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Why Hollywood Loves Redeeming Male Characters With a Dog (Guest Blog)

From ”Once Upon a Time in Hollywood“ to ”The Art of Racing in the Rain,“ Hollywood again proves that dogs really can be a man’s best friend (and most civilizing quality)

One of the undeniable stars of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is named neither DiCaprio nor Pitt, but rather Brandy. She’s the pitbull terrier who kicks ass when it matters, and is otherwise patient and obedient. Most important, she adds a sweetly human counterpoint to her owner’s occasionally temperamental ways. Quentin Tarantino’s movie is retro, so the concept of a helpful and heroic dog is fitting.

Let’s face it: Brandy’s obedience to a male has a lot of company on screens past… and present. “The Art of Racing in the Rain” opens Friday, featuring “This Is Us” star Milo Ventimiglia (who, ironically, dies in that series trying to save his dog) as a racecar driver whose ups and downs are narrated by his canine companion (voiced by Kevin Costner). The film’s ads read, “From the studio that brought you ‘Marley and Me.'” Yep, there is another one primarily about a guy and his pooch.

Of course, we know about “man’s best friend,” but think about it: “Old Yeller,” “Travels With Charley,” “Call of the Wild,” “Chips the War Dog,” “All Creatures Great and Small” and “Lassie” come to mind, all featuring boys or men deeply affected by canine companions. This year’s “A Dog’s Journey” is narrated by a constantly reincarnating dog (Josh Gad) but, as he says in the trailer, “I always found my way back to Ethan” (his owner, played by Dennis Quaid). Even Bradley Cooper’s (real life) dog, Charlie, had a key role in “A Star Is Born,” garnering audience affection for an otherwise pretty troubled guy. The dog was the only one with Cooper’s character at his tragic end.

As the narrator of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s hot new novel, “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” notes, “I remember a creative writing class I took, where the professor, a cynical screenwriter, told us that when our characters weren’t likable, you could fix it by giving them a club foot or a dog.”

He was likely considering male characters. When is the last time a story about a woman overly attached to an animal? “If a woman is crazy about her pet, she’s seen as lonely or trying to substitute it for a baby or worse, a spouse,” says Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times, who wrote a book called “The Puppy Diaries: Raising A
Dog Named Scout.”

“However, the best books about dogs — inside a dog and the hidden lives of dogs — were written by women.” (The best-selling “Through a Dog’s Eyes,” by Jennifer Arnold, for example, and Sigrid Nunez’s “The Friend,” which won last year’s National Book Award.)

It may be the surprise factor with men: the idea that they can be racing in the rain one moment — or in the case of Pitt’s new character, smashing hippies’ faces — but then come home to attend to their panting pal. Pitt’s character has had a very long night — and it is about to get darker — but when he looks at Brandy, he knows she has earned her evening walk.

Women appear to be touched by this behavior both on and off screen. “There’s nothing more appealing to women than seeing a strong man get emotional around animals and children,” New York psychologist Vivian Diller says. “And while the man is still master, it’s safer for him to be vulnerable with the animals.”

Which brings us to the current “master” of the country, the first White House resident in more than a century not to have a pet. Think Fala, Checkers, Buddy, and Sunny and Bo. Shouldn’t Trump’s media folks see the value — especially in winning female votes — of finding a mutt who could run around the West Wing and growl at Joe and Mika on the TV? Then again, dogs may offer unconditional love, but they do expect some loyalty and empathy in return. Whoops.

Mary Murphy is magazine and TV journalist and an associate professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism. Michele Willens is a New York-based writer and NPR theater commentator. They are writing a book on the history of entertainment journalism.