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Hollywood Dads

By Peter Walker

“If you build it, he will come.”
– the Voice

Ray first heard the Voice while tending corn on his Iowa farm. He thought he was hearing things – a radio, or his wife and daughter chatting.

But then he heard it again.

“If you build it, he will come.” What? What does that mean, Ray asked no one in particular. Soon after, the Voice showed him.

“If you build it, he will come” Ray discovered, meant that if he built a baseball field on his farm, disgraced (and long deceased) baseball great Shoeless Joe Jackson would magically return and play on it.

So began Ray’s convoluted journey, played out in the movie Field of Dreams, a journey which would culminate in a reunion that even Ray did not realise he longed for.

Is it me, or has there been a concentration of movies in recent years whose themes have centred around the main characters’ relationship with his or her (more his) father? Perhaps the father/son thing was chic in Hollywood in the last part of the twentieth century.

Dad has generally copped a lot of stick in the entertainment media. For a while the word father seemed synonymous with words like idiot, moron, bumbling, insensitive, or bonehead. TV sitcoms (especially American) were the breeding ground for such stereotypes.

Frank Lambert, Step By Step, seems to epitomise the try hard dad/stepdad who nearly always ends up with his foot in his mouth and egg on his face, frequently in the literal sense.

Of course, there are other stereotypes. The bigoted, overbearing boorish autocrats a la Archie Bunker. Or the sickly sweet, new-age dad who can do no wrong, brought to life in Full House.

And who can forget Homer Simpson? The concept of father was dealt a savage blow when Homer was voted (by whom I wonder) as the typical, even ideal, father. I doubt we’ll ever recover from that.

However, in the background have hovered the role models for hard-working, devoted, and often gentle even if a little distant and autocratic. The example that jumps to mind is My Three Sons dad, played by Fred McMurray.

Pop quiz: What was the characters name? For the period he represented the perfect solo dad, aided, and perhaps balanced, by the neurotic, nagging, meticulous Uncle Charlie. My favourite, the Wonder Years patriarch – strong, in charge, devoted but underneath insecure, imperfect, real.

“Ease his pain.” The Voice again. Not until the end of the movie did Ray think he had put all the pieces of the mystery together. His father played baseball in the minor league, dreaming all along of playing in the majors. All through the movie we get snippets of Rays longing for the relationship he never had with his father.

In the last scene, there is one ghost left on the magical baseball diamond after a days play. The others have disappeared into the corn. The lone ghost takes off the catchers mask, and Ray recognises his father, at an age long before Ray was “a glint in his eye,” returned by the magic for that game of catch he and Ray never had.

Ray surmises that “ease his pain” refers to his fathers wish to play baseball with the majors greats – “Of course, ease his pain. It was him.” Shoeless Joe corrects him. “No Ray. It was you.” Rays mysterious journey was designed to ease his own pain, the pain of fatherlessness he more often than not did not even realise he felt.

I hardly knew my father. Distant before the divorce, practically absent after. Some have advanced the theory that the number one social problem is inadequate fathering. I’m not sure I disagree. I believe I see in my inadequacies and failings the legacy of fatherlessness.

That’s not an excuse, merely an observation. And as much as I would like to continue to use it as an excuse, for some time now I have realised that I cannot.

But there have been periods in my life when I have desperately longed for Dad. Unfortunately none of them occurred before he died in 1991. Perhaps this is the reason I am sensitive to movies whose theme is father and son reunited.

Sometimes I envy what I see on the screen. Realising it is “just a movie,” I am also aware that real people have written the script from their own experiences and wishes, and that themes touch the issues within us.

In The Lion King, the great Mufasa looks down on his son, Simba, and guides him. Sometimes I wish I had the memory of a fathers guiding hand. In Hoosiers, the son’s motivation for winning the State final basketball game? “I want to win this for my dad.”

Sometimes I wish my dad had been on the sideline cheering me on. In a recent movie, Frequency, a son who has made contact with his long dead father via an amateur radio that spans not only space but time, voices the frustration that countless men have felt regarding their fathers : “I wish I could remember him better.”

Is there in Hollywood an outpouring of the angst felt by this, the first generation of truly underfathered boys who are now directors, producers and scriptwriters? In countless other movies recently, the father/child relationship features as either central, or significant, to the plot.

Dad isn’t doing so bad in Hollywood. There will always be the Griswald types (National Lampoons bumbling movie dad played by Chevy Chase), and perhaps we need them too.

But the appearance of so many movies in recent years in which Dad features as a committed, honest, sensitive, there for his children role model surely does something to address the losses Dad made in the 70’s and 80’s media.

Unfortunately, he still has some gains to make in the overall public perception and in the clouded eyes of institutions such as the Family Court. Perhaps they need to go to the movies more.

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