Cher’s Dad in Clueless Is The Kind Of Dad I Want To Be
Dan Hedaya is a hard-to-beat make-believe father figure
Movie and TV dads matter, and not just because some character needs to do a dorky thing to which the cooler, younger main character can react with loving embarrassment. They matter because they show us a version of masculinity that may remind us of the fathers we have, or the fathers we wish we had, or the fathers we’re really, really glad we don’t have.
Almost invariably, a fictional onscreen dad reflects something about the contemporary world in which we live. And of all the movie dads whoever movie dad-ed — at least in the past three decades — my number one favorite, with a bullet — and a shovel — has got to be Dan Hedaya as Mel Horowitz, attorney-at-law, in the hilarious 1995 romcom confection Clueless.
To be sure, there are many great movie dads of the past thirty years. Just a few of my favorites in the long list include James Saito as Henry Kim in Always Be My Maybe (2019); Josh Hamilton as Mark Day in Eighth Grade (2018); J.K. Simmons as Mac MacGuff in Juno (2007); James Earl Jones as Mufasa in The Lion King (1994 and probably 2019, too); Eugene Levy in American Pie (1999); and The Rock anytime The Rock plays a dad or vaguely paternal figure or someone who presumably has the ability to spawn children or would consider adopting a child, specifically me. But Clueless nailed something so lovingly, relatably specific.
Hedaya, a veteran character actor, steals every scene he’s in, no small feat considering a very young Alicia Silverstone is pitch-perfect in her role as spoiled but good-hearted Cher Horowitz. For my money, there do not exist seven more hilarious and spot-on seconds of dad-oriented screen time than Hedaya sitting beside his ex-stepson Josh (tiny baby Paul Rudd) snapping, “Anything happens to my daughter, I got a .45 and a shovel. I doubt anybody would miss you.” To his credit, pillow-lipped Justin Walker gives a very believable snotty youthful insouciant non-reaction as secretly gay dreamboat Christian. And we never see or suspect Mel Horowitz of an actual inclination to violence, but it’s clear that when it comes to his family, he’s got “the protective vibe” as Christian says.
Sure, Hedaya had the gift of a great script from writer-director Amy Heckerling, who invented a world of believably bonkers wealthy teen vernacular for Heathers and did it again for Clueless. But his delivery is what gets me time and time again. This insanely successful workaholic Beverly Hills lawyer is also a loving single father who keeps a giant portrait of his first wife, Cher’s late mother, in the foyer to his mansion (with its “classic” front columns that date all the way back to the 1970s.) While he has married and divorced again after the death of Cher’s mom, we can infer that her freak expiration “during a routine liposuction” left an indelible impression on his secretly tender heart. Sure, he barks at his only offspring on occasion:
Mel: Where are you?
Cher: I’m just having a snack at my girlfriend’s.
Mel: Where, in Kuwait?!
Cher: Is that in the Valley?
But man, does he adore her. And he believes in her! In fact, despite his threat to Christian, he’s not the kind of dad who hovers over his daughter at all times, treating her like a piece of porcelain who may be sullied or broken by the mere presence of a heterosexual man. Of course, he doesn’t actually need to worry about that with Christian, whom Cher’s friend Murray Duvall (Donald Faison) later characterizes as “a cake boy” and “a friend of Dorothy.” It should be stated for the modern reader that Faison’s Murray is merely amused by everyone’s apparent inability to discern Christian’s homosexuality but seems entirely unbothered by it, a nice moment in a teen film that came out not many years after the height of the AIDS epidemic. But I digress.
Hedaya’s portrayal is strongest when his perpetual annoyance and disbelief at being surrounded by such privileged young airheads is leavened by his genuine admiration for his daughter’s pluck, spunk, and generosity.
Mel: Which reminds me, where’s your report card?
Cher: It’s not ready yet.
Mel: What do you mean, “it’s not ready yet?”
Cher: Well, some teachers are trying to low-ball me, Daddy. And I know how you say, “Never accept a first offer”, so I figure these grades are just a jumping off point to start negotiations.
Not only is Mel not mad at Cher’s approach, but he’s also actually kind of impressed. Especially when her plan pays off:
Mel: You mean to tell me that you argued your way from a C+ to an A-?
Cher: Totally based on my powers of persuasion. You proud?
Mel: Honey, I couldn’t be happier than if they were based on real grades.
He also insists that family is family forever and that Josh is still a part of their lives even though Mel’s marriage to Josh’s mom didn’t last long. This may be because he sees Josh as a suitable partner for his daughter, which is kind of weird, but whatever — the movie is inspired by Jane Austen’s Emma and weird shit happens all the time in Jane Austen novels. I mean, they’re not blood-related. This isn’t a Game of Thrones situation.
Ultimately, Mel Horowitz is the kind of dad I’d like to be: smart, successful, hardworking, intimidating, allergic to bullshit, and deeply tender towards his offspring. Granted, I’m a lady person with no kids, but still! It is a comfort to me to know that there exist in this world actual fathers who are actually rather like Mel — and of course, wonderful daughters who are in fact kind of like Cher. Her superficiality in the beginning of the film eventually gives way to a more grounded, thoughtful and compassionate approach to life. In the end, it turns out Cher is very much her father’s daughter while still managing to be entirely herself.