Last week, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels announced that he would not run for President because of “family issues.” When I read the entire story, I was struck that the issue was identical to the core problem we had when we adapted What Dreams May Come from a novel into a screenplay. It is often said that politics and movies have much in common and, in this instance, truer words could never be spoken.
In the 1990s, Mrs. (Cheri) Daniels divorced Mitch Daniels, moved to California and remarried. A few years later, she divorced again and remarried Mr. Daniels. Unusual, yes, but not unprecedented. The issue, however, that ultimately kept Governor Daniels out of the presidential race was one which his advisers, and private polling, told him he could not overcome. When she divorced Governor Daniels, Mrs. Daniels not only left her husband, she left all 4 of her children behind as well. Mrs. Daniels herself was obviously concerned about the issue being dredged up again, but, according to news stories, there was also a strong political belief that voters in general, and women in particular, would be extremely hesitant if not flatly unwilling, to have a First Lady who had abandoned her children.
As I mentioned earlier, we had this exact same challenge with What Dreams May Come. In the novel, Chris Nielsen dies and, unable to overcome her grief, his wife Annie takes her own life, leaving their two children as orphans. As I detail at length in Bringing Back The Old Hollywood, it took me 20 years to get What Dreams May Come produced, and one of the many reasons was the issue of Annie’s abandonment of her children. Every one who read the novel immediately said (and I agreed) that we would never be able to create sympathy/empathy for the character of Annie if she had abandoned her children. As Dreams is a love story about a man who is willing to literally descend into the pit of “hell” to find his wife, the audience needs to be rooting for them to reunite. If the audience doesn’t like the wife to start out with, there goes the love story and the film itself.
Eventually, our brilliant screenwriter Ronald Bass solved the problem by changing the story to have both the husband and children die first so Annie does not abandon the children.
Dreams was not the only film that illustrated the problem. In the brilliant 2002 film The Hours (for which Nicole Kidman deservedly won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf), Julianne Moore plays a mother who abandoned her son as a young man. The son grows up (Ed Harris) but never overcomes the grief of the loss of his mother. Stricken by AIDS, he eventually commits suicide. When the mother actually shows up for the funeral decades after her abandonment, she comes to the apartment of her son’s best friend (Meryl Streep). When she is let in, a young woman (Clare Danes) sees her and says to another friend: “So, that’s the monster.”
It is not my intent here to demonize anyone, nor is this column meant to paint every mother who has ever left her children with the same brush stroke. In Clint Eastwood’s wonderful Hereafter, for instance, a young boy is sent to a foster home because his drug addict mother must enter a long stint in rehab. At the end of the film, she overcomes her addiction, they are reunited, and he forgives her.
I am also aware that way too many fathers abandon their children and don’t seem to be as societally stigmatized as mothers who do the same thing. That certainly doesn’t seem fair at all, does it?
And we won’t even get into the despicable behavior of John Edwards and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I am simply struck by the fact that motherhood is seen by so many people as such a sacred pact that abandoning one’s children appears to be one of the few human acts that most people perceive as unforgivable, whether it be in fiction or real life.
I look forward to your comments.