Sunday, April 5, 2009

Character Studies



Ages ago, in blog terms (weeks, at least!), the excellent Edward Copeland tagged me with the "10 Favorite Characters In The History of the Movies" meme. Bill just tagged me, too. Here are the rules:

1) Name 10 film characters that are your favorite and explain why. We aren't talking about the actor who played them. Hamlet, Sherlock Holmes or Bond may be your favorite filmic sight on screen but you may hate the Mel Gibsons, Basil Rathbones or George Lazenbys who've played them. Of course no one's stopping you from mentioning your favorite players if you like.

2) Tag 5 more film bloggers when you're done, e-mail them, let 'em in on it, link back.

3) Read their posts and enjoy!


It took me awhile to get around to this, in part because of time, and in part because, well--this is impossible, of course. How can any true cinephile limit himself to ten? How can I separate the characters from the actors? Is it fair to limit it to just movies, when television shows generally give me a far greater investment in certain characters? Why should I subject my wall to the kind of damage it will no doubt receive when I think of ten other characters I should have mentioned, and start to bang my head against it? Poor, poor wall...

With that in mind, this is my "10 Favorite Characters In The History of the Movies That I Thought Of When I Sat Down To Do This, With The Caveat That I Will Later Think of 10 More, Dammit."

(Oh, and like Bill, I cheated, as will be apparent along the way.)

In alphabetical order:


1. Alvy Singer


I wrote more about him here (scroll down to question #12), but suffice to say that he's the character with whom-- for better and for worse-- I've probably had the most intense identification over the last twenty years.

2. Antoine Doinel
The remarkable thing about Antoine is how sympathetic he remains, despite doing any number of things that would seem to make him unsympathetic. He's self-involved, immature, dreamy-to-the-point-of-obliviousness, pretentious, irresponsible, impulsive. And yet there's not a moment across five films that I don't have at least a bit of sympathy for him. I think that's due to three things. First, the overwhelming impression that his sad face makes in those final moments of The 400 Blows, abandoned by his parents and running alone on the beach. Second, for all of his bad traits, he's hardly ever mean-spirited-- Antoine's behavior might create hilariously awful situations, but much of the humor arises from the gap between Antoine's actions and his intentions, and his own obliviousness at the mess he creates (he's like a youthful, verbal M. Hulot).

Finally, of course, there's Jean-Pierre Leaud, whose handsome-yet-awkward face and almost tangible angst allowed him to embody Antoine's uncertainties with a great deal of irony and grace. By the time the final film, Love On The Run came along in the late '70s, Leaud had tired of the role, and worried he'd be forever typecast as the clueless young man (he was right to worry). He insisted that Doinel reach some kind of maturity in the film, and Truffaut agreed, but interestingly, Run is the weakest film in the series; perhaps that's because a big chunk of it is clips from the previous films, but I think that desire for resolution is also fatal-- what we want is not a settled-down and happy Antoine, but the geeky searcher for truth who's forever lighting out for the territories, our Tin-Tin of the soul.

3. Bond, James Bond

I don't know if he's my favorite film character, but he's certainly in the top three somewhere, and he seems to be the figure around whom so many of my cinephiliac passions (for glamour, travel, sex, violence, gadgetry, serialized narrative, witty intertextuality, and the dominance mise-en-scene over plot) seem to gather. Connery is the best, of course, but I can make cases for all of them, even poor old Barry Nelson.


4. Captain Rennault

Has any character in Hollywood history had more good one-liners than Claude Rains' Louis? Whenever he shows up in Casablanca, you can almost feel the tingle of pleasure from an audience; I've taught the film several times, and while the politics and romance are definite draws, it's Rennault who they seem to enjoy the most. In that sense, then, Louis poses an interesting question about cinematic desire, and the ability of a good line or a knowing glance to upset the narrative architecture filmmakers work so hard to construct.

5. Elizabeth Bennet (as played by Jennifer Ehle)


Thirteen years ago, I was living in Chicago and working at the American Bar Association. The BBC version of Pride & Prejudice had recently aired on PBS, and a colleague of mine casually mentioned it at lunch. It had been years since I'd read the book, and the recent version of Sense & Sensibility hadn't wowed me as much as others (although I like it much more now). I did, however, like Clueless quite a bit, and the colleague's breathless description of the P&P miniseries made me curious. She said she had taped it, and loaned me the cassettes that Friday. I took them home and put them by my TV, where they stayed until Sunday evening.

"Oh, I'll just watch one," I said to myself.

Several hours later, I'd devoured 2/3 of the episodes, and only the demands of sleep made me stop. Everyone talks about Colin Firth (who is excellent) and Andrew Davies' adaptation (ditto), but for me it's Ehle who holds the whole thing together. She is expert at delivering Austen's witticisms, but so much of the film rests on her face and her movements. I don't mean that in prurient way (although she is quite beautiful), but rather want to suggest how hard it is to look right, in period garb, while sometimes doing nothing.

How many actors can't escape modernity and create a feeling of anachronism, or clutter the space with too many tics or gestures? It takes a lot of courage to remain still, and still seem in character. Ehle does this expertly, and it's her responses to things-- the look of warmth or humor or sadness that can flash in her eyes, as her face quickly rearranges itself into a mask of propriety-- that I remember. They give her Lizzie a weight and texture that other performances in the role simply can't match.


6. Octave


I watched Rules Of The Game again this week with my students. For all of the wonderful characters and performers in that film (I was so tempted to list Dalio's Robert here), and for all of the sense of it as an ensemble piece, I am more and more convinced that it is Octave (Jean Renoir) who is its center. He is an off-center center, to be sure-- both boisterous and sad, self-righteous and sensitive, wise yet foolish, he is no more resistant to the tug-and-pull between love and duty than any of the other figures in the film. And his flaws make him a dubious choice as the film's moral voice.

Then again, doesn't that make him the perfect choice? It is Octave who speaks the film's one certain truth-- that nothing is certain. "The terrible thing in life is, everyone has their reasons," Octave sighs to Robert towards the beginning of the film, and he's not even aware yet of the terrible fates that await. I don't know how Renoir managed to write and direct this masterpiece while also giving a performance that's so touching, so textured, so full of unspoken mysteries. All I know is that, when Octave stands on the steps and mimes his failed life as an orchestra conductor-- raising his arms in mockery, then hesitating (as if he suddenly feels the sadness underlining his self-deprecating), and finally slumping his shoulders in defeat-- it's a tiny masterpiece of performance, and the embodiment of Rules' inimitable layering of paradoxical (yet utterly logical) tones.

7. Roger O. Thornhill


As film theorist James Naremore notes in his essential Acting In The Cinema, it's really all about the socks.

Writing of Cary Grant's Roger O. Thornhill, running through the cornfields in North By Northwest, Naremore admits that his eyes are always drawn to the dapper colored patterns on Thornhill's socks, the cut of his suit, the elegant silk gray of his tie. He notes that Grant is in excellent running shape for a man of 57. He thinks about how it seems incongruous to be running through a cornfield in such a nice suit, yet absolutely right at the same time.

I am one with Naremore here-- it's the witty, surreal elegance of Grant/Thornhill's appearance here that makes the scene work. Crack one smile, let it become campy for one second, and it's over. After all, the suit's already doing that work for you.

"What's the 'O' stand for?," Eve Kendall purrs to Thornhill on the train as she turns his monogrammed cigarette lighter in her hand. "Nothing," he smiles back. It's possible to read that exchange as Hitchcock's playful jab at his old boss, David O. Selznick, whose middle initial also stood for nothing (he added it for rhythm and respectability). It also feels like the best acknowledgment of Hitchcock's method-- Roger is a cipher, a blank everyman upon whom we project our own identities, fears and desires.

The problem is, he's played by Cary Grant, the most elegant movie star in American history, and someone who is the furthest thing from a blank everyman. Look how he dresses in that cornfield, after all.

But is he really that far from us? "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant," Grant himself said. "Even I want to be Cary Grant. I worked at it and worked at it until I became him, or he became me." David Thomson wrote that Grant was cinema's best actor (true) because he was able to show light and dark simultaneously. Another way to say that, perhaps, is to say that he's simultaneously invested in the character, but also letting us in on the joke of his performance ("I became him, or he became me").

That makes Thornhill the masterpiece of this most masterful of actors. In a sense, nothing could be further from reality-- a self-absorbed ad man who is thrust into a world of espionage and danger simply because he raises his hand at a gentleman's club. But at every turn, Thornhill seems like a meta-commentary on movie acting (thrust into crazy stories, your wardrobe picked out for you, your name changed, and what does it all stand for? Nothing), and Grant is devilish fun in the role-- just when you think Roger has reached some level of maturity by rescuing Eve and hanging precipitously on the nose of George Washington, he's suddenly in a train car and up to his old seduction tricks again. And we couldn't be happier.

8. Susan Vance


From the moment her golf game begins to unravel David Huxley's world, it's clear that Susan Vance is trouble. "Your car. Your ball. Is there anything that isn't yours?," she asks him with a haughty expression in her eye. "Yes, thank heavens!," an exasperated David responds. "You!"

And yet Susan is so adorable in her energetic, dizzy obliviousness that I can't help but love her. I love her when she conducts quasi-scientific experiments with olives and martini glasses. I love her when her dress rips at the nightclub, and her voice quivers with embarrassment as David must cover her butt with his top hat. I love her when she sings "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" to her leopard in the middle of a nighttime hunt through the Connecticut countryside, and when she plays a mobster moll at the Connecticut jail, and when her good intentions destroy the dinosaur skeleton at the end of the film.

And I love her when she finds out, over the phone, that David is going to be married, and Bringing Up Baby cuts to a close-up of her face in all its sadness and secret planning. Hawks uses the close-up so rarely in the film that there's a real emotional kick when he does-- suddenly, her air of screwball craziness has been punctured, and we see the humanity underneath.

9. The Swashbuckler (Flynn)


This is my big cheat, because I can't pick just one Errol Flynn character-- from Captain Blood to The Adventures of Don Juan, they feel like pieces of one larger prism, through which we can think about the shifting role of the adventure hero in American cinema (I'm even tempted to toss in Gentleman Jim-- it's not a swashbuckler, but Flynn's amazingly energetic performance makes it feel like one).

I can't overstate how important these films were to me in my childhood and adolescence. There was a program on WGN when I was a kid called Family Classics, which aired on Sunday afternoons after church. It showed a variety of Classic Hollywood movies (the Andy Hardy films were a staple), but every year they would show The Adventures of Robin Hood. The conceit of the program was that its "bumpers" took place in a library; the host would take a book off the shelf that had the film's title embossed on the cover, and that would be our entry point into the movie.

This "open the book and turn the pages" format was the perfect way to leap into the fairy tale worlds that Flynn occupied. Whether it was Sherwood Forest, the high seas or a castle's staircase, he had a larger-than-life persona that could only work within the confines of the adventure narrative. I think of Flynn, and endless images pour forth-- Robin Hood pushing his way through the Sheriff's men and dropping dead deer on Prince John's dinner table (Robin's presence announced, before we even see him, by the swelling score of Eric Wolfgang Korngold); his smirk as he puts his legs up on Prince John's table, and in response to Marion's calls to "hold his tongue," replies, "That's a skill I've never learned, my lady"; the almost psychotic delirium of Captain Blood as he swings on the ropes from ship to ship, rapier in hand; the sharp-tongued interplay of Flynn and Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex; the pitched swordfights between Flynn and Basil Rathbone.

Flynn was pitched by Warner Brothers as a possible Rhett Butler, and it's fascinating to think what he might have done with that part-- there's a cruelty that occasionally underlies even his heroic characters that might have been well-exploited by that role (you can also see glimmers of it in The Dawn Patrol and especially in the fabulous Objective, Burma!). But the main thing I always take from Flynn's swashbucklers is joy-- a joy in performing, in fighting, in camraderie, and in finally winning the heart of the girl that you love. It's infectious, and it reminds us of the upside of Hollywood escapism. "In life with Errol, you always knew what you were getting," David Niven wrote of his longtime friend. "He always let you down." In life, maybe, but not in the movies, and certainly not as The Swashbuckler-- here, it's sheer bliss-out.

10. Tony Hunter


"The Girl Hunt"? "That's Entertainment"? "Dancing In The Dark"? "Triplets"? Nah-- those are all fantastic numbers, some of my favorites from the history of Hollywood musicals. But if I could choose just one scene from The Band Wagon to get at why I love Tony Hunter, it would be the moments leading up to his melancholy, two-minute soliloquy, "By Myself".

Tony sits in his private train car and lights up a cigarette as the porter takes his bag. He jokes about not wanting to get off. He jokes, but not really-- he's terrified of what awaits him when he gets off, and even more terrified that nothing will. He pauses a moment, adjusts his tie and hat, and then strides with false bravado to the gaggle of reporters waiting by the train.

Thinking they're there for him, he talks for a minute, until the reporters' real target-- Ava Gardner-- gets off the train, and the mass of newsmen suddenly abandon him. He chats with Gardner for a moment, then begins to walk alongside the train, singing to himself: "No one knows better, than I, myself/I"m by myself, alone."

As Stanley Cavell has noted, this song acts as both self-examination and declaration of independence-- it's not just that he's by himself, but that he'll solve his problems on his own ("I'll build a world of my own"). Hunter's movement is similarly doubled, similarly ambiguous, caught between a walk and a dance. As the number opens, Astaire works a chuckle in, acknowledging Tony's sadness but still facing it with a most elegant display of existential courage.

The song lasts only a minute and 44 seconds, and Tony's darkness is soon punctured by the sound of his friends greeting him with banners and horns. But everything he will be-- indeed, everything the film itself will be-- is expressed in this number, which gracefully offers a pas de deux between hope and sadness, dark and light, laughter and singing, the walk and the dance.


I will tag Brendan, Larry, Bob, Kimberly and that great character of the film blogosphere, Greg (who, for those of you keeping track at home, used to call himself "Jonathan Lapper").

21 comments:

Larry Aydlette said...

Tony Hunter! I love The Band Wagon.

larry aydlette said...

Mine's up.

Brian Doan said...

Hi Larry,
I couldn't figure out how to comment on your new blog, so I'll respond to your great list here (and thanks for playing along!).

It's interesting how many people chose Walter from HIS GIRL FRIDAY-- I've seen him pop up on more than a few lists. He's a great character, and I suspect most people would have at least one Cary Grant character on their list.

And GIttes! How could I forget him? Great character!

Greg said...

Yeah it's impossible to comment on that Tumblr thing of Larry's. Boy, I can hardly wait till he switches blogs again back to blogspot. Should be about two more weeks.

Thanks for the tag, I'll endeavor to get something up soon.

Brian Doan said...

Greg,
Look forward to seeing your list. Especially since that bastard Bill failed to tag you.

I wish tumblr allowed for comments, but I'm still digging what Larry's doing over at his place.

bill r. said...

Great list, Brian, and I --

Especially since that bastard Bill failed to tag you

Hey!

Well, anyway. This is a great list, and shames mine, because all I did was put up some lame-ass pictures. I gotta quit being such a lame-ass.

And yeah, Gittes. What a ridiculously glaring omission. But then if we all remembered him, then he'd be on every list, and that'd be boring.

Brian Doan said...

Hey Bill!
I was just riffing on the playful teasing that occurred at your blog when you "failed" to tag Greg. I don't really think you're a bastard.

At least...I don't yet. (:

Yeah, part of the fun of these lists is seeing how different they can be. I agree having Jack/Jake on every list would be dull.

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

Thanks for asking me to participate, Brian! I'm compiling my list and hope to have it posted soon. Generally speaking I'm terrible at these meme things. I spend way too much time thinking about them!

I loved seeing Susan Vance on your list, btw. I love Kate in general and she's just unforgettable in that movie. So smart, so funny and so brash. I would have fallen for her to!

Brian Doan said...

Hi Kimberly,
Cool! I can't wait to see your list! Isn't Susan Vance great? I like Hepburn a lot, too, and she's so well-paired (so much fun) with Cary Grant in that film.

packey said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


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digital_sextant said...

Oop. For those of you who don't follow my blog, here's my response to Brian's tag.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

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