Tag Archives: Estelle Parsons

I Never Sang for My Father (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Father and son clash.

Based on the Broadway play of the same name written by Robert Anderson, who also wrote the screenplay, the story centers on college professor Gene (Gene Hackman) who tries to mend his relationship with his father Tom (Melvyn Douglas) a very bull-headed man who can’t seem to get along with anyone. When Gene’s mother (Dorothy Stickney) passes away suddenly it becomes a concern what to do with the father who is showing early signs of dementia and other health issues. Gene, who has recently been widowed himself, wants to remarry and move off to California, but his father prefers him to stay close by in New York. When Gene offers to move his father to California the old man refuses leading to a bitter feud between the two that also opens up old wounds.

To show just how good this movie is one only needs to compare it to Dad, which was an 80’s film starring Ted Danson and Jack Lemmon, which had a similar subject matter, but that film conveniently glossed over the many negative aspects of taking care of an elderly parent while this one tackles the downside head-on. Hearing the arguments that Gene has with his sister Alice (Estelle Parsons) and how neither one of them want to be straddled with the responsibility of being a round-the-clock caretaker I found to be refreshingly honest. Too many modern movies, in their attempt to make the lead character likable, never address these very real concerns. Also in the movie Dad the Ted Danson character flies across the country to help his father with no explanation for how this affected his job or finances while this one does touch on the economic realities. It also shows how elderly people aren’t always that lovable and can at times be genuinely nasty.

Douglas is outstanding as he manages to bring out different sides to his character. While the viewer finds him exasperating I still enjoyed the shots showing him kneeling at his bedside in prayer, which gave him, even as old and crotchety as he was, a child-like dimension. The conversations that he has about his own father and the poor relationship he had with him are quite revealing as it shows how the same issues can go across many generations with Douglas inadvertently treating his own son in the same shoddy way his old man treated him and not even realizing it.

With Douglas’ powerhouse performance Hackman gets overshadowed. He has fleeting moments where he displays his trademark anger and pent-up frustrations, but it doesn’t come-off as quite as genuine as it does in some of his other roles. It also would’ve been nice had there been some flashback scenes showing past altercations between the two, which would’ve helped the viewer emotionally connect to what he was feeling instead of having their differences just briefly touched on through dialogue. In many ways Parsons comes-off better and the reasons for her anger at her father is more clearly and eloquently explained.

The only complaint that I had with the film is when Hackman goes touring the assisted senior living homes. While the film had approached the material in a straight forward dramatic manner, which stays quiet true to the play, it suddenly shifts during this segment to becoming more artsy and cinematic by blocking out the dialogue and instead playing loud, moody score with a more subjective, hand-held camera. While this is all right I still felt it wasn’t needed and goes against the tone of the rest of the film, which had been very minimalist up until the then. The sudden pounding music doesn’t make the visuals showing the bleak living conditions of those places anymore shocking or disturbing and if anything becomes unnecessarily jarring and in-the-way.

These scenes also feature a very early appearance of James Karen as one of the directors of the senior facilities that Hackman tours. However, with the dark curly hair that he has here and the thick horn-rimmed glasses that he wears, you most likely won’t recognize him unless you look closely and even then you still might not think it’s him. With the decision by director Gilbert Cates to play music over these scenes we unfortunately never get to hear hear what he was saying or how he was trying to sell the dismal looking place to the potential customer, which could’ve been interesting.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: October 18, 1970

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Gilbert Cates

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

For Pete’s Sake (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Can’t make ends meet.

Henrietta ‘Henry’ (Barbra Streisand) struggles with hardly any money in the bank as her husband Pete (Michael Sarrazin) works a low paying job driving a cab while he tries to finish college. Then Pete gets a tip from a fellow driver telling him to invest in potbellies as they are expected to have a huge gain in the market, but to do so he will need $3,000. Since he does not have this Henry decides to do some jobs that will pay her quick cash including prostitution and hauling stolen cattle, but everything that she does just gets her further into trouble.

Part of the fun of watching films from decades past is seeing how things have changed and in certain circumstances how they haven’t. Here you get to see virtually the same struggles that a young couple of today face and how the companies and banks joyfully screw them over if it means helping them either save or make a buck. Some of the segments at the beginning where she argues with representatives of these companies over either bills or loans are funny and helps give this otherwise innocuous comedy a bit of an edge.  It also allows for a great chance to see Anne Ramsey in an early role playing a rep at a phone company who not only looks way younger than from her better known role in Throw Momma From a Train, but even marginally attractive and with a much softer sounding voice.

Barbra is great in the lead that takes advantage of her rambling, fast-talking manner which she gets whenever she’s exasperated with the best bit being the running joke where she is constantly calling a distant relative in Dallas begging them for money while also updating them on her latest calamity. It’s also great seeing her play against her Hollywood celebrity image by effectively portraying a very drab everyday person sporting short hair, which was a wig created for her by her romantic partner at the time, hair stylist Jon Peters. It’s also interesting seeing this very liberal icon in a very anti-PC moment when she hands a box of Fruit Loops to an effeminate store clerk (played by Vincent Shiavelli) and tells him “I’m sure you’ll love these.”

The comedy has consistent laughs although the first hour works best and I particularly enjoyed the interplay that she has with the male customers she brings into her apartment while working as a prostitute and I wished this segment had been extended more. She also gets in a few juicy jabs towards Estelle Parsons, who plays the snotty, rich wife of Pete’s brother (William Redfield), that are delightfully savage.

Unfortunately the final third gets a bit too silly and exaggerated making the story lose its footing by becoming too frantically dizzying.  There’s still a couple of good bits here like watching the stolen cattle crash through a movie screen that is showing a film with a herd of cattle on it. I also enjoyed The French Connection parody where Babs plays the same cat-and-mouse game on the subway that Gene Hackman did with Fernando Rey only she does it with a police dog. However, some of the other bits including the appearance of Bill McKinney in a weak tribute to Deliverance are sterile  and helps to deflate an otherwise sparkling Streisand vehicle.

The script also suffers from illogical loopholes. Like the fact that despite having financial difficulties they still employ a housekeeper (played by Vivian Bonnell), but why would a young couple struggling with money and living in a tiny one bedroom apartment with no kids and a wife who stays home all day need hired help?

Pete gets exposed as having some major chauvinistic traits too by forebiding his wife from working full-time because ‘his ego couldn’t take it’, which doesn’t make him seem like a ‘great catch’ at all. Forcing his wife to stay stuck in the kitchen/home because that’s where he feels ‘she belongs’ while he’s unable to provide for her with his own job makes him seem like a total dud that’s not only not worth helping, but, especially in today’s world,  have him deservedly kicked to the curb in no time.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 26, 1974

Runtime: 1 Hour 30 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Peter Yates

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Watermelon Man (1970)

watermelon man 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: White man becomes black.

Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge) is a bigoted white man who wakes up one morning having suddenly turned black. At first he thinks he’s spent too much time under the sun lamp, but after he and his wife Althea (Estelle Parsons) try every concoction they can to return his skin back to its normal color and nothing works they finally accept the inevitable. Jeff’s lifestyle then changes in major ways. He loses his friends, his job and even forced to move out of his neighborhood giving him firsthand experience with how drastic the racial lines are.

The film was directed by Melvin Van Peeples who was at the front of the independent film movement during the ‘60s and doesn’t get enough credit for some of the groundbreaking films he made in that era, but this one remains his best and most famous work. While other films chose to present racial issues in very serious and dramatic ways this one takes the wacky comedy route and in a lot of ways becomes far more compelling. Some of the funniest moments comes when the characters discuss racial stereotypes, something filmmakers of today would shy away from for fear that they would be labeled racist, but here by bringing it all out-in-the-open it trusts that the viewer will see how silly and absurd they are without feeling the need to suppress anything.

Although Cambridge is never completely convincing as a white man despite an admirable job by the make-up department he still gives a splendidly engaging performance and without his presence this movie just wouldn’t have worked. Parsons is great as well with her character being quite supportive initially, but then eventually she turns her back on him like everyone else. Mantan Moreland is funny as a café waiter who laughs politely at all of Gerber’s dumb jokes when he is white, but gives him a completely different response once he turns black. Erin Moran can be spotted as the daughter and songwriter Paul Williams has a brief bit as a would-be employer.

There are moments where it shifts awkwardly between drama and comedy and there’s one scene where the action freezes completely and suddenly begins to display on-screen titles, which does nothing but take the viewer out of the story and should’ve been avoided. It also would’ve been nice had there been some explanation for why this all occurred. A potentially funny idea would’ve been having a scene where God decides to change Gerber into a black man to teach him a lesson and having the Almighty portrayed as being African American, which would’ve been considered quite edgy for the period and helped complement the already outrageous storyline.

Despite all the laughs the issues that it brings out are quite startling and not far from the truth, which makes this an integral part at revealing the problems that the black movement had during the early ‘70’s and still does and a film that deserves more critical praise than it’s been given.

watermelon man 2

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: May 27, 1970

Runtime: 1Hour 40Minutes

Rated R

Director: Melvin Van Peeples

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube