The Big Upside of Hollywood Nepotism

The careers of Sofia Coppola and Jaden Smith show that family ties can help make the film industry more, not less, inclusive.
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AP / Riccardo de Luca, Evan Agostini

In large part because of her disparaged teenage performance in her father Francis Ford's The Godfather Part III, Sofia Coppola has long been held up as the personification of Hollywood nepotism. Accusations of unworthiness dogged her for much of her early directorial career. With The Virgin Suicides, a Boston Phoenix critic wrote, she showed "a lot of her father's audacity but as yet not much of his talent." Last year, Vice referred to her career as "a clear-cut case of nepotism gone wild, on steroids, and then additionally on crack."

But comments like those have been all but absent from the conversation surrounding her latest, well-reviewed work, The Bling Ring, which is doing tidy business at the box office. That's likely because more and more people realize that Coppola--who received a Best Director Oscar nomination and Best Screenplay Oscar win for 2003's Lost in Translation--has proved her merits as a filmmaker in her own right. Her success shows why disdain for Hollywood nepotism is often misplaced, and why nepotism may even be a force for a better, more inclusive film industry.

The list of great movie folk spawned from other talented showbiz figures runs too long to list here. Even setting aside Hollywood dynasties like the Barrymores and Fondas, the partial lineup includes George Clooney (aunt: Rosemary Clooney), Angelina Jolie (dad: Jon Voight), and Nicolas Cage (uncle: Francis Ford Coppola), Michael Douglas (father: Kirk Douglas), Campbell Scott (father: George C. Scott; mother: Colleen Dewhurst), Laura Dern (father: Bruce Dern), Jamie Lee Curtis (father: Tony Curtis; mother: Janet Leigh), Josh Brolin (father: James Brolin), Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen (father: Martin Sheen), Carrie Fisher (mother: Debbie Reynolds; father: Eddie Fisher), Melanie Griffith (mother: Tippi Hedren), Colin Hanks (father: Tom Hanks), Kate Hudson (mother: Goldie Hawn), Scott Caan (father: James Caan), Martha Plimpton (father: Keith Carradine), Mariska Hargitay (mother: Jayne Mansfield), Zooey and Emily Deschanel (father: cinematographer Caleb Deschanel), and Tony Goldwyn (the last name says it all).

Do all these names signal that cronyism rules Hollywood? Well, to an extent, sure. But there are valid reasons for nepotism to pervade. Genetic inheritance and growing up around the professional milieus of one's parents often predisposes kids to follow in their mother's or father's footsteps. And with movies being such a costly, high-risk/high-reward proposition for studios, it makes sense that filmmakers and execs would prefer to bank on people with well-known, and supportive, ancestry. Besides, family members help family members get ahead in all parts of the world, in all sorts of industries, in all sorts of ways.

But that hasn't stopped people from blasting poor Jaden Smith, who's quickly becoming the new Coppola-style poster child for the horrors of casting by last name. His headlining turn alongside his famous dad Will in After Earth has been met with hostility that goes beyond the film's on-screen flaws. In his negative review of the film, The Wrap's Alonso Duralde analogizes the movie to "the equivalent of a very expensive bar mitzvah, one where dad's a successful cantor and his son could have used another month in Hebrew school." It's not just that, as The Atlantic's Christopher Orr states in his review, "[Jaden] is entirely lacking in the big-screen charisma that made his father one of Hollywood's major stars;" it's that such criticisms are often couched in larger attacks on the film as being, per TV Guide's Jason Buchanan, "a forgettable slice of cinematic nepotism." That the film was, as The New York Times' Brooks Barnes says, "a vanity project conceived by Mr. Smith and produced by him, his wife and his brother-in-law," only furthered the notion that Jaden was merely the unjust beneficiary of his dad's generosity.

Criticisms like these come from a visceral feeling of "unfairness" while missing the one actually valid reason to malign nepotism: the way it perpetuates a system of exclusion. Hollywood was built by white men, and white men have ruled it for so long that only in the past few decades have any significant inroads been made toward diversity and equality. Even now, in an era in which African-Americans are regular Oscar winners and brands unto themselves (Tyler Perry!), and women command millions (albeit less than their male counterparts) to star in tent-pole summer films, the fact remains that Hollywood continues to be a rich-white-boys' club. Nepotism obviously contributes to this--like begets like--and thus can be seen as regressive.

But After Earth shows it can be just the opposite, as well. Every member of a historically excluded group who gets a foothold in the industry opens it up for more members of that group, and nepotism is one way that happens. That's why Jaden Smith's career is, no matter how "unearned," a heartening development, as is the fact that that an African-American clan like the Smiths can now get so-called "vanity projects" like After Earth released in the heart of the crowded summer movie season. That Will Smith is powerful enough to gift wrap movie-star roles for his kids is a sign of enhanced minority clout in Hollywood, and should result in more people of color in front of and behind the camera.

Every member of a historically excluded group who gets a foothold in the industry opens it up for more members of that group, and nepotism is one way that happens.

A similar principle is at work with women in Hollywood. The number of major female filmmakers working today is famously low--4.4 percent of Hollywood's top 100 movies in any given year are directed by women--which makes Sofia Coppola's career all the more significant. She may have gotten her entrée into the industry via her dad, but any entrée at all for women at this point should be welcome.

When it premiered, HBO's Girls caused another widespread nepotism freakout, and yet look at who people were freaking out about: young women directing, writing, and starring in a hit original series. Sure, the show's existence may be in part due to who Lena Dunham's, Zosia Mamet's, Allison Williams's, and Jemima Kirke's parents are. But that's more a commentary on the barriers that still exist for women in the entertainment industry than it is on the value of the work they create. In the coming years, today's young beneficiaries of nepotism will, like Coppola, get to prove whether they deserve the hand-up they've been given. If they succeed, people shouldn't criticize them for then giving a hand-up to others.

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Nick Schager is freelance film critic and writer based in New York. He contributes regularly to The Village Voice,  Vulture, and The A.V. Club .

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