I Never Sang For My Father

The arrival of the ratings system in 1968 didn’t just open up American movies to violence and sex. The ‘adult themes’ that had been discouraged since 1934 included frank appraisals of life as it is really lived, including the less flattering aspects. In other words, the Dream Factory gave a little ground to more realistic stories about less-than-perfect people.

The late ‘60s saw a number of short story and play adaptations that looked at personal problems, dysfunctional families and the kind of strife that most of us come in contact with sometime in our lives. Joanne Woodward in Rachel, Rachel, Patricia Neal in The Subject Was Roses and Alan Arkin in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (also featured at this year’s festival) are three strong examples. Prominent among them is Gilbert Cates’ I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER from the play by Robert Anderson. Cates had produced it on Broadway without great success; Melvyn Douglas reportedly turned down the leading part because he thought it read too much like a soap opera. Cates spent several years bringing Anderson’s play to the big screen; with a few changes actor Douglas decided to sign on. Cates also succeeded in snagging Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons, reunited from Bonnie & Clyde.

I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER is a non-glamorous slice-of-life tale about familiar but seemingly insoluble family problems, the kind that can dull relationships and blight lives. Widower Gene Garrison (Gene Hackman) wants to remarry and move to California and wants the blessing of his parents Tom and Margaret (Melvyn Douglas & Dorothy Stickney). The obstacle is and always has been the strong-willed Tom, who withholds his affection and acts up whenever he isn’t getting his way. Tom expects Geneto sacrifice his own happiness to take care of him, and Gene can’t bring himself to put up a fight. Gene’s older sister Alice (Estelle Parsons) has been estranged from Tom ever since she defied him by marrying  a Jew. She urges Gene to stand up for himself and make an emotional break while he can. But Gene still feels the need to be there for his father, whose health is beginning to fade. How much abuse can Gene take?

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The film doesn’t try for sweeping dramatic climaxes. The confrontations take place
on a more human scale. Alice accuses Gene of being a coward, when Gene simply doesn’t want to hurt his father. Old Tom refuses to see reason, and angrily insists on controlling his son. Refusing to tie up its conflicts in a neat bow, I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER is a demanding but rewarding emotional experience. The abandonment, duty, guilt and pain found here feels real.

The movie garnered wildly divergent critical reaction on release in 1970. Some reviewers were knocked out by its sensitivity and insights while others regarded it as a shapeless soap opera or a random stack of depressing scenes. A sequence depicting the deplorable conditions inside nursing homes is indeed depressing, but also courageously honest. Gene Garrison will surely have difficulties when it comes time to decide what to do with his father.

But the critics uniformly praised the film’s performances. Melvyn Douglas’s Tom Garrison is an accurate portrait of a proud and cantankerous old coot who falls asleep watching westerns, talks endlessly about himself and expects his grown children to jump when he calls. Gene Hackman’s son is the opposite of most of his screen characters. When he should speak up for himself, Gene Garrison instead fades into silence.

The movie offers no pat solutions for the problems it raises, which surely frustrated viewers demanding a happy ending. Gene finally draws a line but the old man is incapable of change. Bad parenting can be like a curse handed down from generation to generation.

In his autobiography, Melvyn Douglas relates a happy ending to his experience with the movie. Despite being nominated for an acting Oscar, Douglas still felt that the film’s drama was a little forced and unrelenting (this writer disagrees). Not long after the finish of shooting the veteran actor went through a bad spell with angina. He hadn’t been on the best of terms with his own grown son, who moved in to keep him company during his recovery.  According to Douglas, a genuine father-son re-bonding followed. He credited I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER with contributing to the repair of the relationship.

Introducing the film was the charming actress (and frequent TCM guest personality) Illeana Douglas. She mentioned her grandfather’s impressions of the ‘new actor’ Hackman, who would get into character by working himself up emotionally, or doing jumping jacks before the camera rolled. The old-school Douglas would just concentrate more on putting precise intonations into his dialogue.