If It Were Up To Me
Pratfalls and Promises: Father of the Bride
Posted by jennine lanouette on Tuesday, May 18th, 2010
The last couple of weeks I’ve been a bit preoccupied with a wedding in the family. My partner Ed’s daughter got married. Happily, there were no big dramas for me to dissect in that story. All was beauty, elegance, joy and abundant love.
But a couple of days after, Ed and I were cleaning out some clutter in our garage and came across an old VHS of the 1991 Father of the Bride with Steve Martin. “Oh, fun!” I said. “Let’s watch this!” I’d never seen it, but he wasn’t interested. (Too close to home, I guess.) So, that evening, I settled in with it while he went off to his photography class.
By about 15 minutes in, I was already bored. So I started fast forwarding, scanning through the sappy montages and dorky slapstick routines and slowing down to Play whenever it looked like there might be some interesting dynamics between characters emerging. But I didn’t find enough to lift the film out of its tedium.
Slapstick has never been one of my preferred genres of comedy. Try as I might, I can’t see the humor in watching people do things that are just plain stupid. I get more enjoyment out of watching someone compromise his better self and undermine his higher purpose in a way that I could imagine myself having an impulse to do in a similar anxiety-producing circumstance. It’s the difference between making fun of the (less than intelligent) “other” and laughing at a reflection of your own flawed self.
See, in order for all that self-sabotage to have meaning, you have to know something about the self that is being sabotaged. You have to have an individualized main character. This is the even greater problem in the film – the main character is completely generic. Steve Martin’s George Banks is presented as an “Everyman” Dad having generic feelings and responses to his daughter’s sudden news. There is no individuality. Plus, he is incredibly sentimental about it, so there is also no edge. And, consequently, the attempts at humor are not all that funny.
But, rather than try to dissect a bad movie to show how to make it good, I’m going to give you an example from my own real life circumstances that I hope will illustrate what I wished I could have seen more of in that film.
There was a point at the reception of my step-daughter-equivalent’s wedding when I ended up flat on my ass on the floor in a state of deep humiliation. I was trying to scoot from one rented wedding banquet folding chair to another to allow two guests to sit next to each other who I thought would enjoy meeting. But I put my hand on the wrong part of the chair I was heading for, causing the seat to snap up and the chair to collapse in a great clatter on the floor with me landing next to it. Fortunately, my lower self’s impulse to crawl under the table was overruled by my higher self’s internal counsel, “Just take it like a man, Jennine. Get up onto your patent leather pumps, dust off your satin dress, check that your hair’s still in place and reposition yourself in this chair with as much dignity as you can muster.”
The next morning, dishing the wedding over breakfast with our house guests, I expressed my relief at immediately seeing Ed’s compassionate hand extended to pull me up and smooth my ruffled ego. If he hadn’t been nearby, I joked, I would have had no choice but to disappear under the table before anyone saw me, then poke my head out the other side and, if the coast was clear, dart across to take cover behind the table skirt of the dais, then crawl the entire length to the other end of the hall where I could make my escape through an exit door into the night. We had a good laugh imagining me doing that.
In life, we usually manage to resist these lower-self impulses, but the opportunity to witness someone else giving in to them, especially in exaggerated form, makes us feel better about our fear that a part of us, if not kept in check, is fully capable of doing the same. That’s why the scene I described for our house guests is such a familiar one. We’ve all seen it in some film or other. And we’ve all laughed at it as a way of accepting not only the character’s but also our own human frailty. Anyone landing on the floor at a formal affair would experience a general sort of embarrassment, and anyone witnessing it (preferably in a movie theater) could be provoked to laughter because of that circumstance’s generic familiarity.
However, what would make that scene even funnier and, paradoxically, even more possible for us, as viewers, to identify with, is if we were clued in to a surrounding circumstance that is highly personal to the individual character being portrayed. And, indeed, in my real life circumstance, there were, in fact, some additional factors that added a specific tension to my predicament. Being less than three years into this relationship, I am still a relatively new step-mother-equivalent in this family. I knew that at least a few of the guests would be wanting to get a look at Ed’s new girlfriend. So I wanted to make a good impression on his behalf. More than anything, I didn’t want to embarrass him, or my new step-daughter (equivalent). And there I go, falling on my ass just as everyone’s entering the banquet room. See how my individual circumstance makes it even funnier? See how it creates an even greater need to crawl under the dais and out the nearest door?
Okay, I lied a little. The wedding was all beauty and elegance save for one new, nervous, step-mother-equivalent falling on her ass. But, I must say, I feel better now that I have written about it here. In fact, on reflection, all that humiliation was worth it. I have managed to extract a good comedy writing lesson from it and, hopefully, someone out there has learned something.
So, getting back to Father of the Bride, it’s that kind of individualized circumstance, be it external or internal, that I didn’t get from Steve Martin’s character. The fate I suffered was a direct expression of what I feared most – making a bad impression and embarrassing Ed. The things Steve Martin did that got him into trouble leading up to his daughter’s wedding had no particular meaning to us in terms of his character because we didn’t know enough about him to tell what inner fears or maladapted desires were being expressed.
I wondered how this film could have gone so wrong, especially knowing it was a remake of the 1950 favorite with Spencer Tracey and a young Elizabeth Taylor, which I felt sure couldn’t have been this dull and schmaltzy. Curious to see what the earlier one could tell me about where the later one veered off track, I went and got it at my local video store.
By ten minutes in, a key difference was clear. Tracey’s Stanley Banks is a curmudgeon, which makes him infinitely more interesting (and individual) than the sentimental George of four decades later. But, it was when I got to the end that I saw the most important difference between the two films. George Banks (Steve Martin) knows from minute one that he is in pain about losing his daughter to marriage whereas Stanley Banks (Spencer Tracey) doesn’t know he is in pain until his epiphany when he leaves her at the alter and takes his seat among the guests. George Banks, having that knowledge from the start, appears to just be whining about it all through the rest of the film. Get over it already! But Stanley can’t consciously feel his pain yet so, consequently, he spends the entire lead up to the wedding acting it out on everyone around him in tension-filled, and, therefore, humorous, ways.
Self-awareness is a wonderful thing in life. But in drama, it is death, at least at the outset. If you begin your story with your main character in a self-aware state, you have given yourself nowhere to go with him (or her). It is that self-awareness that robs George Banks of an individualized problem. With Stanly Banks, we may be as in the dark as he is about what his problem is, but its abundantly clear that he has a problem and we are waiting to see how it is going to play out. Self-awareness is what we are striving to accomplish by the end of the story. You don’t want to hand it to your viewer on a platter just after the opening credits.
I don’t understand how come so often contemporary writers and directors take on a remake of an old favorite only to make it worse. They should be making it better. Has our understanding of drama not evolved over time? Why do we so often seem to be going backwards?
See, even as good as the 1950 version is, there is plenty of room for improvement to meet today’s standards. For one thing, we know even more now about the inter-relational cost of being driven by our unconscious impulses. For another, we have all kinds of CGI capability to make that dream sequence (the high point of the 1950 film) even more out of this world. If I were remaking that film today, here’s how I would do it:
Make the monologue at the beginning more of a rumination. The wedding is over, George/Stanley is sitting among the party wreckage, wondering how he could have gone so wrong and if his daughter will ever speak to him again. Then he begins to tell the story, jumping back several months to the day he first learned of her intention to marry. Faced with her looming independence, he immediately reverts to over-controlling Dad and starts bossing her around. He has begun acting out his unconscious fear of losing her. As the various wedding tasks and rituals are undertaken, it only continues. He becomes even more controlling, more curmudgeonly, more self-indulgent, more reactive, getting himself into some terrible jams and driving everyone around him crazy.
For those who know both films intimately, this may seem only a shade off from what already exists. The critical difference is that his rumination at the beginning is more specifically troubled and his acting out throughout is more directly connected to unconscious loss. In short, the lows are lower and the highs are higher. And it’s all more individual.
Finally, on the day of the wedding, just before the ceremony, he does one more unconsciously self-pitying thing and his wife gives him a verbal smack upside the head. “Knock it off! What the hell’s wrong with you?!!” She tells him, even if he can’t muster up the joy this day calls for, he can at least fake it for his daughter’s sake. He takes her advice to heart and decides to rise to the occasion.
But it’s not until he is in front of the alter with his daughter on his arm that reality starts to set in. He hands her over to the presiding minister and mentally rehearses his next cue – when the minister says, “Who gives this woman?” he is to respond, “I do,” and then step backwards to take his seat. “Step back?” he thinks in voice over. “Step away? You want me to back away from her? I have always gone towards her – chasing after her when she was two, running alongside her bike at five, leaning over her homework at 12, calling out the door after her at 16. Now I’m supposed to step away? Not as easy as it looks, buddy.” He imagines himself doing a big backwards prat fall. Then sees his wife glaring at him and realizes it’s time to say his line. “I do,” he says and then, with great effort, he takes his three steps back and lands with a dull thud in his seat.
That’s when it hits him. All the pain and anguish at losing his daughter to another man. He describes, in his voice over, a swirl of feelings inside, but only allows a single tear to escape. His wife squeezes his hand. Then, through a watery veil, he sees for the first time his daughter’s radiance as she stands facing her new husband. Tears of sorrow turn to tears of joy.
But the joy is short-lived when he suddenly realizes what an ass he has been all these months. He replays all those embarrassing scenes in his head, wincing at each mortifying one. Now he’s sure he’s lost his daughter not only to marriage, but to his own obnoxious behavior.
All through the reception he tries to get her attention to make his amends. But every time he comes close, she is pulled away. This is only because that’s what happens to brides at their wedding. But he becomes convinced she is avoiding him. He works himself into a tizzy that she won’t speak to him ever again. During the father/daughter dance, she’s too concerned with getting the steps right. Before he can say his piece, she is whisked off by another dance partner. At the end of the evening she takes off with her husband without saying good-bye and he is despondent.
Now we are back to where we were for the monologue at the beginning. But now the post-wedding wreckage he is sitting amongst means something. It is an externalization for how he feels inside. His wife has gone to bed, happily satisfied that she did her job well, as mother of the bride. The wedding was a great success. He is left alone with his desolate feelings.
Then his phone rings. It is his daughter. She is crying her apology to him for not saying good-bye. She doesn’t know what happened. It’s all a blur. They cry together. “You must think I’m the most terrible, ungrateful daughter on earth!” she exclaims. And then he says to her, “It’s okay. It’s okay. You know, no matter what you do, I’ll never let you down. You’ll always be able to count on me when you need me.”
As you can see, I’ve been in wedding immersion for the last couple of weeks. I think I’ll be able to move on to other things now.
You can watch Father Of The Bride on the following Video On Demand websites: