The old expression suggests that father knows best, but is that always the case? If the movies have taught us anything, it’s that not all fathers are high up in the running for parent of the year. The latest Adam Sandler comedy, That’s My Boy, certainly argues against that old maxim; presenting a less-than-admirable father figure who constantly embarrasses his son. Our own fathers may not be perfect, but there are a number of cinematic dads who make us appreciate them so much more… if only by comparison.
One of Michael Keaton’s best movies has to be 1983’s Mr. Mom. He plays a husband/father who loses his job and suddenly becomes a stay-at-home dad. There’s nothing about Keaton’s character that is abusive or otherwise malevolent, it’s just that his parental abilities are staggeringly underdeveloped. The next time you lament the fact that your father is no gourmet cook, be thankful that he never warmed up your grilled cheese sandwich with an iron. And your dad may not be the world’s greatest handyman, but I’m willing to bet he never went to war, a closely contended war no less, with the vacuum cleaner.
In the realm of deadbeat dads, Royal Tenenbaum takes the cake. In fact, he would probably take the cake right off the table at your birthday party. Royal, played to scumbag perfection by Gene Hackman, steals money from one son, he openly favors another son, and finally drives his marriage into the ground and largely abandons his family for years. When he hears that his estranged wife is considering marrying another man, he actually fakes stomach cancer in order to get back in their good graces. I’m not sure that there’s a lower low than actually fabricating a terminal disease in order to try and erase a lifetime of bad parenting.
Isn’t it annoying when your father pushes you to follow in the family business? Just because he’s a doctor doesn’t mean that’s your prerogative, right? Well imagine if the family business happened to involve being a Sith lord on the payroll of the Galactic Empire. Never mind the fact that Vader has been totally absent for much of Luke’s life, forcing him to grow up on a moisture farm of all places, his insistence that Luke join him on the dark side of the force leaves the young Jedi lightning-singed and toting a robot arm. Well, at least Luke isn’t as whiny as his dad was at that age.
Sometimes, even worse than your father being a villain is living in the shadow of a hero. Such is the case for young Ben Meechum in 1979’s The Great Santini. His father, played by the incomparable Robert Duvall, is a marine pilot whose military success is near legendary. Unfortunately, the marines failed to train him in the finer points of being a loving and supportive father. Instead, he is an uber-competitive jerkweed whose deep-seeded neuroses lead him to demand much and praise never. There is one particular scene involving a basketball that will have you thanking your lucky stars if your dad was more of a baseball guy.
Stepdads have to deal with a pretty unfavorable rap. Being someone’s second father is an unenviable assignment, and often a great deal of undue resentment and hostility comes with the job. It’s safe to say, however, that you will look upon your own stepdad with rosier shades after observing Robert Mitchum in 1955’s The Night of the Hunter. Here we have a man who marries into a family with two children merely to ascertain the location of money their late father has hidden. He kills their mother and hunts them down river; corrupting what should be a happy childhood with irrepressible terror and sorrow. While The Night of the Hunter is an outstanding piece of film noir, Mitchum is easily the worst dad on this list, step or otherwise.