Hollywood cashes in on family values

Click to follow
IS THERE money in morality? Its least likely purveyor, Hollywood, seems to hope so. In recent months, a spate of action movies gracing American cinemas have interspersed wham, bam, shoot 'em up scenes with more tender moments of familial reconciliation and pregnancy. Is Tinseltown softening? Hardly.

Driven perhaps by the billion-dollar success of Titanic, which blasted into box office history thanks to myriad frenzied female fans, and even earlier by Apollo 13, whose astronauts had time to think about their wives while hurtling off into space, studios may hope to lure more women to the testosterone-driven action genre by adding a dash of family values to their protagonists' lives.

This summer, Mel Gibson, Ben Affleck and even Godzilla took time out from their action-packed days of saving or destroying the world to address family responsibilities. It's enough to make a superhero cry.

In Lethal Weapon 4, Mel Gibson's character feels the baby kick in his wife's belly moments before they are chased over railway lines by van- driving villains. The bad guys end up getting smacked by the train and their karma goes up in a fireball. In Deep Impact, Tea Leoni's character makes peace with her estranged father as the East Coast is engulfed by a giant tidal wave.

Armageddon's Bruce Willis imagines his daughter in a wedding dress during a nuclear weapon crisis. In The Mask of Zorro, Zorro is reunited with a long-lost daughter, while our favourite lizard, Godzilla, attends to his brood of baby reptiles. (Who says dads can't nurture?)

The latest summer blockbuster, Saving Private Ryan, while a large cut above the others and a different kind of action movie, juxtaposes violent shooting scenes against the solitude of a mother grieving for her son and dying men calling for their mothers. "The studios have merged two genres in order to get the broadest audience possible," says Marde Gregory, the associate director for the University of California's Center for Communication Policy. So, is it working?

"A number of women students I spoke with were quite taken by the love scenes between Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler in Armageddon. It's grossed pounds 109m domestically and was the top movie of the summer until Ryan overtakes it."

Still, Gregory adds that while dropping a pregnant woman or two in the plotlines might make the stories in action movies better, it doesn't necessarily guarantee financial or creative success. (In the U.S., Godzilla lived up to its reputation as a disaster movie - sadly, at the box office.)

With exceptions such as Saving Private Ryan and Welcome to Sarajevo, she says, "you don't necessarily leave these action movies knowing and thinking more about the world. But my cynical side says, `This is a business and the film studios don't care whether people are enlightened or not'."

Suggest this to the studios and you get a dissenting earful. "To say that we go out of our way to include elements such as morality, family values or portrayal of gays and minorities, for that matter, as a marketing strategy in films we produce would be inaccurate and ridiculous," admonishes a spokesperson for 20th Century Fox Film Corporation, "Anyone who makes movies for the public has a responsibility to underline issues of humanity and morality. But to suggest it as a marketing strategy is absurd."

Perhaps the kindest view of the new fad sees it reflecting both the sensibilities of the filmmakers and the audience, says Gary McVey. As executive director of the American Cinema Foundation, dedicated to raising the cultural standards of Hollywood, Mr McVey has his work cut out. .

"Many filmmakers have families and take an almost blue-collar pride in driving their kids to daycare when they can afford to have them flown in by helicopter," he says. "On the other hand, action moviemakers are finding that these sub-plots enable men to drag their dates to these movies."

But McVey is cautious in his welcome for the new trend. "I think it's good that the testosterone level in movies may finally be dropping," he says. "It's useful when male audiences have to pay attention to female characters. But you're not going to see an extreme sensitivity taking over action movies. Hollywood has always known about the importance of female audiences. "Every 20 years, you see articles saying, `Hollywood has finally gotten the message about women.' It's always had the message - it just drifts in and out of focus."