in Kramer vs. Kramer has there been such prominent display given to the demonstrative dad: Such recently released or soon-to-open movies as Finding Neverland, Million Dollar Baby, In Good Company, Spanglish and Hotel Rwanda all concentrate much of their narratives around life-affirming father-child relationships.

Is this a calculated show business rejoinder to the election-season debate about Hollywood and its presumed disconnect with heartland values? The filmmakers behind these movies say no.

But what's interesting about this small outbreak of appealing, even old-fashioned paternalism is that it arrives in such high concentration from such high-class filmmakers.

Movie studios have long been drawn to films that appeal to family audiences and try to market much of their output - from Shrek to Spider-Man - to every possible demographic group, even if they are not obvious family stories. A number of past best picture Oscar winners, including Rain Man and A Beautiful Mind, featured positive messages about family ties. Yet in many other movies, parenthood was as likely to spark a vengeance plot as to anchor a love story.

"It's easier for filmmakers to make the mistake of writing about and directing despicable people," says Finding Neverland producer Gladstein. "I think it's harder to tell a story about a wonderful person and make it interesting."

"Off-screen, show business executives used to treat families the way they handled box-office bombs: They were dispatched to some hidden place and rarely discussed. In the last 10 years, however, a new set of senior studio executives, many of them women, has made families and parenting a central part of their lives in the industry.

Disney production chief Nina Jacobson has a playroom for her toddlers adjacent to her office, and the young children of Universal Pictures Chairman Stacey Snider, Warner Bros. Pictures production President Jeff Robinov and Sony Pictures Entertainment Vice Chairman Amy Pascal have been frequent visitors to their parents' offices and workplace playrooms.

But while some women have brought parenting out of the nursery and into the executive suite, many of those behind the latest crop of family-themed movies are men, drawing on personal experiences.

When screenwriter Haggis set out to adapt the boxing stories of F.X. Toole into Million Dollar Baby, there was no subplot about Frankie's estrangement from his daughter. But in creating that void in the boxing coach's life, Haggis was able to conceive a shared need for personal connection between Frankie and Maggie.

"I liked the idea that Frankie had issues that were never resolved, things for which he could never be forgiven. It's a longing for family that just kills him," Haggis says. "Estrangement was something I had lived through in my life, so I knew the pain of that. I could not have written this story if I had not gone through this with my own daughter," Haggis says, adding that they have reconciled.

"We do write about what we experience," he says. "

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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