A Fleeting Thought About American Hustle and Parenthood

In honor of the Academy Awards I thought I would put up a brief post about parenthood in the movies.    I’ve written on the general topic (and more broadly, parenthood in popular culture) in the past.   Since I believe the legal definition of parent is socially constructed, it’s depiction in popular culture can be important.

Anyway, on the eve of the Oscars I got to see American Hustle.   (For the record, it was nominated for ten Oscars, won absolutely nothing, but I thought it was quite good.)   It’s about a con artist–Irving Rosenfeld (played by Christian Bale–who is pretty much a small-time, low-life sort of guy.  He’s ensnared by the FBI and ends up being used to ensnare increasingly valuable (and generally corrupt) defendants.  Based on a true story, as they say.

Rosenfeld is a complicated character.   He’s a crook.  He preys (at the outset) on other crooks.   He has both a mistress and a wife.   It’s hard to say he is admirable.

Except for one thing.   He has a son, Danny.   Actually, some of you might insist that I say he has a step-son, for Danny is the son of Danny’s wife and some former connection of hers.  (I cannot recall what has happened to that man, but he’s clearly gone. )    Irving has adopted Danny.

Without giving much away, I can say that Irving’s unalterable commitment to Danny is part of what drives the plot.  Danny is “my son” say Irving, and he won’t leave him.   He doesn’t say “step-son.”  He doesn’t say “adopted son.”  He just says “my son.”

Now it’s not a big deal in the movie–that this otherwise rather unsavory character who seems to have an unreliable moral compass is willing to sacrifice quite a bit to make good on his commitment to be a father to his son.   It’s just there.   And I think it’s worth a moment’s notice.

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10 responses to “A Fleeting Thought About American Hustle and Parenthood

  1. But it is a big deal, that’s why they put it in. The fact that the film makers tell us it’s his step son and yet he treats him as a son is used as a character builder, it is what makes him a redeemable character to us filmgoers in 2014 (especially that it took place in the 80’s and we know men were even less likely to feel that way back then). If the kid had been his biological son it would be a different story, it wouldn’t have shown him to be a stand up guy. Films these days are always hyping the father son connection, often about nothing so much as the unexplained and ill-advised need for the hero to go back to save his family or the son to get in touch with his dead father through the radio or something. If that movie had been made 30 years ago, the writers would not have put that commitment to a step son in because audiences would think he was crazy and it wouldn’t work as a character signifier.

    • I think it always would have been considered noble for a man to step up to the plate as a father figure for a child whose dad was not around. Don’t you?

      I think those in favor of donor reproduction think that noble light applies to their situation when of course it can’t apply if the step father WANTED the kid to be abandoned by their father and in some cases underwrote the absence to ensure he could have a chance to be viewed by the child not just as a father figure but as if he really were his only father.

      • I don’t think that becoming a parent to a donor conceived child is at all the same thing, actually. There’s nothing terribly noble about it. And I don’t think that anyone I’ve met who is a parent to a donor conceived child thinks of it that way. But that is because I don’t agree with your characterization of donor conceived children as having been abandoned by their fathers. You see the donor as a father who abandoned a child. I see the donor as a man who provided sperm so that other people could have a child. It’s all about your view of the meaning of a genetic connection. We can go round and round here, of course, but I won’t. This is just our same-old-fundamental-disagreement.

      • Yeah, it was always noble for step fathers and step mothers to “step up” (is that word a coincidence?) and be father figures and mother figures for their spouse’s children. But there was also more of a distance in their relationship, they didn’t get as emotional as the character in American Hustle. To be honest I actually can’t quite remember this aspect of the movie that well, I saw it on opening night, it was hyped up so much in advance. But Julie sparked some possibly false memory of my reaction at the time, which I think was “what a modern contrivance, why do all movies have to have a dad missing his family in them now? There is no way guys felt that way back in the 80’s.”

        • This is why what struck me is that he doesn’t say “step-father” and you see no evidence of the distance you speak of. If you didn’t know, you’d say he’s a father, plain and simple, and not a step-father. I do think this works to show us his good side.

          As for the question of whether men did that or felt that in the 1980s I am fairly sure that, then as now, some did and some did not.

      • Did you see Jerry Seinfeld talk about how parenting has changed on the Tonight Show since when he was a kid?

        • Happy you posted that. (Parenting stuff is at around four minutes in.) It really has changed, hasn’t it? Not universally, I’m sure, but at least the ideal has changed.

    • I agree that it matters in our assessment of the character and, I assume, that’s why it is there. I meant they don’t make a big deal of it in the movie itself. Sorry–wasn’t clear.

  2. Feels to me like this is the only area of society where we almost encourage people to lie about who they are in relation to others based on a kind of Hallmark Precious Moment’s sentimentality where people can feel so strongly about something they simply assign themselves the title and by virtue of going around like that long enough sort of become the thing they wanted to be and nobody challenges it. You’ll here people say that they deserve the title of father more because they earned it that sort of thing. But there is something really significant about the legal status of a married couple say for instance where it’s clear that the two people both elected to take on the various responsibilities of married life and is it really fair to hold someone to the same legal requirements if they never got married? Is it really fair to start holding a guy to the legal requirements of parenthood if its not his bio child and he did not adopt? And when these legal categories involve a connection to another person well how would someone feel if they’d been a couple, not married and their partner held them out as their spouse long enough that they became married against their will but not against their partners will? What about a child who does not want to be an object that someone can earn their way into being parent of what if they simply wanted to have their bio parent be their parent and don’t appreciate the idea that their mother’s spouse can put in enough sweat equity and time and financial investment to earn the title of parent over them and thus make them loose their name, their legal stance as kin within their bio family and cost them the legal right to their father’s support when they know that their mother’s spouse would have to help her provide for them anyway so long as they are married.

    It’s kind of important to go through the legal process to gain status before calling yourself something like a spouse or like a parent because its a relational thing that necessarily involves another person and certain obligations. It’s not like its impossible to take those legal steps millions of people do it so acting like something should not be enough to gain the title or status. I know why people feel very emotional about people who step up to the plate and really help a kid with an absentee parent. But why not help without the expectation of the title or expectation of parental authority? It’s only honorable in my eyes when the person doing all the work does it without seeking to gain the title of parent and without trying to become a legal parent. Then its really honoralble and for the kid, not the person putting forward all that time and effort. The moment they look at it as an investment they expect a return on is the moment the nobility of it all goes out the window for me.

  3. “He has both a mistress and a wife.” – By the way: so has Warren Buffett I’m told – and they all live under one roof. I think morality is a more complicated matter that is hard to grasp in categories that have been defined by religion. More important is: does one pay his bills. In that category the character seems to fail.

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