Classic Film Guide

I Never Sang for My Father (1970) - full review!

Produced & directed by Gilbert Cates, and written by Robert Anderson (The Nun's Story (1959)), this above average drama features a Best Supporting Actor nominated performance by Gene Hackman (The French Connection (1971) & Unforgiven (1992)), and a Best Actor nominated performance by Melvyn Douglas (Hud (1963) & Being There (1979)). Given the fact that Hackman’s character is in virtually every scene, and indeed may have gotten more screen time than Douglas, the studio's submission and, subsequently, the Academy's recognitions are curious categorically. Anderson's screenplay also received a nomination. Though the film's plot may have had a larger impact at the time, it still packs a punch as the story of a man trying to connect with his aging, difficult father, who had no role model for such in his own life.

Gene Garrison (Hackman) is a teacher and a writer who's father Tom (Douglas, who made a habit of playing dysfunctional fathers towards the end of his long career) still treats him like a kid, instructing him in the most basic things including giving him directions from the airport to their house. Gene is also a widower, his wife having passed a year earlier, who's found a new life across the coast in California with a woman doctor his folks have yet to meet. His mother, Margaret (Dorothy Stickney), encourages Gene to marry her and move away from his bitter memories of their town, those of his departed wife and his cantankerous father. She tolerates her husband's increasingly selfish ways even though she herself is weakened by a heart condition. She also maintains the relationship with their daughter Alice (Estelle Parsons, Bonnie and Clyde (1967)), whom her husband had thrown out after telling her not to marry the man she had chosen. So the Garrisons only see their two grandchildren a couple of times a year because Alice and her family live in Chicago.

Even though Gene feels estranged from his father, he feels guilty leaving him. He was once a great man in the community, a successful businessman that was later Mayor and even headed the Board of Education. He's upset that his father is now forgotten in the town that he served for so many years, even though his own accomplishments are ignored and/or belittled by Tom when he's with him. After these humiliating experiences, he seeks refuge with Norma (Lovelady Powell), a woman who listens to his ranting after she welcomes him to her bed. Instead of feeling guilty for "cheating" on his fiancee, he's too focused on his anger towards his father, who was so detached from his own wife's final hours that he insisted on taking his son to a Rotary meeting while she lay in a hospital oxygen tent. Conrad Bain plays their Reverend. After his mother dies, Gene and their family doctor (Daniel Keyes) visit the depressing reality of a couple of old age facilities, one private (headed by James Karen) and one public (headed by Gene Williams). Plus, Alice returns and the aforementioned storyline is revealed, and played out again. His sister also tries to convince him to pursue his life with his new love Dr. Peggy Thayer (two time Daytime Emmy winner Elizabeth Hubbard), who comes to visit as well.

So, Gene must decide whether to stay and care for his father in the house of his youth, or leave to start his anew. The film's most powerful moment occurs in Tom's bedroom as father and son finally connect and then revisit the painful truths of their unresolved relationship.

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