Tessa Blake’s portrait of her oilman father, Five Wives, Three Secretaries and Me, offers a case study in the possibilities and pitfalls of taking a documentary look at your own family–the film is as full of flickering warmth as it is bereft of larger insight. Returning in 1994 to the peroxide Texas high society of her birth, Blake (she’s the “Me” on the marquee) puts her then 89-year-old father in front of the lens in hopes of capturing domestic fireworks, but Tommy Blake proves just another patriarch whose passage through twilight makes asking honest questions not just impossible but downright cruel.
It would take a more exacting (or more damaged) soul than Blake’s to pin the old man to the wall, but Five Wives makes a half-hearted try anyway, rooting around Tommy’s many marriages and demimonde for hard truth and, failing that, quirk. We meet current wife Muffet, the various “Texas Exes” (the director’s flaky mother is #4), Daddy’s three secretaries, and the Mexican nanny. The secretaries have been with Daddy longer than all the wives combined, and their wry memories of an often dictatorial, cheap, and aloof man counterbalance soft-focus images of Daddy stooped at a piano, crooning a lovelorn song.
Like any good liberal escapee from the heartland, Blake makes the standard feinting move toward matters racial, eliciting some bullshit commentary from her dad and trotting out her black boyfriend. The desire to move beyond family chitchat is admirable, but Blake loses her nerve when it comes to color, setting up a climactic encounter with Daddy about the boyfriend that goes nowhere. Tears stream down her face as she un-mics her father for the last time, and although you know she’s crying for all the ways parents just don’t understand, you also imagine she’s crying for her own offspring, Five Wives not having turned out the way she’d hoped either.