Ever since they first started churning out films Hollywood movie-makers have been trying to appeal to the family, though not always with great success, writes Tom McParland


Who would’ve thought in a thousand years – let alone fifty – that defining what a family is would become an exercise in complexity, protraction and social diplomacy. Or that families might come to resemble the modern car, coming in myriad amalgams, shapes and sizes.

Years ago, when referring to the family, Americans ditched the ‘the,’ leaving ‘family’ to stand alone. Although probably semantic, it has proved both prophetic and accurate.
A pitch for a movie about a contemporary family might run as follows: “It’s about the explosive love affair between Tyler (corporate lawyer) and Dakota (head of pest control). Tyler initially thinks Dakota a pest. But they fall for each other bigtime, and get married. Punters will weep at the emotionally charged wedding ceremony. Laugh at their choice of honeymoon venue – a New York gym!

“They’ll delight when Tyler and Dakota learn from the adoption agency that they’re to be the fathers of two cute little girls! Then – tragedy! Tyler confesses he wants a gender change – upsetting the entire family dynamic. Meanwhile, Dakota finds a shoulder to cry on. It’s butch Erica, current Olympic 165kg (and over) weightlifting champion. Audiences will weep again when Tyler awakens from his operation to find she’s fallen in love with Samson, her female surgeon who’s straight as a poker.

“Tyler realises her mistake. Samson appreciates Tyler’s position since Samson used to be a he. She immediately puts Tyler on a course of male hormones prior to her second op. But, what’ll happen to Dakota and Erica? Or Samson – and Tyler? Or the now one year-old girls who are having psychiatric help with gender confabulation?”

In the not-so old days Happy Families was always a card game. Real families were always sources of contention, falling outs and worse. But then, most parents regarded raising children as their obligation. Their ambition – untainted by self-interest – was for their children. Happiness – then (as now) principally a navel-gazing exercise – was the dubious privilege of back-up grandparents. In between, the one escape for parents, children and grandparents was what was known as a family movie.

Always able to distinguish fact from fiction, audiences only believed what they saw at the time they saw it. They no more believed in Dorothy Bernard as Jo March in 1918’s *Little Women than they did whining Katherine Hepburn or smoker’s cough, June Allyson in the respective 1933 and 1949 versions. But they believed the novel.

This vital division was because the novel remained fiction while the movie was never reality, although a real experience. The 40-foot screen actuality – while reinforcing audience separateness – paradoxically encouraged audiences’ greater involvement in the moment.

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