Family, The: Institutions of Marriage and Family Stage Hollywood Comeback

The movie Family Business, in 1989, starring Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, and Matthew Broderick, as three generations of crooks in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, is by no means an exception.

Sidney Lumet’s film is just one among many family films currently on display on the big screen. Over the last several months, filmgoers have witnessed the release of Dad, another three generational comedy-drama, with Jack Lemmon, Ted Danson, and Ethan Hawke; Immediate Family, with Glenn Close and James Wood as an infertile yuppie couple, yearning to adopt the child of a working-class girl; and The Fabulous Baker Boys, a romantic triangle, focusing on the professional and intimate relationship between two brothers (embodied by the real-life siblings Jeff and Beau Bridges).

The season’s surprise comedy hit was Look Who’s Talking, in which a baby’s thoughts are heard on the soundtrack. The baby, speaking in the voice of Bruce Willis, tries to help his unwed mom (Kristie Alley) find a suitable daddy (John Travolta). Olympia Dukakis, who won a supporting Oscar for playing Cher’s mother in Moonstruck, seems to be the most desirable screen mother at the moment, playing variations of her 1987 role in both Look Who’s Talking and Dad.

Popular films and television programs can serve as useful barometers of society’s collective dreams and wishes–but also fears and nightmares. However, looking at the portrayal of the American family in popular culture, one is struck by the tremendous fluctuations in its imagery.

One may ask: What has mainstream American cinema told its varied audiences about marriage, family life, and love between parents and children What conclusions could be drawn about the importance of family life in America if one’s source of information was confined to Hollywood

Judging by the present situation, the American family seems to be experiencing something of a comeback; the nuclear family is very much in. In recent years, two of the most popular TV sitcoms have been: The Bill Cosby Show, with Bill Cosby as the ideal American father-husband, and Family Ties, featuring Michael J. Fox. And last year’s most-talked about film was Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction, a romantic thriller, which probed into such issues as adultery, monogamous love, and trust–all in the context of l980s, with the threat of AIDS looming in the background.

But the family has been differentially treated by the mass media, experiencing many ups and downs. For example, in the late l960s and throughout most of the l970s, one could hardly find any films about the family. And the few movies which dealt with family life presented a negative image–the family was shown to be intellectually suffocating and emotionally stifling–in short, a traumatic experience to be avoided. In the tumultuous decade of the l960s, it looked as if the family went out of fashion, disappearing almost completely from the big screen. By contrast, twenty years later, with American society swinging to the right under the Reagan and Bush administrations, the return to more traditional values has included a major comeback for the family.

How did it happen What explains the current, obsessive interest in exploring family life Several film cycles, each conditioned by the country’s politics and ideology at the time, will be discussed and illustrated.

1. The decline of the family in the American screen, following Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) and The Graduate (1967).

2. The replacement of family movies with action-adventure films, celebrating male camaraderie and male heroism, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (l969); The French Connection (l971); The Sting (l973).

3.The gradual return of the family in Steven Spielberg’s blocbusters (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.), most of which were set in suburbia and dealt with threats to stable family life.

4. The family in movies of the late l970s and early l980s, in which most portrayals were critical and depicted troubled families, or families in a state of turmoil, as two blockbusters and Oscar-winning films, Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Ordinary People (1980), demonstrated.

5. The current trend, first exhibited on television, then in feature films, whose ideological values have been quite conservative and traditional. Most of these films have cherished the unity of the nuclear family at all costs, even at the expense of personal fulfillment. Fatal Attraction and Someone to Watch Over Me (1987) condemned adultery and extramarital affairs for the sake of preserving the unity of the nuclear family.

The immense success of the recent Oscar-winning Rain Man (1988), could also be attributed to its ideological message about mainstream family values. In this case, the rediscovery of love between two brothers: one, an autistic savant (Dustin Hoffman), the other, a young hustler (Tom Cruise), a fast-talking car salesman. At first, he wants to rob his older brother of the inheritance his father has left, for which purpose he kidnaps him from an institution. However, gradually he gets to know his brother, of whose existence he has been completely ignorant, and both realize that they not only love but also need each other.

Though different in style (a comedy) and genre (a road movie), Rain Man endorses similar values as those of Fatal Attraction: a desire to uphold stability and the unity of the nuclear family. And this summer’s comedy hit, Parenthood, starring Steve Martin, presented a cheerful, optimistic view of intimate family life–not unlike Moonstruck, featuring Cher’s 1987 Oscar-winning performance.

*This essay was written in 1990