Cinema’s Worst Father Figure: Fact and Fiction

SO bad he's almost good.

I’m taking it for granted that most people here had perfect parents. Well, today in Salon, Matt Zoller Seitz praises Hollywood for imagining the unimaginable — bad dads.

Some of his picks are perdictable: Darth Vader (duh!); Jack Torrance, from The Shining; and the perverted Paters from Happiness, Chinatown and Natural Born Killers. Only at the very end of the list does Zoller Seitz show hints of more refined judgment, because that’s where he includes…

10. Dwight Hansen, “This Boy’s Life” (1993)

Played by: Robert De Niro

Young Toby Wolff, the sensitive hero of “This Boy’s Life,” wonders what his mother could possibly see in Dwight Hansen, the super-macho, domineering goon who is about to become his new stepdad. If only he could be a fly on the wall in his mom’s bedroom. “You can get it doggy-style or you can get it laying on your side,” he tells her. “Those are your only choices. This is my house and I get to say. Got it?” Hello, Prince Charming!

“Here I am, you lucky people!” Dwight exclaims. Indeed! Who couldn’t love this tinpot dictator, who wears a Boy Scout troop leader’s uniform with the smug brio of a Gestapo commandant, and lights his cigarettes with an elaborate little series of ritual gestures that make him seem like an effete cyborg manufactured in the same plant as the Terminator? How can you not love the open-minded way that Dwight engages others in debate (“Shut your pie hole!”), or the nickname he bestows on his stepson (“Little Jackie Wolff!”), or the positivity that he brings to the sacred calling of fatherhood? “I believe there is such a thing as a bad boy, bad clear through. It’s gonna be my job to set you straight,” he tells Toby. “That’s right, to kill or cure. Kill or cure!”

Zoller Seitz omits Swight’s chief selling points. Only part of his unfitness as a father igure comes from his cruelty; the rest comes from the absurdity of the figure he cuts. Not even Evel Knievel would try to jump the canyon between Dwight’s self-image and his actual self. The result? Dwight’s a constant scream — of mirth or terror, take your pick.

Dwight wears checkered suits and two-tone wingtips. He thinks he’s a crack shot (he isn’t); he thinks he can play saxophone (he can’t). He imagines he looks dashing in a Scoutmster’s uniform (he looks like an escaped mental patient). Here’s an example of his humor: “You want to go to church, come to Concrete [Washington]. You want to sin, you can go to hell.” His own religion is Lawrence Welk, taken with very cheap bourbon.

It’s impossible not to hate and despise him, but equally impossible not to feel sorry for the poor slob. Could any man so fatuous not be bitter? Don’t look at me; I’ve never learned the secret.

Two unlikelihoods in Dwight Hansen:

No 1: he was sketched, more or less, from nature. The film This Boy’s Life was based on a memoir by the same title. Tobias Wolff, the author, depicts his own youthful self as a sneak, a liar, a slacker and a grade-forger. Excuses could be found, but Wolff is uninterested in finding them. Reading the book, you get the sense he believes he deserved to be thrashed — though by someone worthier of the privilege than Dwight.

No. 2: Bad as he was, ridiculous as he was, Dwight can’t have been much worse, pound for pound, than Wolff’s biological father, Arthur Samuels Wplff, who dignified himself with the nickname “Duke.” This proposition is verifiable because Tobias Wolff’s brother, Geoffrey, who chose to remain with Duke after he and the boys’ mother divorced, also became a writer, eventually publishing his own coming-of-age memoir, which he titled Duke of Deception.

According to his son, Duke Wolff was a self-taught aeronautical engineer who wangled his way into prestigious jobs by passing himself off as a graduate of Yale and the Soebonne. Thanks to various other hustles, he managed to outfit himself with a swell’s wardrobe and a convoy of sports cars, not to mention free lunches and open bar tabs from one end of the Eastern Seaboard to the other. Employers, incensed at his charges to their accounts, would fire him; collection agents and repo men would pursue him. Duke would simply pick up, move, and start over from square one, undeterred.

Duke’s chutzpah knew no bounds. When his son, Geoffrey, who’d just finished a year at a British public school, asked for money to return home, Duke told him to hit up Lord Van Sittart, whom he described as an old buddy from the Second World War, during which he’d flown in the RAF’s Eagle Squardron. “He’ll give you lunch at White’s and a hundred quid till you get home.”

I telephoned Lord Van Sittart, and said I belonged to Duke Wolff.

“Never heard of him.”

“Arthur Wolff? During the War? An American pilot?”

“Oh, him. The Yank who liked pilots. Always asking for an introduction to one’s tailor. Hardly remember him, sorry.”

Like I said, it’s a given that most people here had perfect parents. But for many of the the elect few who didn’t, this pair — Dwight and Duke — make a good incentive as any to count blessings in the dad department.

Happy Fathers’ Day to all you dads out there.


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