An elegant, insightful character piece grounded by precise writing and masterful acting, I Never Sang for My Father is one of the best small dramas of the ’70s, and it contains a crucial early performance by Gene Hackman. Already recognized as an extraordinary actor (his memorable supporting turn in 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde earned an Oscar nomination), Hackman was on the verge of becoming a Hollywood leading man, and he commands the screen throughout I Never Sang for My Father with the confidence of a veteran star. Indeed, had established actor Melvyn Douglas not received top billing for this movie, it’s likely Hackman’s well-deserved Oscar nomination for I Never Sang for My Father would have been in the leading-actor category, not the supporting-actor category.
Such considerations aside, I Never Sang for My Father benefits from Douglas’ expert acting as much as it does from Hackman’s touching work. Hackman plays Gene Garrison, an author and teacher who has never been able to win the approval of his father, Tom (Douglas). A self-made man who rose from a miserable childhood to high achievement, Tom lords over every member of his family, exerting such merciless authority that Gene’s sister, Alice (Estelle Parsons), was excommunicated for the sin of marrying a Jew. Despite Tom’s hard edges, Gene struggles to find kindness in the man, especially after Gene’s mother dies and Tom becomes an aging widower with rapidly diminishing mental capacity. Meanwhile, Gene contemplates a move from the family’s East Coast home base to California, where Gene has a chance to start a new life with his girlfriend, Peggy (Elizabeth Hubbard). Thus, in the aftermath of his mother’s death, Gene becomes the de facto caretaker of his domineering dad, potentially at the cost of a chance for personal happiness.
Exploring themes of duty, independence, love, and what it means to be a man, screenwriter Robert Anderson—adapting his successful play of the same name—digs deep into his characters, presenting everyone in the movie as a complex individual with warring impulses. For instance, Tom is nurturing and tender with his children until the instant he perceives disobedience, which instantly transforms him into a scornful monster. Similarly, Gene is soulful despite exhibiting faint echoes of his father’s macho stubbornness. That both Douglas and Hackman illustrate such subtle nuances is a testament to their thoughtful work. An even greater testament to their skill is that both actors assiduously avoid playing for cheap sentiment: Every painful moment in I Never Sang for My Father is earned. Producer-director Gilbert Cates, who worked on the Broadway presentation of Anderson’s play, serves the material well with unobtrusive camerawork, and his use of unvarnished locations adds greatly to the movie’s diligent realism. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics via WarnerArchive.com)
I Never Sang for My Father: RIGHT ON