Playwright Robert Anderson had a big Broadway hit in 1953 when he drew on his experience of young romance in Tea and Sympathy. He went back to the autobiographical well again with a 1968 play based on his family of origin. In 1970, Anderson and one of the producers of the play, Gilbert Cates, brilliantly translated it to the silver screen: I Never Sang For My Father.
The plot to this film is so spare that it belies the work’s impact. Gene Garrison (Gene Hackman) is a widower in New York City who struggles to connect emotionally with his successful yet domineering father Tom (Melvyn Douglas). Gene wants to move to California to live with his new lover (Elizabeth Hubbard) but feels guilty about leaving his mother (Dorothy Stickney); guilt which Tom actively reinforces. As the family faces a crisis, complications increase with the return from Chicago of Gene’s sister Alice (Estelle Parsons), who was disowned by Tom years ago for marrying a Jewish man. World-class acting and melancholy observations about aging, parenting, and families ensue.
What makes the movie a knockout is Anderson’s realistic, unadorned dialogue and the superb performances by the cast. Melvyn Douglas had a remarkably long career in Hollywood, and it’s easy to see here why he didn’t fade away after his success in the 1930s and 1940s. He doesn’t make Tom easy to hate or to like. Tom has accomplished great things in life, overcame a brutal upbringing, and can be quite charming. Yet he’s fundamentally narcissistic, seeing other people mainly as extensions of his own desires. Tragically, it’s less so unwillingness than inability to genuinely love that brings so much suffering on himself and his children. Hackman is also achingly good here, playing off of Douglas with a look, a change in posture, or a weakness in his voice that tells you everything you need to know about Gene’s relationship with Tom. It’s also terrific to see Hackman working so well with the magnificent Estelle Parsons again, after their star-making roles in Bonnie and Clyde. Her Alice is an anguished figure, who suffered mightily to marry whom she wanted and appears to be suffering since doing so nonetheless.
Gilbert Cates became a personage in Hollywood without making many movies: He directed the Academy Awards’ telecast for many years and was also the founding Dean of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television. Filming a play is hard because if you take an overly static approach, it looks like a play trapped in a movie, but if you overdo camera angles and movement, it can be gimmicky. As producer-director, Cates strikes the right balance, and when a cast gives such uniformly sterling performances, you know the director did their job well. My only gripe about Cates is his choice of music, which is too heavy-handed in places and includes a fairly wretched song early on that would better have been binned.
To close with an intriguing bit of trivia about this quiet gem of a film: You could consider it a credit to Hackman and Douglas that the former was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar even though he was on screen more, while the latter nominated for Best Actor. Too much credit going to the old man, his son’s achievements underappreciated..sometimes performances are so good that Oscar voters mix up actors with the characters they portray.