News came this past weekend that Marlon Brando’s eldest son, Christian Brando, died of pneumonia at age 49. The AP story of Christian’s life reads like this guy was cursed from day one: Marlon’s 16-year custody battle with his first wife, Christian’s manslaughter conviction, his half-sister’s eventual suicide (she never got over her boyfriend being killed by her brother), a spousal abuse conviction, drug rehab stints, even a brief affair with eventual murder victim Bonnie Lee Bakley (the Robert Blake case, if her name sounds familiar). Christian Brando’s story was the stuff of so much feverish tabloid journalism that I wouldn’t be surprised to see an Enquirer story next week claiming he was abducted by aliens, or else linking him to Britney Spears. (“Let’s play Six Degrees of Dysfunction!”).
But I’ll bet most of us have forgotten Christian once had aspirations to be an actor like his multi-Oscar-winning father. Unfortunately, he seemed to inherit Marlon’s mercurial, melancholy nature without inheriting enough of Dad’s immense talent. Too bad.
Other than Kirk and Michael Douglas, there are few parent-child combinations prior to the 1980’s where the child had anything even resembling an A-list parent’s level of talent. Of course, if we wanna talk about irreplaceable B-listers who are happy to stay that way, then Chris Elliott, son of comedian Bob Elliott (of Bob & Ray fame), is the perfect poster child. But no, the Carradines, the Van Pattens, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tatum O’Neal, and Melanie Griffith do not count… not enough quality or consistency to go around in those families.
But I think that this sub-par inheritance pattern has been changing, especially since the late 1990’s. There’s now an interesting legacy system developing in Hollywood, and I think it’s picking up steam as more sons and daughters of A-List actors, writers and directors seem to be following in their parents’ footsteps than ever before. Maybe I’m deluding myself and it’s nothing new, but in my opinion it seems to be increasing in both frequency and quality of talent.
First came the Brat-Packers from my generation– kids like Keifer Sutherland and the Sheen/Estevez boys (not to mention the underrated Timothy Hutton, and Francis Coppola’s nephew Nicolas Cage). Soon afterward, there was a very capable crop of women: Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and –with the longest pedigree of all, but taking awhile to “grow into” her genes– Drew Barrymore. More recently we’ve had Colin Hanks (jury’s still out in the talent department… he’s so vanilla), Josh Brolin from this year’s No Country For Old Men, the emerging Eva Amurri (daughter of Susan Sarandon) and the wonderfully odd Jason Schwartzman (son of Talia Shire, and thus another Coppola nephew). Even Will Smith’s young son Jaden was terrific in last year’s The Pursuit of Happyness. Oh, and then there’s Miley Cyrus, multi-talented daughter of Billy Ray –no wait, can I take that one back?! Billy Ray’s not really an actor, he’s just an Achy-Breaky, one-hit-wonder singer who refused to go away (or as one Nashville songwriter called his type, “a cowboy hat with a nice ass” .)
But all of the above are in the acting category (and I’m sure I’ve missed some, too). What I’ve noticed that feels new since 2000, and what caused me to write this blog, is the upturn in Hollywood kids who’ve gone into writing and/or directing. The aforementioned Schwartzman co-wrote the screenplay for Wes Anderson’s Darjeeling Limited with his cousin, Carmine Coppola. Tinseltown giant Ivan (Ghostbusters) Reitman’s son Jason made a big splash this month with three major Oscar nominations for Juno, his second straight hit movie (he directed Thank You for Smoking in 2005.) Then there’s one of my personal faves, Lawrence (Big Chill) Kasdan, who has not one but two sons putting out quality work: Jake is one of the forces behind Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and other comedies, and little bro’ Jonathan is responsible for In the Land of Women, a critically-acclaimed drama that flew under the radar last year.
Probably the biggest deal of all though, in terms of filling Daddy’s writer-director shoes, is Sophia Coppola. After starting out with a bang by directing the intense film The Virgin Suicides in 1999, she became the absolute shizzle with Lost in Translation in 2004, which made her the only American woman ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar. And by winning for Best Original Screenplay, she joined Anjelica Huston in the only two families to have won Oscars in three different generations (Grandpa Carmine won for composing the score to a Godfather film). [The Hustons are Anjelica, John and Grandpa Walter].
Now I know some would argue, perhaps with good reason, that an Oscar nomination is not automatically indicative of an immense individual talent. Sometimes a creative artist catches lightning in a bottle for a short time, or is just right for a certain situation and then never regains that perfect opportunity. Sometimes the voting gets political or sentimental, and is not indicative of the best material in a given year. For example: that Al Pacino won an Oscar for Scent of a Woman, of all things, was a joke. He’s been better in at least a dozen other roles, but the one time he got to play a flambuoyant disabled person, the one time he actually overacted, that was the year he won?! It only showed that Oscar voters can be suckers for flash over substance, or that they sometimes award people for career contributions instead of current performances.
But I also think Oscar voters are into this whole “family affair” thing. So look for three people to have a good shot at winning in 2008 on that basis: George Clooney, who is much-loved by the Hollywood establishment, had a “tv newsman” father, and whose aunt was singer/actress Rosemary Clooney (also, his uncle was Jose Ferrer); the aforementioned Jason Reitman, for Juno; and Ruby Dee (Best Supporting nominee for American Gangster), because she’s like the matriarch of the entire African American acting community, was very involved in the civil rights movement, and is an older person who has never before been nominated. And based upon her taking home a SAG Award last night, it seems Ms. Dee’s got a good shot. Actors only make up about 30% of Academy voters, but they’re often a very influential 30%.
Disclaimer: I’m well aware that the rationales for the above predictions are pretty lame, in that they have nothing to do with the movies themselves. But I have a five-year-old, and my wife’s no movie buff, so I haven’t seen a single one of the nominated movies or performances this year, unless you count Ratatouille. Therefore I have to speak from instinct, instead of experience (or in this case, ignorance). I’m just a student of the game, and how it’s played.
And finally, unless I miss my guess, watch out for Suri Cruise in 2018. Unless her nutjob parents and all the tabloid attention turn her into another Christian Brando.