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The Joy Of Watching Dysfunctional Families On Film


This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington. As Tolstoy said, "All happy families are alike and boring." Is it any wonder the movies keep returning to the unhappy ones?

(Soundbite of movie "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation")

Mr. CHEVY CHASE: (As Clark Grisworld) Where do you think you're going? Nobody's leaving. Nobody's walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no, we're all in this together. This is a full blown four-alarm holiday emergency here. We're going to press on and we're going to have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny (bleep) Kaye.

SHAPIRO: That was Chevy Chase, playing Clark Grisworld in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," just one iconic entry in one of the most beloved genres in film - the dysfunctional family. This hour, a smorgasbord of adultery, rebellion, mental illness, drug addiction, and the occasional criminal indictment. Later, it's your most memorable holiday reunions.

But first, look around at your own family this holiday. Who do you see? The Tenenbaums, the Corleones, the Addams family? What's the dysfunctional film family that most resembles yours? Or which one do you secretly want to be adopted into? Our number here in Washington is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is [email protected]. And you can join the conversation on our Web site. Go to and click on Talk of the Nation. Our guide through the vicissitudes of la famiglia is Murray Horwitz. He is the patriarch of our Summer Movie Festival, and he also runs the American Film Institute Silver Theater and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. Thanks for coming in, Murray.

Mr. MURRAY HORWITZ (Director and COO, American Film Institute Silver Theatre and Cultural Center): Thank you, Ari. It's a real pleasure.

SHAPIRO: You can take off...

Mr. HORWITZ: Merry Christmas.

SHAPIRO: And to you. You can take off that Santa suit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: I think the big white beard might muffle what you say into the microphone.

Mr. HORWITZ: I'm a patriarch after all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: OK. You want to set some groundrules first for this exploration of the dysfunctional family on film?

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, yeah, certainly as all the - well, I'll save my ideas, doing one at a time. Yes, groundrules - first of all, as usual on the Talk of the Nation film series, no TV shows.

SHAPIRO: No television.

Mr. HORWITZ: The Sopranos don't count. And also, family means more than just two people.

SHAPIRO: So we don't get to talk about "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf."

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, except they have kids. I think the kids are off-screen.

SHAPIRO: Oh, perfect. OK, we'll get to them later. OK.

Mr. HORWITZ: I'm not sure, maybe one of our listeners knows. But for example, we can talk about Nick and Nora Charles in "The Thin Man" because in "Another Thin Man," they actually have a baby.

SHAPIRO: OK. So why do people keep paying to see miserable families on film when we can go enjoy our own for free at home?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: I'm thinking of Godfrey Cambridge's great line when he had an - he's an African-American comedian, had an African-American domestic worker, you know, the maid in the house. And he said, why do you girls watch soap operas all the time? She said, honey, I just love seeing white folk in trouble.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: And I think that, like, we love seeing fam - we all have families. All families have challenges and problems and sometimes and very serious ones. And somehow, when we see them on film, I guess it somehow expiates our own troubles. I will tell you this, Ari. We have now hit, for all of our topics on Talk of the Nation over the years, this is the mother lode of movie themes.

SHAPIRO: Neal had to miss it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, he's dealing with family. But in fact, you know, in our theater, at the AFI Silver Theater here in the Washington area, we're showing - this is the time when we only show first-run movies because we want to give people a heads up on what awards are coming up. And I realized, we're showing four movies over the next few weeks, and they're all about dysfunctional families in some way. We've got the "Rachel Getting Married" and "Slumdog Millionaire," and coming up is "Revolutionary Road," and we also have "I've Loved You So Long." And all of those deal with many different kinds of dysfunctional families.

SHAPIRO: Running the gamut from light comedy to heavy drama.

Mr. HORWITZ: And that's another thing. When you're really dealing - there's some categories here. There are - when you're dealing with a truly, truly dysfunctional family where dysfunction itself is not funny, it's a problem to be overcome. It's not redemptive in any way. You end up with two kinds of movies: either a very depressing movie like "Ordinary People" or "Capturing the Friedmans" or "The Squid and the Whale," or something like really, really hilarious like, you know, "National Lampoon Vacation" movies or "RV" or something like that.

SHAPIRO: Well, we heard "National Lampoon." Let's listen to an example of maybe the more serious genre.

(Soundbite of movie "Ordinary People")

Mr. DONALD SUTHERLAND: (As Calvin Jarrett) Your mother is going away for a while.

Mr. TIMOTHY HUTTON: (As Conrad Jarrett) Where? Why?

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Calvin Jarrett) Back to Houston, and I don't know.

Mr. HUTTON: (As Conrad Jarrett) It's me, isn't it?

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Calvin Jarrett) No.

Mr. HUTTON: (As Conrad Jarrett) Yeah, it is, it's my fault.

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Calvin Jarrett) Don't do that. Don't do that to yourself. It's nobody's fault. Things happen in this world. People don't always have the answers for them, you know.

SHAPIRO: Of course, that was "Ordinary People" from 1980 with Donald Sutherland. Now, here's a movie that had a suicide, a troubled marriage, a psychiatrist, you know, everything - the gamut.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah, something for everybody.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. But the troubled family, as you were saying, really does run the range from end to the other.

Mr. HORWITZ: That's right, yeah. Well, finish what you're going to say.

SHAPIRO: Do you have a favorite?

Mr. HORWITZ: Oh, my favorite is absolutely, it's - first of all, there are certain - when I talked to my staff and we talked to the - my colleagues at AFI and also the staff here at Talk of the Nation, we realized that there are certain filmmakers who were only about that. You take almost any Woody Allen movie, right?


Mr. HORWITZ: Or any W.C. Fields movie. My favorite dysfunctional family on film is W.C. Fields' family in "The Pharmacist."

SHAPIRO: Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of movie "The Pharmacist")

Ms. ELISE CAVANNA: (As Mrs. Dilweg) Sit down and behave yourself.

Ms. MARJORIE KANE: (As the daughter) Oh, gee whiz.

Mr. W.C. FIELDS: (As Mr. Dilweg) Oh, gee whiz.

Ms. KANE: (As the daughter) Ma, what's technocracy?

Ms. CAVANNA: (As Mrs. Dilweg) Ask your father, dear.

Ms. KANE: (As the daughter) Pop, what's technocracy?

Mr. W.C. FIELDS: (As Mr. Dilweg) Oh, yes indeedy, that's - say, will you eat your soup and stop asking silly questions? And stop that.

Ms. KANE: (As the daughter) Oh, gee, I like to pop it.

Mr. W.C. FIELDS: (As Mr. Dilweg) One more pop and I'll pop you in the eye.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: This is a W.C. Fields short from 1933. And I have to tell you, my favorite moment in this film is when he gives his young daughter his cocktail shaker, installs it on her pogo stick, and tells her to jump around so that his martini will be mixed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: It's wonderful. And there really is, as in a lot of the best comedies, there really is almost nothing redemptive about it. I mean, it's just tough living in this family, but somehow, you're laughing the whole time. Then, another category is, and maybe the biggest one, is the families where the dysfunction is functional. I mean, they seem dysfunctional, but there's a real family there.


Mr. HORWITZ: So that's like "You Can't Take It With You" or "Juno" or, you know, "Little Miss Sunshine."

SHAPIRO: Actually, I think we have an example of one of those from a caller right now. This is Mike in Fresno, California. Hi, Mike.

MIKE (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

SHAPIRO: Good. We're talking about functional families that is - rather dysfunctional families that may in fact have some functionality underneath them, and - and I understand you're calling with an example of that.

MIKE: I think so. I believe the Addams Family on television solved most of their problems in 30 minutes, which I identify with.

SHAPIRO: Well, in the movies, they solved them in two hours.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right. Exactly.

MIKE: Yeah. And one of those Addams family spin-offs was filmed up in this area, close to Fresno, so I kind of identify with that. But the Addams family on television stayed at home. I'm retired, I identify with that. They didn't hurt anybody. They solved most of their problems in 30 minutes. And if they were descendants - possible descendants of John Adams, they can't be all bad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MIKE: The possible descendants of Sam Adams, there's a possibility they might have some beer in the fridge.

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, Mike, you've ignored our first rule, but happily, you squeaked in. We're not talking about television shows here. But the Addams family films show a family that is very functional, indeed, I'd argue.


Mr. HORWITZ: Even though everybody thinks of them as dysfunctional.

SHAPIRO: And there are a lot of those. There - another TV-film combination, "The Simpsons," was a film so we can talk about "The Simpsons" film.

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah, absolutely.

SHAPIRO: Another totally dysfunctional, yet in a way, kind of functional family.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right.

MIKE: How much are we projecting our own problems onto them? That's something I haven't figured out yet.

SHAPIRO: Murray, you want to take off your film studies hat and put on your psychoanalyst hat?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, it's funny you mentioned psychoanalyst because therapy, as you mentioned in "Ordinary People," has a lot to do with this. You know, we get families going to counseling. We've got psychiatrists involved. I think, as we mentioned a little bit earlier, Mike, I think that we do somehow get our own family problems out or they become somewhat less problematic when you look at a family on film.

MIKE: There you go.

SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call, Mike.

MIKE: Thank you. Bye-bye.

SHAPIRO: And now let's go to another caller, we have Michael in Nashville, Tennessee. Hi Michael, you are on the air.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi, thank you guys. I have two examples from one magnificent filmmaker that go the opposites. The Annie Hall family...

SHAPIRO: Right. Hmm.

MICHAEL: Especially Grandma Hall and her brother.

SHAPIRO: We're talking Woody Allen here.

MICHAEL: Right. And by Woody Allen also, Martin Landau's family, in an incredibly intense movie "Crimes and Misdemeanors."

SHAPIRO: Ah, yes.

MICHAEL: The absolute opposites of hysterical comedy and jaw-dropping grief.

SHAPIRO: Let us hear a clip of that one.

(Soundbite of movie "Crimes and Misdemeanors")

Mr. MARTIN LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) Why did you write that letter?

Ms. ANJELICA HUSTON: (As Dolores Paley) You know why, we've been through it.

Mr. LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) You want to destroy my life and my family?

Ms. HUSTON: (As Dolores Paley) I want her to know the kind of man she's married to.

Mr. LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) It was lying on the table all day, by sheer chance she didn't open it. By a miracle I got it first.

Ms. HUSTON: (As Dolores Paley) You told me over and over again you'd leave Miriam. We made plans.

Mr. LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) I didn't.

Ms. HUSTON: (As Dolores Paley) You did.

SHAPIRO: That was, of course, Anjelica Huston threatening to reveal, her character threatening to reveal, the affair she's having with the character played by Martin Landau in "Crimes and Misdemeanors."

Mr. HORWITZ: Right and again you can take almost any Woody Allen film, "Hannah and Her Sisters," a good one, "Interiors" is a good one. There's just a million of them that - "Mighty Aphrodite" - that just deal with families that are somehow a little bit frayed at the edges.

SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call, Michael.

MICHAEL: Thank you, you guys.

SHAPIRO: Well, Murray do you see distinctions from one culture to another, I mean, we are talking about Woody Allen who makes films that are in a way iconically Jewish. Is there a difference between Jewish dysfunction and philosophy dysfunction, or African-American dysfunction for the matter?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: That's great. It's interesting you mentioned that and here we are, you know, folks are spending - our listeners are spending Christmas with Shapiro and Horwitz on NPR so I guess we could talk about it.

SHAPIRO: Is anyone surprised by that?

Mr. HORWITZ: I - it's funny, I wouldn't think so much about Woody Allen as I would about Barry Levinson. Barry Levinson, in his great Baltimore movies, particularly "Liberty Heights," and oh, I'm thinking of the other one, where they are all having Thanksgiving dinner, I think it is, and the whole family is together and this is in the 40s or 50s and everybody is talking, it's a very functional family.

And by the end of the film, they are all watching like the "Ed Sullivan Show" eating their meals on TV trays. And I think that, in that way, the Jewish family in Levinson's film is really no different from the average American family. I do think it's an American theme in a lot of ways.

SHAPIRO: I want to ask you more about that after the break. But in addition, you mentioned Baltimore which opens the whole John Waters oeuvre, a masterpiece of dysfunctional families.

Mr. HORWITZ: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: Well, it is the holidays, so please put down the eggnog, pick up the gin and let's talk about family dysfunction on film. What is the movie family that most resembles yours? Which family do you hope might adopt you, which fictional film family might adopt you someday? We're taking your calls at 1-800-989-8255 or you can send us an email. That address is I'm Ari Shapiro and it's Talk of the Nation from NPR news.

SHAPIRO: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington. Christmas is a time for reuniting with friends and family. Later in the show, what was your most memorable holiday reunion? Send us an email, [email protected]. First, reuniting with family is not always a pleasant experience. Sometimes it means swallowing the loving advice of your mother.

(Soundbite of movie "Moonstruck")

Ms. OLYMPIA DUKAKIS: (As Rose Castorini) You got a love bite on your neck. He's coming back this morning, what's the matter with you? Your life's going down the toilet. Cover up that damn thing! Come on, put some make-up on.

Ms. CHER: (As Loretta Castorini) All right, all right.

SHAPIRO: That's Olympia Dukakis in "Moonstruck" giving some helpful encouragement to her daughter, Cher. This hour we are putting the fun in dysfunction - looking at the wacky, crazy, sometimes murderous world of dysfunctional families on film. I'm here with our movie honcho, Murray Horwitz, he runs the AFI Silver Theater and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Maryland.

And we also want to hear from you. Which movie family's problems most resemble yours? Give us a call at 1-800-989-8255 or emails us at [email protected]. You can also join the conversation at our Web site, go to and click on Talk of the Nation.

We have an e-mail here from Tony in Kansas City, Missouri who writes, favorite dysfunctional family and favorite Christmas movie is "A Lion in Winter" - murder threats, betrayal, and Christmas, what could be better? Plus, Kate Hepburn and Peter O'Toole.

Murray Horwitz, is there something higher-stakes about family dysfunction in holiday movies because at the holidays everybody expects to have and wants to have a Norman Rockwell experience?

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah, I think so. You know, a recent movie with Vince Vaughn that was actually a terribly high-grossing dysfunctional family movie is - was "Fred Claus," you know, and you could, I guess, argue with all those elves around and Mrs. Claus, maybe that's a dysfunctional family, too, up at the North Pole.

But yeah, I mean holidays tend to bring out the most in people, everything intensifies. And I think it's - the Barry Levinson movie I was thinking of before is "Avalon," and it's not for nothing that it starts and ends on a holiday. And I think it's very true.

SHAPIRO: Well, let's take another caller. This is Ted in Kansas City. Hi, Ted.

TED (Caller): Hi, this is Ted. I thought of a movie, "Soul Food," although it's not on Christmas, but it does involve a family and getting around together on the holidays.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. What appeals to you about it?

TED: Well, the fact that the entire family gets together, and they come together in a dysfunctional way because they need to be held together, and it takes an incident to get them together, but then I thought of another movie that we don't talk about, the two dysfunctional movies, but they actually work and that would be "Love Actually" and "Bad Santa."


Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah, "Bad Santa," which we have just been showing actually, does involve, I guess, a kind of extended - well we can't just use couples. What's the dysfunctional family besides Billy - what is his name? Bill? Oh, my gosh.

TED: Oh, in the movie there is the family that he ends up staying with, with the little boy.

SHAPIRO: Oh, right, right, right, right.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right, Billy Bob Thornton. Thank you.

TED: Billy Bob Thornton, and then Billy Bob ends up taking care of the young boy and helping him mature and get better at it, and brings in, you know, the young woman who's the bartender.

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah.

TED: You know, all of a sudden they become a family, and it helps his family in a way and helps the grandmother, and, you know, that there are a lot of different odd things that I like about.

Mr. HORWITZ: No, it's true. And I'm glad that you mentioned "Soul Food," a 1997 movie, because there it's the matriarch who has to like, always keep the family together on the holiday with her soul food, right? And then, and then drama and ensues.

SHAPIRO: You know, we've talked a little bit about what Jewish dysfunction might be like, is there a whole different category of African-American dysfunctional families in the movies?

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, you know, "Raisin in the Sun" is probably at once the most redemptive, but also the - and this is one of those, again, maybe a third category which is the dysfunctional family that overcomes the dysfunction, that makes it through the dysfunction.

SHAPIRO: Actually, I think we have a more contemporary example in a more comedic vein. There is a cut here from Tyler Perry's "Meet the Browns." ..TEXT: (Soundbite of movie "Meet the Browns") ..TEXT: Mr. TYLER PERRY: (As Joe) My daddy was a saint.

Mr. DAVID MANN: (As Leroy Brown) Your daddy was a pimp.

Mr. PERRY: (As Joe) He was not a pimp. My daddy used to date nice women. Remember sweet Sadie?

Ms. TAMELA J. MANN: (As Cora Brown) Yes, good girl.

Mr. MANN: (As Leroy Brown) She was one of his hos.

Mr. PERRY: (As Joe) What about the girl Agnes with the freckles? She was good girl, Agnes.

Mr. MANN: (As Leroy Brown) Freckled-face ho.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call, Ted. You know, we don't hear a lot of talk in Jewish dysfunctional family movies about daddy's hos, I guess we are allowed to say it on the air.

Mr. HORWITZ: Oh, no. I don't remember that having ever been a topic at my house, but then I come from an extremely functional family. We talked a little bit, though, Ari, about American versus foreign, and I really sort of looked around for foreign movies, particularly classic foreign films, that had some dysfunctional family thing to them and they exist. There is a wonderful film by Michael Haneke last - which has nothing to do with Jewish dysfunctional families, last year called "Cache." There is "Rocco and His Brothers." There is Akira Kurosawa's "Ran" but that - which is "King Lear" after all, and - and that's - what's curious about this to me, the dysfunctional family is the basis of Greek mythology, right? ..TEXT: SHAPIRO: Right, Oedipus... ..TEXT: Mr. HORWITZ: It is the basis of... ..TEXT: SHAPIRO: It's all over. ..TEXT: Mr. HORWITZ: It's, it's, it's the basis of a lot of Shakespeare plays... ..TEXT: SHPIRO: Lear, the daughters.

Mr. HORWITZ: "Henry the IV," all those, right? And yet, in America somehow this whole idea has taken root, and maybe our listeners have some idea on why that is.

SHAPIRO: Well, let's take another caller. This is James from Portland, Oregon. Hi, James.

JAMES (Caller): Hey, how you doing guys?

SHAPIRO: Good. You snowed in?

JAMES: You guys didn't talk about the Wes Anderson yet.

SHAPIRO: Ah, of course.

Mr. HORWITZ: No, it is true and what we did, did we mention - we actually have an example of a Wes Anderson film.

SHAPIRO: Right. Yeah. He's practically made a career out of dysfunctional families. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of movie "The Royal Tenenbaums")

Ms. ANJELICA HUSTON: (As Etheline Tenenbaum) Where is the doctor?

Mr. GENE HACKMAN: (As Royal Tenenbaum) Wait a second now. OK, listen. I'm not dying. But I need some time, a month or so, OK? I want us to...

Ms. HUSTON: (As Etheline Tenenbaum) What's wrong with you?

Mr. HACKMAN: (As Royal Tenenbaum) That's all.

Ms. HUSTON: (As Etheline Tenenbaum) Are you crazy?

SHAPIRO: I love this scene. It's Gene Hackman having just told his wife Anjelica Huston that he's dying, and then revealing that he's actually not dying...

Mr. HORWITZ: Right, and it's right, James is right that one of his - I guess his most recent film was Anderson's "Darjeeling Limited" with three extraordinarily dysfunctional brothers. And all of his movies, and there are not that many of them don't forget, it's just about, you know a half a dozen or so Wes Anderson movies, but he - he is one of those people who is actually able to walk that fine line between comedy and tragedy and dealing with the dysfunctional family.

SHAPIRO: Thanks a lot for the call, James.

JAMES: OK. Thank you guys. Take care.

SHAPIRO: You too. But we've got an email here from David in University Heights, Ohio. He writes, this one has been around for a while now, but I really love "Used People," not only because of the family dysfunction, but because of what they did with it. Lots to this movie, a great cast too, Shirley Maclaine, Marcello Mastroianni, Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy, and more.

Murray, do you see family dysfunction evolving over the decades as we go from something like "The Pharmacist" in the '30s, which we listened to earlier, to something like the "Royal Tenenbaums" which was much more recent?

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah, absolutely because at a certain point, and I really think - I mean earlier, any dysfunctional family movies involved bad people. We think some of those gangster movies like "Little Caesar" and "Public Enemy" And "White Heat," and functional families were the norm, you know. It's "Love Finds Andy Hardy," you know, and it was Dad, Mom, junior, and sis and all was well, but then with an increased awareness of psychology and psychological realism, World War II had intervened, and then you get, you know in the best...

SHAPIRO: A little more honesty, a little more gray area.

Mr. HORWITZ: So that even that wonderful American family, in one of my favorite movies of all time, "The Best Years of our Lives," guess what, if your son comes home a double amputee, don't expect everything to be hunky dory all the time, he's going to explode from time to time. So, then it creeps - dysfunction creeps into nice people's lives, and then I think the real breakpoint was "Ordinary People" in 1980, where it was just was - it was grim and grim all the way through, and an extraordinary directorial debut for Robert Redford.

SHAPIRO: Which we heard at the top of the show.


SHAPIRO: Right. Well let us take another caller. This is Pam in Milton, Massachusetts. Hi, Pam.

PAM (Caller): Hi. Listen, I was going to say, you know, "Mommy Dearest" is definitely - I don't know if that counts as just two people or not.

SHAPIRO: Oh, what a great movie.

Mr. HORWITZ: It does.

PAM: But you, know, Joan Crawford in her own life, besides the movie, you know, that's the thing, no wire hangers.

Mr. HORWITZ: That's right.

SHAPIRO: You're exactly right, one of the most indelible lines in film. Actually, we have a cut of a different Joan Crawford film in which, ironically, she is being mistreated by her daughter. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of movie "Mildred Pierce")

Ms. JOAN CRAWFORD: (As Mildred Pierce Beragon) Veda, I think I'm really seeing you for the first time in my life and you're cheap and horrible...

Ms. JO ANN MARLOWE: (As Kay Pierce) You think just because you made a little money, you can get a new hairdo and some expensive clothes and turn yourself into a lady, but you can't because you'll never be anything but a common fromp whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing. With this money, I can get away from every rotten, stinking thing that makes me think of this place or you.

SHAPIRO: Pam, any guesses?

PAM: "Mildred Pierce"?

SHAPIRO: Very good.

Mr. HORWITZ: Yes, yes. There you go. That's good. We don't have a bell here. Ding! Right, you smell of grease, Mother. It's just an amazing - and again a real melodrama that in some strange - right around World War II that showed us psychology creeping in in real family dysfunction.

SHAPIRO: Murray, we know that "Mommy Dearest" was based on a memoir tied to real life.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right.

SHAPIRO: Could one reason that we've seen so many family dysfunction movies be that people are told to write what they know, and a lot of these filmmakers are writing from their own experience?

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, and also as a couple of the listeners have pointed out, somehow we see ourselves in these films. Most - look, the "Andy Hardy" movie is not - I mean, the norm is not norm, is not normal. And that Hollywood ideal, just I think, especially after World War II, didn't have much resonance in people's lives. So, you're going to see your quirky characters and you're going to see your, you know, your strangeness and your conflicts and, of course, yeah, it's about writing what you know.

SHAPIRO: And these movies do well in the box office.

Mr. HORWITZ: Do very, very well. In fact, you can go online, as our crack Talk of the Nation staff has done, and find a list of the biggest box office done by dysfunctional family movies. And "The Simpsons," which is the most, we said we're not - "The Simpsons" movie tops the list, and we said we're not talking about TV, but after all "The Simpsons" is the longest running television show of all time, and it's - or sitcom and it's about a dysfunctional family.

SHAPIRO: Pam, thanks for the call.

PAM: Thanks for having me on.

SHAPIRO: You know, these movies have also won Oscars. I mean, looking at this list of family dysfunction films that have done really well. There's "Little Miss Sunshine," there's "American Beauty." These are not just financial money makers. They're also critical successes.

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, if you're Judge Hardy in the "Andy Hardy" movies, right, I mean, what - there's not much for you to play.


Mr. HORWITZ: You're - it's - I'm thinking of those - come to think of it, these - those movies in the '30s with the young vivacious debutante, who is Katharine Hepburn or Ginger Rogers or whomever and the idiot father who is just a complete bumbling bonehead, except it's never explained exactly how this man managed to make millions of dollars to keep his daughters in, you know, furs and jewels and gowns. Those, you know, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette characters are usually very interesting characters. So, these films about dysfunctional families give actors something to play. They give directors something to direct, rather than the films where the family's hunky dory and everything's - all's right with the world.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. We have an email here from Jason in Baltimore, Maryland who writes, my uncle was from Connecticut, our family was from Maryland, and as a child of the '70s, "The Ice Storm" was the movie that explained so much that went over my head as a young child. It is a great movie. Murray, I wonder if as adults we enjoy revisiting a lot of what might have gone over our heads as a child that we then appreciate in a movie like "The Ice Storm."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: I think so. This is an Ang Lee movie...


Mr. HORWITZ: With Kevin Kline and Joan Allen, terrific cast, a very young Toby Maguire. It's actually Toby Maguire and Elijah Woods are your throbs. I think so. I think you grow into things. One of our producers, Barrie Hardymon, mentioned that in "Meet Me In St. Louis," for example, which is a musical, and there are a lot of dysfunctional families in musicals, even leaving aside "Sweeney Todd." But there's something weird, you know, a father's losing his job, there's conflict within the family. There's a lot of tough times and dysfunction in that family.

SHAPIRO: We're talking to Murray Horwitz about dysfunction in family films - family dysfunction in films rather, on Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Let's go to another caller. This is Mark in Portland, Oregon. Hi, Mark.

MARK (Caller): Hello. Hello.

SHAPIRO: So, what's your nomination?

MARK: Well, I got to say, definitely, "The Godfather." One of a - really fantastic example of family gone wrong or gone right, I suppose.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, another example of one of these dysfunctional families that may in fact, be functional, murder notwithstanding. Let's listen to a clip.

(Soundbite of movie "The Godfather")

Mr. JOHN CAZALE: (As Fredo Corleone) I'm your older brother, Mike. And I was stepped over.

Mr. AL PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) That's the way Pop wanted it.

Mr. CAZALE: (As Fredo Corleone) It ain't the way I wanted it. I can handle things. I'm smart, unlike everybody says I'm dumb, I'm smart and I want respect.

SHAPIRO: Of course, not long after that, Michael has Fredo whacked.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right. Although, this might be a good example of a family making its way through the dysfunction and overcoming it, you know. You could argue that the Corleones at the end are a functional family, the Tattaglias maybe not so much.

SHAPIRO: Right. Right exactly. Mark, thanks for the call.

MARK: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Let's go to Hannah in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Hi, Hannah.

HANNAH (Caller): Hi, there. Thank you so much for taking my call. It's a great segment you're doing.

SHAPIRO: Oh, no problem. Thank you.

HANNAH: The first one that came to mind was "The Family Stone," which is not just holiday, but family dysfunction, but the point of redemption at the end, too. It just took - when my husband and I saw it, we were so surprised by the end, but loved it.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, Murray, do a lot of these movies end on an up note or do we end a lot of them, sort of with bleakness as we leave a theater?

Mr. HORWITZ: Again, you're talking with this - about this huge number...

SHAPIRO: Genre so that...

Mr. HORWITZ: Of films and many - so the answer is yes and no. It's interesting what Hannah says about "The Family Stone" because I think this was a very conscious attempt on the part of - I think on the part of the Wilson brothers really, to make a show, a movie about dysfunction and yet, you know, surprise people and - but in the range of movies, sometimes they leave you with, you know, not feeling so terrifically satisfied and still thinking that this family's in just as bad a shape as it was in the beginning of the movie.

Others, put a little cherry on top, you know, they put a kind of false resolution on it and others, there really is redemption. I'm thinking of an animated film, for example, "The Incredibles," where they are tested. They are dysfunctional in a certain way, but they overcome the dysfunction.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, let's take a listen. This is "The Incredibles."

(Soundbite of movie "The Incredibles")

Ms. HOLLY HUNTER: (As Helen Parr / Elastigirl) Dash got sent to the office again.

Mr. CRAIG T. NELSON: (As Bob Parr / Mr. Incredible) What? What for?

Ms. HUNTER: (As Helen Parr / Elastigirl) Nothing. He put a tack on the teacher's chair during class.

Mr. SPENCER FOX: (As Dashielle 'Dash' Parr) Nobody saw me. You could barely see it on the tape.

Mr. NELSON: (As Bob Parr / Mr. Incredible) They caught you on tape and you still got away with it? Whoa, you must have been booking. How fast do you think you were going?

Ms. HUNTER: (As Helen Parr / Elastigirl) We are not encouraging this.

Mr. NELSON: (As Bob Parr / Mr. Incredible) I'm not encouraging. I'm just asking how fast he was.

Ms. HUNTER: (As Helen Parr / Elastigirl) Honey.

(Soundbite of broken plate)

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: That was "The Incredibles," yet, another on our list of functional-dysfunctional family.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right, exactly.

SHAPIRO: Thanks for your call, Hannah.

HANNAH: Thanks.

SHAPIRO: All right. This is Judy(ph). Judy is calling from River Falls, Wisconsin. Hi.

JUDY (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.

SHAPIRO: No problem.

JUDY: My family is like kind of like "Throw Mama From the Train," Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito.

SHAPIRO: What a great movie.

JUDY: Yes and...

SHAPIRO: But I would hate to think that that's actually your family.

JUDY: Well, there's never a holiday that this one's not talking to that one, or that someone has a problem with something, and it's critical, and it's stupid and we love each other, but you have to deal with this. I mean, we're just - some of us have been helped by psychologist and then there's the other ones who are trying.


JUDY: But it really does. I mean, in fact, this year - I mean, I'm not spending Christmas with my family because my sister's daughters decided they didn't like something I did and, you know, it just goes on and on and on.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, and I'm sure that's the case for many people out there today. Thanks for your call, Judy.

JUDY: All right. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: All right. Well, Murray, stay with us if you would. After the break, we're going to talk more about Dysfunctional Families on Film. Our guest is Murray Horwitz, of the American Film Institute Silver Theater and Cultural Center here in the Washington area. I'm Ari Shapiro, and you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

But right now, Murray Horwitz is with us talking about family dysfunction in Film and we're going to go to a caller. This is Evie(ph) in Boise, Idaho. Hi, Evie.

EVVIE(ph): Hi, it's Evvie.

SHAPIRO: Oh, Evvie. I'm sorry about that.

EVVIE: Oh, that's OK. Nobody gets it right half the time. How about "It's A Wonderful Life"?

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah.

EVVIE: Billy doesn't make the deposit. George thinks he's a failure, gets drunk, tries to kill himself. He…

Mr. HORWITZ: Right and what he says to the…

EVVIE: Never gets to travel where he wants to, and the angel is kind of an inept fellow but…

SHAPIRO: Which based on your description doesn't sound like the makings of a Christmas classic. And yet…

Mr. HORWITZ: And yet…

EVVIE: It is.

Mr. HORWITZ: But here again, it's redemptive, isn't it, Evvie? I mean, you know...

EVVIE: Absolutely.

Mr. HORWITZ: Even when he curses out his uncle for being such a fool. I mean, somehow, it all comes round right in the end.

EVVIE: It does indeed. It's a fun movie, good movie, beautifully acted.

SHAPIRO: And thank you for mentioning it on Christmas Day.


EVVIE: You're welcome.

SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call, Evvie.

EVVIE: Have a good holiday season.

SHAPIRO: You too.

Mr. HORWITZ: Also, have to mention, Ari, you know, you did mention, Harold Pinter and one of the great - and this is a foreign film, but "The Homecoming" is one of the great portraits of a dysfunctional family on screen.

SHAPIRO: You know, this whole genre we haven't talked about, which is functional children meeting dysfunctional parents, I'm thinking there's "The Bird Cage," there's "Father of the Bride," there's "Meet the Parents" and the sequel "Meet the Fockers," this is an endless supply of humor.

Mr. HORWITZ: That's true and it's got an old sort of pedigree. I did mention those sort of dancing daughters kind of - actually, one of my favorite silent melodramas was Joan Crawford and Johnny Mack Brown, "Our Dancing Daughters" is that kind of film and there's some sort of light-hearted versions, too.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, I think we have an example of one film that could fit that description.

(Soundbite of theme song for "The Parent Trap")

Unidentified Male: (Singing) If love's on the skids, Your folks are like kids, Or your family tree is going to snap, So to make them dig first, you've got to rig, What have you got to rig? The parent trap.

SHARIRO: "The Parent Trap" where Lindsay Lohan got her start in the remake. Of course that was the version with Hayley Mills.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: Thank you for pointing that out, Ari. It's great. But, you know -

SHAPIRO: Speaking of dysfunctional families.

Mr. HORWITZ: One of the things that - it might have been my son, Alex is a filmmaker, pointed this out, is that a lot of Disney films, you know, "Cinderella," terrible, right? Terrible dysfunction. "Little Mermaid," "The Lion King" you know, Disney deals with this stuff.

SHAPIRO: Well, you know, I think there is a children's motif or kind of the orphan fantasy.

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: You know, we see this in "Annie," we see this in "Oliver." Kids like the idea of this independence theme which sort of necessitates having a dysfunctional family.

Mr. HORWITZ: Making their own way in the world, and it's because no matter how functional your family, in a way when you're a kid, the idea's that you need to be making your way in the world and maybe you're on to something there about why this has been such fertile ground for American filmmakers. Because in America, we rear kids to be independent, which they don't do in other cultures, and so it's maybe why this theme has a little bit of resonance over here. In every genre, Ari, I mean, gangster films, musicals, slapstick comedy, film noir, epic films, documentaries, it's just - you find …

SHAPIRO: "March of the Penguins," there's dysfunctional fathers all over.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: Murray Horwitz, it's always a pleasure talking with you.

Mr. HORWITZ: A great pleasure talking with you, Ari. Merry Christmas.

SHAPIRO: And Happy Hanukkah to you. Murray Horwitz is the director and COO of the American Film Institute Silver Theater and Cultural Center, which here in the Washington Area. He joined us here in Studio 3A. Murray, we also want thank Brooke Logan and your staff at AFI as well.

Mr. HORWITZ: Me too. Thanks so much.

SHAPIRO: Good to have you here.

Mr. HORWITZ: Good to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.