The Oscar-winning actor writes, directs, and stars in the new film Jayne Mansfield’s Car, about two families brought together under unsavory circumstances. Ahead of its release, Thornton chooses his own favorite films about dysfunctional families—both the ones you choose and the ones you’re stuck with.
Ordinary People (1980)
Some of the dysfunctional family films I thought of were kind of funny. How about Texas Chainsaw Massacre? That’s pretty dysfunctional. But the two that I thought of right off the bat were Ordinary People and The Great Santini.
Mary Tyler Moore's performance in Ordinary People was one of those times—I always had a suspicion, before I was an actor myself, that good actors can do anything. Oftentimes they’re more than what they’re perceived as, or became famous for doing. For example, when I put John Ritter in Sling Blade, people were like, “Wow, he’s amazing.” I wasn’t surprised by it at all. Of course he was, he’s a great actor. I think seeing Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People was one of the first times I said, “A ha!” She’s not just Rob Petrie’s wife, or the girl in the newsroom acting silly and all that kind of stuff. It confirmed that suspicion I had that really good actors are just good in whatever situation you put them in.
The Great Santini (1979)
The Great Santini I remember very well. It was very disturbing to me. I grew up with a father not unlike the one in The Great Santini. It’s funny because Robert Duvall is in that and he played the father in Jayne Mansfield's Car and that father is also loosely based on my dad in parts.
It’s been probably five or six years since I saw The Great Santini. It was on TV one day. I tuned in in the middle of it and couldn’t help watching the rest of it. One of the scenes that sticks out in that movie is where Duvall is playing basketball with his son and bounces the ball off his head. It’s a sort of jealousy/competitive thing with your own kid. It’s something that's always so foreign to me. I can’t imagine being that way. I’m sort of opposite of the way my dad was. He wasn’t very forthcoming with his feelings, other than anger. With my kids, I’m overly affectionate. My daughter’s going to be 9 in September. My boys are 19 and 20. They’re like, “You don’t’ have to tell me you love me every time I leave the room. I’m just going to the kitchen. I’ll be right back.” So I think I overcompensate.
A lot of the movies I’ve been in have either an absent figure or father figure, like for instance the Dwight Yoakum character in Sling Blade. He wasn’t the father. He was the boyfriend about to be the father, and he was very oppressive, among other things. I think fathers and sons have a real struggle. I think you can have great relationships. I’ve had friends who have had great relationships with their father. I’ve had great relationships with my son. But I think there’s always this thing about living up to a father’s expectations, and if you don’t, the path is sometimes to go the other way and rebel. I think a lot of kids turn to drugs and alcohol sometimes because they give up on trying, or they get so frustrated and dejected trying to live up to the expectations. They end up giving up and going the opposite way. And then sometimes it causes an overachiever. It can go either way. It’s rich material for movies.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is from the beginning what we intended as the backdrop for Jayne Mansfield's Car—these two families having a culture clash sort of based on this one woman, the mother, in common with both families. I love movies with culture clashes. I just saw Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner the other day. I don’t know if you can call that family dysfunction, exactly, because it’s two different sets facing off against each other. But it's great.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf—if you want to call a dysfunctional family just two people, wow. I saw that recently. It’s pretty good, especially since it all takes place right there in the room. It’s pretty intense that movie. That’s definitely one, if you can count just a marriage as a dysfunctional family. The only thing wrong with this—I guess when things are written as plays, it might have to be that—but when you watch movies like that, you always wonder if it was really happening, why won’t Sandy Dennis and George Segal's characters just leave? The answer is probably because then we won’t have a movie or a play, or whatever, but in real life, I’d have been out of there the first time one of them told the other to fuck themselves, or whatever it was.
I remember growing up and being at a friend’s house when their parents would get into an argument, and it’s just weird. That’s the most uncomfortable thing in the world. I would always go and then my friend would say, “Oh they do it all the time. Stay, stay. Don’t go! We still have to play army,” or whatever the hell it was we were doing. I just couldn’t wait to get out of there. I didn’t want to be around my friend’s parents arguing. So every time I see Virginia Woolf, I think, “Guys, just leave!”
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Our movie is a drama with humor. Any movie I’ve ever done has been like that, practically. Sometimes I think dramas are overearnest, you know? Comedies are just broad and funny and don’t really have a heart. I like to do drama with humor, so you get both things. Because that’s what life is. I’ve been to funerals in the South before when people were laughing hysterically—and crying.
Hannah and Her Sisters is a terrific one. I kind of felt at that time—because I gravitate towards these types of movies—that I have some similarities with Woody Allen. My movies are sort of Southern version of that. This one, in particular, and a movie I did that nobody saw called Daddy and Them, which is sort of a precursor to this one. Also Woody Allen has a lot of fears and phobias and hypochondria in his characters, and I’ve always felt that myself. So I’ve always felt a kinship to him even though I don’t know him at all. Even though he’s a city guy, a New York guy, and I’m a Southern guy, it’s still something I really relate to because of all those things and the neuroses. But yes, Hannah and Her Sisters was a wonderful one. I loved that.
Tin Men (1987)
A lot of times an office, or at least co-workers are a pretty dysfunctional family. I always loved that movie Tin Men, with Danny DeVito and Richard Dreyfuss and all them. There’s something about salesmen that makes me laugh anyway. It feels like it shouldn’t exist—I guess they don’t now with the Internet. But when I was growing up, salesmen were a thing in your life. I guess like Jehovah’s Witnesses or something. Somebody needs to make another movie about salesmen. My dad was an insurance salesman for a while when he was out of work. I don’t know. Somebody needs to make a really great one like that.
All in the Family (1971-79)
Television shows have used that subject of family dysfunction over the years a lot. If you look at All in the Family, you know? Meathead. I always loved that. And I still believe there was a hell of lot more going on at the Brady house then they let on.