Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Great Dads of the 70s #14: Roy Scheider in JAWS

Film historians cite JAWS as the film that changed the way movies were distributed and marketed, i.e. more broadly and dumbed down to catch the widest, most generic/international audience. But JAWS itself belongs to the old school 1970s, with character development coming not from a few uninteresting scenes of suburban breakfasts or camaraderie in the office, but from relaxed, improvisational set-ups where parents drink and smoke (gasp!) in front of their kids and relate to them as people in a direct, caring way, free of socialized, pre-approved, “let the lawyers read the script first”-style sanitation.

There’s a great scene that occurs at the Brody dinner table where Roy Schieder’s Sheriff Brody, having allowed the beach to stay open and a kid to die (and maybe also Tippin, the frisbee-catching dog) is lost in wine-soaked regret. His younger son, with cool 1970s haircut looks at him in a direct, wide-eyed way that nowadays would have been cut (it’s too vague), imitates all his dad's expressions and movements;  and Roy says “Give me a kiss,” The kid says “Why?” and Roy says, “because I need it.”

Spielberg’s camera is behind Scheider’s head and we see the boy run up to kiss his dad on the cheek, someone is at the door just then and Roy gives him a good-natured “Get outta here” and sends him running off.

As one of those rare, lucky kids who grew up with a present, loving, hard-drinking/smoking father in that decade, this scene always gets me because it captures the dichotomy of fear and love that a young boy has for his dad; fear and respect because the dad is a “man” - i.e. not hiding his smoking and drinking, not pandering to the kid by talking to him in a high voice like Barney the Dinosaur, etc. The kid is a little afraid of his father, not for any reason of violence or emotional absence but because he is a big, tall, man with mysterious powers. The kid is imitating his dad but his eyes are blank, he's not sure why he's imitating his dad's little facial expressions and movements -there's some unconscious archetypal tug that guides him. He aligns himself with what he perceives as a source of masculine power, and he's a bit afraid of it.

That sort of fear is an essential ingredient in the stew of emotions a boy should have for his dad, along with respect, admiration, and so forth. Without it, the kid feels exposed to the dangers of life outside the parental sphere and even INSIDE the parental sphere, since dad is a "weakling" who can't protect the family. If there were zombies out your window or sharks in the bay, would you want some sensitive guy like Greg Kinnear as a dad? Can't you just see Greg Kinnear as a child psychologist dad, trying to placate the shark with some warm homemade chum and sympathetic understanding?

Brody's kid obviously has some trepidation about his big tall sheriff father, and seeing him in this moment of melancholy weakness could damage his developing psyche... but it doesn't. Though Brody actually needs the validation and support his kid provides, he is able to ask for it in a gruff but loving and offhand manner. He needn't beg or pleas for love like Greg Kinnear in GODSEND, for example. Once he has the kiss, Brody returns to the figure of authority and orders the kid out of his sight, but with an almost mock-macho New York City panache. "Ged outta heah."

We can see how dads in the Spielberg films (which in turn would profoundly and irreversibly influence the way all nuclear families are portrayed in all cinema to come) would become more and more dependent on their son’s love, and the whole reversal of roles where the son has to be the father, which sends kids into rehab at such an early age these days.

No kid likes to see their parents in moments of weakness, least of all dependent on their own kids for psychic assurance and protection (it should be the other way around), this scene in JAWS shows how it can be done right - an acknowledgement of the way a kid proves his value in the family by providing a source of innocent vitality the father can tap into and use to center himself. Compare this scene with the ones in just a few short years in Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, where Dreyfuss is a little weasel of a dad, bullying his kids into seeing PINOCCHIO when they want to go to the water slide instead (he's a bigger brat than they are), and getting hysterical over UFOs and running to the government like a scared ninny instead of being the tough paternal signifier his unit needs him to be.

Here, though, with the mighty Scheider in control, the scene is just another little bit of actorly business in a film made in a different time, wherein the family dynamic was just that, dynamic. And neediness never factored in - the love was there but without 'feels', or emotional cues, it was uncut, raw and fierce, and then it was go off and play. That was the 70s dad. Now geddoudda heah.


  1. Great article, and it's always good to see the incredibly underrated Roy Scheider get some long overdue recognition.

  2. BRAVO!! Truly well-written! I commend you. Such insight~~


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