Sunday, June 19, 2011

EDITORIAL: My top 10 movie father-figures and their lessons

You know, in the movies just as in life, biological fathers aren't always in the picture.  Some fathers have been taken by death while some have left through divorce or their own accord.  Some are still around, but do a terrible job at the role of father.  That loss leaves children without a male example in their lives.  Nevertheless, just as in life again, movie children will cling to a male role model as a father-figure when their actual father isn't around.  In many cases (just as in Brad Paisley songs), those father-figures end up being just as good, if not better, than the real thing.  Here's my official blog list of the top 10 movie father-figures.  Again, true to this blog's hook of life lessons, each example is listed with an important lesson they instilled in their respective film.  To my surprise, the list is rampantly full of ties and pairs.

1. TIE: Mr. Miyagi (Nuriyuki "Pat" Morita) and Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) in either version of The Karate Kid--  This is my choice for top movie father-figure and I can't separate the two.  While Morita may have been nominated for an Academy Award for the role, Jackie Chan might have been even better in the remake.  Who can forget their lessons through simple chores.  Lots of fathers or father-figures teach children to defend themselves, but few make them better people in the process.

THEIR LESSON: FATHERS AND FATHER-FIGURES ARE TEACHERS-- It doesn't matter what the curriculum is (karate, kung-fu, swimming, school, etc.), all children, not just boys, need to see male role models as teachers and good examples in whatever craft, especially when a father is not present.  Honorable mention in this category goes out to all those influential movie teachers like Morgan Freeman in Lean on Me and Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society.

2.  Alfred (Michael Gough and Michael Caine) in the Batman series--  When young Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered, he was turned over, not to foster care, but to the trusted family butler.  Both Gough and Caine offer unforgettable brevity and calm sanity to the tormented child he still cares for in adulthood.  Alfred keeps the dark and hopeless Batman grounded.

HIS LESSON: FATHERS AND FATHER-FIGURES CAN BE A VOICE OF REASON-- While some fathers and father-figures are intimidating presences of tough love, others, like Alfred, are the voice of reason that cool tempers and offer unconditional support. 

3.  TIE:  Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness and Ewan McGregor) and Yoda (Frank Oz) in the Star Wars series-- Who really makes Luke Skywalker into a hero?  It sure wasn't dear, old dad, Darth Vader.  Both Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda are the ones that guide him to the right side of the Force.  Imagine what it would be like if he stayed with papa.

THEIR LESSON: A CHILD IS NEVER ALONE OR AWAY FROM WISDOM AND GUIDANCE-- "The Force will be with you... always."  Putting it a different way, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.  What both Obi-Wan and Yoda instill in Luke (especially after the both depart him) is that the power to do the right thing comes from within, even though the lessons and wisdom they taught sticks with him.

4.  TIE:  Dumbledore (Richard Harris and Michael Gambon) and Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) in the Harry Potter series--  Both of Harry Potter's biological wizard parents were murdered by Voldemort as an infant, leaving Harry with his horrible and sheltering "muggle" Dursley family.  When he learns that he too is a wizard at the age of 11, the world opens up to him and he sets out on a parallel quest to not just defeat evil, but learn about his parents.  He gets that truth and love he missed growing up from both headmaster Albus Dumbledore and his godfather Sirius Black and many points throughout the seven-part series.

THEIR LESSON: THERE ARE WATCHFUL EYES THAT CARE ABOUT YOU BEHIND THE SCENES-- While neither Dumbledore or Sirius are Harry's father, they both have watched over him and protected him from afar (not unlike Obi-Wan Kenobi too).  Both have helped Harry learn the truth about his parents and his importance in the grand scheme of things.  Both have been willing to give their lives for his safety. 

5.  TIE:  Jonathan Kent (Glenn Ford) in Superman and Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) in Spider-Man-- These two are tied because of their similar fate and importance to their respective characters.  Glenn Ford (kind of outdone in recent years by John Schneider on TV's Smallville) and Cliff Robertson embody adoptive parents to boys who will grow up to become powerful men.  Their mutual early passings are the catalyst to both men stepping up to their destinies and their loving upbringings give them the values they instill and possess as heroes.

THEIR LESSON: WITH GREAT POWER COME GREAT RESPONSIBILITY--  Naturally, the movie says it best.  Both adoptive fathers believe in their heart of hearts that the young men they care for are destined for something great, yet both wisely and impressionably warn that with that greatness comes a responsibility to be an example and helpful member of society.

6.  Leon (Jean Reno) in The Professional-- For those who haven't seen the 1995 thriller where Jean Reno's hitman takes on a young Natalie Portman as an apprentice, you're missing a great father-figure role.  Take Mr. Miyagi and add deadly firepower.  Yet, just like in both Karate Kid films, the student can teach the teacher a few things too.

HIS LESSON: INSTILLING THE ABILITY OF SELF-DEFENSE-- This lesson could easily match up the the #1 spot on this list occupied by the Karate Kid movies, but it fits more sharply here.  We've all had that father or father-figure that pulls us aside to teach us how to beat a bully, throw a punch, or take a punch.  Nonviolent or not, self-defense or self-preservation is a big part of growing up that someone needs to help with.

7.  Lt. Stephen McCaffrey (Kurt Russell) in Backdraft-- If you think this is an odd name for this list, let me explain.  When Stephen and Brian's father was tragically killed in a fire when they were kids, it was big brother that took over taking care of little brother.  Though not a father, Stephen was important father-figure that little brother emulated, competed with, and looked up to in the absence of the real thing.

HIS LESSON: BIG BROTHERS ARE FATHERS IN TRAINING-- For some younger siblings whose father is not in the picture or away a lot, big brother emerges to fulfill the duty and responsibility to take care of them.  More than just playing watchdog and babysitter, in many cases, they have to grow up early and play the father-figure before they are a father themselves.  Much like real fathers, they want a life for them that is better than their own.

8.  TIE: Walt Kowalskit and Frankie Dunn (both Clint Eastwood) in Gran Torino and Million Dollar Baby-- I couldn't decide between these two great older roles for Clint Eastwood.  Both of his characters, Frankie and Walt, very reluctantly, yet thankfully, take unlikely people under his wing.  Clint treats them to a little old school values, shows them the ropes, and how to be tough for yourself.  Heck, we all know he's gotta be this guy in real life

HIS LESSON: YOU NEVER STOP BEING A FATHER OR FATHER-FIGURE-- Both of Clint Eastwood's masterful performances in Gran Torino and his Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby show that, even at old age, you never stop being an important father-figure.  The job doesn't end.  Even if his own children are out of the house, you can't unprogram a former father from the discipline and mentality that he puts in other people and younger generations.

9.  Coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) in Remember the Titans-- Denzel Washington makes both blog postings!  He's the man.  One his best and most endearing roles is the real-life coach that bonded a previously segregated football team and took them to the state championship.  As a former high school manager and waterboy, I can attest to the father-figure power of good coaches in young mens' lives.  They are invaluable examples and motivators.

HIS LESSON: COACHES ARE FATHER-FIGURES FOR YOUNG MEN AND WOMEN-- Athletic coaches motivate, push, educate, and guide their players to levels and heights that real parents can't take them.  Their supportive tutelage and competitive drive work on young men and women, whether they are the Vince Lombardi type where "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" or the small town little league coach who just wants you to "have fun out there."  Honorable mention in this category goes out to the endless list of good movie coaches, from Gene Hackman to Burgess Meredith.   

10.  Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) in Saving Private Ryan-- The final father on my list is another unlikely one, but well-suited to the label.  In Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks's Capt. Miller has to be elder leader among young men who can't handle war.  He has to show them how to not just be a soldier, but a just and decent one at that.  His background revelation scene says it all.

HIS LESSON: THE NEED FOR AND EXAMPLE OF MATURITY-- Two things a good father or father-figure needs to instill is decency and maturity.  For as much as they offer support, they also have to guide the young to in how to grow up and take care of themselves.  That instilling figure must also show them how to be a good adult, so that, someday, they too can be for their children what he was for them.

Once again, enjoy and Happy Father's Day!