It’s been a few years since I ran down my top 10 lists for the best and worst movie mothers. And until now, it never occurred to me to put together a list of their male counterparts. And having committed to rectifying the imbalance, I found myself struggling to come up with a shortlist of candidates as compelling as the collection that formed the distaff side, on either side.
What does that say? Are mothers simply more memorable characters in cinema? Is there a double standard that sees filmmakers defining female characters in terms of whether or not they have children? These questions are all open for debate, and I would like to note that there seems to be a dichotomy between movie and TV representation. When brainstorming qualified gents for both best and worst lists, I couldn’t help but notice that the small screen is littered with memorable fathers both noble and otherwise, stretching all the way from Make Room For Daddy to The Sopranos, from My Two Dads to Breaking Bad.
However, the Bechdel test would presume that more movies are male-centric than not, and so it is that a little digging turned up a number of choice paternal candidates. So here they are: 10 of the best examples of father knowing best, or thereabouts. Click here to see the companion list of the top 10 worst fathers. — Eric Henderson
10. Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof
I’ve seen a lot of lists of top movie dads opt for Georg Von Trapp, among top dads from Broadway musical adaptations. He’s solid (I should know, I once used to be Friedrich), but his turnaround from sourpuss to pussycat always seems way too swift and arbitrary, like a light switch. In contrast, to watch the evolution of Fiddler on the Roof‘s Tevye (played by Topol, to original cast member Zero Mostel’s chagrin) from a rigid, “Tradition”-spouting family man to a acquiescent bear in the face of major sea changes (both personal and political) is to gaze at a mountain crumbling in majestic slow-motion.
09. Bryan Mills, Taken
Some might characterize Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills as a little bit overprotective. But “some” might not be CIA agents who have to rescue their daughters from being kidnapped while abroad. I’m not saying every great father has to have it in himself to vow violent death on anyone who harms their children … but in these action movie terms, well, if the shoe fits.
08. Daddy Warbucks, Annie
Do all movie musical father figures have to have their steel hearts melted by the preciosity of apple-cheeked children who never fail to sing on pitch? Apparently, but few make as great a show of it as Albert Finney, playing the best billionaire an orphan just barely eking it out in the Great Depression could ever hope for in an adoptive father. Annie sings “I don’t need anything but you” at the end of director John Huston’s over-exertive adaptation, but you have to assume the money doesn’t hurt their new deal.
07. Ted Kramer, Kramer Vs. Kramer
With divorce statistics oh-so-conspicuous in the late ’70s, Kramer vs. Kramer was the right movie in the right place at the right time, but don’t hold that against it. Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep both earned Oscars for their titular roles, a married couple torn apart when the Mrs. decides she can’t handle being a wife and mother, leaving the Mr. to take care of their 6-year-old son. Beyond the courtroom melodrama, Kramer and, specifically, Hoffman’s prickly performance as a reluctant single parent are signposts for a period in which sex roles were in a state of flux, to the arguable betterment of many fathers.
06. Stan, Killer of Sheep
Director Charles Burnett’s 1977 slice-of-life portrait of one Los Angeles family’s existence on the skids in the city’s Watts neighborhood (rediscovered anew in 2007 on the movie’s 30th anniversary) is a raw document, the precise opposite of a spoon-fed narrative. Henry G. Sanders stars as Stan, who works at a slaughterhouse and fights temptations and get-rich-quick schemes while struggling to keep everyone’s head above water, a heroic effort in a mundane milieu. There is no filter of magic realism at work here, just uncompromising realism from one of the strongest African-American voices in cinema.
05. Shukichi Somiya, Late Spring
As Sting sang, if you love someone, you have to set them free. Such is the conundrum at the heart of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece Late Spring. Chishu Ryu plays the widower Shukichi Somiya, who lives with his only daughter Noriko (Setsuko Hara). She’s young, but not so young that she shouldn’t already be married. Though she deigns to remain with her father and serve as his caregiver, he insistently pushes her from the nest, even though it means a future of loneliness for himself. To be a father is to help your children learn to live independently.
04. Antonio Ricci, Bicycle Thieves
Speaking of sacrifice. This slot probably could’ve gone to Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness, but his cinematic portrayal of Chris Gardner stands somewhat in the shadow of Lamberto Maggiorani’s desperately impoverished father in Vittorio De Sica’s trend-setting neorealist Bicycle Thieves. Maggiorani’s Antonio gets a badly-needed job that requires him to secure a bicycle. His wife has him pawn their only valuable item to get the bicycle, which is then promptly stolen. With his heartbroken son in tow, Antonio desperately tries to retrieve his bike and keep both from losing all hope.
03. Gil Buckman, Parenthood
With apologies to his Three Amigos cohort Chevy Chase, Steve Martin has emerged as the king of modern movie dads. He could’ve just as easily been listed here for his Spencer Tracy-updating Father of the Bride, but there’s something more endearing about his obsessive need to be the perfect role model for his increasingly neurotic children in Ron Howard’s underrated crowd-pleaser Parenthood. Father’s aren’t perfect, and when Martin snaps “My whole life is ‘have to,'” the truth of his statement is painfully honest.
02. George Bailey, It’s a Wonderful Life
As Martin learned, perfection is overrated. Making meaningful human connections with your family members is what characterizes effective fatherhood. James Stewart’s George Bailey thinks he’s doing everything right, and can’t figure out why everything in his life seems to be going wrong. But that nagging feeling is just the last shred of solipsism waiting to be shed before coming to terms with the fact that to be a father is to truly live for someone else.
01. Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.” Small town lawyer Atticus Finch leads his children and his constituents toward knowledge, leading through example and yielding his core values to no one. Harper Lee’s novel gets a respectable transposition to the realm of film, plaintive and yearning. But it’s Gregory Peck’s flawlessly decent performance that resonates through time. Lee’s story examines an ugly event through the nostalgic lens of childhood memory. Peck’s unabashedly idealized performance is a perfect complement.