December 8, 2014

filmsgraded.com:
I Never Sang for My Father (1970)
Grade: 75/100

Director: Gilbert Cates
Stars: Gene Hackman, Melvyn Douglas, Estelle Parsons

What it's about. Poor Gene Hackman. He wants to move to California and marry his hot, nice doctor girlfriend, Elizabeth Hubbard. Instead, the semi-successful writer continues to live near his elderly parents, Melvyn Douglas and Dorothy Stickney.

Stickney is fine with Hackman moving away, but stubborn old Douglas invokes a guilt trip on the frustrated Hackman. Douglas' estranged daughter, Estelle Parsons, visits from Chicago and fights a losing battle with Douglas to get him to accept a live-in housekeeper.

How others will see it. I Never Sang for My Father was a box office bust, but it was well received by critics, and received three prestigious Oscar nominations: Best Actor (Douglas), Best Supporting Actor (Hackman), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Anderson).

One can argue that Hackman was in fact the lead, and was nominated in a supporting category to give both Hackman and Douglas their best chance at an Oscar. Douglas was an A-list actor since the 1930s, but his two Oscar wins came late in his career, for Hud (1964) and Being There (1980). Hackman eventually won two Oscars as well, for The French Connection (1971) and Unforgiven (1992).

Today at imdb.com, the movie has a middling 1300 user votes and a merely respectable user rating of 7.4. The entertainment factor, or lack of it, probably holds the movie back. Remember that Love Story was the top film of the year: beautiful people and a beautiful death, instead of homely people and a difficult death.

Older viewers, in particular, may have disliked the scene with Hackman in bed with his mistress, Lovelady Powell. Does his fiancée know about this?

How I felt about it. This film is difficult to watch, and deals with uncomfortable topics: the physical and mental decline of our parents as we descend deeper into middle age, and, in turn, our own pending demise as we approach our seventies.

Robert Anderson, who wrote the screenplay and source play, likely viewed the task as cathartic; a means of dealing with his own guilt and anger while caring for his aging father. The statement that bookends the film, death does not end a relationship, is a fact in Anderson's case. His relationship with his dead father became in turn a Broadway Play, a movie script, and a Hollywood film.

Of the two leads, Hackman has the easier and more conventional role. It's harder for Douglas, who has to put up a blustering front of courage while refusing to acknowledge his own deterioration, or the impact it has on his dutiful son's life. Wanting things to go on, forever, as they are now, or were some years ago, qualifies as denial.

The film's most interesting revelation comes from Parsons. She is grateful for his father's treatment of her, because it made her accept how hard life is. Such acceptance is more challenging for Hackman. He can't tell his father no, even if it costs him his relationship with his ideal girlfriend. The difference between Parsons and Hackman is that she can write off her father, as he once did to her, but Hackman can't.