Thursday, 22 September 2011

Spencer Tracy was the greatest "Dad" actor of all time

For some odd reason, I’ve been compiling a mental list of which movie stars  I could imagine as my father. I don’t mean actors who bear any resemblance to my actual father (although there was something distinctively Burt Lancastery about him), but actors who you can imagine being typical fathers: grumpy, a bit intolerant, long-suffering - but basically dependable and decent and worried about the sort of person you’ll turn into. They wouldn’t be your pal or your fun older brother or your teacher - they’d just be proper dads. 

By the way, my choices aren’t necessarily based on the specific roles they played, or what they were like in real life, but rather on their screenpersonas, i.e. the distilled essence of the roles they played throughout their careers.

Top of my list would be Spencer Tracy, possibly the most accomplished screen actor of all time. Squat, short-necked and not particularly good looking, he exuded strength, moral clarity and a tough sort of humanity, without the least hint of goody-two-shoeness. You can imagine him giving you a really hard time, but you know he’d do his best to keep you on the rails and that he’d fight like hell to protect you from any threat. Sean Connery would be a good stand-in. As would Gary Cooper. 

As for non-English speakers, Jean Gabin,and the great Kurosawa actor, Takashi Shimura, would fit the bill – but Beat Takeshi, Toshiro Mifune and Gerard Depardieu wouldn’t.  

James Stewart might have been a bit of a softy, but, again, the decency, inner steel and basic goodness shine through. Robert Donat would have been okay, I think. Robert Newton makes it onto my list, but that’s mainly because of his role in This Happy Breed. William Powell would have been fine, especially as his screen characters tended to drink like fish but somehow never turned nasty: he was definitely a grown-up.

Turning to Britain’s theatrical knights, Ralph Richardson stands out. There’s something rather self-regarding about Olivier and Gielgud and Guinness for them to make the grade – it’s all about them.

Tom Hanks is great dad material. Harrison Ford too. And, of course, Sidney Poitier. But amongst actors still working, I reckon Morgan Freeman wins hands down, with Clint Eastwood a close second, and Tommy Lee Jones just behind him. Denziel Washington also makes it onto the list. (Kevin Costner just misses, mainly because of his weak voice, and for playing someone apparently called Rahbin of Lahxlee.)

I almost included Clark Gable on the list, but he’s someone you could imagine as a friend rather than your Dad (oddly, there are far fewer “friend” actors” than “dad” ones). Cary Grant is another “pal” type. There’s just something too light and high-spirited about both of them: parenthood tends to take the edge off those attributes. 

Others are just too scary to be convincing fathers: James Cagney, Anthony Quinn, Robert Shaw, Kirk Douglas, Rod Steiger, Jack Nicholson, Robert Shaw. Somehow, they just have too much jittery psychic energy. Robert Mitchum was just scary, period.

Then there are the “Boss” or “King” actors (king terrible in some instances). John Wayne’s the head of your platoon or squadron or wagon train. Orson Welles would be the exciting but utterly self-obsessed head of some creative company. Burt Lancaster’s another boss – I’ve always been unconviced by his peformance as an (albeit manipulative) underling inFrom Here to Eternity.

Method actors all fail the dad test – too solipsistic, too fixated on their own inner turmoil to see their children as anything but an extension of their own personalities. Montgomery Clift? Robert Deniro? Al Pacino?  Dustin Hoffman? Marlon Brando? No thanks!

Some actors are just too dull. Imagine Henry Fonda lecturing you all the time and insisting you see things from the other fellow’s perspective. Ditto Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston.

Some are just too thick: imagine having to make excuses for your dad being as dumb as Sylvester Stallone, Richard Gere or Keanu Reeves.

As for the new(ish) breed – well, maybe time will prove me wrong, but I doubt if anyone will ever be able to conceive of Brad Pitt, Leonardo Di Caprio, Sean Penn (!), Ewan McGregor, Johnny Depp, Daniel Craig or Daniel Day-Lewis sternly admonishing them for a bad school report or being quietly proud of an A+ in History of Art.

I wonder if the disappearance of the father-figure movie star has anything to do with the fact that most films now seemed to be aimed at an age-group most of whose members still have real-life dads to contend with: many male stars now seem to be little more than aging teenagers in terms of their appearance and behaviour. 

1 comment:

  1. Henry Fonda is definitely out. In "Once Upon a Time in the West" he shoots a little boy in cold blood. Chilling scene. Also, his first wife committed suicide and he didn't speak to his his two eldest children for 25-years [if I was the father of Jane and Peter Fonda I wouldn't speak to them either]. Brando's daughter was also a suicide and his son did a ten-spot in prison for the manslaughter of his sister's boyfriend. Not a good role model. Robert Newton's portrayal of Bill Sykes and LJS rules him out. Having watched Mitchum in "Cape Fear" and "Night of the Hunter" I don't think I would like to have a heart-to-heart with him. Robert Shaw is another suicide.

    C Aubrey Smith, Ronald Coleman, Donald Crisp, Leo Genn, Sidney Greenstreet [in his cuddlier manifestations], Adolphe Menjou, Jack Hawkins, Andre Morell, Glenn Ford, J.Carrol Nash - and a great trio of Swedish actors: Gunnar Bjornstrand, Erland Josephson and Krister Henriksson.

    The ones that I would avoid above all are the guy who played the pastor scum-bag in "Fanny and Alexander", Robert Hardy in anything, Ray Winstone in "Nil by Mouth " and anybody playing Oliver Twist's step-father [Mr Murdstone], a frightening creation.

    I think probably the demise of the father-figure in modern cinema is caused by the fact that 80% of the core demographic [12-24] don't actually know who their father is? In the United Kingdom at least? Just joking.
    Saturday, September 24, 2011 - 06:27 PM