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For Father's Day, A Few Cinematic Takes On Being A Dad

Posted: 06/16/09 12:02 PM ET

Prior to this Sunday, why not check out some first-rate DVD titles that examine the distinct challenges of fatherhood, and how we either rise to the occasion or, for a host of reasons, fall short.

The varied nature of the following titles speaks to the prevalence of fatherhood as a theme in film, and indeed, in all storytelling. Given its recurrence in so many movies, doubtless there any many fine "Dad" pictures I've overlooked, so feel free to share your own favorites.

I lead with one of the most heartbreaking foreign films on record: Vittorio de Sica's neo-realist masterpiece, "Bicycle Thieves" (1948). Here a man who depends on his bicycle for his living sees it stolen out from under him, and with his adoring son in tow, scours Rome to retrieve it. Finally, he resorts to the theft of another bike to put bread on his table. "Thieves" still packs a wallop, portraying poverty's heartless capacity to rob a father of the thing an impressionable son needs to see most --his basic dignity. For his powerful work, De Sica was awarded a special Oscar in 1948 several years before the Academy established a category for best foreign film.

In Vincente Minnelli's classic "Father Of The Bride" (1950), we see the lighter side to being a dad, particularly if you can laugh at the prospect of opening your wallet for your daughter's wedding. When lovely Kay Banks (Elizabeth Taylor) announces her engagement to Buckley Dunstan (Don Taylor), life for Kay's doting father Stanley (Spencer Tracy) turns inside out. His wife Ellie (Joan Bennett), wants formal nuptials for Kay, so Stanley finds himself consumed by the exhausting business of planning a big wedding, not to mention the headache of paying for one. This big-hearted MGM comedy provided the template for an idea that's been executed countless times, but never quite so charmingly. The wry Tracy is note-perfect as the aggrieved Dad, and young Liz makes a radiant bride-to-be. And Minnelli keeps the whole affair--replete with hilariously solemn heart-to-heart talks, a disastrous engagement party, and lovers' spats--from derailing into broad farce. If you're choosing a "Bride," make it the original.

No list of top father films can exclude Elia Kazan's "East Of Eden" (1955), an adaptation of the old Cain and Abel story updated to 1917 Monterey, via John Steinbeck. In his first featured role, James Dean plays errant son Cal, who aches for the approval of his upright father (Raymond Massey). A young, luminous Julie Harris plays Abra, the love interest of favored brother Aron (Richard Davalos), who soon becomes torn between the two siblings. Ultimately a series of dramatic events causes a transformation in Cal's relationship to his dad. Kazan's landmark film features vibrant color and atmosphere, top-flight performances and a dazzling screenplay adapted by Paul Osborn. Oscar-nominated Dean, Harris, Burl Ives and Oscar-winner Jo Van Fleet as Cal's reclusive mother, stand out in a stellar ensemble. (Note: Dean's next role in the better known "Rebel Without A Cause" would also portray a troubled father/son relationship, though of a decidedly different sort.)

The film that captures the father we'd all want to be- and to have- must be Robert Mulligan's perennially touching "To Kill A Mockingbird" (1962), based on Harper Lee's autobiographical novel. Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), a widower and small-town lawyer in the Depression-era South, bravely defends a black man accused of raping a white girl, causing resentment in the community. Meanwhile his two children, Scout and Jem (Mary Badham and Phillip Alford), try to unravel the mystery of Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), the supposedly crazy man who lives nearby. A film that speaks volumes about racial intolerance in our country's recent past, this is also a moving and perceptive study of the relationship between two children and their single-parent father, with much of the action seen through young Scout's eyes. The child actors all turn in affecting, natural performances, and Peck, in the role of his career, deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actor. Make this required viewing for all children 12 and over.

Another memorable entry concerning a man suddenly confronted with single parenthood: Robert Benton's "Kramer Versus Kramer" (1979). On the brink of a big promotion, pre-occupied ad-man Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) gets the wind knocked out of him when wife Joanna (Streep) leaves him and their young son, Billy (Justin Henry). Forced to balance career demands with caring for a young son he barely knows, Ted makes hard choices to be there for Billy. But when Joanna returns unexpectedly, a nasty custody battle ensues. Hoffman hit a career high-point with this near-flawless drama, which depicts the dissolution of a marriage with unerring sensitivity. Top-flight performances from the two leads help bring an insightful script to heart-rending life. At Oscar time, "Kramer" won Best Picture, Benton took the honors for direction and screenplay, and Hoffman got the nod for Best Actor.

Back to foreign soil and Akira Kurosawa's epic, "Ran" (1982). In this adaptation of "King Lear" transplanted to sixteenth century Japan, powerful warlord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) decides to divide his lands and riches among his two seemingly compliant older sons, banishing honest third son Saburo (Daisuke Ryu) after he challenges his proud father's will. With his family soon splintered and set against each other, Hidetora realizes too late his error in judgment, and the injustice he visited on the forthright Saburo. Kurosawa's late-career triumph is a vibrant, colorful epic, its drama magnified by an awesome visual sweep encompassing both period pageantry and setting. Shakespeare's fundamental themes of loyalty and betrayal play out with full force, thanks to superb performances by both Nakudai (a Kurosawa veteran) and Ryu in the pivotal roles. Another breathtaking achievement from this revered master of cinema.

Three years later came director Emir Kusturica's poignant "When Father Was Away On Business". Set in 1950s Sarajevo, the film portrays oppressive times in Tito's Yugoslavia, as married official Mesha is sent to work in the mines as punishment for flirting with a female comrade not his wife. Younger son Malik survives this period of uncertainty with a measure of hope and humor, believing his mother's story that his father is on a prolonged business trip. When Dad returns from his lengthy trip, normal routines resume, with the master of the house a touch wiser and humbler. "Father" evocatively portrays a challenging time and place, and against this grim backdrop, paints a warmer portrait of childhood innocence and imagination, as the adorable Malik manages to put a hopeful, fantastic spin on circumstances and events unfolding around him.

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