I was planning on writing about my father’s influence on me and my movie tastes for Father’s Day, and after watching The Whole Wide World- with its portrayal of Robert E. Howard as a man born in the wrong time, who went out of his way to shock and offend, who also ended his life prematurely with a gun- I had a lot to think about. My father shot himself in late September 1997. I learned about it on the 26th; it took a few days for someone to find him. So the tombstone just has an approximation.
My father’s real self was insulated within a constructed persona. He enjoyed offending people, being the life of the party, the company of women, and screwdrivers. After all, it’s hardly a drink; it’s practically breakfast. I spent a lot of time with him, but didn’t get to know him as well as I’d like. Though I don’t think anyone knew the real him; he was very protective of that, with his tough-guy demeanor of ’50s vintage American male raised on racing flathead V8 Fords; he could have walked out of American Graffiti or Last Exit to Brooklyn. I like Dice Clay because he reminds me of a parody of my old man.
I remember sitting next to my Dad during Star Wars, and looking over at him when Luke saw Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s barbecued skeletons. I was shocked, but seeing his lack of reaction made me realize it must be okay. The power of neglect. It’s one of my earliest movie memories; that and having to see a re-release of The AristoCats when everyone else went to see Animal House. My Uncle Paul wore out a VHS copy of the latter for us on his $800 top-loader VCR, so we made up for missing it on the big screen.
I used to go see Sly Stallone movies with my Dad a lot. First Blood was my first ’80s action movie. I still love the genre, though Sly is probably my least favorite star. My father liked him because his friend, my “Uncle” Tony Maffatone (who I elegized here) was his executive bodyguard, stunt double, knife trainer and fight choreographer for many years. He was a larger than life character. We had to go see Rocky IV, because he had some screen time. Cobra. Hell, we even suffered through Cliffhanger; but in Dad’s only movie review, he snored loudly through that one.
“Boy that was really exciting. I bet you’re a big Lee Marvin fan aren’t ya. Yeah me too. I love that guy. My heart’s beatin’ so fast I’m about to have a heart attack.”
Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson were two other actors we’d always watch. Death Hunt, where Bronson plays a trapper being chased by Mountie Marvin, was one of our favorites. I’ve got it on the DVR right now. Clint Eastwood was always good- Dirty Harry, the westerns, even Unforgiven. He liked Gene Hackman, too. Tough guys. Tommy Lee Jones. We watched a lot of trash and martial arts films too. David Carradine of course; Bruce Lee, and ’80s anomalies like Megaforce and Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn.
But my father’s favorite actors were ones he was told he resembled. He was a narcissistic womanizer, and I was always surprised at his uncanny ability to hook up with younger women. For a while, he was Burt Reynolds. He had the cowboy hat and everything. This was during the Smokey and the Bandit period. My father looked as wrong without a mustache as Burt did in White Lightning and Deliverance. We never watched that Burt movie together, with the indignity of Ned Beatty’s white ass.
As he aged, Dad morphed into Sean Connery in The Presidio and Rising Sun. He even affected the ponytail, though it never got to The Rock-era lengths. Then as even Connery became an old man in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, he had no one to mimic. If he’d only lived to see Entrapment, where an 80-something Connery gets with Catherine Zeta-Jones, he’d probably still be cruising around in his Corvette.
In his later years, the Vette got garaged and changed out for a black Saab convertible that he liked; he was trying to catch his image up with his age. He never made it to the age of the baby boomer. What actresses did he like? Barbra Streisand. Seriously. And Sandra Locke. Women who weren’t helpless, but always needed a man. That early ’60s image of womanhood, where they could live on their own, and be sexually liberated, but not too liberated. Let’s not get crazy here. Be a lady. At least in public.
Since his death I’ve always believed in the individual right to suicide. I find the laws against it hilarious. Suicide is acceptable in our stories, we just don’t call it that. Do Butch & Sundance take the cowards way out? Thelma & Louise? Kowalski in Vanishing Point? Maybe. I wish my father hadn’t done it, even though we had drifted apart by then. I think if he’d lived, he might not have liked who he was anymore, but I would have liked to talk with him more as age perhaps broke down the armored shell he’d built for himself. But like Howard, when I knew him, he walked that road alone.
…there are men whom one hates until a certain moment when one sees, through a chink in their armor, the writhing of something nailed down and in torment.