Sunday, May 9, 2021

I Never Sang for My Father

Today happens to be Mother's Day, but I recently happened to watch a movie that might be more appropiate for Father's Day: I Never Sang for My Father.

Gene Hackman plays Gene Garrison, a college professor in New York who's picking up his elderly parents at Kennedy Airport after they spent what was presumably the entire winter down in Florida. Gene gets a wheelchair for his mother Margaret (Dorothy Stickney), although she's able to walk: some time back she had a heart attack, and dad Tom (Melvyn Douglas) has been doing more of the housework as a result.

Gene has a rather complicated personal life, as his own wife died some time back. He met a gynecologist from California, Peggy (Elizabeth Hubbard) in the mean time, and is thinking of marrying her. But Dad is insistent that if Gene were to move out to California to get married, that this would kill Mom. Mom seems a bit less certain of this, wanting her son to find happiness in life, and pointing out that Dad spends a lot of time sleeping in front of the television with old westerns on the screen.

Things are about to get a whole lot more complicated for Gene when Mom suffers another heart attack, which leaves her in the hospital for a day or two before she finally dies. This brings Gene's sister Alice (Estelle Parsons) back into the picture and puts in sharper relief the problems that Gene has had with his parents, especially his father. Alice fell in love with a Jewish man, and the decidedly Christian Tom couldn't handle this, pretty much throwing Alice out of the house with no mind to how much this might have hurt Mom.

Alice wants Gene to get a housekeeper for Dad, who could certainly afford it, given how he goes on about having worked his way to the top and making $50,000 a year when he retired in the mid-1950s (which would have been a good three times what Jim Blandings was making in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House if I ran the numbers correctly). Dad also needs somebody around, as he's clearly beginning to show the signs of early-to-moderate dementia. At some point, he's not going to be able to live independently, and that point is sooner rather than later.

Alice also wants Gene to live his own life, warning him that if he doesn't head off to California now, he's never going to get to live his own life since Peggy isn't going to wait for him. She, of course, also has the experience of having been thrown out by Dad and not particularly caring what happens to Dad as a result. Gene, for his part, feels extremely conflicted, and understandably so. This is amplified by his visit to a "good" private nursing home along with a state-run home which is much more frightening.

I Never Sang for My Father is an always-relevant movie, as everybody is getting older and pretty much every family is going to be faced with the difficult decisions of what to do at the end of life and how to handle the conflicting needs of having to live one's own life (especially if one has children) and how not to abandon one's parents. In the case of the Garrisons, things are made much more complicated by the very demanding nature of Dad's personality, something that was apparently never seen by anybody outside the family. I Never Sang for My Father made me think of Make Way for Tomorrow, but rather more real since Hollywood wasn't really handling most topics with complete candor back in 1937 -- not that they were dishonest; just that Make Way for Tomorrow sugar-coats things in a way I Never Sang for My Father doesn't.

The performances in I Never Sang for My Father are excellent and ring quite true, I think. My own mother most likely had an undiagnosed mental illness that could make her as difficult to be around as Tom Garrison is here, and her own dementia only exacerbated that. Alice may seem like an extremely cruel character herself in the way she simply doesn't care about Dad, but looking at it from her perspective, it's awfully difficult to blame her.

I Never Sang for My Father may be difficult to watch at times, but it's an absolutely worthy movie.

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