Best/Worst: Fathers in Cinema
Well, it’s that time of year again. The moment where we must all find a way to show the old man what he means to us. For some, Father’s Day unfortunately triggers unpleasant memories that are best left forgotten or suppressed, for others it is a joyous occasion meant to commemorate someone whose influence has profoundly and positively shaped the course of their lives.
It is not surprising then, considering the importance and dominance of this critical relationship, that many film artists have chosen to express the complexities inherent to the figure of a “father” or work through their petulant “daddy issues” on-screen. With the Day of the Father nearly upon us I felt that it is only fitting for the greatest film site on the planet, Filmophilia, to reverentially tip its collective hat to film fathers who have faced down adversity and fully personified the best attributes that one can bring to this highly critical role. And, conversely, this article also serves as a prime outlet to wax poetically about some of the great cinematic scourges of the fatherhood profession. So, let’s jump in. These are the best and worst fathers that the have ever graced (or defaced) the silver screen. Spoilers below.
Best Cinematic Fathers
5. Bill Murray as Herman Blume in Rushmore (1998)
For some, Bill Murray as the boozing, quintessential “sad sack” from Rushmore would not immediately leap to mind during a discussion about stellar father figure material. However, Murray’s now classic study in hangdog melancholy stands as a perfect example of a great father because the film depicts Blume as still striving to do the right thing despite having many cards stacked against him. Being the father to a pair of thuggish, redheaded brutes and being trapped in a loveless marriage can’t be easy. However, Murray invests Blume with a sense of glum and quiet fortitude. He may hate his life and may, in many cases, operate solely out of obligation. However, he is present for his children and continues to plod on in an attempt to find a sense of personal happiness.
4. Marlon Brando as “Don” Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972)
As Brando’s most legendary creation, Don Vito will always be remembered for his shrewd and concise comments regarding gender roles (“YOU CAN ACT LIKE A MAN!”) in addition to his proclivity for masterful business negotiation (“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse”). Still, the most affecting moments of The Godfather focus on the dynamic between Vito and his middle son, Michael. These are critical, emotionally involving scenes not only because we see the Godfather stripped of his sociopathic tendencies and revealed as a tired patriarch. Even more important is that Brando imbues Vito with an intense concern over the welfare of his child and a quietly mournful response to Michael’s inability to escape the dark legacy of Corleone criminality.
Consider the scene below (which is perhaps the best scene in the entire masterpiece) where Brando instructs Michael on how he should move forward in a criminal landscape fraught with double-crosses and simmering violence. In this scene Brando encapsulates both a deep sense of fatherly love but also channels the film’s statement on the parental mentality of a first-generation immigrant. In short, Brando’s Vito never wanted Michael to experience the no-holds-barred violence of gangster life. America was supposed to be where his children could live, something greater and more legitimate.
3. Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman (1985)
Willy Loman, with all of his quirks, mood-swings and mental volatility, is in many scenes an intensely unlikable character. Dismissive towards his faithful wife’s input and utterly demonstrative (and borderline emotionally abusive) to his feckless son, Biff, Loman should in many regards end up on the opposite side of this list. It is a testament to the writing efficacy of Arthur Miller that Lohman has not gone down as one of the more loathsome characters on the stage or screen. Through the late playwright’s work (not to mention the committed and deeply felt performance of Dustin Hoffman as Willy) the audience is able to understand how Lohman’s habitual tendency towards abrasive nastiness slowly developed through a series of personal, professional and financial setbacks and disappointments. In the end, all that the audience is left with is sympathy for the titular salesman as he shuffles around the house, lost in a delusion where he is a respected businessman and a loving and effective father.
2. Lamberto Maggiorani as Antonio Ricci in Bicycle Thieves (1949)
An incredible picture of fatherhood that feels both personal and universal, Di Sica’s Bicycle Thieves is the supreme document on the heroic (and anti-heroic) nature of a father in crisis. Untrained actor Lamberto Maggiroani was lightning in a bottle for Di Sica’s definitive neo-realist masterpiece, conveying a desperate sense of pathos. Showcasing the harrowing experience of a father pushed to his psychological, physical and emotional limits in his quest to support his family, Di Sica and Maggiroani provided a zeitgeist moment for the war-torn Italian psyche.
1. Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
While it is fairly dubious how strongly a character like Atticus Finch would connect in our current age of cynicism, he remains a towering portrait of the ideal father which all other positive father figures must be measured against. Brimming with confidence, seemingly limitless compassion, engaged and constructive criticism for his children and of course (as he is played by Gregory Peck) rugged good looks, Finch is the cinematic father everyone wishes was their own. Such saintly gentility may be difficult to wrap your mind around in our current times but Atticus Finch (and his message) remains a powerful symbol of humanistic comfort and a testament to the goodness that people are still capable of.
Worst Cinematic Fathers
5. A casket as The Father in Shotgun Stories (2007)
The father from Jeff Nichol’s powerful rural noir, Shotgun Stories, never actually shows up on-screen. However, his monolithic influence hangs over the entire film and his actions (which are mentioned, not seen and predate the events of the film) basically precipitate the entire dramatic conflict of the movie’s story. Simply put, the father was a real bastard before he sobered up. While he was a shifty and abusive drunk he fathered a trio of boys who got the brunt of his demonic appetites. After sobering and finding Jesus he fathered a new trio of children with a different woman. Thus, the two groups of young men are instantly opposed to each other and their violent animosity soon brings about tragic consequences.
4. Billy Bob Thorton as Hank Grotowski in Monster’s Ball (2001)
Billy Bob’s Hank Grotowski represents a father who is my worst nightmare. Utterly consumed with a profound sense of self-loathing and antipathy for seemingly all living things, Grotowski is an absolute terror towards his son (played skilfully by the late Heath Ledger). This rageful mentality and disgust for any sign of potential ”weakness” eventually culminates with Ledger’s character, Sonny, becoming so utterly despondent that he decides to take his own life. Given one final chance to avert a horrific tragedy, Grotowski decides to actually help seal Sonny’s fate - this marks him permanently as one of the biggest dirt-bag fathers to appear on-screen in modern times.
3. Sergi Lopez as Captain Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Pan’s Labyrinth represents yet another nightmarish father scenario. Beautifully capitalizing on the universal anxiety that everyone can imagine feeling about the introduction of a step-parent, Guillermo del Toro perverse fantasy unleashed a truly satanic villain upon the world in the form of Lopez’s Captain Vidal. Sadistic, cruel and fiendishly powerful, Vidal overshadowed all of the grotesque fantastical creatures existing in the labyrinth and proved once again that once again human beings are capable of savagery on a level far exceeding any monster.
2. James Earl Jones, David Prowse and Sebastian Shaw in Star Wars: The Original Trilogy (1977-1983)
A cinematic and pop culture icon, Darth Vader is also the epitome of a shit father. Throughout the course of Lucas’s epic space opera Vader’s self-absorbed fixation on his beliefs leads him to absolutely repulsive acts of cruelty against pretty much everyone around him. However, never are his actions more shocking, or more sociopathic, than against his own flesh and blood. Not only does Vader attempt to kill his own son on more than one occasion, he also tries to brainwash Luke, tortures his own daughter, Leia, stands apathetically as Grand Moff Big Nose blows up an entire planet (his daughter’s homeworld) and also propagates a seemingly endless barrage of viciousness that leaves no ally of his two children unscathed. After such an awful history of unsavory acts it is hard to believe that even Vader’s heroic rescue of Luke from the Emperor’s force lightning at the end of Jedi would have been enough to make right all the damage he had caused. While it might have been enough for the two characters to finally achieve reconciliation it failed to keep Vader from being considered as absolutely one of the worst fathers in film.
1. Ray Wise as Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
It is a remarkable (and horrific) feat for someone to eclipse a character with as much of a dominant presence as Darth Vader on any list. Still, for as nasty and relentless as the Sith Lord may be Ray Wise as Leland Palmer shoots past him and claims the dishonorable position as the worst cinematic father that I have ever encountered. Wise’s Palmer lies at the heart of the central mystery of David Lynch’s groundbreaking and bizarre early ’90s television series, Twin Peaks and the prequel film, Fire Walk with Me, which was made a year after the show went off the air. While his position on top of the cinematic father trash pile may seem a bit unfair to some of the show’s purists (yes, I know Plamer is allegedly playing host to a paranormal force of destruction known as Killer Bob) his character still takes the top slot for how Leland’s actions symbolize the total inversion (and perversion) of what a parental role should clearly signify – which is a positive source of comfort/support that their children know they can trust.
Palmer is also so highly disturbing because although the show plays around with metaphysical elements one could also interpret Leland in a manner totally grounded in reality. For while he may indeed be nothing more than a helpless puppet for an unkillable demon from another dimension, it also seems plausible that Lynch’s show and film are simply suggesting how the consequences of physical and sexual trauma in childhood continue to be relentlessly perpetuated through the generations.
What did you think of the best and worst cinematic fathers? Can you think of another superhuman Dad whose goodness deserves to be included? How about the opposite? Which jerks and deadbeats were left off the list that still need to be mentioned? Let us know in the comments section and have a happy Father’s Day from all of us at Filmophilia.com!