Friday, March 20, 2009
Meme meme me
By Edward Copeland
I'm not sure what was more difficult when Film Squish tagged me with this meme: limiting myself to my 10 favorite characters in the entire history of film or selecting five film bloggers to infect with this task next.
1) My selections are coming in no particular order, but since I've already used the art for Peter Finch's Oscar-winning work as Howard Beale in Network, I might as well start there. The film itself grows more prescient over time, but the great monologues that Paddy Chayefsky wrote for him can work in innumerable situations. Howard doesn't come out of the gate as an angry populist. When we first meet him, he's a drunk older man, a man who got "properly pissed" with his friend upon the news that he was losing his job as the anchor of a network news broadcast. When he sobers up, he goes a little nuts and announces that he plans to kill himself on the air on his last broadcast. The ratings go up and that is what matters in the end. Before long, he's an angry populist whose screeds still ring true for many issues today. Then he's the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves. Then, as all sensations do, his popularity wanes and he's not useful anymore. It's a great character arc.
2) Addison DeWitt as played by George Sanders in his Oscar-winning role in All About Eve is part theater critic, part gossip columnist and almost all barracude. He's sort of a Walter Winchell. The closest we might come to in this day and age is Michael Riedel, but I wouldn't want to give him delusions of grandeur. Addison had a lot going for him, namely a seemingly endless supply of witty bon mots and rejoinders supplied by writer-directer Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Addison, while helping Eve Harrington lift her career up in the world, is also the only person strong enough to put Eve in her place and tell her how things are going to be. "It's important right now that we talk, killer to killer," Addison tells Eve. "Champion to champion," Eve replies, still thinking she can get her way. "Not with me, you're no champion. You're stepping way up in class," DeWitt lets Eve know. Of course, Addison might get his after the credits roll, because he seems to want Eve for himself and love can always screw with a man's mental faculties.
3) Hollywood, being essentially narcissistic, has made plenty of films about itself, but none of those films were quite as bizarre, fascinating or just plain great as Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. The character of the struggling screenwriter, Joe Gillis (William Holden) wasn't what made the film unique. It was the creation of the marvelous Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). When Andrew Lloyd Webber barfed up that ill-conceived musical version, theater buffs would always debate "Who was the best Norma?" Was it Glenn Close? Patti LuPone? Faye Dunaway? My answer always without fail was Gloria Swanson because for me she is the only Norma that counts. Drawing on her history as a silent film star whose career had slowed in the sound era, it was one of the most perfect merging of performer and roles ever. What's so great about Norma is that she seems decidedly insane, but Swanson never overplays it and some argue that she's not crazy at all, she's just manipulative to the core, doing what she feels she has to to get what she wants. Then again, she couldn't have foreseen that a down-on-his-luck screenwriter would seek refuge in her garage the same night she was having a funeral for her dead chimpanzee. Norma alternates between vulnerable and strong, from wronged to inspired. Norma was one of a kind.
4) Many of the movies I love have more than one of my favorite characters of all time, but thanks to criteria I set for myself, I limited myself to one per movie, one per actor and I tried to keep it fairly even between male and female characters. The toughest case for me was Broadcast News. I so identify with Albert Brooks' Aaron Altman, but I let him go in favor of the film's main character, Holly Hunter's great career-minded woman Jane Craig. She reminds me so much of different women I know. When the film was released, some people found it odd when there would be the short scenes where Jane would be crying for no apparent reason, but I knew someone who actually did set aside time to cry like Jane did. Jane is also funny, sharp, principled and great at her job and all these attributes interfere with her love life. The scene I think really encapsulates Jane is when she pulls the head of the news division aside at a party and tells him that he's making a bad decision. Her boss answers sarcastically, "You are absolutely right and I'm absolutely wrong. It must be nice to always think you're the smartest person in the room, that you know better." "No, it's awful," Jane replies.
5) Casablanca's Capt. Louis Renault is just like any other character, only more so. In a film as beloved as this one and usually thought of in terms of the star-crossed love of Rick and Ilsa, Claude Rains' Louis is the star of the show as far as I'm concerned. His character could be a villain and at times, Renault does villainous things, but he's so damn charming and wry in his corruption, that you know he'll end up doing the right thing in the end. Still, being a poor corrupt official only pays so much, so it's a good thing Rick lets hims win at roulette. Most importantly, Renault is a survivor. In World War I, he was part of the French force that entered Berlin with the U.S. in 1918. In World War II, he sold his soul to the Nazis and became part of the Vichy French government when the Third Reich took over. When it was time to move on, he moved on. There actually were plans made for a sequel to Casablanca in the 1940s following Rick and Louis to Brazzaville and continuing the story. While I love Capt. Louis Renault, I prefer to remember him and Rick walking off together in the fog.
6) "Leave the rooster story alone. That's human interest," Walter Burns, newspaper editor extraordinaire shouts into a telephone as he tries to make over the next day's edition for a late-breaking edition. At the same time, he has to hide a Death Row escapee from the police and other reporters and break up the impending marriage between his ex-wife and an insurance salesman. Cary Grant brings to life this hysterical reprobate in His Girl Friday, Howard Hawks' remaking of The Front Page. There have been other Walter Burns on screen, but for me, Grant is the only one that matters, masterly firing that rapid-fire dialogue by Charles Lederer from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's play. Of course without Grant, we wouldn't have had the inside joke of Walter saying, "Listen the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat." (Archibald Leach was Grant's real name,in case you didn't know.) The genius of this version of the tale was making Walter's ace reporter Hildy Johnson a woman and his ex-wife (the great Rosalind Russell), making all Walter's crazy machinations make more sense. When Hildy tells Walter he's wonderful, in a loathsome sort of way, ain't it the truth.
7) "Why don't you pass the time with a game of Solitaire?" We already know that this is a trigger for Raymond Shaw to receive new orders from his communist brainwashers, but it has never sounded so chilling as it does when the words come from the mouth of Raymond's own mother (Angela Lansbury). The Manchurian Candidate already had painted Lansbury's character of Mrs. Iselin in the villainous vein as she plays puppet master to her dim bulb of a husband, a would-be Joseph McCarthy yelling about commies in the State Department. (As she tells her husband at one point, "I keep telling you not to think! You're very, very good at a great many things, but thinking, hon', just simply isn't one of them.") However, until that scene, we had no idea she was in on it with the communists themselves in a political power play to get to the White House. To me, remakes of good or great films are almost always a bad idea, and the remake of The Manchurian Candidate sunk like a stone as they should have. Not even Oscar magnet Meryl Streep could compete with the memory of Angela Lansbury's Mrs. Iselin and people can argue all they want about how good Patty Duke was in The Miracle Worker, but denying Mrs. Iselin may well be Oscar's greatest travesty. Then again, maybe they were afraid to give her the stage.
8) Katharine Hepburn famously said that most of the right actors win Oscars, just for the wrong roles and there is no better evidence for this theory than Dustin Hoffman. I know this exercise is about characters, not the people who played them, but there are so many that Hoffman has brought to the screen that it's a crime that the trophies came for Kramer Vs. Kramer and Rain Man. Of all his characters that went home empty-handed, I go with his trifecta in Tootsie. He's the struggling, self-centered actor Michael Dorsey, the female actress that Michael creates, Dorothy Michaels and the role of a hospital administrator on the soap opera that Dorothy lands a job on. Hoffman is so great that he creates two full-bodied characters in Dorothy and Michael and sometimes you even forget Dorothy is a man in disguise. He squeezes plentiful laughs and some pathos out of both characters. Michael Dorsey is a thing of wonder to watch — and Dorothy Michaels is no slouch herself.
9) Yes, Travis Bickle, I am talking to you. More accurately, I'm talking about you and your place in the pantheon of memorable cinematic characters. Since I already picked Howard Beale, that means I'm selecting two characters from 1976 (Addison and Norma were both 1950, but my point was the prescience of the '76 pair). Travis (Robert De Niro) is a pill-popping, fucked-up cab driver in New York when we first meet him — and that's before he goes off the deep end. It's not really Travis' fault: he tries to socialize but after so many years as a loner, how should he know that a woman's ideal date wouldn't include a trip to a porn theater. I mean, that's where Travis usually went for movies and he did wear a suit and tie. He figures out a full-proof plan to get a second chance with the lady: get rid of the other man in her life, the presidential candidate she works for, though his new Mohawk haircut is a bit of a giveaway for the Secret Service. Nothing left to do than try to save a young teen prostitute from her life of exploitation. Travis does so in a bloodbath that makes him a vigilante hero, when he hoped he'd end up dead. He might even get a new chance with that woman, but look in Travis' eyes: that timebomb still ticks.
10) When we first spot Quint, he's just in the background of the docks. When he makes his first actual appearance in Jaws, he is like nails on a chalkboard — literally. When Steven Spielberg's breakthrough film switches to a simple tale of three men on a boat in search of a shark, Quint begins as just a cranky old sea salt, prone to ribald jokes and downright unlikeable at times. Quint stays that way for a long while, until we gets to the movie's best scene. Night has fallen and the men have drank to much and Quint and Hooper are showing each other wounds from previous encounters with sea beasts and laughing when Brody asks Quint about one on his arm and the mood changes. Quint explains it was a tattoo he had removed and launches into a riveting monologue about the U.S.S. Indianapolis in World War II that he was on to secretly deliver the atomic bomb. After the delivery, they were torpedoed and most of the men went into the water and got picked off by sharks, one by one. It's a harrowing, true tale that gives an already interesting character true gravity.
Now, the hardest part of all. Picking the next five victims. I hope I'm not selecting anyone that has previously been selected.
Labels: Albert Brooks, Cary, Chayefsky, De Niro, Dunaway, Dustin Hoffman, Gloria Swanson, Hawks, Hecht, Holden, Holly Hunter, K. Hepburn, Lansbury, Mankiewicz, Rains, Roz Russell, Sanders, Spielberg, Streep, Wilder
Thanks for participating!