In case you missed the calendar alert, the endless commercials, the supermarket displays and the Google Doodle: it’s Fathers’ Day! We’re celebrating with a brief rundown of ten fantastic father figures from our favourite films over the years. From the ever-present to the deadbeat, the biological dads to the kindly stand-ins, here are the Top Ten (well, eleven) great guys who remind us how much we owe to our papas (and/or papa equivalents):
10. Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman, Kramer vs. Kramer)
In another world, Kramer vs. Kramer would be a John Hughes comedy about that singular, universal horror of one’s mother leaving for the weekend to leave you stranded with your clueless father. Watch as he gets mad while failing to make French toast! Laugh along as he tries to focus on his work, palming you off with some inane playthings! Sigh with nostalgia as he panics when you slip, with crushing inevitability, off the jungle gym! Of course, much of this is actually played for drama – and the mother’s away for months. And it’s because she wants a divorce. Yet amidst all the high-strung shouting scenes there is something universal about the growing relationship between aloof, adult Ted and naïve little Billy; a parenting story for the ages.
9. Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliott, A Room with a View)
Denholm Elliott was, of course, another quite wonderful father figure in Trading Places as wry butler Coleman. In A Room with a View, based on E.M. Forster’s classic novel, he plays a liberal, modern turn-of-the-century type fellow, all disarming sincerity and unrefined grace. Emerson, a distinctly unconventional figure, imbues in his son George (Julian Sands) all sorts of bizarre mannerisms and ideas; and though Emerson Sr. seems confused and uncouth to the upper-crust figures he interacts with, his kindness is crucial to the protagonists’ journeys of self-realisation. Mr. Emerson is both part of the period furniture and a more offbeat figure of advice and emotional aid: at the beginning, a fine father but by the end, the perfect father-in-law.
8. Shane & Joe Starrett (Alan Ladd & Van Heflin, Shane)
The moment Shane (Alan Ladd) rides into the lives of the Starrett family, confusion abounds for young son Joey (an Oscar-nominated Brandon DeWilde). Shane is awesome! He can brawl, he can shoot, he’s tall and handsome and has a way with earthy one-liners; he is everything that Joe Sr. (Van Heflin), apparently, is not. Shane helps the Starretts defeat evil landowner Rufus Reyer, who wants to seize their homestead, and at the end leaves again, victorious and bloodied. Shane, however, notes that archetypes like himself and Reyer are simply Old West antiques, consigned to history – as he rides out at the end, victorious yet injured, Joey calls out to him: “Shane! Come back!” What Joey has yet to realise, though surely will after the film closes, is that Shane’s tough-guy thing was important, but a short-term solution. A tantalising and romanticised father figure he may be, the real hero is at home: reliable, kind, hard-working Joe Sr. – rough around the edges, but a long-term force for honest good. Both men are fine father figures, but in the end the better man wins out.
7. Mason Evans, Sr. (Ethan Hawke, Boyhood)
Mason Sr. is not the most present father on our list. When he does turn up, however, all he has for his kids is humour, advice and love (plus his awesome “Black Album” mixtape). Intrinsic to Boyhood is Richard Linklater’s subtle acknowledgment of the gender politics embodied by his characters: mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) is understandably irked by her ex getting all the credit as the “cool” parent, coming and going as he pleases. But Hawke, in his own wonderful performance, shows not only how annoying Mason Sr. is as a free-wheeling chancer but also how sad it is that this man’s imperfections – those traits contributing to his apparent cool-ness – have basically hobbled his relationship with his family (his song is a nice summary of all these issues). Maybe Olivia does have it better. Either way, Mason Sr. tries harder and harder throughout the film to get his shit together, and his final scene shows us just why he is, at the end of it all, a perfectly fine dad: he really, really cares.
6. Maurice Purley (Timothy Spall, Secrets and Lies)
The tireless efforts of one of Mike Leigh’s greatest ensembles have to be commended. But at the moral centre of this very dysfunctional family is Maurice, played with naturalism and tenderness by Timothy Spall. It’s not that events actually revolve around him – they don’t – but that Maurice is constantly drawn in to the bickering of his wife, sister, niece and newly-rediscovered other niece, and feels almost tragically compelled to keep everyone happy. Even when a despised, alcoholic old mate of his pops into the office, Maurice can’t help but maintain conversation (trying with hilarious timidity to wrap it up every so often). That’s the kind of guy he is. Eventually, it’s all too much for him and he explodes (not literally, but imagine that film). He feels like he’s ended up having to father everyone, he’s had enough, and he just wants to get back to his barbecue. He’s probably the most realistic screen dad ever.
5. Bob Parr (voice of Craig T. Nelson, The Incredibles)
Bob Parr is trapped in a ’50s purgatory, like Ozzie Nelson with self-awareness. His mid-life crisis is based in a yearning to feel grand and important, though in his line of business this actually endangers himself and his family. Furthermore, having failed one young idoliser (and turning him into, er, a bloodthirsty supervillain), he has to work a little harder to keep his own kids from going nuts navigating adolescence. As Mr. Incredible, his super strength allowed great feats of heroic daring; as the paunchier Bob Parr, the only way to be truly heroic is to accept that he needs his family as much as they need him. Bob’s greatest act of fatherhood in The Incredibles is a simple but profound one: admitting that without the other Parrs, he simply isn’t strong enough. That said, despite the “great progress,” as Violet hilariously describes it, Bob still can’t resist a good catchphrase. “Showtime“? He’s such a dad.
4. George Banks (David Tomlinson, Mary Poppins)
Banks by name, and Banks by gruelling, dehumanising career. The “redeemed father” may be a motif predating even my old man, but George is one of the best. Anyone who can unironically sing about the benefits of finance in front of his increasingly uneasy spawn is absolutely ripe for an emotional breakthrough. Luckily, through the intervention of his family’s unconventional nanny and some good old-fashioned self-discovery, George comes back a changed, though still recognisably George-ish, man. This is easily Tomlinson’s greatest role, from the broad comedy of his earlier, stuffier scenes to that beautiful late sequence, walking alone through those iridescent streets and returning full of happiness and love (plus a severance package). The finale says it all, really.
3. The Inventor (Vincent Price, Edward Scissorhands)
An ingenious piece of casting allows Vincent Price not only to play a genuinely lovely character, but also to make us weep buckets. Ostensibly, Edward’s Inventor father was supposed to have more scenes, but Price’s declining health cut down his final film appearance to a couple of minutes. These fleeting moments are precious though, and to the viewer Edward’s brief memories seem like half-remembered dreams, mere emotional interstices in the psyche of this long-abandoned boy. Through these, we see a charming man, somehow the embodiment of youth despite his frailty, making jokes, reading books, showing great affection for his artificial son. Obviously he dies just before he can finally give Edward those hands; as his son tries to touch him, not quite comprehending the situation, we mourn with him. The Inventor was a lovely father, but left his son uncompleted. Edward, accidentally drawing blood from his dad’s lifeless cheek, comes his closest yet to touching a human being. Did we mention this is really sad?
2. Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, Double Indemnity)
Keyes may not have an actual family, but his relationship with hot-shot underling Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is about as fatherly as it gets. As Neff, an insurance investigator, gets in increasingly hot water for the sake of a peroxided dame, his brilliant supervisor starts to put the pieces together with just one oversight: he never once suspects Walter’s involvement. At the end of it all, Double Indemnity is about one quixotic schlub disappointing his father – yet, in its famous final shot, Keyes is still on hand with affectionate wisdom and a lit match (a surprisingly effective motif, if you haven’t seen it). Of course, it wouldn’t have the same impact if not for Robinson and MacMurray’s sparkling repartee, particularly the former’s sheer world-weary exuberance (please, watch this). Keyes is suspicious, hard-shelled and yet surprisingly loving; probably the best defensive dad ever committed to screen.
1. Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird)
Wise, principled, a man of secret talents: ladies and gentlemen, Atticus Finch. This almost impossibly wonderful character, so completely human in so poignant a film, represents not so much the best dad one could have: he instead reflects the very best in whatever paternal figure each of us do have. Whether he’s taking a doomed stand against injustice, facing down a lynch mob, or just telling his kids to be nice to the Cunninghams, Atticus is at every turn the perfect embodiment of all those great things we see in our fathers, step-fathers, cool uncles, and more. Even when he’s admonishing his kids, he seems like the nicest person ever – probably because everything he says is an important lesson. That’s what makes him such a quintessential great dad, the distilled essence of fatherhood. Atticus is all about moulding his charges as positively as possible, and we love him for it.
So there it is: eleven excellent father figures reminding us constantly what’s so great about our own paters. We missed out a lot: Mufasa, Michael Sullivan Sr., God (as played by Morgan Freeman). Who’s your favourite movie father? How could we have possibly missed [blank]? Let us know, and enjoy Fathers’ Day – however you choose to celebrate it!