' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: I Never Sang For My Father (1970)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: I Never Sang For My Father (1970)

“I Never Sang For My Father” believes in the myth of fingerprints. Gil Cates’ cinematic interpretation of Robert Anderson’s play has seen them all (people, that is) and, man, it knows they’re all the same. It plumbs the tricky psychological depths of fathers & sons, well-wrought territory that nonetheless transcends that familiarity with a story that knows every man is his father’s son, whether he wants to admit it or not. It centers on Gene Garrison (Gene Hackman), a fortysomething widowed playwright who no doubt crafts each of his stage productions around some sort of paterfamilias concept. His father, Tom (Melvyn Douglas), is a very accomplished, well-respected man of the community, but less accomplished, not-as-respected man within the walls of his own house. He’s the sort of man who gets a look at a copy of his son’s new play and immediately criticizes the author photo, wondering why his son is looking away when a real man looks you in the eye.


Well, Gene rarely looks his father in the eye. He harbors resentment toward an unhappy childhood, one that resulted in his father sending his sister (Estelle Parsons) away. He harbors fear of his father, illustrated in how he struggles to admit his plans to re-marry and move across the country to California. He harbors regret, about not forging common ground with his father, and about not feeling affection for his father. It’s like he’s a moon caught in the orbit of a patriarchal planet, spinning around and around against his will.

His father, meanwhile, pushes Gene away even as he manipulates him into always being around. These conflicting ideas are traced directly to his dad, a drinker, an irascible man whose affection Tom never earned, and now he has consequently thrown away the affection of Gene by being irascible in his own way. That’s the film’s remarkable through line – three men who could not be more different are somehow all the same, and none of them have ever found the means to square with it.

“I Never Sang For My Father” is obligated, of course, to bring this unadmitted standoff between The Old Man & His Son to the brink, and it does so through the death of Gene’s mother and Tom’s wife, Margaret (Dorothy Stickney). That piece of plot advancement might seem obvious, even a little insulting, what when considering it brings her onstage just so it can kick her right back off. But the script knows that Tom’s greatest fear and has him externalize when he admits to Gene he always thought he’d first. He thought that because that’s what he wanted. If he died first, he was off the hook, spared the agony of confronting the friction between him and his son, and the friction within himself. You half suspect that Margaret, that sly old fox, knew this too and decided to expire simply as a means to effectuate their inevitable showdown.


Confronting all this means confrontations, of course, and frankly, the direction of Cates works best when he simply embraces the theatricality of these confrontations and sets a couple shots and lets his actors have it. His occasional zoom-ins and zoom-outs feel like “uh, we need to do SOMETHING” artifice and a late game sequence in which Gene visits a nursing home as a possible place to move his father is composed like a horror film, an aesthetic device that feels like its intruding on something much more solemn. The dialogue, meanwhile, often recited in extended monologues or prickly back-and-forths occasionally gets too on-the-nose. “I hate him,” Gene says of his old man, “and I hate to hate him.” That type of explication permeates the film, lines already made evident in the performances, and so half the time you feel like you’re watching this film from the perch of a second couch in a therapist’s office. But, what a damn therapy session!

Hackman was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (Douglas was nominated for Best Actor) which is basically absurd, like an evocation of the roles themselves. This is Hackman’s film, through and through, and for no greater reason than his essentially playing two roles. With his father, he’s a passive pushover, mumbling, shuffling, looking down, around, here, there, anywhere but at his old man. Away from his father, steam practically billows from his ears as he says and does everything he can’t bring himself to do around his old man. The duality is depressing, and only made worse when, in the climactic scene, both roles are forced to run right into one another. It’s only taken four decades for Gene to finally call out his old man, and when he does, it’s all for naught, the film’s impressively dire admittance that making peace is not necessarily the same as having peace-of-mind.

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