One of my favorite dads in cinema is one of the most obvious -- Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. The picture of patience, justice, tolerance, intelligence and grace, he’s so damn perfect that it’s almost maddening. Where in life would one ever have a father like that? And how could one make their own father act accordingly? If Atticus is even partially based in reality, Harper Lee was a very lucky girl.
But Atticus isn’t the only memorable movie patriarch who’s moved me -- positively or negatively. There is, among many others, Max Von Sydow in The Virgin Spring, Victor Mature in Kiss of Death, George C. Scott in Hardcore, Lamberto Maggiorani in The Bicycle Thief, Mel Gibson in Mad Max, Donald Sutherland in Ordinary People (and Don't Look Now), Seymour Cassel in Rushmore, and Geppetto in Pinocchio. Thinking about all these good dads led me to other dads, dads who weren't so perfect (but dads who, in some cases, I love just as much as Mr. Finch). With that, here are five screen dads who’ve touched me (not literally of course), confused me or, in the case of Max Showalter in Lord Love a Duck blew my freaking mind.
Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona
So he’s not really a traditional father in this movie --- he’s the father of a kidnapped baby. But when it comes to Nicolas Cage’s H.I. McDonnough in Joel and Ethan Coen’s brilliant Raising Arizona, I’m not going to split hairs. In spite of a few stumbles along the way, H.I. really does love his wife Edwina (Holly Hunter) even when they learn that, as H.I. states, “her womb was a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase." Nabbing a baby from Nathan Arizona (of Unpainted Arizona) seems like the right thing to do, or at least Edwina thinks so, but the plan goes seriously awry in many screwball and unforgettabel ways. I’m going to assume you’ve seen Raising Arizona so I’m not ruining anything when I say that I kind of always wish they could have kept that kid. Their devotion is pretty remarkable -- especially when the new daddy is shopping for Huggies.
Ryan O'Neal in Paper Moon
Remember how much fun it was to watch movies on TV pre-cable? Peter Bogdanovich’s gorgeously crafted Paper Moon fits into that warm memory for me since it was one of my favorite movies as a kid and I delighted whenever it appeared. The movie had everything for me -- it took place in the 1930’s thus, looking like all the old movies I was so drawn to, it co-starred one of my favorite actresses, the hilarious one-of-a-kind Madeline Kahn as a woman named Trixie Delight and it starred young Tatum O’Neal as a 9-year-old who smoked, cussed and swindled people. She also got to drive around with a crooked travelling Bible salesman (Ryan O'Neal, Tatum's dad), a man who might be her father. The interplay between scammer O'Neal and his young, wise-beyond-her-years protégé Tatum is charming and, by film end, incredibly touching, not only for the story, but because these people really are father and daughter. And considering all of the O’Neal’s troubles, it plays even more poignant today.
James Mason in Bigger Than Life
Jack Nicholson’s deranged daddy in Kubrick's The Shining may be the all time scariest movie father–we all know that. But allow me to present James Mason’s Ed Avery in Nicholas Ray’s criminally underseen Bigger than Life. A picture perfect 1950’s schoolteacher at first, his personality changes drastically after discovering he’s suffering from a potentially fatal illness. He becomes a guinea pig to the new drug cortisone and essentially, loses his mind. It’s great when he starts feeling better but the side effects are worse than anything you’ll hear listed during a Lipitor commercial. He turns into a megalomaniacal psychopath with murder on his mind -- chiefly the murder of his little son. Shot in bold, brilliant color and beautifully composed (the shots of Mason lording over his son in shadow are especially powerful), the father as God story is horrifying and truly sad. A terrifically dark explication of the 1950’s family and an interesting indictment on prescription drugs, (nothing is as simple as just popping a pill), the picture was of course, a massive flop upon release. I have a feeling the whole daddy’s gonna kill you aspect was particularly hard for audiences to swallow within these glorious Technicolor frames.
Max Showalter in Lord Love a Duck
If you’ve read this blog, you’ll know that I’m not overstating my feelings for Tuesday Weld when I say that my love for the beautiful blonde actress knows no bounds. So much that, in one of my favorite Weld movies, Lord Love A Duck, the insane adoration that her father (played by the gleefully nuts Max Showalter) showers on her while the comely teen shops for sweaters almost makes sense to me. Underscore almost because, you know, I don’t want readers to think I’m that big of a pervert. But I think director George Axelrod wanted us to feel both excited and uncomfortable in this orgasmic moment during which Tuesday purr’s to daddy, “Pink put on” while trying on various cashmere sweaters. The darkly comedic movie concerns Weld as she works her way towards high school popularity via the help of an eccentric Roddy McDowall but her decidedly modern relationship with her floozy mother and freaked out father is one of the picture’s highlights. Watching Showalter’s eyeballs nearly pop out with lust and hearing his continuous maniacal laugh over Weld’s sweater fetish (or, rather his sweater fetish) remains one of the most subversive father daughter moments in the history of cinema. What the hell were people thinking while watching this scene?
Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
Even if, as Danny Glover’s Henry Sherman says, he’s something of a “son of a bitch,” Royal Tenenbaum (as played by Gene Hackman) is the dad one always wants to have. He’s a rascal, a cheater and he’s pretty dismissive of poor Margot but when he realizes he cares about his family (directly after being busted for lying about stomach cancer), his attempts to reconnect are so damn touching that, no matter how many times I watch this movie, I absolutely lose my cool. Wes Anderson taps into that childhood yearning we have for our past, how it's as rose colored as Royal's dress shirts but at the same time, lonely, bitter and neglected. Anderson makes something beautiful about all this, without being sloppy and we come to not only adore Royal but trust his advice. Like when he tells Ethel that Chad's sons need a little recklessness in their lives, that their father has them cooped up like “a couple of jack rabbits”--he is absolutely right. And I can never hear “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” without thinking of Royal and his wonderfully natty suits.