Just because THE DEPARTED doesn’t really seem to occur in the 1970s doesn’t mean Nicholson’s amazing performance as the Irish criminal top dog villain, Frank Costello, doesn’t count. Nor doesn’t it count just because Jack isn’t really a father to either Matt Damon or Leo DiCaprio in the film. The reasons for the choice will soon be clear, but first of all Jack is SO MUCH like my own dad used to be (in the 1970s) here that he instantly heads the A-list of cinema dads, period. Let’s look at some of the traits:
1. A dad to all needy children, not just his own: A good 1970s dad is just that, a dad to all. Nicholson sticks up for abused choir boys (by telling off a priest), encourages his “entourage” to go to college (“Maybe one day you’ll wake the fuck up,” he tells a goofily “faux-macho” Leo), gives good presents and praise (“You earned it,” he tells Matt who gazes on some big ticket gift –rolex?–when he graduates into the staties). And so forth.
2. A wicked sense of humor (racist, perhaps, sexist certainly, but deliberately enjoying and aware of the wrongness of his ways. He’s the relic of a bygone era and he knows it, and is not afraid to trumpet his own offensive horn).
3. A large appetite for women, booze and cigarettes (he doesn’t bother to curb his habits in front of the kids, nor in anyway put on fronts of hypocritical posturing)
4. The ability to intimidate via voice and attitude alone. (If he raises his voice, people listen, because he sounds like he will fuck you up and not give a shit, and that’s enough most of the time)
Right on! Favorite moments include Nicholson’s loving look at his right hand man, Mr. French, when he says “Arthur, you’re one in a million”) (“Ten,” Arthur replies. “Ten million.”) and his interplay with Damon at the X-rated theater (see above), wherein Matt reports “I have to find myself,” to which Jack quips “Oh, you’re telling me, Sonny boy!” … there’s a constant sense of menace radiating off the old man, and it gives the jokey interplay throughout the film an edge of tough reality. A good 1970s dad loves you in a way that’s just a little scary – I don’t mean pedophile or abuse scary, I mean scary in a little kid whose cheek is reddened by a sweep of the old man’s whiskers for a goodnight kiss, the taste of whiskey and cigarettes emanating from it – thrilling in its sensory overload – too rough, too strong, too everything, for comfort, but not too much that you can’t handle it (the overload is what stretches you – you don’t grow from comfort).
You might be a little afraid of him, but you’re sure as hell not afraid of anyone or anything else when he’s in the room.
The Greg Kinear/Jason Bateman-style 2008 super-dad of sensitive indie cinema/TV by contrast is more like a co-dependent guidance counselor. You live in the shadow of his weakness; his terror is that he will lose you or you will no longer love him. He’s “trying” to be a good dad. but he doesn’t see how his “trying” puts all this pressure on you as the kid to justify such clearly strenuous effort.
A 1970s dad will always put himself first, presuming you are not in physical danger that is–he may dive off a cliff to save you, but won’t even stir from his easy chair if you are just crying and moaning for no reason up in your room. Without that sort of benign indifference how would you ever learn to be independent? How would you know that eventually you would stop crying on your own; that you’d be okay even if no one came? That’s the most important realization of a young person’s life and nowadays, and more and wind up in rehab because they never learned it.
So, the 1970s Dad society salutes Jack Nicholson, the embodiment of that hedonistic intellectual charismatic devil who follows his own drummer and expects all his kids to do the same. Jack, you’re one in ten million. Twenty. Twenty million…