Fathers & Sons

BEING FLYNN and Other Family Films

By Nick Dawson | March 2, 2012
Being Flynn

While the title BEING FLYNN hints at the singular conflict of owning up to who you are, it actually speaks about two people – the father Jonathan Flynn (played by Robert De Niro) and his son, Nick (played by Paul Dano). In some ways, the title is as much a question as an assertion, asking us how much a son will become his father, how much he will become his own person. This particular father/son drama was first recounted in Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Nick Flynn’s memoir about encountering his father – who’d abandoned his family years before – at a homeless shelter in Boston in the 80s. Years later, writer/director Paul Weitz adapted this story into the feature film BEING FLYNN. For Weitz, “This idea of the disparity between a powerful father figure and how you see them functioning in the world is, I think, central to a lot of people’s lives.” Indeed the father/son conflict has been a powerful narrative in everything from Greek tragedy and Shakespeare's plays through to modern novels and films. But, as BEING FLYNN so lucidly explores, the relationship between a father and son can be profoundly complicated, moving from anger and revolt to acceptance and forgiveness. In the following slideshow, we look at the rich tradition of fathers/son stories in films, from comedies to dramas, from epic tales of power to small portraits of domestic tranquility.

Beginners (2011)

Mike Mills' sophomore movie BEGINNERS depicts one of the most complex and interesting father-son relationships seen on screen in recent years. In the movies, as well as in real life, father-son relationships, like most male/male interactions, are often awkward and understated. In BEGINNERS, however, the emotional interaction between thirtysomething Oliver (Ewan McGregor) and his aging father, Hal (Christopher Plummer, in an Oscar-winning performance), is refreshingly open and direct. This openness is no doubt a consequence of the powerfully honest admission Hal makes at the film’s beginning, that, after his wife has passed away, he has decided to come out of the closet. For director Mike Mills, this real-life event inspired his movie. “BEGINNERS started when my father came out of the closet,” writer-director Mike Mills says in his director's statement. “He was 75 years old, and had been married to my mother for 45 years. His hunger to completely change his life was confusing, painful, very funny, and deeply inspiring. Change, honesty, and openness can happen when it seems least likely. Even as he passed away five years later to cancer he was energized, reaching out; he wasn't in any way finished.” BEGINNERS explores the wonderfully messy relationships that take place between people––between a man and a woman, between parents, between two men, and perhaps most poignantly between a father and his son.  As such BEGINNERS joins a tradition of films exploring the complex father/son bond, a connection that the following movies deal with often by rooting their emotional dramas in real-life father and son relationships.

The Kid (1921)

Ironically, the first great film about a father-son relationship is not about an actual father and son. In Charlie Chaplin's The Kid, the bond between Chaplin's Little Tramp and the title character, played by Jackie Coogan, is all the more moving because there are no blood ties that bind the two. At the start of the movie, a baby boy is abandoned by his mother (Edna Purviance). After finding the enfant in a garbage can, the tramp rescues him and takes him in as his own. The two become inseparable. When it is discovered that the Tramp is not his real father, however, they are wrenched apart. The scene in which the cherubic waif Coogan is taken away from a distraught Chaplin is one of the most heartbreaking in all cinema, and the events surrounding the production make it clear why father-son separation was so painfully resonant for Charlie Chaplin. A few months before making The Kid, Chaplin's wife, Mildred Harris, gave birth to their first child, Norman Spencer Chaplin, who died when he was just three days old. Chaplin's reaction to this devastating event was to throw himself into his work, conceiving and then making The Kid. A few weeks after his son's death, he was auditioning babies for the film. However, The Kid was not simply a cathartic response to this tragic loss. It also addressed Chaplin's feelings about his own father, Charles Sr., a singer who was often on the road and with whom Chaplin had little contact growing up. Certain scenes in the film, played out by Chaplin and Coogan, were directly taken from Chaplin's experiences growing up except that, rather than his mother being the sole parent present, as was the case in young Charlie's childhood, this time it is the father and son who grow close as they laugh through tough times together.

The Champ (1931)

Chaplin's The Kid was so successful that inevitably it became the blueprint for father-son movies for years to come, and its influence is evident in King Vidor's 1931 film The Champ. Wallace Beery plays Andy "Champ" Purcell, a once-great boxer, who is now a no-good drunk and a gambler living in abject poverty in Tijuana. The one thing Champ has in life that he cares about is his button-cute, blond-haired son, Dink (Jackie Cooper), who adores his father despite his obvious flaws. As in The Kid, father and son are separated, but in this case the father decides that his son should not grow up with a deadbeat like himself and so sends him to live with his mother, Linda (Irene Rich), who has married into money after divorcing Champ. Dink, however, escapes from his luxurious existence to return to his father's side, thus inspiring Champ to turn his life around for the sake of his son. This heartwarming film was a massive hit, and its success resulted in Beery and Cooper reuniting again on screen a number of times in the following years, despite the fact that they did not get on well. (Cooper claims his aging co-star “always made me feel uncomfortable," and acted as if he were an “unkempt dog.”) The Champ was also a critical smash, with Beery and screenwriter Frances Marion both winning Academy Awards, for Best Actor and Best Screenplay, respectively. It was Marion––who had previously written a number of movies for Beery, most notably Min and Bill––who conceived the idea for The Champ. The highly respected screenwriter found her inspiration while she was in Mexico, where she was supposed to be writing a Western for Beery: as she walked through Tijuana, she crossed paths with a drunken man who was staggering out of a bar, followed by a crowd, from which emerged a young boy, crying, “Can't you see the Champ needs some air.” This touching moment planted a seed in Marion's mind, prompting her to jettison her plans for the cowboy movie and write a tearjerker instead.

I Was Born But... (1932)

Long before the director Yasujirō Ozu was considered one of Japan’s most lyrical directors, with poetic domestic dramas like Tokyo Story and Late Autumn, he was making comedies. Ozu  started making films in the 1920s, churning out formulaic college larks like I Graduated, but… and I Flunked, but… Even though the title of his 1932 I Was Born But … alludes to his earlier works, this emotionally powerful story of a father and his sons took Ozu's comedy to a new level. In the film, Yoshi (Tatsuo Saito), a young executive, moves his family out to the Tokyo suburbs for his new job. His two boys, Keiji (Tomio Aoki) and Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara), are young imps, who, by tricks and twists, rise to the top of the juvenile pecking order in their new neighborhood. Their father, on the other hand, is made to conform to the corporate hierarchy imposed upon him by his new boss. To their horror, the boys, who want their father to be proud of their leadership skills, discover that he must kowtow to the man whose son they have made their subordinate. This kids comedy turns sadly serious when the boys turn on their father: “You tell us to become somebody, but you're nobody.” It is also here, when the boys must put away childish things and face the reality of the adult world, that we truly see Ozu’s skill as a filmmaker. “I started to make a film about children and ended up with a film about grown-ups,” Ozu acknowledges. And while the opening credits called the film a "picture book for grown-ups," the distribution company delayed the film’s release by two months, unsure what to do with its “unexpectedly dark subject.” But the critics applauded the film’s tone, awarding it first place at the Kinema Junpo Awards that year. In 1959, Ozu created a loose remake of I Was Born But… with Good Morning

The Bicycle Thief (1948)
Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief, one of the defining works of Italian neorealist cinema, has at its core a touching father-son relationship. The movie follows down-on-his-luck Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) as he and his young son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), walk the streets of Rome, looking for the thief who has stolen the bicycle Antonio needs in order to do his job, putting up posters around the city. Bruno devotedly helps his father, and is a companion in his misfortune. In a memorable scene, Antonio takes Bruno to a posh restaurant to try to forget, for just a short while, the loss of the bicycle. Sitting among the rich patrons, Antonio orders food for himself and Bruno that he cannot afford, conspiratorially saying to his son, “If your mother saw you... But we won't tell her about this.” It is understandable that De Sica was preoccupied with father-son relationships during the making of The Bicycle Thief, as his partner, actress Maria Mercader, was at the time pregnant with their first son, Manuel. When De Sica was casting non-actors for the roles in the film, he chose factory worker  Lamberto Maggiorani to play Antonio in part because he brought his son along with him to the audition. De Sica portrays the bond between Antonio and Bruno as very special, yet the simplicity of their familial interaction was something he himself struggled to achieve. Though while making The Bicycle Thief De Sica was living with Mercader––who he would finally marry in 1969––he was still married to Giuditta Rissone, who was the motherof his daughter, Emi. Unable to divorce Rissone, De Sica chose to be a father to two families, and would split his evenings between his children in two households. (Apparently on New Year's Eve, he would put the clock back two hours in Mercader's house so that he could ring in the new year with both families!)
Rebel without a Cause (1955)
While the films covered so far have idealized and, in some cases, romanticized father-son relationships, the same cannot be said of Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without A Cause. In this classic film about restless youth, James Dean's protagonist, Jim Stark, looks down upon his pitifully weak father, Frank (played by Jim Backus), who is dominated by Jim's mother, the unquestioned head of the family. In one scene, in which Mrs. Stark (Ann Doran) says that they will have to move once again because of Jim's bad behavior, Jim looks to his father for support, asking him to take his side against his mother. He begs, “Dad, stand up for me. Stand up!” His father, however, cannot. Ray's contempt for Frank Stark––and fathers in general––is apparent, and allegedly there was even a scene at the start of Rebel, cut before the film's release, in which some young hooligans beat up a father. (The only positive portrayal of a paternal relationship is in the “fantasy family,” in which Jim acts as a father figure to the fatherless Plato (Sal Mineo), with Natalie Wood's Judy as the mother.) In I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies, Ray reflected on what may have been the source of his negative feelings towards father figures: “I learned to drive when I was 13 so I could get my father home safe from his nightly rounds of speakeasies and bootleggers. ...At the age of 14 I learned of his mistress. At 15 I made an unsuccessful pass at her. One night at age 16 my father could not be found. I went hunting for his mistress, and found her in a speakeasy across from a brewery my father had built. She led me to a hotel room. He was lying in sweat and puke ...I took him home and nursed him through the night.” After returning from school that day, Ray's father was dead.
Bigger Than Life (1956)

A year after Rebel without Cause, Nicholas Ray revisited the theme of father/son relations from a different direction in Bigger Than Life.  Based on a 1955 New Yorker article ‘Ten Feet Tall” by Berton Roueché about the devastating psychological side effects of the drug cortisone, Bigger than Life transformed the true-life medical case study into a more expansive melodrama about American post-war values. In the film, James Mason (who also produced the film) plays Ed Avery, an elementary school teacher living in an unnamed suburban town with his wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and their son, Richie (Christopher Olsen). Avery, who’s working two jobs in the impossible pursuit of trying to give his family everything the post-war American dream imagines they need, ultimately collapses from exhaustion and his doctors prescribe a new miracle drug called cortisone. While Avery recovers, the drug slowly changes Avery’s mental state, transforming the easy-going educator into an aggressive egomaniac father who begins to demand an inhumane perfection from his son. The insanity reaches a fever pitch when Avery seeks to literally sacrifice his own son over the pleas of his wife, who reminds him “But God stopped Abraham.” Avery chilling response is simply “God was wrong.” In the end, Avery is stopped, re-medicated and returned to the lovely dad he once was. Nicholas Ray, who was hired to direct, attempted to open up the original screenplay by bringing in Clifford Odets to expand on Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum’s screenplay. But it was Ray’s use of cinemascope framing and expressive lighting that really pushed this tale of medical malfeasance into a torturous tale of fatherhood run amok.

The Godfather (1972)
Of all the many dramatic conflicts in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, one of the most interesting is the relationship between Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the old school Mafia don, and Michael (Al Pacino), his youngest son. Michael initially absents himself from the family business, seeming “above” his father's world of organized crime; however, he is drawn in after corrupt cop McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) breaks his jaw. We then see the aloof, college-educated Michael––motivated by hurt pride, revenge and familial duty––transform into a cold-blooded killer, much to the distress of Vito, who wanted him to remain distanced from organized crime. While Vito believes in an increasingly antiquated code of honor among Mafiosi, when Michael takes over the family business, he not only modernizes operations but employs a heartless, ruthless approach that is totally antithetical to the way his father believed things should be done. There are interesting parallels between Vito and Michael and writer-director Coppola and his father, Carmine. When Francis showed an interest in the theater while at Hofstra University, Carmine voiced his disapproval. A musician and composer who had always lacked financial stability in his job, Carmine was against his son following in his footsteps by joining an artistic profession, and instead encouraged Francis to study engineering. Ultimately, however, Coppola's success as a filmmaker allowed Carmine to finally fulfill his own creative potential: Coppola hired him to write and conduct music for his films, and in 1975 Carmine won the Academy Award for Best Music (Original Dramatic Score) for The Godfather: Part II. Cradling his own Oscar and that of Nino Rota, his musical co-contributor on the film, Carmine beamed, “I don't mind holding a baton, but my arms are killing me holding two Oscars.” That night, his son won the Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture for The Godfather: Part II.
The Great Santini (1979)

Pat Conroy’s semi-autobiographical The Great Santini, a novel about his father – a marine pilot in South Carolina who turns his home and his family’s life into a war zone – proved at first too real to be plausible. Conroy relates, “I sent it off to the editor, and she just didn’t believe any of it. The reason, she said: He doesn’t ever do anything nice.” Even though Conroy confirmed with his brothers and sisters that in fact his father never did do anything nice, he agreed to soften the story to make it more believable. The book, which was published in 1976, became a bestseller and brought to light the kind of abusive father/son relationship that many of Conroy's readers had themselves experienced. Indeed, the book not only testified to his own experiences, but was used in court by his mother, who entered it as evidence in her divorce proceedings against Marine Col. Donald Conroy. In 1979, Lewis John Carlino adapted and directed Conroy’s novel with Robert Duvall in the role of the Marine fighter pilot Lt. Col. Wilbur "Bull" Meecham, aka “the Great Santini,” and Michael O’Keefe as Ben, the 18-year-old son who is a stand-in for Conroy. In his New York Times review, Vincent Canby noted the film’s power in refiguring the nature of the American family, saying it was “so good when it is evoking the dangerously tangled feelings that exist just below the surface of civilized behavior.” Both father and son ended up being nominated for Oscars – Best Actor for Duvall and Best Supporting Actor for O’Keefe.

Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979)

In some ways, Kramer Vs. Kramer is a modern––and much more emotionally complex––take on the story first presented in The Kid. Adapted from the novel by Avery Corman, Robert Benton's film centers on the custody battle between divorcing parents Ted (Dustin Hoffman) and Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) over their young son, Billy (Justin Henry). The film begins with workaholic ad exec Ted learning that Joanna is leaving him to “find herself” on the same day he lands a big account. Ted is left to look after Billy, however things initially do not go smoothly: Billy misses his mother, and Ted, who is used to spending most of his time at the office, has to reduce his workload in order to meet the demands of fatherhood. Over time, however, the two become close, and so when later Joanna reappears and asks for Billy back, Ted refuses. Kramer Vs. Kramer was a huge critical and financial success and, moreover, the film's moving depiction of Ted and Billy's relationship lead to a shift in opinion on paternal custody. The movie dominated the 1979 Academy Awards, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Hoffman) and Best Supporting Actress (Streep). When Dustin Hoffman accepted his Oscar, he joked, “I want to thank divorce,” however, there was great poignancy in his comment. Hoffman had split from his first wife, Anne Byrne, prior to shooting, and so there was a powerful resonance for him in the role of Ted Kramer. Byrne had custody of their two daughters, Jennifer and Karina, but he made efforts to spend as much time with them as he could. “You kid yourself if you think being separated does not have a traumatic effect on children,” he told an interviewer at the time. “They are going to feel that it is somehow expected that they favor one parent over the other, and that causes conflict.” Hoffman was extremely emotionally invested in the film and was such an active contributor that writer-director Robert Benton even offered to share his screenwriting credit with Hoffman. A year after Kramer Vs. Kramer was released Hoffman married Lisa Gottsegen; the couple has four kids, including two sons, and remains happily married.

At Close Range (1986)

While James Foley’s 1986 thriller At Close Range feels like a classic Greek tragedy about a father and son, the story was taken from actual events. In 1978, the nearly two-decade-long crime spree of Bruce Alfred Johnston Sr., a rural mafia head, was brought to an end when his son, Bruce Jr., testified against him. The family had been torn apart the year before when three members of an apprentice crew, dubbed the “kiddy gang,” were found executed and buried in a barren Pennsylvania field. Among the victims was Johnston’s stepson, whom Johnston feared was talking to the police. When producer Elliott Lewitt came across the remarkable story in the newspaper in 1978, he tapped Nicholas Kazan to adapt it into a feature film. For years, the much-praised script made the rounds of various studios, but no one stepped up to fund it. It was only when Sean Penn signed on to make the project – on the condition that his friend James Foley directed – that it got greenlit. Penn at the time exclaimed, “I think At Close Range is one of the great scripts I've ever read.” In the film, Penn was cast as Brad Whitewood Jr., the son of Brad Whitewood Sr. (Christopher Walken). Sean Penn’s own brother, Chris Penn, played Tommy Whitewood, his character’s brother. When the boys start their own criminal gang, imitating their father’s enterprise, things start to go terribly wrong. What made the movie memorable for so many critics was the powerful performances of the father and son. Roger Ebert declared that this was the chance to “watch two great actors, Penn and Walken, at the top of their forms in roles that give them a lot to work with.”

A Bronx Tale (1993)

In 1989, Robert De Niro caught actor Chazz Palminteri’s one-man show A Bronx Tale at the 91st Street Playhouse in New York City. The play, culled from Palminteri’s recollections of the people he grew up with in his Italian-American neighborhood, had become a very popular theatrical experience. The material and characters were so rich and vibrant that De Niro quickly decided this would be the story he would tell for his first foray into film directing. Palminteri was thrilled with De Niro’s interest, but had two conditions: one, he would write the screenplay and, two, he would star in it. In Palminteri’s screenplay, A Bronx Tale becomes a tale of two fathers for the young Calogero (Francis Capra). On the one hand, there is his real dad, Lorenzo Anello (De Niro), who is a law-abiding bus driver and, on the other hand, the local mob chief, Sonny (Palminteri), who takes a shine to Calogero after he lies to the police for him. Having been directed by some of world’s greatest directors, De Niro looked to the Italian neorealists, at least in his casting. He explains, “A year before we stared shooting, I said I wanted to find real people. I did not want to be using an actor, or some precocious young kid who has done too many commercials, I wanted people who were genuine, as genuine as I could get.” As such, the film maintains a rawness that reminded many of the work of De Niro’s most obvious movie mentor, Martin Scorsese. But, in many ways, De Niro’s directorial style pushes his cinematic father aside. Rather than playing the gangster (his usual Scorsese part), De Niro plays the quiet citizen. And his story, rather than a down-and-dirty mafia thriller, focuses on character-driven drama. As New York Magazine critic David Denby wrote, “De Niro may not be a demon, like his friend Scorsese, but he has humor and warmth of character.” 

In the Name of the Father (1994)
One of the most painful and moving depictions of the relationship between a father and son can be found in Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father, the harrowing true story of Gerry and Giuseppe Conlon. A member of the Guildford Four, petty thief Gerry Conlon was sent to prison in 1975 for his supposed involvement in the Irish Republican Army's bombing of a pub in the English town of Guildford. His father, Giuseppe, followed him to England to help get him acquitted, but was arrested shortly after and sent to jail on a trumped up charge of possessing explosives. In Sheridan's film, Pete Postlethwaite and Daniel Day-Lewis play Giuseppe and Gerry, respectively, a father and son both convicted of crimes they did not commit. The ingenious conceit of In the Name of the Father is that, though this is not historically accurate, it places the two men in the same prison cell, which becomes the stage on which the evolution of their relationship plays out. In his video essay on the movie, the New York Times' A.O. Scott says, “At the start of the film they're in a state of almost constant conflict: Giuseppe is a modest, conservative, lower middle class family man––he's everything Gerry is rebelling against. Gerry sees Giuseppe as boring and predictable but, as their ordeal goes on, he comes to appreciate his father's steadfastness. And this change in Gerry's understanding of his father changes him.” Day-Lewis, famous for his Method approach to acting, spoke with an Irish accent throughout the shoot, spent his nights in a jail cell, and asked the crew to verbally abuse and throw water over him. While those aspects were no doubt traumatic for him, the film also allowed Day-Lewis to key into (and possibly resolve) some of the issues in his relationship with his own father, the late poet and author Cecil Day-Lewis. Just a few years before making In the Name of the Father, Day-Lewis was playing the lead role in Hamlet, and during one performance, he collapsed and then rushed from the stage, crying uncontrollably. The incident took place during the scene where Hamlet sees his father's ghost, and Day-Lewis later revealed that he had seen the ghost of his own father on stage that night. Day-Lewis has never acted in the theatre since.
The Sum of Us (1994)
In Beginners, Mike Mills explores the relationship between a gay father and his son, and so The Sum of Us––about a father and his gay son––can be seen as a companion piece of sorts to the film. Adapted from his own play by acclaimed Australian screenwriter David Stevens, The Sum of Us tells the story of Harry (Jack Thompson), a widower who lives with his twentysomething gay son, Jeff (Russell Crowe). While one might expect the film's narrative arc to be devoted to the difficult journey Harry takes in accepting his son's sexuality, in The Sum of Us Harry is in fact so comfortable with Jeff being gay that he is a little too direct about it sometimes. When Jeff comes home sweaty from working out, Harry asks him if he had sex on the way home. When Jeff brings home Greg (John Polson), as the three men sit on the sofa drinking beer, Harry jokily says “Up yer bum!” rather than the traditional “Bottom's up!” Stevens enjoys subverting our expectations: when Harry says to Jeff, in shocked tones, “You've done it with girls? You never told me!” Speaking about the genesis of the characters, Stevens––who himself is gay––says, “I know sort of where the dad came from. That wasn't my relationship with my father––my relationship with my father was exactly the reverse––but I have seen those relationships. When I was about 17, I was picked up in London by this beautiful Cockney boy and we went back to his place and 'did it.' I felt sleepy, and so he said, 'It's alright, you can stay.' I was drowsy in the morning, and the door burst open and his mum came in, tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Do you take sugar in your tea?' ”
Billy Elliot (2000)

In Billy Elliot, director Stephen Daldry's Oscar-nominated, coming-of-age movie, the eponymous hero (Jamie Bell) must fight against his father’s rigid, conventional views of masculinity. Growing up in a mining town in the North of England during the Thatcherite 1980s, there were certain expectations about what kind of extracurricular activities were acceptable for a teenage boy. And, unfortunately for Billy, ballet––which he discovers he has an innate ability for––is not one of those activities. In the midst of a miners strike, the last thing Billy's widowed father, Jackie (Gary Lewis), wants to find out is that his son has secretly been doing a girlie thing like ballet, rather than the boxing he signed up for. However, after Billy's shameful secret is revealed, we see Jackie grappling with himself––and the fear that his son might be gay––and ultimately coming to the realization that, at a time when misery is all around, he just wants his son to be happy. He then makes a huge sacrifice, and does the unthinkable by crossing the picket line in order to give Billy a chance at making it, and memorably saying, “He might be a fucking genius, for all we know.” For Jamie Bell, the gifted young dancer-turned-actor who played Billy, a lack of paternal support was nothing new: his father left before he was born, and he was brought up by his mother and sister. "I don't miss him," Bell said in a recent interview. "How could I? You don't miss what you never had." However, during the course of making Billy Elliot, Stephen Daldry took it upon himself to act as Bell's father figure. Bell, who lived with Daldry for some time after filming, said of their relationship in 2002, “I would kind of like him to be my dad and he'd like me to be his son.”

Road to Perdition (2002)

After his satire of family values, American Beauty, Sam Mendes wanted to change direction for his next project and finally landed on the script for Road to Perdition, a dark gangster film set in Al Capone’s Chicago. Far from ironic, the story of Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks), a hired killer who turns against the mob to save his young son, Michael Sullivan Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), was mythic in feel and scope. The story was adapted from Max Allan Collins’ graphic novel of the same name, which itself was inspired by the 70s Japanese Manga called Lone Wolf and Cub, about a Shōgun's executioner forced into exile along with his son. The theme of fathers and sons runs deep in this nearly all-male film, with Paul Newman, the mob boss, acting as a surrogate dad. Jude Law, who plays another hit man in the film, explains, “It’s about a father and son finding each other in the most adverse of conditions.” In approaching the script, Hanks told dealmemo.com how he made the 20s gangster plot personal  “by looking back at the relationship that I had with my own father, as well as the relationship that I have with my own kids. When I read it, I said to myself: I know what these guys are going through.” The film, which was nominated for six Academy Awards, powerfully imagined the complex emotional world created by father and son. As Stephen Holden wrote in his New York Times review, “In surveying the world through Michael Jr.'s eyes, the movie captures, like no film I've seen, the fear-tinged awe with which young boys regard their fathers and the degree to which that awe continues to reverberate into adult life.”

Finding Nemo (2003)

While many father/son stories dwell on the anxiety that sons feel about their fathers, Andrew Stanton’s 2003 animated adventure, Finding Nemo, beautifully captures a father’s worry for his son. Here, a clownfish named Marlin (Albert Brooks), whose wife had previously been killed by barracuda, is left to raise his son, Nemo (Alexander Gould), alone. For Stanton, the origin of the story was very personal. He told BBC News how once, during a walk to the park with his five-year-old son, “I spent the whole time going, Don't touch that! Watch out for cars! You're going to poke your eye out! You don't know where that's been! I just sort of stopped myself and realized that I was so afraid of something bad happening that I was eclipsing any chance to connect with him in the moment.” With the talent of Pixar's animators and a remarkable cast, Stanton transformed that fatherly fear into an awe-inspiring sea adventure. But he also did something even more innovative – he revealed the emotional life of the human male. As Roger Ebert notes, adults who’ve seen a lot of animated family fare might “appreciate another novelty: This time the dad is the hero of the story, although in most animation it is almost always the mother.”

There Will Be Blood (2007)

While There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, focuses on the greed of tycoon Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), the subplot involving his son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), provides one of the more poignant relationships in the film. At a young age, H.W is injured by a gigantic oil derrick explosion, losing his hearing in the process. During the blast, his father is given a choice to run towards his injured son or try to save his burring oil fields. When he turns to salvage his precious crude, the bond between father and the son is forever damaged. After H.W. sets his father’s bed on fire, Daniel Plainview abandons his son to a school for the deaf. Casting the son proved a challenge to the filmmakers. After testing a number of young child actors, the filmmakers finally found their H.W. in a non-actor living close to Marfa, Texas, where the film was being shot. The producer JoAnne Sellar told the New York Times, “Paul’s always been very much into casting real people…He really wanted a kid who’d grown up around ranches and horses rather than someone coming in and trying to fake that.” Day-Lewis, who grew very fond of Freasier, actually found it difficult to tap into his emotional relationship with his father in creating the role because of his feelings for Freasier. As he told Time Out London, “In later years, reassessing what might have been a relationship with my father, that’s where the complexity is, I suppose, because we all to some extent measure ourselves – if we’re men – against our fathers. I would hope that none of my experiences as a father would have fed the relationship Plainview has with H.W. I would hope. In fact, it probably worked against me a little bit, because I felt so protective of that wonderful young man.” When Day-Lewis later won the Best Actor Oscar for There Will Be Blood, he announced, “I wish my son and my partner H.W. Plainview were up here with me, the mighty Dillon Freasier."

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