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Viewer Guide: “Father of the Bride” and “Lion”

May 9, 2022 | Richard Peña

REEL 13 DOUBLE FEATURE | FATHER OF THE BRIDE

Father of the Bride (1950).

This week’s double feature begins with Father of the Bride, the 1950 comedy directed by Vincente Minnelli. 

In one of the great comic roles of his late MGM career, Spencer Tracy stars as Stanley Banks, a lawyer living in midcentury suburban tranquility with his wife Ellie, played by Joan Bennett, and the couple’s teenaged sons Tommy and Ben, played by Russ Tamblyn and Tom Irish. But it’s Stanley’s only-daughter Kay, played by a 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, who suddenly upends the family’s serenity with a surprise announcement of her plans to get married—in just three months’ time. Caught off guard, Stanley isn’t even sure who Kay’s fiancé is until a lucky young man named Buckley Dunstan, played by Don Taylor, arrives to officially meet his future in-laws. As you might expect, chaos ensues. Director Vincente Minnelli had always envisioned Spencer Tracy to play Stanley, but when Tracy learned that MGM studio chief Dore Schary had invited famed deadpan comic Jack Benny to screentest for the part, Tracy turned the film down. Minnelli then had to enlist the help of Tracy’s off-screen romantic companion Katharine Hepburn to host a dinner party so that Minnelli could reassure Tracy that he was the only serious choice for the role. 

As MGM’s top ingenue star, 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor was the studio’s only choice to play Kay, with Taylor’s real-life engagement to William Pawley, Jr., providing MGM with a promotional field day—except by the time Father of the Bride premiered on May 18, 1950, Taylor had not married her original fiancé but hotel heir Nicky Hilton. Costume Designer Helen Rose, who had designed Kay’s wedding gown in Father of the Bride, ended up designing Taylor’s real-life wedding dress as part of MGM’s wedding gift for Taylor. Following the film’s box office success, MGM rushed a sequel into production titled Father’s Little Dividend, which chronicled the arrival of Kay’s first baby, but by the time of the sequel’s release in April of 1951, Taylor’s marriage to Hilton had already ended in divorce. Taylor went on to marry seven more times. In the early 1990s, Father of the Bride returned to movie screens in a pair of updated films starring Steve Martin, Diane Keaton, Kimberly Williams and Martin Short as a memorably opinionated wedding planner.

REEL 13 DOUBLE FEATURE | LION

Lion (2016)

Tonight’s double feature continues with Lion, a 2016 biographical drama marking the theatrical film debut of Garth Davis. 

Adapted from Saroo Brierley’s best-selling autobiography “A Long Way Home,” LION begins its powerful true story in 1986 with Brierley’s childhood in Khandwa, India. Growing up in poverty, the five-year-old Saroo and his older brother Guddu scrounge whatever they can to help their single mother, who works as a laborer at construction sites. Idolizing his older brother and determined to hold his own despite his diminutive size, Saroo insists on joining Guddu for an overnight job, but after their train ride Saroo is fast asleep. Instructing his younger brother to remain on a bench until he returns, Guddu disappears into the night, leaving Saroo alone in the rapidly emptying station. And with that, Saroo embarks on an odyssey as a lost child that ultimately extends over three decades. With Dev Patel taking over the role as a young man, Saroo is fortunate to find a new life in Tasmania as the adopted son of Sue and John Brierley, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. Although seemingly well-adjusted to his transplanted Australian identity, as Saroo matures he can no longer repress the yearning to know who he really is, and what became of his brother and mother after he so abruptly vanished from their lives. 

Also featured are Rooney Mara as Saroo’s American girlfriend and Divian Ladwa as his troubled adopted brother. 

Producers Emile Sherman and Iain Canning—Oscar-winners for The King’s Speech in 2010—read Saroo Brierly’s autobiographical book in manuscript form, and immediately pursued the film rights to his modern-day Dickensian life story. Sherman and Canning had worked with director Garth Davis on the 2013 Australian TV series Top of the Lake, which Davis had directed in collaboration with Jane Campion. Although Davis had not yet directed a theatrical feature, Sherman and Canning were impressed by his cinematic vision and skill at working with actors. To play the Young Saroo, five-year-old Sunny Pawar was cast from over 2000 boys, with Garth Davis drawn to Pawar’s Chaplin-esque quality. Dev Patel campaigned for the role of the adult Saroo, and visited Saroo’s actual home and orphanage as well as taking the same one thousand mile “accidental” train ride to immerse himself in the role. Reportedly, it was the real Sue Brierley who suggested Nicole Kidman to portray her on screen, and pair quickly bonded over their mutual experiences as adoptive mothers. Released to positive reviews and strong box office, the film was honored with six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay for Luke Davies, as well as Best Supporting Actor for Dev Patel and Supporting Actress for Nicole Kidman. In 2021, Sherman and Canning reteamed with Jane Campion to produce The Power of the Dog. 

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.  

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