FILM / The Hollywood home movie show: The appearance of Depardieu pere et fils in Tous Les Matins du Mondes continues a long and occasionally dishonourable film tradition. John Lyttle uproots a family tree of sibling rivalries

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TWO well-worn routes to film fame: the casting couch and the crib. Both involve a lot of lying about on your back and playing dumb while people loom over you making silly faces, but the crib leaves you with your virtue intact. And if Daddy isn't about to buy you a mockingbird, then he should at least arrange a screen test, shouldn't he?

Ask Gerard Depardieu. Tous Les Matins du Monde, on release this week, has son Guillaume playing Gerard's character during his younger years. The hapless progeny is made aware of his physical shortcomings in relation to Papa by having to don an unbecoming false nose, the Depardieu hooter being big at the box office, if not in the bloodline. Not that anyone thinks any less of Depardieu senior for smuggling junior into the upper echelons of international cinema. Who doesn't want their baby to succeed? (And should Guillaume beat the rap for pushing heroin - he was arrested two weeks ago - doubtless he'll go far.)

Celluloid has traditionally thrived on nepotism. In the silent era Universal chief Carl Laemmle raised every talentless relative he could find to executive status, provoking writer Ogden Nash's immortal put-down 'Uncle Carl Laemmle has a very large faemmle'. Didn't Fox's Darryl F Zanuck appoint his only begotten son, Richard, president of the company - and didn't Richard move to oust him? And wasn't there a studio called Warner Brothers?

The clans behind the camera were bound to gaze kindly on the children of celebrity. Stardom is a mystery. Why does the public warm to one actor and not another, equally beautiful, equally gifted performer? Hey, perhaps it's genetic. . .

Thus the industry would gamble on Douglas Fairbanks Jnr and John Drew Barrymore Jnr, their fathers having long overstayed their hour upon the stage. But it wouldn't be until the studio system crumbled, and power shifted to the agents, that stars would dare raid the playpen for supporting players, inviting audiences to coo 'Ooh, doesn't he/she look like his/her Mum/Dad.'

Nepotism makes sound commercial sense. Guest offspring appearances can boost attendance as audiences flock to observe how far the apple has fallen from the tree. This was the reason, some critics bitched, that Janet Leigh was partnered with Jamie Lee Curtis in The Fog. Jamie, on the way up, could lend Janet, on the way down, a certain box-office protection. Similarly, Melanie Griffith's employment on Roar, her mother Tippi Hedren's long- nurtured, lion-infatuated epic: Griffith was a name the public could recognise, though not potent enough to draw the desired crowds.

So Lloyd Bridges would shoehorn his lads, Beau and Jeff, into Sea Hunt. John Wayne mosied son Patrick into the limelight for McLintock and Big Jake. Not that exposure automatically guarantees a blazing career: Patrick Wayne's finest hour and 52 minutes was in 1977's Sinbad and The Eye of the Tiger. And Jim Mitchum's appearance in Thunder Road was a flash in the pan, (his brother Christopher would later be assigned to B-grade video action, too), perhaps because old man Robert excerised his male ego and cast Jim as his brother, not as his son.

Male idols tend to view their boys as both proof of virility and trophies to be controlled. Chaplin, for instance, would sprinkle his lads about in the background, only to humiliate them before strangers. Sophia Loren, working on A Countess from Hong Kong, was aghast: 'He would scream at them. It was horrible.' No wonder Michael Douglas has avoided working with the fierce Kirk, who once blurted, 'My sons? I can't live with them and I can't live without them.' On the other hand, Daddy is encouraged to adore his non-threatening little princess: remember Paper Moon and Ryan and Tatum O'Neal?

Which isn't always the way with monstrous mothers. If men struggle between pride and patriarchy, certain female icons seem to simultaneously prize and fear their girls as potential substitutes or rivals. Marlene Dietrich's use of her only child, Maria, speaks volumes. If photographers approached Dietrich while doing the social rounds, Maria was under orders to step aside, less Mummy's youthful image be dented. Yet, cast as Dietrich's younger self in von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress, Maria proved a publicity bonanza, with Dietrich raining attention, praise and pretty frocks upon her: the daughter as walking, talking living doll.

Even something as harmless as Liza Minnelli's toddling final-frame appearance in In the Good Old Summertime, with Judy Garland and co-star Van Johnson, proves not to be a Technicolor snapshot for the MGM family album but a campy in-joke. Liza's father, Vincente, was gay and so was Van Johnson, the man playing her Good Old father, offering further evidence of Garland's puzzling sense of humour, covert but patholgically eager to reveal. No wonder Judy and Liza, like Marlene and Maria, would spend their lives locked in love and combat.

It's this slippage between the private and the press release that ultimately defines the Hollywood home movie. It certainly enlivens Charlie Sheen's Wall Street scenes with Martin Sheen, son and father playing father and son, Martin suffering a heart attack and doling out sage advice. Martin Sheen had suffered a heart attack, and Charlie had angered him by dropping out of high school in search of a fast buck, information which added much needed resonance to Oliver Stone's pancake-flat dialogue. (Woody Allen pulled the same biographical trick for Hannah and Her Sisters, bringing Mia Farrow's mother, Maureen O'Sullivan, back to the screen to essay. . . Mia Farrow's mother.) The Sheens patched it up, to the extent that Charlie would even allow Martin to direct him in the appalling Stockade.

If you can't star with Dad, you can at least star for him. John Huston had already guided his father, Walter, to an Oscar for Treasure of the Sierra Madre when he attempted to spring his 16- year-old daughter, Anjelica, on the world. A Walk with Love and Death proved to be a fiasco, though not so effective a warning that Francis Coppola could be stopped from pushing his daughter, Sofia, into The Godfather III (perhaps the only movie in which a character is shot to put the audience out of its misery). Huston's act of contrition came decades later with Prizzi's Honor, a gangster spoof designed to grant his daughter a major league future: Anjelica Huston won the Academy Award for playing Maerose Prizzi and made her father weep.

The Blessed Oscar of Forgiveness is also what Jane Fonda wanted to win for the dying Henry when she bought, financed and produced On Golden Pond, the biggest Hollywood home movie of them all. Crafted to the crusty persona of her father that had once alienated her, both actors mined a painful past, typecast as a father and daughter incapable of understanding each other, yet desperate to achieve contact. On screen and off, Henry continued to badger and bully, driving his bewildered co- star to tears.

Still, when the prize-giving season arrived it was Jane who collected her father's statuette and raced to the hospital. And five months before he died father and daughter finally played a reconcilation scene meant for each other and not for the screen.

----------------------------------------------------------------- THE NAMES THAT FIT THE BILL ----------------------------------------------------------------- Sister acts The sublime: Constance and Norma Talmadge Dorothy and Lillian Gish (co-starred in Orphans of the Storm) Constance and Joan Bennett Polly Ann, Betty Jane and Loretta Young (Loretta 'accepted' a role meant for Polly Ann and launched her career) Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine (Olivia publically snubbed Joan at the 1946 Oscars) Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft Hayley and Juliet Mills Jamie Lee Curtis and Jennifer Jason Leigh The ridiculous: Zsa Zsa and Eva Gabor Dolly and Stella Parton Joan and Jackie Collins (Jackie abandoned acting for writing) Madeleine and Mary Collinson (identical centre-spread darlings stripped for Hammer's Twins of Evil) Brothers in arms High style: George Sanders and Tom Conway (Conway inherited Sanders's role as The Falcon) Beau and Jeff Bridges (co-starred in The Fabulous Baker Boys) Low rent: Sean and Chris Penn Charlie Sheen, Ramon Sheen and Emilio Estevez, sons of Martin Sheen (Charlie and Emilio co- starred in Men at Work) Alec and William Baldwin Boy meets girl Jane and Peter Fonda (co-starred, as lovers, in Spirits of the Dead) Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine ('I want to act with Warren. I want to play his lover.') Julia and Eric Roberts Penny and Garry Marshall (began as actors, both became directors) Desi and Lucie Arnaz John and Joan Cusack (co-starred in Say Anything) Ties that bind No go areas: Joan Crawford and Hal LeSueur (Crawford landed her brother a juicy contract - he blew it on booze) Barbra Streisand and Roslyn Kind (two powerhouse songbirds in one family is one too many) Natalie and Lana Wood (Lana's biggest - in every sense - role was Plenty O'Toole in Diamonds Are Forever; eerily the character dies by drowning) Madonna and Paula Ciccone (On Madonna's wedding day: 'I can't believe this is happening. This should be my wedding day, not hers. I should be the famous one. This should be my career. All this attention should have been mine]') -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photographs omitted)