Oscar nominees contend with father

2010 was the year to deal with daddy

Among the producers’ innovations for Sunday’s Oscarcast is “mom-inees,” in which contenders’ mothers will be interviewed and tweet their reactions.

So, in the interests of equal time, let’s give dad a little attention.

It’s appropriate because 2010 was filled with meditations on life with father — or without him. The 10 best-picture contenders include scripts about a sperm-donor father (“The Kids Are All Right”), a missing father (“Winter’s Bone”) and a recently murdered father (“True Grit”).

But it’s “Inception” that’s the key, because Hollywood tentpoles, at least in theory, provide clues to what’s in the zeitgeist. “Inception” was about dream invasion, but it’s centered on Cillian Murphy’s problems with his father and Leonardo DiCaprio’s relationships with his children (as well as with his own dad).

And so it was with many of Hollywood’s other 2010 biggies, where paternal tension was a key: “Clash of the Titans,” “Iron Man 2,” “The Last Airbender,” “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief,” “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” “Robin Hood,” “Shutter Island,” “Tron: Legacy” et al.

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Strained family relationships are nothing new to drama — Oedipus comes to mind. But it wasn’t always so in Hollywood actioners. Parental rifts were never an issue for Bogart or Gable; Schwarzenegger or Stallone; or for such decades-spanning characters as James Bond.

Why this paternal interest now? Maybe it’s because a generation of filmmakers grew up with the “Empire Strikes Back” plot twist in which Darth Vader reveals to Luke Skywalker, “I am your father.” And maybe it’s because ever since women’s lib in the 1960s, social roles — including fatherhood — have been under constant re-evaluation. But I also think it’s a sign of the times that we all want someone to take care of us. As the world changes at a dizzying pace, we’re all basically looking for Atticus Finch, a dad who can take control, sit us on his lap and assure us that everything will be fine. That’s what we want from our politicians and that’s what we want from our movie heroes.

This Sunday’s Oscar ceremony could be a sort of father’s day. The foreign-language category is dominated by pics about fatherhood (“Biutiful” and “In a Better World” are sympathetic; “Incendies” and “Dogtooth” much less so). In “How to Train Your Dragon,” Hiccup’s dad growls, “You’re not my son,” which eventually evolves into “I’m proud to call you my son.” “The Wolfman” was less interested in the staples of the werewolf legend (Gypsy curse, evil spirit roaming the English countryside) than in a man’s troubled relationship with papa (“I’m a monster and so is my father,” growls Benecio Del Toro).

And I don’t want to be rude, but where exactly is Andy’s dad in “Toy Story 3”? As in other best pic contenders “Black Swan” and “The Social Network,” papa was never mentioned (and the latter two pics’ protagonists might have been a little more socially adept with a strong and loving dad).

The year wasn’t all negative. Aron Ralston’s father isn’t seen much in “127 Hours,” but it seems to be a good relationship. “The Fighter” has a nice dad, even though he’s overshadowed by mom. And some of George VI’s woes in “The King’s Speech” can be traced to his cold dad, though he seems to be a loving parent himself.

It wasn’t just the Academy Awards contenders. “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” was ostensibly about the economic crisis, but really more about Gordon Gekko’s relationship with his kids. “Robin Hood” hinges on corrupt 12th-century politics, but the key is Robin’s dad, who deserted him. “How Do You Know” is a romantic comedy, but the more interesting relationship is between Paul Rudd and dad Jack Nicholson (who calls him “a fucking moron” and admits, “I can’t trust myself not to manipulate you”).

“Grown Ups” was one of the few films of 2010 that actually weighed the role of fatherhood, rather than making it a plot mover. (And, as the end credits roll, Adam Sandler sings a song in praise of his own dad.) And let’s not forget that Bella and her dad get along fine in the “Twilight” movies.

There were other 2010 films about sperm donors (“The Back-Up Plan,” “The Switch”), estranged fathers (“Life During Wartime”), absentee fathers (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “Please Give,” “Charlie St. Cloud”), uncomfortable-in-the-role-but-trying-hard fathers (“Somewhere”) and dead fathers (“The Karate Kid”).

Here’s the rule of thumb: In a major-studio film, you’re rooting for closure in the family battles. In indie and foreign films, you’re rooting that the kid will never see pops again. (Ree’s crank-cooking father in “Winter’s Bone” is a creep, but he’s World’s Greatest Dad compared to Lisbeth Salander’s pop in the “Dragon Tattoo” trilogy.)

Seeing the glass as half-full, this could eventually lead to good things. Women are still breaking down strict definitions about what they can/can’t do, so maybe Hollywood will greenlight a slew of what-is-a-man explorations.

In “Percy Jackson,” Luke, son of Hermes, says, “I guess we all got daddy issues, huh?” That movie opened early in 2010, but who at the time realized it would be a seminal film?

Want to comment or suggest a column topic? Email timothy.gray@variety.com

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