The Good The Dad and The Ugly:
12 Cinematic Father-Son Relationships
I'm a real sucker for father-son relationships in movies. I'm easily manipulated by them, either out of my own natural need to maintain a consistent connection with my own dad or just simple solidarity with sons of the world everywhere. The part where the Old Man gives Ralph the Red Ryder BB gun at the end of A Christmas Story? Pat Morita mourning his dad while Ralph Macchio tells him about his own father passing away in Karate Kid Part II? Kevin Costner asking his ghost-baseball player pop "Hey dad - you wanna play catch?" If these scenes don't get you going, you are not human. There's even a part in an episode of "Twin Peaks," of all things, where Major Briggs and his rebellious son Bobby make a connection that I find deeply touching and unexpected. Even animated fathers can stir up some serious emotions, like Marlin, Albert Brooks' Ocellaris clownfish, desperately covering the entire ocean to bring back his son ("Walt!"...I mean, "Nemo!") and Remy's father coming to save him in Ratatouille ("Dad!") Then there's Parenthood, where Steve Martin wants to know why Jason Robards is asking for his advice and he answers "Because I know you think I was a shitty father," then, when Martin doesn't respond, adds, "Thank you for not arguing." Father-son subplots are even effective in overall terrible movies like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Max von Sydow trying to talk to paralyzed son Matieu Amalric over the phone is genuinely tough to watch) and Pretty in Pink (Harry Dean Stanton's turn as the dad who wants his daughter to be happy is the only thing I even remember about the movie.)
This is my first Father's Day as a father, so before I started sympathizing with movie dads trying to handle their wild daughters (the Tony Danza classic She's Out of Control will never be the same!), I thought I'd look back at some of cinema's more complicated, interesting, dysfunctional, and yet oddly touching father-son relationships...
NOTE: SPOILER WARNING!
The son who can't impress his dad...
Henry Jones Sr & Henry Jones Jr, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Steven Spielberg, 1989)
"The Man With The Hat Is Back...And This Time He's Bringing His Dad." I remember thinking how weird the teaser poster's tagline was the first time I saw it - bringing his dad? What's this got to do with arks and crypts and temples and deep chasms that drop into alligator pits? But of course it turns out that the famous archaeologist's relationship to his father is the most pivotal part of the third adventure, in which Indy helps his father realize his lifelong quest to discover the holy grail and find "illumination." If Spielberg's most revisited story is indeed the journey of the fatherless boy, the man responsible for the touching moment in Jaws where Chief Brody's kid imitates him at the dinner table* found his dream project in Jeffrey Boam's screenplay (with an uncredited Tom Stoppard rewrite) about an international treasure hunt that was really one man's search for his dad.
Harrison Ford and Sean Connery have amazing chemistry together, with Indy's irritation at having to cart his fuddy duddy father around complimented by Henry Sr's disapproval of his son's methods, lead to some fairly amusing banter ("I should have mailed it to the Marx brothers!") How about Connery's stoic expression during the entire thrilling motorcycle chase? But more than just comic relief, Henry Sr represents the dad who can't be impressed no matter what the son does: even saving his life falls short of acceptable. Emasculating Indy with the handle "Junior" is a constant reminder of how his son's historical expertise, physical prowess, general worldliness and powers of deduction aren't enough for Henry Sr to take him seriously. Indy is humiliated by his father's presence and frustrated that their relationship is more like a child and the professor "the students hope they don't get." It isn't until he almost loses his son when the tank he's fistfighting on top of goes over a cliff that Henry Sr realizes how much he loves him; he finally lets Indy know that he's more important than his life's obsession with the gentle words "Indiana...let it go." He calls him Indiana! Forget it man, it's all over for me - just pass the tissues. This is probably my favorite movie father and son relationship of all time, and deservedly so - just compare it to the nonexistent chemistry between Nicolas Cage and Jon Voight in the National Treasure movies to realize how rare it is for filmmakers to successfully establish a believable rapport between two generations in a big Hollywood summer movie.
Bonding moment: Casually escaping their enemies in style on a zeppelin headed out of Germany (after Indy-in-porter-disguise knocks the Nazi thug out the window before take-off), the two Joneses have a peaceful moment together, which Indy points out is their first quiet drink since he was slurping milkshakes. Henry Sr has no time for nostaglia, and becomes impatient and irritable when Indy accuses him of largely ignoring him for his entire life. "You left just as you were getting interesting!" Henry Sr offers in his defense, insisting that by leaving him to his own devises, he had taught his son "self reliance!" Completely missing Indy's attempts to connect, Henry Sr sits back and insists, "I'm here now! What do you want to talk about?" Indy can't think of anything, prompting his dad to ask "Then what are you complaining about??"
The father who wants to make his son happy...
Antonio & Bruno Ricci, Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio DiSica, 1948)
There aren't that many movies out there that really capture how hard it is just being a dad. It's a full time job, which incidentially is exactly what Antonio Ricci thinks he needs to secure his family's financial future. With the purchase of a new bicycle to enable him in his new position as poster paster, Antonio is convinced he's got it made. So all hopes of providing for his family literally speed away when a thief takes off with the bike, forcing Antonio to search for the stolen transport if he expects any kind of happy ending. He takes his son Bruno to help, but it soon becomes apparent that his desperate need to locate the bike in order to make his family happy is in fact what's making them miserable.
He approaches the problem at first with the same kind of low expectations of a man trying to find a lighter he dropped in the street a week earlier, but as the quest becomes increasingly difficult and more of an affront to his status as a competent provider - everything would be all right if he could just find that bicycle! - the more he puts the vehicle's recovery over all else. His obsession consumes his mind to the point that he's leaving Bruno behind as he rushes from one place to another; his search becomes so intense he doesn't notice his son getting drenched in the heavy rain and won't even let the kid stop for a quick piss! So focused on the goal of being an effective father, Antonio can't see that his basic responsibilities as a dad are being neglected. In the film's infamously shattering conclusion, Antonio's desperation leads him to try and steal a bike himself; of course he's caught and humiliated in front of a large crowd before he's let go thanks to the victim's sympathy at the sight of Bruno. Walking into an assumably bleak future, Antonio's shame is so great he can't even look his son in the eye, an ending that would be unbearable if it weren't for Bruno's simple act of taking his father's hand. I actually consider it a happy ending...well, not a devastating one at least.
Bonding moment: Having turned on his son out of frustration while searching for the stolen bicycle and mistakenly being led to believe that Bruno was put in danger due to his negligence, Antonio feels guilty and decides to make up for it by throwing caution in the wind and taking Bruno for a lunch they can't afford at a fancy eaterie. Although they don't serve the pizza Antonio requests, the cheese bread they bring lights up Bruno's face: the way he stretches the mozzarella from his mouth as he eats it - a kid after my own heart. He scarfs the meal down although the presence of a very creepy rich kid with a queer haircut makes him feel out of place. Sadly, what starts as the most touching father-son moment in movie history quickly devolves into a depressing fit of self-pity as Antonio laments the missing bike and offers depressing pearls of wisdom like "There's a cure for everything, except death." The illusion shattered, Bruno guiltily sets the food down. Antonio, seeing what he's done, reassures his son that it's ok, that he can continue eating - but the moment's gone.
The father who doesn't understand his crazy son...
Ray & Dave Stoller, Breaking Away (Peter Yates, 1979)
Speaking of bicycles, the presence rather than absence of one is what comes between blue collar car salesman Ray Stoller and his Masi-riding, Enrico Caruso-singing, leg-shaving son Dave. Determined not to be forever labeled a "Cutter," the town of Bloomington, Indiana's term for a local with no future, Dave has decided to idolize the great Italian bicyclists; not just their riding skills but their entire culture. Dave speaks in a rich Italian accent and has his sweet mother serve Italian dishes for dinner, much to the chagrin of Ray. "He's never tired! He's never miserable! When I was young, I was tired and miserable!" Ray complains. At first their relationship seems like dispensable "that boy ain't right" comic relief, with Ray complaining that he can't get any french fries in his own house (only "eenie" foods) and that his cat's name is Jake, not Fellini. But after his heroes turn out to be greasy scumbags (not a comment on all Italians mind, just these bike-racing dipshits), Dave realizes that he's got to be himself and seeks comfort with Ray. The moment after he's become disillusioned with the Eye-talians and calls Ray "dad" instead of "papa" for the first time in the movie is almost as touching as Henry Jones calling his son "Indiana." Dave shows up for the big race against the preppy assholes who've been giving the Cutters a tough time the entire movie, and Ray goes from sitting in one of his used cars eating pizza listening to the race on the radio to going over just in time to see his son win first place. Overjoyed, the two embrace (try not to notice that of the four Cutters, Daniel Stern is the only one with nobody to celebrate with - it's the saddest part of the movie!)
Bonding moment: Once he's over his Italian kick, Dave takes an evening stroll with his pop through the campus of Bloomington's preppy college which, it turns out, Ray helped build when he was young. He explains to Dave that as soon as the construction was complete, he immediately felt uncomfortable being near the place, like it was too good for him. "You're not a Cutter - I'm a Cutter," he explains to his son. He may not have understood the boy's Italian phase, but he's still a great dad who wants great things for his boy, things beyond the confines of their small town. He's critical, asking Dave if he and his friends still swim in the quarry and following it up with the famous line "So the only thing you got to show for my 20 years of work is the holes we left behind?", but only out of tough love.
The father and son who steal together...
Brad Whitewood Sr. & Brad Whitewood Jr in At Close Range (James Foley, 1987)
"Like father. Like son. Like hell." is the great tagline that sets up this true story about a young man who joins his estranged father's gang of tractor thieves in 1978. Brad Whitewood Sr (Christopher Walken) comes into his son's life at just the right time, with Brad Jr (Sean Penn) in a state of near-rebellious restlessness, unwilling to settle for a job at the local cannery. His father appears to him as the ultimate carefree, self-made man. He seems to change cars like underwear, has no ties yet maintains a strong bond with family and gang members - "If it's blood, don't break it" he advises - and literally takes what he wants and makes money doing it. One second Brad Sr is asking his son in his charmingly sleazy Walkenesque accent "What's the sexiest thing you ever thought of?," the next he's driving a used car across the street to sell it for five times what he just paid. What young man wouldn't think it cool of his dad to pull out a gun in a public diner and encourage his sons to handle it?
Unfortunately that gun gets turned around after a tractor heist goes bust and Brad Sr decides to dispose of any witnesses who could put him behind bars, including his two sons and all their friends. Brad Jr learns too late that his old man isn't just a crook, he's a natural con artist and a remorseless murderer. By the time shallow graves are being dug out in the woods of Lancaster County, he's just hoping that he'll "live to tell" that to a jury before he and his girlfriend end up under the Pennsylvania soil themselves. Trying to be like his father got him into this mess, and turning against him, realizing he's not the same person, is apparently what will redeem him. Also, I might be looking too far into this, but the screenplay is by Nicholas Kazan who, like Brad Jr, possibly felt the need to prove he was as competent a professional as his father, director Elia.** Unless Nick was actually using the story to criticize people who testify against each other, in which case...yikes.
Bonding moment: Conservative parents will argue that a good dad doesn't rape his son's girlfriend and arrange to have him killed after personally murdering his younger son for fear he might snitch, but seriously - what father/son relationship is without its difficulties? And the argument could just as easily be made that it's all Brad Jr's fault (getting shot, getting caught, hooking up with a Yoko who tries to change the gang's trustworthy operation.) Even at his most evil, Walken manages to maintain Brad Sr's sleazy charm, his wild hair, funny moustache and the unbuttoned top of his shirts. Although the scene in the barn where Brad Sr is teaching his son the ropes of the trade seems like the obvious "bonding moment" between them - especially when Penn holds his joint out for Walken to take a drag from and Walken gives him a playful punch in the arm - I'd say the intense penultimate scene where a bullet-ridden Brad Jr comes looking for revenge is more appropriate to include here. Having discovered the "family gun" stashed in the bathroom, Brad Jr tries to work up the nerve to shoot the man who killed the girl he loved and his brother: the resulting scene can best be described as a crooks' family confrontation. "What do you want me to say? I love you? I love you!" Brad Sr states at gunpoint, literally under the impression that what will calm his son down is the feeling of some kind of family attachment between the two. After several near-misses aimed at Brad Sr's head, the two stand an arm's length apart staring each other down. Ultimately Brad Jr decides to turn the old man in, leading to his appearance in court and the film's final line, which sounds as much like an inevitable acceptance as it does an admission of guilt: "He's my father."
The father and son who kill together...
Ogami Itto & Daigoro, Lone Wolf and Cub (Kenji Misumi & others, 1972-4)
Having returned to his home to find his wife murdered, the Shogun's executioner Ogami Itto vows vengeance and prepares to take the path of the assassin. Only one matter remains: 3-year-old Daigoro, his son. Having no time to waste, Itto offers Daigoro a toy ball and a sword and asks him to choose: the ball means he joins his mother in death, the sword means he will accompany his father on the meifumado, the road to hell. The boy chooses the weapon and joins Itto on the road, traveling inside a bamboo baby cart which also serves as a raft when needed and conceals multiple pointy weapons, arrow-proof shielding and even machine guns (!)
In the six films that make up the Lone Wolf and Cub series, Itto and his son "live the life of demons" with the child witnessing his father thwarting ambushes by rival clans, accepting jobs to dispatch evil magistrates and fighting countless duels to the death against masterless ronin who wish to defeat the famous killer or die trying (and die trying.) The series is such a unique representation of the father-son relationship, in which father and son share the violence and danger together yet rarely exchange dialogue (the son being largely mute and the father being a silent badass warrior), that it's almost hard to pin down what that relationship is or what it's meant to represent. Beyond the odd sight of a hardened killer traveling the land with a little boy in tow, their existence is based solely on survival as they move from one area to the next. It's a safe guess to say that the boy serves as the soul and conscious that Itto was forced to abandon on his endless quest, but moreso I think he's supposed to be the window through which audiences can access this remorseless swordsman. One of the movies' most recurring images is that of Daigoro peering over the side of the cart to curiously observe the death throes of his father's writhing victims. When an army is sent to meet the pair at the crossroads in the third movie, Baby Cart to Hades, we first see them from Daigoro's point of view, inside the cart itself. That isn't to say his son is a passive observer - Daigoro has saved Itto's bacon on more than one occasion - but the movies' ideas about honor and humanity in a lawless society are translated through the innocent curiosity of the kid in the bamboo cart.
Having a huge cultural impact in Japan since their original release and inspiring American father-son road movies like Road to Perdition and The Road (and other movies with "road" in the title), the Lone Wolf manga and movies reset the family structure to cast father as eternal protector and son as perpetual paige.
Bonding moment: I'm tempted to say the ball and sword decision at the outset of their journey, but their relationship and co-dependence is best summed up in a scene from the second movie of the series, Baby Cart at the River Styx. Shinobi spies from a rival clan have captured Daigoro and tied him up, suspending over the opening of a well. If Itto strikes, they will let go of the rope. When his father appears at the stand-off, Daigoro allows his sandal to drop into the opening so that Itto has an idea of how deep the well is. Content with the length of the drop, Itto attacks, killing his enemies with just enough time to grab the rope and stop his son hitting the bottom. He hoists the unfazed child back to the surface and they continue on their way, as always.
(Speaking of Father's Day, here's an idea for a present to go with the tie.)
The father and son who arm wrestle together...
Lincoln Hawk & Michael Cutler, Over the Top (Menahem Golan, 1987)
In the words of Norm MacDonald, Kramer vs Kramer was missing something...what was it?...oh yeah - arm wrestling! At the behest of his dying ex-wife, trucker Lincoln Hawk picks estranged son Michael up from military school in an attempt to make up 10 years in a 2-to-3 day roadtrip and, as the opening Sammy Hagar tune states, winner takes all! Michael spends the first leg of the trip insulting Hawk and his truck - "Grandpa always said you were a loser, now you're trying to make me a loser and I hate you for it!" - and trying to run away, but ultimately Hawk's good intentions and the discipline he's taught himself over the years as a successful arm wrestler help turn his son from a prissy spoiled brat into a slightly-more tolerable human being. Exactly how the disciplne he's taught himself over the years as a successful arm wrestler actually helps him get through to his son is a little vague, but that's to be expected in a family drama from the guys who brought you the American Ninja series, Superman 4 and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects. It all comes down to a custody dispute with the great Robert Loggia as Michael's rich grandfather trying to buy Lincoln off and (if I remember correctly) even trying to have him killed (note: I might not be remembering correctly.) Lincoln knows he can get the money to win his son back by taking on the likes of Bull Hurley, Mad Dog Madison and "Smasher" at a big national arm wrestling competition in Vegas. Michael turning up during the final round inspires Hawk to give it that little extra push and take home the trophy (or at least, take it out to the truck.)
Bonding moment: The difference between taking it "over the top" in the context of a sweaty arm-wrestling competition in Vegas and not appreciating something because it was just too "over the top" aside, Lincoln orders his son to take it "over the top" against some kids playing pinball at a rest stop diner. They school him, he runs away like a little bitch, but Hawk tells him to get back there and this time KNOW he can beat him. Sure enough, the scrawny Michael manages to somehow ace the tall bully twice (but they only win a dollar) just by visualizing the victory and having his cap turned around backwards. That's right: never underestimate the boost of strength you can get from turning your cap around backwards. But the best scene is probably where he teaches Michael to drive the truck, playfully taunting him the entire time ("I always wanted to be a milkshake!") He gets him to smile, and we somehow know that Hawk and his crazy arm wrestling method of bonding with Michael are going to work.
The ambitious father who might get his entire family killed...
Allie & Charlie Fox, The Mosquito Coast (Peter Weir, 1986)
"My father was an inventor...He grew up with the belief that the world belonged to him and that everything he believed was true." Before he played young Indiana Jones in Last Crusade, River Phoenix narrated this Paul Schrader-scripted Paul Thereoux adaptation in which Harrison Ford stars as his father Allie Fox. Allie is a man who is disgusted by modern American society and takes it upon himself to uproot his clan - wife Helen Mirren, two sons and twin daughters - and move to the jungles of Central America. Described by a worried former employer to his son Charlie as a "know-it-all who's sometimes right...a dangerous man," who will one day "get you all killed," Allie quickly turns from an idealist into an obsessive when his inventive yet impractical methods of surviving outside of civilization become less and less dependable.
The movie, directed with the usual amount of flatness by Peter Weir (if it had been made by Werner Herzog it would have been amazing), is relevant to this list in its showing how great minds usually make for terrible fathers. Allie wants to change the world - directly, by inventing an ice maker in the middle of the jungle, and idealistically, by creating an idea of utopia that exists only in his head, eventually going so far as to convince his children that America has been destroyed by nukes and there's no going back. He complains about everything from people with narrow vision of the future to basic human biology ("nature's crooked!") He has a big, beautiful family but they're almost theoretical: he has nothing to teach them beyond his own hysterical beliefs, and never takes time to find out how they are or if they're in need of any basic fathering. It's kind of amazing that Harrison Ford agreed to play such a character, one who offers nothing to his kids but rather seeks approval from them as if he were the child. 'How'm I doing, boy?" he asks Charlie twice, once sitting outside his freshly-built cabin after they've just arrived, and later at the end after he's burned down a church he'd perceived as endangering the sanctity of the jungle and been fatally shot in the process. The extent of his parenting is punishment, when he tows the two boys in a canoe behind their raft for threatening to rebel against and abandon him to his own fate. The family alternatively, and sometimes simultaneously, loves, hates, fears and admires Allie but seem to always see him as a stranger who's kidnapped them and set them on a path to certain doom.
Bonding moment: The closest Allie and Charlie come to an earnest father-son moment is when Allie has decided to murder three guerilla soldiers who have come upon their settlement and insisted on hanging around ominously. Although they haven't made a move to violence beyond leering at Charlie's mother, Allie is unwilling to stand up to the armed men and offers to let them sleep in cots, strategically set up inside his ice-making structure. That night he rouses Charlie from his sleep, telling him "I can't do this alone," then proceeds to have Charlie turn on the giant machine as he locks the exits (the idea being that the men will freeze to death.) "Don't pity those men, Charlie," Allie insists to his near-sobbing son. He slaps a mosquito on the back of his neck and holds it up for Charlie to see: "Don't pity this insect. That's not his blood - that's my blood." It's a scene that leaves you wondering: if my dad woke me up in the middle of the night to kill some people, how exactly would I feel about that?
The son who admires his father, and the father who supports his son...
Mark & Charles Van Doren, Quiz Show (Robert Redford, 1994)
When Charles Van Doren turns up at NBC to audition for a spot on one of their popular game shows, the producers of "Twenty One" recognize his name instantly: he's from one of the country's most respected intellectual families and the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar Mark Van Doren. As played by Ralph Fiennes, Charles is as classy and charming as a Kennedy brother and by all evidence seems to respect and adore his famous dad, playfully chiding his giant ego and matching him measure for measure in a Shakespeare-quoting game that's like a genius family's version of throwing the football around. But there's something envious underneath the loving exterior; Charles has even written a book about a boy who kills his father. He teaches at Columbia "just like dad" and makes jokes to Mark about "hiding behind your reputation" to which his father responds by sarcastically claiming he's a man "usurped by his son before his time." His competitive feelings towards Mark are what compel Charles to accept the studio's positioning of him as an "intellectual Joe DiMaggio," with which he fast tracks to the same level of ivory league pop star.
Ostensibly the movie's about the deceitful nature of tv - it's easy to forget how important Mark is to the film. It presents the end of American interest in thinkers and writers like Mark and the beginning of its (on-going) fascination with people who appear on television; quoting Shakespeare and interpreting Hawthorne isn't fashionable anymore, knowing the name of Shakespeare's son or the year Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter is now what's considered "smart." Knowledge in the form of trivia literally replaces inquiry and intellectualism in Quiz Show's seedy world, so Charles' dishonest method of reaching this new audience (superficially he believes he is getting kids interested in reading again, kind of like the Harry Potter books/movies/video games) isn't only a smearing of his father's name, it's a cheapening of everything Mark has worked for. When Charles finally decides to confess his transgression - getting the quiz answers ahead of time all along - he naturally approaches his father first, in his classroom where younger students from the new tv generation have already started to mock Mark's classical intellectualism behind his back. Incredibly enough, although reasonably outraged at the onset ("YOUR name is MINE"), Charles' father agrees to come to the congressional hearings to support his son in his time of need. At this point, it's not about names and reputations - it's about being a father.
Bonding moment: A more traditional one, but important nonetheless. Almost every scene is set at the television studio or features a tv running in the background (even the intimate bedroom scenes between Rob Morrow and girlfriend Mira Sorvino), so Redford makes it clear which one to pay attention to: the quiet, late night meeting between Mark and Charles. Charles has retreated home out of despondency over his role in the uncovered scandal and a robed Mark finds him eating chocolate cake at the table. He picks up a fork and helps him finish it off and, setting aside airs now that he's away from his fancy pants co-workers and hangers-on, speaks to his son affectionately, even comes down to his level to talk about the quiz show and encourage him, thinking it's performance pressure that's bothering him. Paul Scofield, as Mark, is unbelievably sweet and nurturing in this scene, even though it's not for a second sentimental. Charles almost confesses here, but he can't do it. Instead he reminisces about a simple time, coming home to cake and milk at home as a child, and states that he's convinced he'll never be happier. After a beat, Mark replies: "Not 'til you have a son."
The father who wants to win his son's love...
Jake & Jesus Shuttlesworth, He Got Game (Spike Lee, 1998)
Not all fathers use spectator sports to teach their son about life with the same amount of success as Sly and his arm-wrestling trucker, as evidenced in Spike Lee's textured portrait of prospect mania that's about nothing less than what's true and what really matters. What matters to Jake Shuttlesworth is a chance to make amends with his son Jesus, a star player bestowed with the title endorsement by Number 23 himself, whose future everybody is invested in. An abusive alcoholic in his youth, Jake pushed his son too hard on the court in a misguided effort to teach him the game; tragically, it ended with the accidental killing of Jesus' mother. When he's given the chance to commute his prison sentence if he can convince Jesus to sign with the governor's alma mater, his real intention is to get close to his son; unfortunately he's a bit compromised.
Ray Allen - who I'd like to nominate for all-time best non-comedic performance by a professional athlete - does a great job displaying Jesus' toughness and vulnerability, especially in the scenes with Denzel. It's easy to understand why he hates his father, especially since he has become the protective father figure Jake never was to his sister (the only person not impressed by all the hype surrounding his mad skillz.) At the same time Jake's need for redemption in the eyes of his son makes him a sympathetic character, even though his motivations are blurred next to the phony friendship and promises of those around Jesus. Frustrated by his inability to reach his son, Jake shows up drunk on the Manhattan Beach boardwalk in Coney Island and decides to reveal his true intentions to Jesus. Everything seems like it's going to go wrong, but Spike Lee actually writes a tender scene between the two in which Jake explains that Jesus was actually named after Earl "the Pearl" Monroe, tells him how proud he is of his talent, warns him to stay away from users and exploiters and ends by giving his son an unreciprocated - but not rejected! - hug.
Bonding moment: In a last ditch effort to see if he can force his son to love him, Jake tries doing things the way he knows how: he chugs a 40 and challenges Jesus to a game of one-on-one to 11 points. If Jake wins Jesus signs the letter of intent; if he loses, Jake walks out of Jesus' life forever. An overconfident Jake takes an early lead, and for a minute you think he could actually do it...making it all the more heartbreaking when Jesus schools him, and you realize he never really had a chance. Lee syncs the scene beautifully with an Aaron Copeland orchestral piece that signals the exact point of Jake's defeat - to add insult to injury, Jesus beats him with the same punk move that Jake used on him as a kid. This is one of the best sequences of any of the director's films. The way it turns what could be a straight father-son bonding sequence into a crushing shot of reality, with his brilliant use of coverage, slow motion and the Copeland music, is purely cinematic. Like fatherhood itself, it's played out in a series of improvisations and empty threats/promises, with Jake trying to psych his opponent out with loud boasts as to his hand in Jesus' success: "I didn't teach you that - that's something you learn on your own!" Jake's devastated yet poignant taunt in the wake of his 11-5 defeat ("You feel like a man now?") perfectly epitomizes that sad and ambiguous place where parenting ends.
The ambitious son and the disappointed father...
John & Homer Hickam, October Sky (Joe Johnston, 1999)
"That's my dad," Homer says after hearing that dirt-encrusted coal miner John Hickam has saved a fellow worker. "...That's my dad," he repeats a little more reservedly after John has loudly belittled the rescued miner for causing the accident in the first place. John Hickam is a work-minded man, one who takes care of his family and approaches his job as foreman at the town mine with determination and deadly seriousness; it's the whole world to him, because it's everything he has to worry about. He has safety regulations to enforce, shifts to assign, union busters to take on, not to mention a deep, dark mine to dig into - these concerns are what occupy his mind at all times. The furthest he'll go in the fatherly duty department is to attend his eldest son's football games, but he doesn't remember his kids' birthdays and certainly has no time for his children's hobbies. He is therefore completely disinterested when his son Homer decides he's going to build rockets.
Reluctantly accepting at first, he puts his foot down once the project begins to come to the attention of other townspeople, even going so far as throwing Homer's equipment in the trash and banning any rocket experiments anywhere within an 8 mile radius of the mine. Joe Johnston knows his father/son relationships - Rick Moranis' well-meaning love puts his kids in danger in Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Alan Arkin's protective father-like relationship with Bill Campbell helps him save the world in The Rocketeer. He may have dropped the ball with that annoying kid and his selfish parents in Jurassic Park III, but I'm sure he's back on track with The Wolfman, the original of which having ended with the shatteringly touching scene of Lon Chaney Jr's father (in the movie, not Lon Chaney Sr) shooting him/freeing him of the curse. So this is not a case of the classic uncaring father like Wil Wheaton's dad in Stand By Me: John isn't a bad father, or a bad guy - which he proves by sticking up for Homer's friend in front of his abusive stepfather - he's just a man who holds himself responsible for other people's lives and has the most demanding job in his part of the world. Advances in technology and admiration of German scientists do not fall under his list of priorities, for himself or anyone associated with him. He pushes himself and wants his kids to set that same high level of dedication for themselves; he's just not much of a dad.
As such, Homer has to make a choice. He doesn't want to go into the mine, he wants to go into space, but the only way to meet John's approval is to become a miner and rise up the ranks in his old man's footsteps. The conflict of being true to himself and fulfilling whatever obligation he feels is due to his father comes to a head when he decides to take his work to the state science fair. Although he technically runs away from home to do so, John comes through for him after the exhibit is burglarized by jealous competitors by allowing a friend to construct new parts using mining equipment.
Bonding moment: You know when a hardass like Chris Cooper has to fight back tears, it's ok to get a little choked up. The movie ends on a very Rudy moment where Homer and his friends are going to be shooting their final rocket, and Homer lets his dad know about it. Dad says he'll see what he can do, he's got lots of work yadda yadda, but watches his son depart with a curious mist in the center of his soot-surrounded eye. The final scene of the film is filled with sentimental garbage - a dying teacher watching the rocket ascend from the hospital, a high school sweetheart declaring her admiration for Homer and his rocketing skills - but the one effective touch is that John actually turns up, just as Homer is dedicating the flight to his "mom, and my..." (cut to Cooper standing in the crowd) "...dad." On the dvd commentary, the real Homer Hickam (author of the book Rocket Boys from which the film derives) acknowledges that pretty much everything in this scene is fabricated except the surprising presence of his initially-disapproving father. Even I honestly wasn't 100% sure John was going to be at the launch - hell I've seen The Program, I know sometimes movie dads don't show up. But this one did, and that made all the difference...*sob!*
The disappointed father and the toilet-diving son...
Jim & Gord Brody, Freddy Got Fingered (Tom Green, 2001)
Some might scoff at the idea of finding Ingmar Bergman-worthy leitmotifs of isolation and parental puritanicalism in Tom Green's largely reviled comedy, but it is clearly a movie about a father-son relationship unlike any other. At the beginning of the film Jim Brody sends his 28-year-old son Gord off to California, where he's set to start a job at the cheese sandwich factory. He makes him a gift of a LeBaron and tells him he's proud of him. But like Homer Hickam, Gord isn't interested in a blue collar job: he harbors dreams of selling one of his cartoon ideas to an animation studio. He returns home a failure and the movie really does become a kind of surreal, John Waters-homaging version of October Sky. Only instead of working to prove to his dad that what he's doing is important and successful, Gord's mission becomes to perpetually infuriate his volatile father to the very brink of sanity before ruining his life entirely.
Gord, played with prankster performance art hysteria by writer-director Tom Green, is an invasion by the id to sabotage everything a parent expects their grown child to become: he disrupts and subverts his way out of duty, responsibility, employment and adhering to any semblance of order, mainly while living at his father's house. The symptoms of his general conduct - throwing tantrums, having a short attention span, causing public spectacles, exhibiting a lack of any apparent knowledge of societal behavior or decency - are those of an unrepressed child, suggesting that the pressure to make parents proud by being "successful" in their eyes can turn someone into - well, Tom Green. Gord is contantly heaping praise onto himself, repeating outloud that he's a "great animator," a "28 year old MAN" and that he "saved the day" after spinning a newborn around by its umbilical cord to get it to breathe; the repetitive reassurance is as much self righteous reinforcement as it is an almost psychotic attempt to provide himself the praise that his parents don't give enough of (or at least to do it right.) Although in the first scene his folks seem to support and encourage him, that's not the same as understanding him, and certainly not the same as tolerating him. Green wants to take the idea of a disapproving father - one who, for instance, doesn't get why his son would want to be an artist - and exaggerate the son's "different" qualities to a level at which anybody could understand his dad's near-filicidal aggravation just to show that it shouldn't matter: a father must love and accept his son. In that way, Freddy Got Fingered doubles as a portrait of a saintly degree of parental tolerance.
This exaggeration doesn't end with Gord: it applies equally to Rip Torn's Rabelaisian Jim, a bawdy tyrant who insults handicapped people, engages in public foodfights and could have conceivably molested his younger son Freddy (who, amusingly, is a straight-laced, kiss-ass son who does everything right yet earns only cold indifference from his father.) In the words of rare Freddy defender A.O. Scott, "a ferocious avatar of the work ethic, a dervish of brutality, shame and thwarted tenderness," Jim is a strict authoitarian dad and a neglectful, monstrous guardian at the same time. These two embellishments of "bad son" and "mean father" most notably converge in a scene in which, despondent that Gord has convinced the government to remove his 25-year-old brother from the house because he's been sexually abused, Jim enters Gord's room drunk, begins tearing up his son's drawings and belittling his dream profession. Jim responses with a rebellious "Fuck you, dad" at which Jim laughs "Fuck me? You want to fuck me?" and procedes to pull down his pants and invite Gord to do just that. His son's perversity of behavior has prompted him to retort with full-on perversity; even though he's just taunting him, it's funny that Gord's ultimate goal, to love his father, is offered by Jim at this point in the movie in a purely mocking physical sense.
Bonding moment: The part where Gord hoses his father with elephant semen. Let me back up... After he makes a million dollars selling his "doodles" to Dave Davidson's animation company, Gord uses his new fortune to tranquilize his father and ship him and his entire bedroom (walls, bathroom and all) to Pakistan. Jim wakes up and naturally freaks out, running around the foreign sand in his pajamas as Gord chases him down. In an effort to impress his beguiled upbringer, Gord masturbates an elephant; the ensuing fountain of spooge soaks Jim head to foot and sends him to the ground. Once Gord has been knocked down next to him by a nasty-looking kick from the elephant's foot, Jim asks him if he's okay. It's such a sudden moment of tenderness after 90 minutes of onslaught that it may be the most shocking thing to happen in the whole movie. Once Gord explains how he afforded to transplant Jim and part of the house to Pakistan, Jim is genuinely proud and admits he must have been wrong about the benefits of being a professional animator. Gord delivers the following monologue: "I know we've had our differences. You and I never really see eye to eye, but I learned something. Not just how to whack off an elephant - I learned to believe in myself. And I'm sorry if you're ashamed of me sometimes because I do things a little differently, but I got that from you. Cuz you always do things your own way, no matter what other people think. Maybe I needed to do the same. I know I'l never be the man you wanted me to be, but I'm your son. And I want you to be proud." Ignoring the fact that Gord threw the million dollars away in an absurd gesture of love, Jim tells him he is proud. It's not about the money, it's about proving the importance of your relationship. Honestly, this movie may have more in common with Bicycle Thieves than any other film on this list. Sure, it's a parody of a "father and son finally see eye to eye" moment from a regular movie...but in the context of this truly unique film, it's very satisfying.
Along the same lines, I'd like to call attention to what I truly believe to be the most touching and intimate father/son moment of any movie of the last decade...
Bam & Phil Margera, Jackass: The Movie (Jeff Tremaine, 2002)
In this sixty second clip from the mix of gonzo pranks and stunts known as Jackass: The Movie, skater Bam Margera hides a video camera in his parents' bathroom. Later, when his obese, bearded father Phil enters the chamber for some private time, Bam breaks down the door, pummels his hapless dad about the head and shoulders, rips his white t-shirt from his torso and makes a break for it, leaving Phil shocked and nude on the toilet shouting after him "Bam - you're starting to lose it! Jesus Christ!" To some this may seem violent and awful, but I can only imagine what kind of relationship a son must have with his dad that this kind of act could be perpetrated and released to American theaters without repercussion. How could anyone deny that this is a unique moment of closeness between a man and his son? Bam's irrervent treatment of his father and Phil's tolerance of his dickish behavior make for the exact kind of relationship this article means to honor.
Jerry knows it's tough to adjust to having a man replace your father, and he wants to do everything he can to usher Stephanie through this difficult period in her life. He's willing to offer insurmountable support, limitless patience, even a shaggy puppy to see that she climbs out of her funk and accepts him as her new daddy. And if not, well...sharp ax to head, a quick shave, and on to the next town to find a more appreciative family. Because Jerry is actually a murderer who joins a new family and ends up killing them all once they inevitably disappoint him. A stepchild's suspicions of the new guy working his way into the family are turned into nightmarish fact in Donald E Westlake's funny and scary script. Because Stephanie's behavior fits that of an angry, rebellious stepchild, her mother doesn't listen to her claims that her husband has more on his mind than 1950's nuclear family values. Still, the idea of a protective, role model father is so appealing she can't help but try and believe it's true - when she calls him "dad" instead of "Jerry," it would be as touching a moment as the one in Breaking Away except, you know...the homicides. It's even possible to sympathize with Terry O'Quinn's psychotic Jerry: his confused "Wait a minute...who am I here?" as his new cover begins to break down is a perfect representation of the vertigo being a responsible, caring parent can induce.
Bonding moment: Only a very brief sequence of putting up a birdhouse together, which Stephanie promptly chops down in the final scene of the movie.
APPENDIX: My 5 Favorite Movie Dads
License to Drive: Robert Anderson (Richard Masur)
As the patron of a large family consisting of one intimidating grandpa, high maintenance preggo wife Carol Kane, a bitchy left wing daughter and incorrigible rapscallion Les (the late Corey Haim), Robert deserves sainthood for everything he puts up with and all he gives to his family despite their individual quirks. In a defining scene, he inadvertently humiliates Les in front of the untouchable Mercedes (Heather Graham) when he turns up to pick him up from school ("Les? It's me, papa!"), then selflessly agrees to let his license-less son give the chick a ride home. Of course, Les abandons him to chauffeur his dream girl halfway across town, and the face that fine character actor Masur (Heaven's Gate, The Thing - he also played Sean Astin's dad in Encino Man) puts on Robert when Les finally catches up with him is hilarious.
Rushmore: Bert Fischer (Seymour Cassel)
Quite simply, there's never been a more adorable movie dad in history. In his flannel pullovers and hunter's cap or his barber's shirt, you just want to give him a hug. The way he changes Max's poor grade of "37" to an "87" ("You almost got the A...") is just an example of his abundance of support and good-naturedness that we all hope to get from our fathers. Of course Max doesn't appreciate it, having claimed to be the rich son of a neurosurgeon, and he coldly dismisses his father when he's going out to dinner after the premiere of his latest play: "cast and crew only." Bert's response - "Oh...you need some money?" - is sweet and heartbreaking.
Revenge of the Nerds: Mr. Skolnick (James Cromwell)
Although he's only seen driving his son Lewis and best friend Gilbert to college in the first Nerds movie and to the airport in the sequel, the always-charming James Cromwell makes his geeky dad caring and memorable, especially when he tells Lewis to kick the cruise control up to 37 ("Let's live dangerously!") He's proud of his son despite his obvious shortcomings, and offers him encouragement in preparation of the upcoming persecution by the Alpha Betas. At the end of the day, what else do we all expect of a father?
Frailty: Dad (Bill Paxton)
What? Like you other dads never enlisted your kids to help you determine which humans among us are demons in disguise and brutally dispatch them. Killing people is wrong, destroying demons is good! Bill Paxton's unnamed father may be nuts, but he still manages to fulfill the role of playful dad ("I'm just yolkin' with ya, egghead!")
True Romance: Clifford Worley (Dennis Hopper)
The late great Dennis Hopper had one of his most memorable scenes when he faced off mob hitman Christopher Walken back when eerily polite bad guys who suddenly killed the person they were speaking with was a QT novelty rather than an annoying cliché. Instead of giving up his son under torture, Hopper gives Walken a brief history of the geneology of Sicilians, one insulting enough that he ends up full of bullet holes. Sacrificing himself for his son - what more could a dad do?
- John Cribbs, 6/14/10
* Thanks to my brother for reminding me of that moment: Roy Scheider always bore a physical strong resemblance to my dad, so the Jaws scene makes me particularly nostalgic.
** Which we can all agree he succeeded in doing with his writer-director debut Dream Lover starring James Spader and Madchen Amick.
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