Jason Bateman‘s The Family Fang (Starz, 4.29) is a fine, straight-dealing dramedy — mature, plain, unforced. It’s about a 40ish brother and sister (Bateman, Nicole Kidman) coping in different ways with a certain degree of emotional damage caused by their eccentric parents (Christopher Walken, Maryann Plunkett). The movie basically says to all kids who’ve had bruising parents, “Tough break but this is now, and you have to decide if you’re going to stand up and call your own shots…or not.” It doesn’t make a stupid joke out of the situation. And I admired Bateman’s decision to keep the the tone measured and low-key and not inject comic schtick, which nine out of ten directors would have resorted to.
The Family Fang compelled me to make a list of the worst cinematic parents of all time, and right away I thought of my top five: John Huston‘s Noah Cross from Chinatown, Daniel Day Lewis‘s Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood, Walken’s Brad Whitewood from At Close Range, Faye Dunaway‘s Joan Crawford in Mommmie Dearest and Marion Lorne‘s Mrs. Antony (mother of Robert Walker‘s Bruno) in Alfred Hitchcock‘s Strangers on a Train.
And then a real motherfucker of a dad I hadn’t thought of in a long time popped into my head: Karl Malden‘s oppressively demanding John Piersall, the father of Tony Perkins‘ Jim Piersall, in Robert Mulligan‘s Fear Strikes Out (’57). I decided to stream an HD version the other night on Amazon, in part because I wanted to savor the detail of a black-and-white film shot in VistaVision. It looked pretty great, but God, Malden played such a hardhead fiend I couldn’t believe it. His son’s glories and accomplishments were never enough. The film throws a semi-happy gloss on their relationship at the end, but Malden is the kind of papa you need to keep at a certain distance until he’s dead.
But you know what? The Malden-Perkins relationship is almost exactly the kind of thing I have going on with the little man in my chest who’s never fully satisfied with anything good that I do. He’s always saying “okay, that’s pretty good but don’t get smug and coast on your laurels. You could probably do a little better than you’ve done so far, as you know. Because while you have talent and drive, you could use a bit more of each. And what about tomorrow’s agenda? And don’t forget to buy groceries and call the cleaning lady,” etc.
Have I admitted my own failings as a dad? I probably should. My younger son Dylan is currently conveying the view that I didn’t care for him enough, and that I compounded this by favoring his older brother. Which is true but so what? I’m not angry about this — he is. It’s not how much your dad loved you, but how much you respect yourself now. In any event Dylan has decided he wants to create his own karma by cutting off all contact with me. Owen “Movie Freak” Gleiberman did this with his parents also, didn’t see them for seven years. I get it. I can relate. My younger brother Tony was my mom’s favorite (“the cutest baby”) and my younger sister Laura was my dad’s favorite, and neither were strong or lucky enough and so they’re both gone now and here I am. Just saying.
Please post your favorite child-injuring dads and moms. The deceased Mrs. Bates in Psycho. Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate and All Fall Down, for sure. Harrison Ford in The Mosquito Coast. Who else?