Does Fatherhood Make the Man?

Movies show not only how kids need dads (or a father figure), but also how dads need kids

As Father's Day rolls around, it's never been more clear just how much kids need their dads - loving, responsible, nurturing guys, that is, willing to go the distance for the young ones.

They don't even have to be related to do the trick, as a slew of movies have tried to demonstrate over the last 10 years or so.

Two of the biggest hits this year, "Jerry McGuire" on the Hollywood commercial front, and "Kolya" on the art-house front, scored high with viewers because they depicted men who are virtually transformed from selfish toads into daddy princes - father figures to little boys who have no fathers of their own.

Even the slight Billy Crystal/Robin Williams vehicle, "Fathers' Day," now playing at your local multiplex, concerns men discovering their impulse to nurture.

And when it's a daughter, movie dads go to even greater lengths to reach them: "Fly Away Home" and "I'll Do Anything" are two of the best family flicks in years, while both versions of "Father of the Bride" (1991 and 1995 - updates on the 1950 classic) showed how the father of a marriageable daughter needed to give her up all together.

When feminist French director Coline Serreau made her modest, funny film about stepfathers in 1985, "Three Men and a Cradle," (subsequently remade by Leonard Nimoy as "Three Men and a Baby"), she knew what she was doing - reaffirming the place of men in children's lives.

The children of the world need dads as well as moms, and yet too many of them go without. What is becoming clearer, too, is that men also need children.

Maturity gained

So the movies, which reflect societal concerns as surely as they influence them, have gone to some trouble to illustrate how important fathers are to growing kids, and also how fatherhood is part of manhood - a positive good, that when done well, can help make a man a mature, even heroic adult.

In "Kolya," a desperate Russian woman who needs Czech papers, pays a womanizing Czech musician to marry her. When she leaves her five-year-old son in the hands of her mother to escape to Germany, the grandmother dies and little Kolya reverts to the musician's none-too-tender care.

The developing relationship between the musician and the child may be inevitable, perhaps, but that doesn't make it cheap sentimentality. In fact, the musician simply chooses life - the overwhelmingly creative choice. Learning to love the child fits him for more meaning - the life of a real man, rather than a 50-year old-adolescent.

And Czech director Jan Sverak's light touch and elegant cinematic sense carries the stamp of real, rather than wished for, experience.

Movies have offered many images of wise old patriarchs giving advice to their male offspring (remember the "Andy Hardy" series) or protecting their daughters from predators of all kinds ("Three Fugitives," "Class Action," the 1963 "Cape Fear").

The understanding father, the one who genuinely grasped both a teenage son's real need for discipline ("Boyz N the Hood") or a young daughter's ambitions ("I'll Do Anything," "Fly Away Home"), is an increasingly lively presence in the movies.

And very often this understanding father has to fight his own limitations to reach out to his children, battle their natural anger at the dissolution of their families ("Kramer vs. Kramer," "Bye Bye, Love," "Fly Away Home") and his own confusion and frustration to think of the right way to reach them.

In last year's offbeat "I'll Do Anything," Nick Nolte plays an out-of-work actor who finds himself suddenly responsible for his six-year-old daughter, Jeanie (played by the extraordinary Whittni Wright). Nolte takes any job he can to support the child, but she is a handful and a puzzle at every turn. And then she auditions for and wins a role in a weekly TV sitcom. He doesn't want her to do it, knowing what a hard life acting is, especially for children.

But even at 6 this little character knows what she wants. Dad recognizes her gift, her determination, and her ambition and he begins to teach her the art of acting. It is the father handing down his trade to his daughter that builds the bond between them.

But it is his loving, unselfish concern for her that maintains it.

The fathers have to learn to think of their children first.

The disappointing dad

But some fathers don't reach their children, so sometimes the adult offspring have to do all the work. Movies as different from each other as "Field of Dreams" "Rain Man," and "Lone Star" focus on sons whose fathers disappointed them or whom they disappointed - and the effect of that disappointment on the sons' lives.

The fact that in all three of these films, fathers have passed away, leaving some bitter legacy behind them, sets the sons on a search for reconciliation, which ends in greater understanding and forgiveness of the father and emotional closure for the son.

The movies are trying to tell us something: Dads matter. But fathering is a difficult, complicated business that requires more than instinct, affection, or discipline. It requires love and discernment and sacrifice.

All these films and many more, from the most sentimental to the most profound, have this insight in common.

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