The day is now dust, but happy belated Father’s Day to all of my wonderful father friends. And while some celebrated a delightful dad, others may be missing, mourning, or wondering what a father figure could be. Absence is difficult no matter the reason, but sometimes a piece of the void can be filled with a near and dear character.
As I appreciate Johnny, the father of my two little monsters, I stifle the anger of my own father’s choice of absence. I do know what a good father can be. I see it in my husband. I tearfully recognize it through my childhood memories of Muppet movies, Halloween costume-making, and even horror movie introductions. But I also see it through well-told, complicated characters in film. Characters that have been with me for decades. Ones I’ve seen through the eyes of an adoring child, an angsty teenager, and eventually a parent. And while their stories never change, my perception adjusts with each viewing.
As I write these difficult words, I think of two such cinematic dads that mean the world to me. And, bear with me, friends, because they are anything but genre-related. They are 1980s dads dealing with wildly different children and wildly different worries.
Let’s get to it and love on some dads.
Jack (Harry Dean Stanton) – Pretty in Pink (1986)
After Harry Dean Stanton’s passing, I was struck with such a terrible feeling of loss. I would never describe myself as a HDS aficionado, but when you watch a select amount of an actor’s films dozens (or hundreds) of times, the connection is irrefutable. For Stanton, he was an angel (One Magic Christmas), a Brain (Escape from New York), and a dad to me.
At the start of Pretty in Pink, Stanton’s Jack is a sweet drunk of a dad. He’s lost and damaged in a world without a partner to help navigate his teenage daughter, Andie (Molly Ringwald), through first loves, thorny friendship, and societal shittiness. Andie is very capable and aware of her problems, but she’s guarded. As her father, Jack is supportive of anything she feels or wants, but he is emotionally limited and broken. He loves his daughter and says the right words, but we often see Andie mothering her own father. And he lets her.
But there is always a breaking point. The moment Jack buys his daughter a prom dress, with unknown money, is the moment he lets go of the act and admits his faults. He is sad and depressed, and he finally lets his daughter in. This relationship is more about an honest understanding between Jack and Andie, and to get anywhere, the false normalcy and skirted truths needed to be dropped.
Jack breaks my heart. But he adores Andie, and I like to think that their relationship sets on a new path after this moment, after their final scenes. She uses the infamous dress to create one of her own and goes to prom. She is strong and unwavering. And Jack lets Andie be a friend.
As a kid, we always want our parents to be there when we need them the most. But as parent, we need to let our kids know when we need them, too.
Gil (Steve Martin) – Parenthood (1989)
Now, let’s dig a little deeper.
Watching as an 8-year-old, Gil was a fun-as-hell father. Steve Martin was goofy and endearing, and his take on a child’s birthday party balloon entertainer was a wee one’s dream. But watching as an adult and mom, Gil is going through so much more than parental freewheeling. Gil is also tasked with piloting fatherhood of an emotional child in his oldest son, Kevin (Jasen Fisher, The Witches).
I see Gil attempting to make the best career choices for his family and himself – be it quitting a job before later accepting it back or digging through dumpsters for a lost retainer. Gil manages extended family contention, including a quietly volatile relationship with his own father, Frank (portrayed by the late, great Jason Robards).
When his son misses a mark or has a win, the disappointment or joy get tossed back to Gil as he either submits to his own breakdown of self-doubt or celebrates a small victory. Gil internalizes every one of Kevin’s problems and makes them his own worry.
Gil tries so hard to balance between his son’s good and bad moments, endlessly hoping the good outnumber the bad. Of course, this isn’t a terrible thing – we all want the pros to outdo the cons. But, at the end of the day, he is consumed by Kevin’s perception of him. He doesn’t want his son to look back with the same ill remembrance that Gil has for Frank. He doesn’t want his son to lead a fucked up life like his own younger brother. He doesn’t want Kevin to go down a path of father-fueled anger like his nephew.
Gil becomes overly worrisome about any dooming future mistakes that he forgets to just be a parent in the now – because that’s when your kids need you the most.
And leave it to Frank to offer some grown-up fatherly wisdom: even though parenting never gets easier, Gil is in fact a good father. Frank also relents and admits to knowing he wasn’t a great dad to his kids. Gil doesn’t need to worry about becoming his father because he never even had it in him.
The first step was knocking that chip off of his shoulder. The second step was learning to let go of control. In one of Parenthood’s final scenes, Gil’s Grandma, played by the adorable Helen Shaw, knowingly (or unknowingly) likens life to a roller coaster. She says it goes up and down and you just need to enjoy the thrill of the ride. (And it’s more fun than a safe carousel.)
Parenthood faithfully reflects real life in that both can often be hilarious and tragic at the same time. It’s reinforced by a stellar ensemble cast, including Dianne Wiest, Mary Steenburgen, Rick Moranis, Martha Plimpton, Tom Hulce, Joaquin “Leaf” Phoenix, and Keanu Reeves (in my absolute favorite role of his).
But Steve Martin’s Gil was and is someone I can admire as a father and examine as a parent. Nobody’s asking for perfection. He’s just (overly) trying to be the best for his kids – through his own mistakes and learnings – and he gets where he needs to be. As both a daughter and mother, this is a father I need in my life.
Let’s wrap this thing up
Full disclosure: I’ve been mulling over this fatherly topic for a while now. It’s a personal, sensitive thing that’s been eating away at my self-worth, so the holiday timing hits weird for me.
And that’s okay. I continue to work through my past in what should be fond memories, seeking to find those long-lost smiles. I admire the bonds I see in friends and family. And I treasure what I have built with Johnny and our own little brood.
But I also have Jack and Gil and a million other characters to break my heart, make me laugh, and find my peace.
Now, please, go hug a parent or watch a movie.