Father Oscar: What the Academy Awards Can Teach About Fatherhood

goldenpondThe Oscars were held last night, and while Birdman took home the most prestigious award of the evening, fathers were just as much on center stage.

The stories we saw weren’t always easy to see or hear. In both Boyhood and Birdman, considered to be the two front-runners for Best Picture when the evening began, we see strained relationships between father and child. In Boyhood, Mason’s dad is great when he’s around … but that’s not often enough, and Mason feels the hole his father leaves behind. In Birdman, Riggan has already been the distant, absentee father. And now he dearly wants to make amends to his angry, adult daughter.

There were other father stories on display last night.  And we see that same strain in many of them. Fathers matter, these movies tell us. How dads do their jobs has a huge impact on their children—for good or ill. And very often, dads don’t do their jobs very well.

And yet, the need for Dad—the desire for his love and approval—rarely goes away.

The first Oscars telecast I ever watched was in 1982, when I was 12 years old. I was personally rooting for Raiders of the Lost Ark that year, but On Golden Pond was up for a bunch of awards, too, including Best Picture, Best Actor, for Henry Fonda and best Supporting Actress for Henry’s daughter, Jane.

Henry won, and Jane bounded to the stage to accept the award for her absent father.

“Oh, Dad,” she said, overwhelmed, “I’m so happy, and so proud for you.”

I didn’t think about it much at the time. But there was quite a backstory behind those 10 words.

Henry Fonda had been one of Hollywood’s leading men for five decades by the time On Golden Pond came out, appearing in such classics as The Grapes of Wrath and 12 Angry Men. But he’d never won an Oscar.  By 1982, meanwhile, daughter Jane had already won two—but she was perhaps better known for her political leanings and the controversies that seemed to follow her wherever she went. Ten years earlier, she’d visited North Vietnam during the height of the Vietnam War, and famously became known as Hanoi Jane.

The two famous Fondas never had a warm relationship. Henry was not an outwardly affectionate man, Jane says, and Jane’s political activism strained their affections almost to the breaking point. In many ways, their relationship resembled what audiences saw onscreen. Jane bought the rights to On Golden Pond as a star vehicle for her father—but in watching this interview, the reasons obviously go deeper.

She mentions in the interview that Henry Fonda died just five months after receiving his Oscar. Giving it to him, she says, was “one of the happiest moments of my life.”

Dads matter.  Henry Fonda mattered so much to Jane that she bought a movie for him and cast herself beside him, just so she could say the things she was desperate to say. They tried to heal wounds through scripted words, finding real-world solace behind the safety of fiction.

I was thinking about this when J.K. Simmons accepted the statuette for Best Supporting Actor for his searing role in Whiplash. And in his acceptance speech, he encouraged us to reach out to our own fathers and mothers—to show our appreciation to them when we have the chance.

“And if I may, call your mom,” he said. “Everybody … call your mom, call your dad. If you are lucky enough to have a parent or two alive on this planet, call them. Don’t text, don’t e-mail. Call them on the phone. Tell them you love them and thank them and will be to them for as long as they want to talk to you. Thank you. Thank you, Mom and Dad.”

It’s good advice, I think. Sometimes that call is easy. Sometimes, depending our relationship with our dads, not so much. Sometimes it can feel awkward, as Jane Fonda knows.

But since we’re the dads now, I think it’s important for us to think about the future—to give our children the sort of relationship that’ll make them want to call. It’s not always easy. We’re not always great at it, as the movies nominated this year suggest. But it’s possible. And even if your relationship with your kids isn’t on the best of trajectories now, it’s not too late.