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For Hollywood, It’s All in the Family : Ron Howard’s “Parenthood” reflects the movies’ latest discovery: kids and families

It was bound to happen sooner or later. When movie executives start networking at 3-year-olds’ birthday parties, when a studio chief routinely turns down breakfast meetings to spend quality time with her baby, when the carrousel at the Santa Monica Pier becomes the place to be seen on Sunday mornings, it’s only logical that Hollywood would turn its creative eye to child rearing.

“Three Men and a Baby” and “Baby Boom” were just the beginning. Now father-of-four Ron Howard has directed a movie expressly tailored for ‘80s parents--baby boomers who are as fixated with child rearing today as they were with peace and rock ‘n’ roll 20 years ago. “Parenthood,” which opens Wednesday, stars Steve Martin as a guilt-ridden, hands-on dad who tirelessly shoulders the troubles of his hypersensitive 9-year-old. The Universal release was produced by Howard’s own company, Imagine Films, which he co-founded three years ago with partner Brain Grazer.

For Howard, “Parenthood” marks a departure from his repertoire of fantasy films--"Splash,” “Cocoon” and “Willow.” But the seeds of the story are very much his own, inspired by the turns his life has taken as the result of raising an 8-year-old daughter, Bryce; a pair of 4-year-old twins, Jocelyn and Paige; and a 2-year-old son, Reed.

Parenthood--the real thing, not the movie--"has changed my life more than any other event,” says the 35-year-old Howard. “It is completely different and it will be forever.” Spoken like a modern dad.

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Martin is not the only actor portraying a distinctly ‘80s brand of parenting in the film. Rick Moranis is a nightmare version of the yuppie parent who teaches his 3-year-old karate and Kafka. The divorcee played by Dianne Wiest was at Woodstock; now, two decades later, she can’t control her two problem teens.

Jason Robards is the family patriarch--a less than ideal role model for modern dads--who now has his hands full coping with his 27-year-old gambler son, played by Tom Hulce. Also appearing in the ensemble cast are Mary Steenburgen, Harley Kozak, Martha Plimpton, Keanu Reeves, Leaf Phoenix and Eileen Ryan.

While “Parenthood” stands virtually alone in its exploration of contrasting styles of modern parenting, Hollywood is producing a plethora of films about parent-child relationships. Among those in the works: “Step Kids,” a New Line film about a teen-ager coping with her myriad of step relatives; “Dad,” a Universal release from TV’s “Family Ties” creator Gary David Goldberg about a man who must take care of his aging father; “Stella” a Disney remake of the popular 1937 film, “Stella Dallas,” about a mother-daughter relationship; and “Parenting,” in development at Disney, about a divorced woman who brings a new man into her son’s life. There is also at least one film about the traumas of baby-boomer couples unable to bear children--Columbia’s “Immediate Family,” scheduled for release later this year.

While TV currently has a monopoly on entertainment about parent-child relationships, movie history is not without its own examples. The Andy Hardy series gave moviegoers a warm and comedic look at relationships within a small-town American family. In the 1950s, teen-agers rebelled against their parents--and other authority figures--in “Rebel Without a Cause” and “The Young Stranger.” Two decades later, “Ordinary People” provided a chillingly frank look at a family coping with the crisis of a lost child.

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Now, though, as baby-boomer couples who postponed marriage and children start families, there is a surge of interest in movie projects about parent-child relationships. “I think people in America are really looking for stability now,” says independent TV/film producer Bernie Brillstein.

But Hollywood’s sudden interest in family matters is just as much a product of its own changing social scene. When film makers go in search of ideas, they often look around at themselves and their friends. As the 1980s come to a close, more and more of them are seeing each other become new parents, vocally grappling with child-rearing problems that their own parents probably took for granted.

“Babies are in--drugs and partying are out,” says Martin Bauer, co-founder of the talent agency Bauer Benedek and father of two youngsters. “At these chic Malibu parties this summer, everyone’s talking about schools. “

That translates into more creative interest in parenting, Bauer notes, because increasingly the top decision-makers in Hollywood are between the ages of 35 and 45. Most of these ambitious executives, agents and producers postponed families while they vigorously pursued their careers--and the demanding social schedules that went along. Now these same Hollywood powers--people like Columbia Pictures president Dawn Steel and Disney studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg--are showing up to parties with young children in tow. And no one objects when Steel turns down breakfast meetings, candidly stating that she spends those hours with her baby.

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“Fifteen years ago being hip was being young and single,” says Imagine’s Grazer, who also served as producer on “Parenthood.” “Now being hip is being a responsible dad, a responsible parent. It’s hip to have substance. People now have parties during the day so you can bring your kids.”

“It’s all changed,” adds talent agent Jim Berkus of Leading Artists Agency. “People are staying at home, entertaining at home more than they used to.” They’re also mixing business with family. When Berkus recently threw a birthday party for his 3-year-old, the magician stood in the front yard entertaining the kids, while some of their parents slipped to the back of the house to talk shop. “They didn’t have to feel guilty about doing business because they were also spending time with their families,” says Berkus.

Hollywood moms and dads--like baby-boomer couples elsewhere--approach child rearing with a different perspective than their parents. One of the biggest changes, of course, is the level of participation by fathers.

“Parenthood” has the distinct ring of a film that grew out of long sessions of story swapping by a group of men who recently discovered fatherhood. In fact, it did, though the original idea for the film came from Howard. Doing the story swapping at Imagine’s L.A. offices were Howard (who would fly in from his East Coast home), his script-writing team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (“Splash,” “Nightshift”) and Grazer. Between them, the four men have 15 children.

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“There’s no question that the script is angled a little bit more toward the dad,” says Ganz. “We questioned that, but we felt it was more honest to write from our point of view.” That point of view is what gives “Parenthood” its distinctly modern flavor. More than parenting, this is a movie about baby-boomer men anxious to be good fathers.

“Men have a different role and responsibility than they did in another time,” says Ganz. “All of us felt that, as dads, we did not have the license, even if we were inclined, to say, ‘I’m doing my part by bringing home the check.’ ” Howard agrees: “It wasn’t long ago that dads could feel like they were doing a good job if they weren’t abusive and brought home the bacon. That doesn’t cut it anymore.”

“Now being a good dad means going to Lamaze classes, happily cleaning up throw-up and changing diapers, and going to check out schools with the kids,” says Grazer. Grazer, who has a 1-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son, is acutely attuned being an ‘80s dad--he monitors his kids’ diets, employs “sensitive guidance” over discipline, and takes his 3-year-old to breakfast alone four times a week.

“I always wanted to be a better dad than my dad,” Grazer says. “That was a pledge.” In the movie, Martin’s character, Gil, makes that same pledge about his father (played by Robards).

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The film explores the anxieties and fears of fatherhood primarily through Gil and his inability to create a stable, happy world for his son Kevin (played by Jasen Fisher). All of the film’s creators identified most closely with Gil’s story. “You have all these expectations, you can’t not have them,” says Howard. “But they’re difficult to live up to. . . . Gil has to face the fact that he’s not going to protect his children from the outside world and who they are.”

Gil is constantly wracked by guilt that he isn’t doing enough for Kevin. Howard may be a calmer father than this fictional creation, but he also confesses to pangs of guilt in his relationships to his children. “My greatest fault as a father is the coming and going in their lives,” he says in a reference to the peripatetic life of being a film director.

“Ron’s not so much wracked by guilt as he is wracked by responsibility,” says Grazer. “He’s really driven by responsibility to everything--to his work, his wife, to his sense of being a dad and the standard he’s set up for it.”

That behind-the-camera image of Howard does not veer far from the one that was forever etched on the minds of millions of TV viewers during the 1960s and 1970s. Howard, after all, played Andy Griffith’s wholesome young son, growing up in the small town of Mayberry, N.C., for nearly a decade. In the 1970s, he was the innocent and impeccably responsible Richie Cunningham, a counterpoint to his more mischievous pal Potsie and the downright rowdy greaser they befriended, Fonzie.

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During the filming of “Parenthood” in Orlando, Howard and his wife, Cheryl, brought along their children, putting the twins in a local nursery school and sending 8-year-old Bryce to the tutoring sessions arranged for the children in the cast. The director agreed to a lunch-time interview on the set only after Bryce stood him up, deciding she preferred to eat with the other kids.

Steenburgen brought her two children, ages 5 and 8, onto the set too. Between the children of the cast and crew, and the youngsters who had parts in the film, the set in Orlando looked like a suburban elementary school during recess. “If you don’t like kids,” said Steenburgen, “this is a bad set to be on.”

Martin doesn’t have kids of his own, and he said that learning how to work with children was one of the toughest aspects of this role. “I haven’t been around kids much,” Martin says. “You don’t realize how smart they are.” In between filming Martin could generally be found entertaining the kids on the set with magic tricks he practiced during his early years working at Disneyland.

Moranis has children--an infant and a 3-year-old--though he promises that he’s not the perfectionist, superachieving dad he portrays. To Howard, the Moranis character reflects “the way you feel about your first child carried to the extreme. You feel like you’re molding clay.”

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But Ganz notes that the completely unsympathetic Moranis character also is drawn from his own reaction to those obsessive yuppie parents who aren’t satisfied unless their child plays Schubert and speaks three different languages by the second grade. ‘It’s these people who make you feel very bad as a parent for not giving your kids all these advantages, that make you feel like you’re too lazy, not energized enough,” Ganz says. “Rationally you can’t take these people seriously, but deep down you have a fear that you may be screwing up.”


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