Eighties’ Movie Dads: From the Abusive to the Clueless

Throughout cinematic history, fathers have been called upon to make great sacrifices for their children. Some of these include helping Santa, turning into a snowman or a ghost, or looking the other way while their child develops super powers and goes off to save the world. Looking back at eighties’ era movie fathers, we can see a huge range in parenting techniques, from the abusive to the negligent to somewhere in between.

In the eighties, John Hughes specialized in creating fathers who were either unredeemable or goofy. Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) of the National Lampoon “Vacation” franchise is one of the latter. Chevy may irritate his son and daughter, but he clearly cares about them – although giving beer to a preteen Anthony Michael Hall may not be the wisest decision. Still, although eager to stay on schedule in Europe, he agrees to an impromptu shopping trip that his teenagers and wife prefer. As he puts it in “Vegas Vacation,” a family trip only works when you do it with your family. (True, Chevy doesn’t seem to notice that his children change drastically in appearance and age from movie to movie, but hey, no one’s perfect.)

In that era, Hughes also created some very bad parents who, despite staying offstage in “The Breakfast Club,” come in for a good helping of condemnation by their children (and by extension, the audience). All five of the “Club” members have parental issues and as the day unfolds, we learn of their offsprings’ anger and confusion toward them. The “athlete” (Emilio Estevez) has ended up in detention by bullying another boy, in order to impress his dad. (His dad informs him that his real sin is “getting caught.”) Emilio wonders aloud how his victim will feel when he has to confront his own father. Judd Nelson’s dad is classically abusive, but the other four characters are also mistreated in some way by their parents.

However, Hughes did give us several fathers who, while not exactly perfect, do wind up showing how much they care for their children. Molly Ringwald may have to parent her father (Harry Dean Stanton in”Pretty In Pink”), but he does support her gift for fashion design, as well as bring home dresses so she can make a prom outfit. Molly’s dad (Paul Dooley) in “Sixteen Candles,” may forget her sixteenth birthday, but he later apologizes and has a heart-to-heart talk with her about life. (According to one biography, Hughes’ own dad was fairly supportive during his son’s teen years.)

Another example of a well-meaning but clueless dad is Steve Martin in “Parenthood.” Throughout the movie, Steve is tormented that he isn’t doing enough to help his high-strung son fit in. He even entertains two fantasies – one in which the son is successful in life, the other where he goes on a rampage with a gun. Steve also tries overly hard to make his young son’s birthday party a success – he dresses up as “Cowboy Dan,” when Dan is otherwise engaged and cavorts around the backyard. At first the party guests aren’t impressed, but eventually everyone has a swell time. By the end of the movie, Steve has accepted that parenthood is an ever-changing game whose rules no one is completely sure of, but as long as you have your children’s best interests at heart, you should muddle through fine in the end.

Another “doofus dad,” is George McFly (Crispin Glover) of “Back to the Future.’ From the start of the movie, it’s clear his son (Michael J. Fox) loves but doesn’t respect him, but how can he, when Dad is constantly bullied by his boss (Thomas F. Wilson)? However, Michael is given the chance to go back to the fifties, where, after inadvertently causing his teen mom to fall for him, his job is to make sure his parents attend a fateful dance together (and fall in love). Crispin needs to learn to stand up for himself, and after his son teaches him this, life in the “future” improves considerably.

That era, while being known for “Father Knows Best,” types of dad, has two in “Stand By Me,” that are terrible by any standard. Gordie’s (Wil Wheaton) father (Marshall Bell) is still mourning his perfect older son, dismisses his other son’s gift for writing and criticizes his friends. Gordie’s best friend, Chris, (River Phoenix) comes from a family with a bad reputation and winds up nicking his father’s pistol, which he takes on their trip to “see a dead body.” To be fair, it comes in handy.

Further father drama comes midway on the boys’ pilgrimage, when their friend, Teddy, (Corey Feldman) has to be physically restrained from attacking a character who mocks his dad, (who the son considers a war hero), as a “loony.” Comments the older narrator dryly: “It was weird to me how, then, Teddy could care so much about his father, who practically tried to kill him. And I couldn’t give a shit about my old man, and he hadn’t laid a hand on me since I was three! And that was for eating the bleach under the sink.” However, the friends prove up to the task of comforting each other when necessary and providing moral support the adults can’t or won’t give them.

Two dark movies about teens that came out at the tail end of the decade, “Heathers” and “Pump Up the Volume,” feature fathers who, like their wives, are depicted as being well meaning but clueless. In “Heathers,” Winona Ryder’s parents seem to care about her welfare enough to offer her pate and a chance to talk when her classmates start dying in bizarre accidents, but Winona doesn’t find them helpful. Similarly, Christian’s dad (Scott Paulin) in “Pump Up the Volume,” cares that his son is having a tough time transitioning to his new school, but he’s also got a lot on his mind what with this crazy pirate radio DJ who seems to be leading an underground rebellion of the students. Of course, if the parents had bothered to listen to the content of said station, they would know it was their son – but they remain clueless until Christian is carted away by the cops. Not to mention that when his father finds Christian disheveled in the basement with Samantha Mathis, he draws the wrong conclusion – though it actually works to Christian’s benefit.

“Ordinary People,” stars Timothy Hutton as a teenager who is recovering from a suicide attempt after the death of his older brother (for whom he feels responsible). While Mary Tyler Moore has the more showy role as his uncomprehending mother who just wants things to go back to “normal,” Donald Sutherland plays the well-intentioned father whose attempts at support come across as awkward. Eventually, Donald begins seeing his son’s father figure therapist (Judd Hirsch) who helps him see just how much his relationship with his wife has deteriorated. When he tells Judd that he’s not a very good father, Judd responds that Timothy frequently mentions what a poor son he is, and shows him that they do have a bond.

“Dead Poets Society,” features two flawed dads, one of whom could be a candidate for Top Bad Cinema Dads of All Time. First, we have Ethan Hawke’s parents, who send their son the same gift (a desk set) year after year for his birthday, and (it’s implied) favor his perfect older brother. But they pale in comparison to Robert Sean Leonard’s father (Kurtwood Smith) who micro-manages his son’s school schedule, and upon discovering that Robert has the lead role in a community Shakespeare production, forces him to drop out – or tries to. A later punishment for his son appearing in the play anyway causes a tragedy, for which an innocent teacher (Robin Williams) becomes the scapegoat.

“Say Anything,” portrays a single father-daughter bond (Ione Skye and John Mahoney) as warm and supportive, seemingly the ideal in contrast to Ione’s boyfriend, Lloyd, (John Cusack) who is staying with his adult sister and her young son. While there’s friction between John and his sister, Ione remains self-confident in the knowledge that she can tell her father “anything,” even the details of her losing her virginity (today, we would call that an “overshare”). Appealing as he is, John doesn’t have a clue what his career path is going to be; in contrast, Ione knows exactly what she wants from life and believes her father has only her best interests at heart. Her discovery that he has been embezzling from the nursing home he manages – and it’s that money that has been financing her comfortable lifestyle, is the catalyst for her to take charge of her life – even if that means being with a boy whose tentative ambition is to be a kickboxer.

One might argue that Matthew Broderick’s father (Lyman Ward) in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” is well-meaning but ultimately has a detrimental effect on his son. While he clearly loves Matthew, his parenting negligence has created a hotbed of sibling rivalry to the point where his daughter (Jennifer Grey) gets arrested trying to get attention, and his son almost (but not quite) risks severe punishment from his principal. (Not to mention the father manages to avoid seeing Matthew playing hooky, when they’re in adjacent cabs.) Giving too much freedom to your child can end up being a kind of abuse – even if he’s resourceful enough to come out on top.

Of course, Mr. Bueller looks like Dad of the Year next the absentee Cameron’s (Alan Ruck) father, who could also qualify for a Top Bad Movie Dads list (even though we never meet him). Even with insurance, it’s likely that Mr. Frye is going to lose it when he sees the remains of his beloved Ferrari which winds up being demolished to the point of no return. It’s likely too, that Cameron will need ongoing therapy to become a successful adult, and the dad may need it, as well, to recover from losing his car.

In the movies, the father’s character can run the gamut from sociopathic to adoring, and Dad can wind up doing crazy things when he’s trying to act in his child’s best interests. Sometimes in the movies, Dad even shrinks or blows up his kids, but at least some of the time, he’s portrayed – like many real life dads – as doing the best he can.


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