Reeling Backward: I Never Sang for My Father (1970)
Gene Hackman and Melvyn Douglas both give powerful, Oscar-nominated performances in this quietly brutal portrait of a fractured father-son relationship.
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One thing I’d never seen Gene Hackman do is play weak.
Though he’s regarded as a character actor’s movie star, most leading film performers do find a certain persona coalescing around the body of roles they’ve played and how they inhabit it, including Hackman. With his plumber’s physique and face like a canned ham, he has consistently played strong, flawed authority figures — from his Southern sheriff turned FBI man in “Mississippi Burning” to the wayward basketball coach on a redemptive journey in “Hoosiers.”
So it was interesting to catch Hackman, who gave up acting nearly 20 years ago and recently celebrated his 93rd birthday, as a hectored, troubled son of a domineering father in 1970s’s “I Never Sang for My Father.” Written by Robert Anderson based on his own play that debuted two years earlier, it features Hackman playing a widower in young middle age who has felt unmanned by his relationship with his pops, played by Melvyn Douglas.
Both actors received Oscar nominations for their powerful performances in a movie that is a quietly brutal look at a fractured father-son relationship. (Anderson received his own Academy Award nod for screenplay adaptation.)
In an indication that category-hopping is not a new phenomenon for the Academy Awards, Douglas was nominated for Best Actor while Hackman competed in the Supporting Actor category — even thought Hackman’s character, a college professor named Gene Garrison, is clearly the main character and his father, retired businessman and politician Tom Garrison, is the dramatic foil.
Hackman has more screen time and lines and, tellingly, has several scenes apart from his father, while Tom is never present when Gene is not. That’s usually a reliable indicator of who is a lead and who isn’t, such as the much-quibbled-about distinction in Oscar nominations for Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction.”
Tom came from nothing, his drunken father running out on him when he was 8 and his mother dying when he was 10, leaving him as a boy to work to support his siblings. He took a stenography class while working in a lumber mill, met his future wife, Margaret (Dorothy Stickney), married into a good family, started at the bottom of the Colonial Brass company and became an executive, and even was elected mayor of his city — never named but alluded to as a midsize metropolis in the Midwest.
Recently turned 80, Tom is physically strong but his mind is “like a sieve,” to use his wife’s charming dismissal of his forgetfulness and tendency to wander backward into hagiographic autobiography.
Tom Garrison is a man stuck in self-mythologizing, having lived a legitimately extraordinary life but unable to move on from his heyday. He has a way of turning every conversation back on himself, repeating old stories, like how he threw his own father out of his mother’s funeral as punishment for his transgressions.
“You are welcome to your burden,” Tom’s father wrote to his son after his rejection, and it seems he has internalized this dynamic and unwittingly passed it on to Gene.
Outwardly, Tom is a loving and supportive dad to Gene. But he has a way of unconsciously belittling his son and cutting him down for not measuring up to his own standard. For example, Gene has just published a new book of short stories — “Love Revisited” — and Tom criticizes the cover photo as ‘arty’ for the author’s gaze cast off to the horizon. A man always looks people straight in the eye.
Margaret suffered a heart attack a year ago and has been living on borrowed time, as they all know. She has been happier living in Tom’s shadow than her son has, appreciating his direct manner and even his jaunty general’s walking stride.
“He may not always remember where he’s going, but he always goes there with a firm step,” she says, acknowledging Tom’s diminishment but positively cooing with admiration for the man he used to be.
Gene lives nearby and frequently drops in to help his parents out, while his older sister, Alice (Estelle Parsons), moved up north to Chicago to raise her family and is largely out of the picture. Subsequently we learn she was more or less banished by Tom for marrying a Jewish man.
Gene has played the dutiful son for so long, even through the long illness and passing of his own wife, Carol, before having children. It’s become an indelible part of his persona. Now he has pursued a relationship with a doctor in California, Peggy (Elizabeth Hubbard), who has her own children and practice. He is ready to marry her and move out West away from his father, but knows he will be guilt-tripped to hell and back by Tom, who insists such a move would “kill your mother.”
Of course, it’s Tom who really wants to keep his son nearby and yoked.
Early on in the movie, Gene’s mom dies, which underscores his guilt and brings the looming conflict to the fore. Alice returns for the funeral and pushes him to make a clean break of it. She’s already paid her price to gain independence from their father and thinks it’s time Gene did the same.
Hackman’s Gene seethes with internalized loathing — for his father’s domineering ways, for his own failure to break out of a submissive pattern and for both of them letting things go on this way so long. There’s an explicit dimension of masculine conflict built into their relationship, with Tom spending a lifetime passive-aggressively prodding Gene to stand up to him, relieved but also disappointed that he never has.
“I hate him. I hate hating him,” Gene confides to Alice. “I hate what it does to me when I’m around him… somehow I shrink.”
Gene drives a new green 1969 Mustang convertible, a small token of his slowly growing rebellion toward his father, a tried-and-true Buick man. (Though I can tell from the exhaust note he settled for six-banger under the hood… sad!) Though he has taken to emulating his dad’s favorite drink, a “6 to 1” martini, aka high alcohol ratio, perhaps to prove his manly mettle.
Upon Margaret’s death, Tom manages once again to turn everything into being about himself. Hours after she is taken to the hospital, he insists on taking Gene out to dinner at his favorite club restaurant, the Rotary, so he can hobnob with fellow aging masters of the universe. He responds to a condolence letter from a friend by sharing his own life story, with Margaret mentioned as his ‘inspiration,’ almost as an afterthought. He even manages to work in how he started out working for $5 a week and eventually rose to a salary of $50,000 a year.
That’s more than half a mil per year in today’s dollars. Tom’s sprawling countryside mansion is a testament to his worldly successes. And yet he balks at an $800 price tag for Margaret’s funeral, noting that she’ll be encased in concrete in the ground, so who really cares if she spends eternity in a cut-rate casket?
I was also struck by the small detail of Tom going to bed the first night after Margaret’s death. He perfunctorily plucks her pillow from that side of the bed and adds it on top of his own, as if he had been waiting for the opportunity to augment his comfort.
Director Gilbert Cates mostly did television work, and it shows in his unadorned style, basically just a series of static conversations that take place in and around the elder Garrison’s home. You can always spot films translated from the stage for their economy of locations and characters.
The title comes from something Gene did when he was a boy, practicing singing in the parlor while his mother played the piano, Tom working away in his upstairs office. Tom always liked listening to his son sing “When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” but the adult Gene points out that he never actually sang it in his presence — an outbreak of childhood defiance that was so small it went undetected.
Gene knows that he must escape from his father’s clutches now or forever remain in his thrall. He also is repulsed at the thought of a powerful man reduced to senility and forgotten status. He tours a few nursing home facilities and is horrified, not just for his father’s near future but his own further off… but visible.
If you’re looking for happy endings, “I Never Sang for My Father” is not where you’ll find it. This is not an uplifting story of a long familial resentment finally healed over, as in “On Golden Pond.” Rather, it’s a stark and sobering acknowledgement that sometimes family members are better off apart than perpetrating their cycle of dysfunction.
In retrospect, I take it back about Hackman playing weak. In some ways, his Gene Garrison is a portrait of a man long put down who finally rises up — but finds that being the one on top of a relationship still doesn’t make it a healthy one.