Sunday, March 31, 2013

Oh Brothers, Where Art Thou?: Siblings in Hollywood

The other day, my friend Nancy made an interesting request: "I'd like to get your take on cinematic sibling relationships -- who's convincing and who's not." What followed was several days of emails in which we explored Hollywood's representation of brothers and sisters, past and present.

Over the course of our siblings revelry, I made a few surprising discoveries. The first one was personal: When Nancy introduced the topic of celluloid brothers and sisters, the one that immediately came to mind was You Can Count on Me. Really? Is the 2000 drama that made Laura Linney Oscar bait and launched countless Mark Ruffalo fantasies (many of them mine) actually the quintessential film for me about sibling relationships? I suppose that it is. When I think of people with the same parents being depicted onscreen, it's always the first movie that comes to mind.

It's a curious realization because the brother-sister dynamic is not one in which I'm naturally emotionally invested nor one that I'm particularly drawn to in story (unless there's a hint or more of incestuousness a la The Cement Garden and The Dreamers). In my own life, my relationships with my two older brothers growing up shaped me as a person more than the one I had with my big sister. I saw my brothers somewhat as alternate versions of myself (and to some degree, still do), what I could or couldn't be, while my sister, whom I didn't love any less, was a completely separate entity in my eyes. I couldn't relate to her in the same way.

Based on what I've seen and experienced in real life -- including observing several boyfriends who had particularly powerful bonds with their sisters -- brother/sister relationships just don't have the inherent drama and complexity of brother/brother and sister/sister ones. There may be a sweet, touching protective element to them (think Richie Cunningham rushing to Joanie's rescue -- with Fonzie in tow, natch! -- on the Happy Days episode in which her date was being bullied by a tough-talking thug), but there's rarely the same competitive spirit that often drives relationships between siblings of the same gender.

When it comes to the sister-sister bond/divide, Hollywood has tackled the topic with gusto over the years and done a pretty good job in the process. Great films like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Interiors, Hannah and Her Sisters, Georgia, Hilary and Jackie, Rachel Getting Married and Melancholia all approach biological sisterhood from different angles, as do okay ones like Little Women and Marvin's Room, not-so-good ones like Hanging Up and In Her Shoes, and ones I've yet to watch, like Margot at the Wedding, The Other Boleyn Girl and My Sister's Keeper. They're enemies and best friends, confidants and competition, essential to each other's well being and hazardous to each other's mental health.

Indeed, one of Hollywood's all-time great sibling rivalries is the decades-long one between Oscar-winning sisters Olivia DeHavilland and Joan Fontaine. It's a far more compelling story than anything I've read on the Baldwin brothers, or the Bridges, or the Fiennes, or the Coens, Farrellys and Wachowskis. (Bring on those movies about the Marx Brothers, or Cain and Abel, ironically, possibly the most famous sibling pair of all!)

The second thing that surprised me during my email discussion with Nancy was how many more movies I was able to think of that feature sisters as the central characters than ones with brothers in the middle, and how much more quickly they came to mind. Since introducing The Godfather's Corleones, perhaps the ultimate Hollywood representation of brotherhood, rather than offering more of the same (brothers in arms, armed), cinema has placed its dramatic familial emphasis on sisters.

Hollywood continues to thrive on buddy movies, as Nancy mentioned, to the point that an alien studying film to learn about human gender dynamics might assume (perhaps correctly) that the strongest connection between men come from comedy and adventure. Indeed, when I did a Google search for brothers in film, I came across several Top 10 lists that were dominated by comedic siblings like the ones in Twins, Trading Places, Strange Brew, Step Brothers and The Blues Brothers.

When I started thinking about cinematic brothers, the first ones that came to mind -- those in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Sabrina, East of Eden, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Legends of the Fall, Dan in Real Life, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, and, of course, Brothers (the 2009 remake of the 2004 Danish film Brødre, starring Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and a pre-Oscar Natalie Portman) -- often seemed to have a woman/women at the center, or threatening to come between them. It's like filmmakers think brothers are most interesting when one of them is obsessing over a woman or coveting thy brother's wife.

Nancy, who is working on a creative project about brothers not based on personal experience (her lone sibling is a sister), made the excellent point that TV has always gotten the brother relationship better than film, citing Ray and Robert Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond, Frasier and Niles Crane on Frasier, and the brothers played by Nick Nolte and Peter Strauss in the '70s miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man. I'd add the Waters on the '80s Showtime series Brothers, the Harpers on Two and a Half Men (sorry, I was a fan of its Charlie Sheen years, and the sitcom feels pointless without Charlie and Alan at its center), and the Buchanans on One Life to Live to that list.

"There are so many other things to fight over, like money or ethics," Nancy wrote. "This is why I think television shows got it better. J.R. and Bobby [on Dallas] fought over power, and winning daddy's respect. Even the Hardy boys didn't fight over women. It was about protecting and supporting each other." True. Just last night I was watching the most recent episode of Nashville, thinking that Gunnar and his ex-con brother had all the ingredients of an intriguing sibling duo, with elements of jealousy, guilt, regret, resentment and a little bit of hero worship, without the brother ever once making a pass at Scarlett. It's a shame he was killed off before things had a chance to fully develop, though we did get one telling explosive argument.

Personally, I find brothers far more interesting when they're fighting, which might be why I wasn't so crazy about The Fighter. Micky and Dicky (played, respectively, by Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale) fought more with others than with each other. There was the obligatory conflict between them (Micky's gratitude and guilt, Dicky's sense of entitlement), but it felt half-cooked in the movie. There should have been more fiery intensity between them. Confrontation is the foundation for iconic screen siblings. But I remember Bale's and Melissa Leo's Oscar-winning performances more than anything that happened between Micky and Dicky. On the plus side, at least they weren't fighting over Amy Adams!

Perhaps this is stereotypical thinking on my part from too many years spent watching daytime soaps, but aren't women more likely to fight over a man than men are to go to war over a woman, no matter what the Greek myth about Helen of Troy and the Trojan War tells us? Speaking of Troy, there's another film (2004's Troy) featuring actors above the title playing brothers (Eric Bana as Hector and Orlando Bloom as Paris), with a woman (Diane Kruger as Helen) in the mix, though not coming between them. But anyone well versed in Greek mythology who has read the Illiad, the Homer classic on which Troy is based, knows that the homoerotic bromance between Achilles and Patroclus is far more interesting than the brotherly bond between Hector and Paris.

Just when I was about to give up on finding a great recent dramatic presentation of screen brothers unburdened by a female interloper, I remembered a movie that was one of my favorite films of 2011: Warrior, whose brother-brother relationship contained echoes of the one in The Fighter, only far messier. Warrior was as much about the brotherly love/hate between Tom Hardy's and Joel Edgerton's characters (younger brother Tommy and big brother Brendan, respectively) as it was about Tommy's relationship with their dad, played by a deservedly Oscar-nominated Nick Nolte.

As touching as the father-son story arc was, the classic older brother vs. younger brother rivalry was the truly moving one. It resisted all of those perfect-brother/fuck-up brother cliches and presented two flawed guys who each had to battle their own personal demons. When I watched Warrior, it was hard for me to take sides because both brothers were right and wrong (I did find myself rooting for Brendan during their climactic bout, but mostly because he needed the money more), which is so often how familial conflict plays out in real life.

And best of all, when they got into the ring, figuratively and literally, it was never about a girl. If Tommy and Brendan aren't going to inspire Hollywood to do brothers better, I hope it inspires Nancy to write a great story.

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