Three new films about father and son: sincere but not superior

The screen has been crowded with fathers and sons lately, all suffering some kind of grief that makes it hard to cope with each other. Yes, this is the stuff of soap opera, but that's no reason to dismiss it out of hand. Hollywood has a long tradition of soap opera, after all, and occasional directors have used the genre to express a serious and complex ''tragic view'' of modern life. Exhibit A is the collected films of Douglas Sirk, who injected surprising amounts of intelligence and self-awareness into such three-hanky classics as ''The Tarnished Angels'' and the 1959 ''Imitation of Life.''

The new pictures aren't in this league, though. While they're all sincere, in a morose kind of way, none quite manages the emotional balancing act that first-rate melodrama demands.

The biggest disappointment is Harry & Son, starring Paul Newman and Robby Benson and directed by Newman himself, who takes a turn behind the camera every few years. Harry is a widowed construction worker in failing health. Son is a cantankerous young man who wants to be a writer. Grow up and get some real work, Harry says. I believe in my talent, Son replies. This goes on for almost two hours, with a number of subplots, until Son sells a story (it was real work after all!) and Harry expires.

It would take a more expert director than Newman to pull the lumpy ''Harry & Son'' screenplay into shape, with its many trite scenes that can't decide whether they're funny or sad or in between. Still, he has real ability as a filmmaker, and it shows through at times - in a harrowing argument sequence, for example, and in the stunning moment when Son discovers Harry's demise.

When director Newman gets hold of a first-rate script one of these days, he'll probably show us some first-rate achievement, especially if he realizes he isn't Orson Welles and leaves the acting chores to someone else. But his current effort must be judged a dud.

Misunderstood was conceived when producer Keith Barrish found himself weeping at a little-known Italian movie on a plane trip. His remake takes place in North Africa, where American businessman Gene Hackman loses his wife and doesn't know how to bring up his two young boys alone.

Hackman is just right for the part and plays it sensitively. The children are competent and likable. But some of the material is too corny for comfort; some of the characters are mere cartoons; and director Jerry Schatzberg has trouble pulling the subplots into the story's flow. Nor does he generate the emotional momentum that would make the weepy ending (dad learns to cry) seem uplifting rather than depressing.

There's more to respect in The Stone Boy, which features another strong cast, this time under the direction of newcomer Christopher Cain. The action begins with the accidental death of a teen-age boy, whose guilt-ridden younger brother then deals with his emotional pain by withdrawing from those around him.

Focusing not just on this ''stone boy'' but on his whole family, the story tends to ramble, and director Cain never makes it crisp and clear. While some scenes are powerful, others are simply maudlin, and the self-conscious majesty of the cinematography - the camera seems downright goggle-eyed at the Midwestern landscape - takes attention away from the movie's main business. These flaws chain ''The Stone Boy'' to earth, making it seem a bush-league ''Tender Mercies'' rather than a soaring experience.

Still, the movie cares a lot about its characters, and the improvisatory performances have a sense of commitment even when they don't quite mesh with one another. Above all, the film's values are humane, and it's willing to rest on those values without smothering them in extraneous effects.

Nor is this humane quality an accident. Rather, it's an outgrowth of Robert Duvall's helpful influence on today's movie scene. His interest in the ''Stone Boy'' screenplay, by Gina Berriault, and his willingness to play a key role are what launched the project from the drawing-board into actual production. Other notable actors then signed on, including Glenn Close as the mother, Wilford Brimley as the grandpa, Frederick Forrest as the uncle, and Duvall's wife, Gail Youngs, as the aunt. Still, the picture might easily have been dismissed as too risky an enterprise (because too subdued for today's fast-paced market) if not for Duvall's faith in it, backed by his presence on the screen.

I'm happy to report, moreover, that Duvall plans to extend his influence on the film world still further in time to come - not contenting himself with landing big parts in films organized by others, but initiating projects and throwing his weight behind ideas he considers positive.

He'll still be a movie star, of course, and bigger than ever with his freshly won Oscar for ''Tender Mercies'' and his upcoming appearance in Robert Redford's baseball epic, ''The Natural.''

But during a recent visit to his Manhattan apartment I found him bursting with enthusiasm over his own latest screenplay about the checkered adventures of a wild-and-woolly preacher, a type of character he's long wanted to play. (Richard Pearce, the maker of ''Heartland,'' will direct, since Duvall doesn't want to work on both sides of the camera at once.) After making the film, he intends to reach out and actively seek additional worthwhile projects - a move that promises good things, given his leaning toward productions of quiet sincerity instead of the slam-bang extravaganzas favored by other factions of moviedom.

Oscar voting

After my grousing about the Oscars in my April 5 column, I'd like to note that this year's actual voting went better than it might have. The mediocre ''Terms of Endearment'' took only five of the 11 awards it was nominated for; that's still too many, but at least some balance prevailed. ''The Dresser'' was shut out despite five nominations, perhaps meaning that my howls of ''overrated'' weren't completely off the mark.

On the positive side, the exquisite ''Tender Mercies'' carried two top categories - Robert Duvall for best actor and Horton Foote for best original screenplay, both richly deserved. Also cheering was Linda Hunt's win for her uncanny portrayal of Billy in ''The Year of Living Dangerously.'' The moral: Oscar can indeed smile on a modest, independent production, and does once in a while.

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