For most Americans, Father's Day is an opportunity to pay tribute to our beloved patriarchs with ugly ties, hastily-bought greeting cards and other traditional tokens of appreciation. It's also a time for us to contemplate what it means to be a father. And while I can't possibly pretend to be an expert on that topic, Hollywood has taught me a great deal over the years about what it means to be a bad father.
On that note, here's a list of some of the more dysfunctional father figures from the movie world.
Jor-El, Superman I and II
Minutes before his home planet of Krypton explodes, Jor-El (Marlon Brando) sends his infant son Kal-El off to Earth with the assurance that he will never be alone. And he isn't kidding. Upon reaching adulthood, Superman quickly learns that nothing is ever quite good enough for SuperDad, who proceeds to endlessly nag his son from beyond the grave. It's not like the Man of Steel doesn't have enough to worry about, with all the catastrophes us mortals manage to create for ourselves (not to mention evil geniuses like Lex Luthor running around wreaking all sorts of havoc). And what happens when Supes finally manages to score a quality earth babe in the form of Lois Lane? He's told that he'll have to sacrifice his superpowers if he wants to close the deal. Dating is hard enough without your own father giving you the Heisman.
Darth Vader, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
He's perhaps the greatest movie villain of all time, a purveyor of genocide, destroyer of planets, exterminator of the Jedi Order. Add to that list one more sinister distinction: galactic deadbeat dad. Forced to grow up without a strong male role model, Vader's daughter Leia ends up developing a taste for "bad boys," and ultimately settles down with the notorious fugitive smuggler Han Solo. After Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are dispatched by Stormtroopers, poor Luke is left to suffer under the guidance of a creepy hermit (Obiwan Kenobi) and a cranky gnome (Yoda).
At the end of Empire, Vader tries to make up for years of neglect when he offers to make Luke co-ruler of the galaxy. "Join me, and we'll rule the galaxy as father and son," he pleads. (The simple caveat, of course, is that Luke must embrace evil and become a Sith. Details.) But an ungrateful Luke spurns the generous offer, forcing us all to sit through Return of the Jedi as a result. Thanks a lot, Luke. I blame you for the Ewoks.
Kyle Reese, The Terminator
In James Cameron's seminal Sci-fi classic, Reese (Michael Biehn) swoops in from the future for a one-night stand with Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), knocks her up, and then up and gets himself killed, leaving his offspring John Connor (Edward Furlong) to be raised by clueless foster parents while nutjob mom does time in a mental institution. It's hard enough growing up having never known your dad, with a leather-clad Teutonic cyborg as your only real mentor. Add to that the fact that you're constantly being told that your destiny is to one day lead the human resistance against Skynet and its army of unstoppable killing machines. No pressure or anything -- you're only mankind's sole remaining hope for survival. It's enough to guarantee any kid a lifetime of psychotherapy.
In the upcoming Terminator 4: The Search for Closure, a long-suffering John Connor, now a thrice-divorced, chronically unemployed alcoholic, travels to the year 2029 to find Reese and have a sit-down with the biological dad he never knew. Look for it in theaters in the summer of 2010.
God, The Passion of the Christ
At first glance, being the Son of God doesn't seem like such a bad gig. You perform some miracles, tell a few parables, and travel the land spreading your father's message of love and compassion. Sounds easy enough, right? But, as Mel Gibson's movie so vividly showed, folks didn't exactly roll out the red carpet for the would-be Messiah. On the contrary, they choose to show Jesus (Jim Caviezel) their gratitude for his good deeds by subjecting the poor guy to just about every barbaric type of torture available to them at the time before nailing him to a cross.
You can bet Junior had some choice words for the old man upon his arrival in Heaven. "Hey Dad, next time you want to prove some point to your wayward flock, you can go ahead and do it yourself, ok?"
Professor Henry Jones, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
With dad Henry (Sean Connery) devoting most of his life to searching for the Holy Grail, son Indiana (Harrison Ford) suffers the consequences, becoming emotionally closed-off, incapable of commitment and unwilling to put down any real roots. Fundamentally insecure at his core, Indy is constantly putting himself in harm's way as part of a never-ending and ultimately futile quest to gain his father's approval. Like many men his age, Indy attempts to compensate for his low self esteem by amassing a huge collection of rare and priceless artifacts. But each new piece of treasure can prop up his fragile ego for only so long, and sooner or later he's off on another reckless adventure.
Vito Corleone, The Godfather
Running your own business can be extraordinarily time-consuming, especially when you're the head of a prominent Italian-American crime syndicate. With Don Vito too busy building his clandestine empire to spend quality time with his three sons, the consequences of his neglect become all too obvious: Sonny a philandering hothead, Fredo's a blubbering wuss, and Michael is more interested in squiring his new girlfriend Kate around town than joining the family business. When Michael does eventually step up to replace the fallen patriarch, Vito aptly sums up his failure as a father: "I thought that, that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the string. Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone. Well, it wasn't enough time, Michael. It wasn't enough time."
And somewhere in the distance, the opening notes of Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle" can be heard.
What are some of your favorite dysfunctional movie dads? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.