Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Friday, December 07, 2007

Great Dads of the 70's

They cursed, they drank, they smoked, they made out with their friend's wives, and they did it all in front of their children, and the children loved every minute of it. Who were they, whose behavior nowadays would likely warrant hushed calls to child services? 

They were the 1970's dads.

I'm sure there are plenty of good 70's-style dads out there who are keeping the faith here in the 00's, but man oh man, I hardly ever see them on the Park Slope Brooklyn streets. When I do, most of them are cool, upscale African-American dads, the types who wear immaculate dreads and walk like lions. Those are rare, though. Mostly it's a lot of Greg Kinnear-style namby pambying, expensive papooses and strollers and beta male schlub pale sober high-voiced wuss-assery, and it's gotta stop.

We need to look to the 70's dads to see what they did that dads today no longer do; what secret ingredient has been lost and needs to be reclaimed?

Now, to qualify for the honor of "great dad of the 1970s" you don't need to actually be a dad, like, say, Bill Bixby in "The Courtship of Eddie's Father." But you need to rule some roost, a band, a filmmaking enclave, a sports team, or a motorcycle gang, or a ward of psychos or war vets. You need to embody the spirit of the lion. Here's the first:


WALTER MATTHAU in BAD NEWS BEARS (1976)

Cigars and cheap beer constantly in hand, Matthau is the sad sack loser from the minor leagues now reduced to coaching the worst of the worst, Little League juvenile delinquents and the otherwise uncoordinated dregs of the local draft picks.

If you were bad at sports as I was, this was your revenge movie. I hated all team sports, being always picked last for teams-- but I loved the movie. I remember seeing it down at the theater in Plymouth Meeting Mall with my parents and brother and we all walking out exhilarated. Matthau cursed, smoked, guzzled, passed out in the dugout and--when the chips were down--cheated by bringing in ringer Jackie Earle Haley and an estranged tomboy daughter (Tatum O'Neal).

And then, when the team was about to win the final victory, Matthau suddenly has an alcoholic moment of clarity: looking at his benchwarmers picking their noses as the game goes on, plus the irrational uptight rage of rival coach Vic Morrow who slaps his own pitcher son in a fit of rage; he decides to send 'em in. It's a beautiful moment and in classic 1970's style it doesn't come heralded by trumpets and hugs and close-ups of moist eyes. It just happens. Most of all we see a lot of great kid reaction shots to the adult's rage and 'anything to win' fever. And in the end, it's the attitude of letting them all play that counts, not the sickening corporate notion of "family" or the American one of "winning." Bottom line: The Bad News Bears and Matthau just don't know how to win, they only know how to lose with style. They'd rather have their shaggy aggression and angst then go be some golden poster boy chumps with corporate sponsorship and parental pressures. Fittingly, the sponsor name on their uniforms is "Chico's Bail Bonds" while Morrow's team is emblazoned with the golden Denny's logo. When the big game is inevitably lost, Matthau doesn't care - he brings out beers for all the kids and they celebrate telling off the rival team and pouring beer on each other's heads in addition to the cool kids like Tanner instantly popping theirs open and chugging it down. 

As kids we came out of the theater with a song in our heart, new curse words in our lexicons, and the immortal last words of the Bears still ringing in our heads (so we could repeat it back to our gathered schoolyard friends): "You can take that trophy and shove it up your ass!" The generations to come would not have this sort of linguistic freedom, their father figures would be soft and cuddly or be nothing more than "old teenagers" ala Adam Sandler and Will Ferell, or else abusive monsters. But we, damn it, we had Matthau in BEARS... a total fuck up most of the time, but able--in his befuddled grousing--to recognize his flaws and change at the last minute. He may be a grizzled loner loser, but goddamn it, as Dietrich said of Welles in TOUCH OF EVIL, he's "some kind of a man."

For other seventies dads of note:

Kim Morgan writes on Paul Newman in SLAPSHOT - here.

And I praise Burt Reynolds in BOOGIE NIGHTS over on Bright Lights After Dark, here.

More to come!

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