Today is Father’s Day, America’s annual celebration of the importance that dads have in our lives. They can be protectors, providers, role models, all-around great guys. Or, they can be shitheads. For this installment of the Weekend Binge then, we’re focusing on the dads in that latter category by spotlighting some of the truly horrific fathers in movies and TV shows.
My choice is Jack Torrance, the despicable husband and father of The Shining. As played by Jack Nicholson, Torrance is one of the classic bad dads: He’s an alcoholic, he’s got a temper, he’s abusive, and perhaps worst of all, he has delusions of being an acclaimed novelist. This man is a vain prick, but somehow he thinks he’s a hell of a guy who’s being held back by his nag of a wife (Shelley Duvall) and wimp of a son (Danny Lloyd). In truth, he’s so beaten them down with his awfulness that they’re practically catatonic, walking on eggshells around him lest they prompt another explosion on his part.
Always blaming his problems on others, Torrance is the perfect candidate to become the new caretaker of the Overlook, an isolated hotel that has the unfortunate habit of turning its proprietors crazy. Torrance is already halfway there on his own, so his transformation into full-blown psycho killer is distressingly easy.
Stephen King, who wrote the original novel, always hated Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation, in part because he felt that Kubrick didn’t have enough sympathy for Torrance’s demons. Clearly, King saw himself in the character, and was therefore more compassionate to his inner struggles — he saw the good in this man struggling to get free. But Kubrick rightly saw Torrance as a monster, and indeed, The Shining can be read as a nightmare of what happens when the traditional head of the household is a terrible human being. He’s no protector, provider or role model — Torrance is so frightening precisely because he represents a cruel betrayal of the faith we put in fathers to keep us safe from the evil out there in the world. Long before the ghosts of the Overlook descend upon the Torrance clan, good ol’ Jack is already a ghoul wreaking havoc on his wife and child. Their whole lives have been a horror movie.
Below, other members of the MEL staff offer their picks for the worst pop-culture dads, everyone from Steve Coogan to man who gave Superman his powers.
Walter Shandy from Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
I’ve never been able to get through Laurence Sterne’s digressive novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Thankfully, filmmaker Michael Winterbottom’s giddily meta take on the 18th-century classic — which sees Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, as “themselves,” acting out the adaptation-within-the-adaptation — is one of the most rewatchable comedies ever made.
Because the story technically ends before its eponymous narrator is born, Coogan does double duty as Tristram and his luckless father, Walter, who has many highfalutin ideas for how to raise his son, none of which will go to plan. He has a drunken doctor deliver the boy instead of the “superstitious” midwife; the doctor breaks the infant’s nose. He develops an encyclopedia for the purposes of homeschooling; it’s full of nonsense and pure conjecture. Tristram’s very name is one of Walter’s mistakes, a badly relayed version of “Trismegistus,” the ancient, Hermetic philosopher he wanted to reference. Perhaps worst of all, Walter comes to brood on his child as “cursed from the moment of his conception,” which occurred in a bout of sex made unpleasant by Walter’s failure to wind the house’s clocks before humping his wife.
Coogan, himself newly a father in the world of the film, injects some of his own paternal anxiety into the role, fighting to make Walter a sympathetic character — to no avail. Sterne wrote him as a wealthy, pretentious buffoon, and that’s who he is, through and through. If there’s anything relatable about him, it’s just how unprepared he is to be a father. — Miles Klee, Staff Writer
Henry Jones Sr. from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
There are a lot of things to love about Sean Connery’s portrayal of Henry Jones Sr. in the third and final (I said final and I meant final!) Indiana Jones movie. Connery’s gameness to play the bumbling old fart, despite in real life being only 12 years older than Harrison Ford; his impeccable comic timing (seriously, why has this guy not done more comedies?); and his willingness to say sibilant-heavy lines like, “In thish short of racshe, there’sh no shilver medal for shecond placshe.”
But Henry Jones Sr. himself? Kind of a shitbag! The film makes it clear just how little he had to do with Indy’s upbringing, but the key scene is the pair’s quiet moment aboard the German zeppelin, one of many exchanges likely added by Oscar- and Tony-winning British writer Tom Stoppard — under the pseudonym Barry Watson — when he was brought in to punch up (or in this case, practically rewrite) Jeffrey Boam’s script weeks before production began.
As Indy gently chides his father for the emotional distance he kept between them, Jones Sr. quickly and adeptly gaslights his son: “Actually, I was a wonderful father,” he brags. “Did I ever tell you to eat up? Go to bed? Wash your ears? Do your homework? No! I respected your privacy, and I taught you self-reliance.”
“What you taught me,” Jones Jr. responds, angrily, “was that I was less important to you than people who’d been dead for 500 years in another country.” But while that line clearly stings Henry, he quickly shrugs it off and turns the conversation back to their quest for the Holy Grail, Jones Sr.’s lifelong obsession and the entire reason he paid so little attention to his son in the first place. Once again (and during a pivotal moment of bonding, no less), the son is sidelined in favor of the hobby.
Now, I realize that the character is somewhat redeemed at the end of the film, with Henry choosing to save his son rather than the Grail, but come on — choosing to save your child’s life should surely be considered bare-minimum parenting. It’s not exactly Father of the Year material.
In terms of the character’s other questionable actions, many people would probably point out the creepiness of Henry and Indy’s both sleeping with the same Nazi, but in fairness, a) neither knew she was a Nazi at the time; and b) Jones Sr. slept with her first, so you can’t really pin the blame on him for that unfortunate shared experience. I do, however, take issue with his inability to remember the three clues that take them safely through the booby traps, necessitating a risky jaunt to Berlin to retrieve his diary/cheat sheet. Dude, I could recite them all by heart just from watching it a couple (dozen… okay, hundred) times, this is your life’s work! Sorry, Henry, but even if you do turn out to be a penitent man, I’m not giving you a pass for that. — Nick Leftley, Senior Editor
Dan Scott from One Tree Hill
One Tree Hill, the CW soap opera that ran from 2003 to 2012, was all about two half-brothers — Lucas Scott (played by the delectable Chad Michael Murray) and Nathan Scott (played by James Lafferty, who is also hot, but not in that same candy-coated-2000s way) — and their relationship with their father Dan (Paul Johansson).
Nathan grows up feeling like Dan’s only son and inherits his father’s pompous, entitled demeanor. As for Lucas, Dan abandons him for most of his life, despite them both living in Tree Hill, the tiny town where Dan is lauded as a high-school-basketball-star-turned- high-school-basketball-coach, leaving his younger brother Keith (who is shorter, poorer and kinder than Dan) to care for Lucas like a father.
But here comes the real heel turn: One day, a bullied student brings a gun to the high school and takes some of his classmates hostage. In a private moment, Keith manages to talk him down from harming the hostages, but the student reacts by taking his own life right there in front of him. Dan witnesses this from the doorway and sees it as an opportunity — charging in and shooting Keith dead.
And yet, Dan pinning Keith’s murder on this struggling, suicidal teen and denying Keith the chance to finally marry Lucas’ mom is just the tip of his evil iceberg. Case in point: At one point in the show, Dan almost burns to death in a fire. When he regains consciousness afterward, he assumes Lucas is the culprit and begins choking him out in front of his friends and teammates, even though Lucas is the person who saved him.
I could go on and on like this, but in the spirit of the holiday, I’ll stop here. — Tierney Finster, Contributing Writer
Jim Court from Say Anything
For at least the first half of the movie, Jim (John Mahoney) is a wonderful father by any metric: He’s an overprotective divorced dad, but also over the moon about his daughter Diane, a beautiful Type-A nerd who checks off every word she’s ever looked up in the dictionary as a casual hobby (hint: it’s almost all of them). His aversion to her gentleman caller Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack), an overanxious sweetheart of a loser with no ambition, initially makes sense. Jim is just making the mistake of protective fathers everywhere, eyeing Lloyd’s pedigree and earning potential over far more important qualities in a man, such as character. He just can’t see how devoted and decent Lloyd is compared to the typical high school jackasses who’d just as soon take Diane’s virginity for sport.
Soon enough we understand why: Jim Court may adore his daughter, but his way of showing it lacks the very character he happily overlooks in Lloyd. It’s not just that he needs to control the blueprint of her future, mapping out not only the sort of man she’ll end up with but where she’ll go to college and for what. It’s that he’s also deeply unethical in the measures he’s willing to take to get her there. We may all ultimately come to see our parents as fallible beings who don’t hold the keys to all the knowledge of the universe, but very few of us have to figure out how to accept them as well-meaning alleged criminals.
That said, unlike more simplistic caricatures of bad dads, Jim isn’t all bad, and he remains sympathetic even at his lowest points. That couldn’t have happened without the stellar performance from Mahoney, who gives Jim an almost admirable, blustery confidence in his single-minded devotion to ensuring Diane’s future is bright, while conveniently justifying his worst choices and impulses in the service of cutting her ahead in the great big line of life.
It’s this complexity in the character that makes it such a great exploration of the pitfalls of fatherhood — the way it demands a hypervigilant defensiveness of the daughter’s purity and safety, but also one no man can guard against effectively unless he’s been that threat himself. Jim just so happens to have been a high school boy himself once, and he’s still just as capable of the very unsavoriness from which he aims to shield her. No spoilers, but his utter inability to see her as her own person is precisely what prevents him from truly treating her like one, in spite of that being his most noble goal as a father. And for that, he’ll pay a price far worse than any prison could inflict. — Tracy Moore, Staff Writer
Jor-El in Superman: The Motion Picture and Superman II
Abandoning your son is one thing. I’ll even accept putting said child in a space pod and launching him into outer reaches of the galaxy with no explanation for why he’s been abandoned. But reappearing as a floating head in the middle of an ice mausoleum just to tell your child that he’s “made a terrible mistake,” makes the abusive, alcoholic father seem pretty alright in comparison. I am, of course, referring to Jor-El, father of Kal-El, better known as Superman’s daddy.
Sure, we’re all led to believe that Jor-El is a hero for sacrificing himself to save his son. But for what? So that his son could spend the rest of his life being the most powerful being to have ever existed on Earth while simultaneously never feeling good enough? Not to mention the fact that when Jor-El does reappear, it’s to 1) remind his son that he sacrificed himself so Superman could live (douchey); and 2) demonstrate to everyone that he’s now exhausting his last bit of energy so that Superman can maybe save the world again (also douchey).
Enough is enough, Jor-El. You’re dead. JUST. DIE. ALREADY. — Andrew Fiouzi, Staff Writer