(SPOILERS: Die Hard, Notting Hill, True Grit, Iron Man)
Last post I discussed tools for writing star parts. Let’s look at how a few movies use these techniques.
Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza)
John McClane (played by Bruce Willis) is a great example of a role that elevates a genre film with a character that a star would love to play. McClane is extremely likeable – he’s an ordinary guy who sits in the front seat of the limo sent to pick him up from the airport. He’s exceptionally competent, remaining calm in tense situations; using clever, makeshift weapons; and defeating the bad guys with his brain rather than his brawn. He’s also an underdog – a lone, shoeless guy facing off against a brilliant nemesis with a horde of heavily armed henchmen.
But McClane has a flaw. His marriage is falling apart. His arc is learning to appreciate his wife’s ambition. It adds emotional depth to the great action plotting and allows Bruce Willis to play a range of emotions besides glib tough guy. At various times he’s afraid, angry, wistful, and despondent. He’s also able to show a lighter side when he pals around with Sergeant Powell over the walkie talkie. And, the emotional subplot gives McClane the chance to deliver a great monologue when he asks Powell to tell his wife he’s sorry.
Finally, think of all the great lines Bruce Willis gets to deliver: “Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs...” “Now I know what a TV dinner feels like.” “Who's driving this car, Stevie Wonder?” and the classic, “Yipee-ki-ay…” well I’ll let you finish that one for yourself.
Notting Hill (written by Richard Curtis)
Notting Hill has two big movie star roles. The writer makes William (played by Hugh Grant) likeable by showing that he treats people with kindness. Particularly, he treats movie star Anna (Julia Roberts) as a normal person, which she appreciates. Her character is a little tougher to make likeable since she’s rich and famous, but they give her an appealing underdog quality by dramatizing how she’s trapped by that fame and the strange demands of the job. She also treats people well, particularly William's family in the birthday party scene, and we see that she’s emotionally fragile.
Both characters are also given flaws. Anna has a temper and can jump to conclusions. William is a little unassertive and awkward. This makes the characters more well rounded and interesting for the actors. And because it’s a romantic comedy, both characters naturally go through a range of emotion: sad, happy, in love, angry, horny, and heartbroken. Particularly nice is when the paparazzi find out Anna is at William’s house. She directs misplaced anger at him and he rightly gets angry back. It’s a nice contrast to the lovey-dovey scene that preceded it, and a great opportunity for the actors to show what they can do.
In this case Anna gets two nice speeches – one when she’s at the dinner party and confesses how miserable her life can be, and one when she comes to the bookstore at the end to win William back. William doesn’t have any speeches, exactly, but he gets most of the funny lines. William is first introduced dealing with his nutty roommate and then we get the meet-cute moment between William and Anna in the bookstore. We see how he treats a book thief with kindness so we like him, then we like her when she signs an autograph to the thief with, “you belong in jail.”
True Grit (screenplay by Joel & Ethan Coen)
The most recent adaptation of True Grit demonstrates how to create a star role for a secondary character. The lead is a fourteen-year-old girl. There aren’t any fourteen-year-old movie stars that could carry a movie like True Grit. So we get Rooster Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges.
Cogburn is given a great introduction in the scene where Mattie tries to get him out of the outhouse, which is then followed up by his questioning in the trial. We immediately see what a great, complex character he is. Cogburn is likeable for his wit and skill. He’s also given a “save the cat” moment when he rescues Mattie from the whipping LaBoeuf is giving her.
But he’s got a lot of flaws as well, primarily that he’s a blowhard drunk. He’s given great emotional range, playing drunk, tough, angry, compassionate, foolish, and proud. And he has a wonderful arc from self-involved scoundrel to a man who nearly kills himself to get Mattie medical help at the end. Finally, in addition to abundant great lines, he’s given a nice speech when he “bows out” of the hunt, saying the trail has gone cold.
Iron Man (screenplay by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway)
The character of Iron Man is a tough sell to a star like Robert Downey Jr. It’s a comic book character whose face is covered by a mask a lot of the time. What elevates the role and the movie is the dimensionality of Tony Stark. Look at the wonderful entrance he’s given: a military convoy is drives through the desert. Cut inside to a glass of scotch. Tilt up to Tony Stark in an expensive suit. The soldiers are in awe of him. He makes jokes – he’s charming. Then the convoy is attacked!
Tony is likeable because in addition to his charm, he’s one of the most brilliant men in the world. Of course he also has lots of flaws – he’s selfish and self-involved. This makes him a wonderfully complex character. And his decision at the end of Act I to turn his company away from making weapons gets us rooting for him.
Tony Stark gets some great funny lines like, “Let's face it, this is not the worst thing you've caught me doing,” and “It's funny, I though with it being my plane and all that it would just wait for me. I mean, doesn't it kind of defeat the whole purpose of having your own plane if it departs before you arrive?” but he also gets to deliver great serious lines like: “I shouldn't be alive... unless it was for a reason. I'm not crazy, Pepper. I just finally know what I have to do. And I know in my heart that it's right.” And he gets to make two good speeches, one at the first press conference when he announces his intention to get out of the arms business, and one at the end when he reveals to the press that he is Iron Man.
NEXT UP: I’ve been re-reading Lagos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing (full review when I’m finished) and it’s got me thinking about how I do character development. So I decided to interview some successful writers on their character development approach. First up will be Ross LaManna (Rush Hour).