Friday, February 22, 2019

Lessons in Revealing Character from Oscar Nominated Films

(SPOILERS: Green Book, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, The Favourite, BlacKkKlansman, Roma)

It is nearly impossible to have a good story without good, three-dimensional characters. Characters who are fully realized and specific feel like real people, people we can care about. But it’s not enough to just create three-dimensional characters. You have to reveal the nature of those characters to the audience in believable, dramatic ways. We can learn some techniques for doing this well from this year’s Academy Award nominated films.

Dramatize with Behavior

In writing, there’s an old adage: Show, don’t tell. In film, this means dramatizing an idea rather than delivering it in expository dialogue. Here are some great examples of scenes that dramatize character traits:

In Green Book (written by Nick Vallelonga &Brian Currie & Peter Farrelly), we don’t need Tony to spout racist opinions (though he does a bit of that) to know he’s prejudiced. We see it when he throws the glasses in the trash after his wife gives two Black workmen a drink of water. After the Black men have used them, the glasses can never be clean enough for Tony. And the writers trust the audience – Tony doesn’t yell and scream, he just quietly puts the glasses in the trash.

That early scene in Green Book allows the writers to dramatize Tony’s character arc. Nothing Tony could say shows us he’s changed more than the act of inviting Dr. Shirley to join Tony’s family Christmas dinner at the end of the movie. By comparing these two scenes – the one where Tony throws away the glasses and the one where he invites a Black man to his table – it is obvious that Tony is not the same person after the experiences of the story.

In Can You Ever Forgive Me? (screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty), we learn a lot about Lee Israel from an early scene where she goes to a party held by her literary agent. The party is fancy and we learn Lee didn’t RSVP. Lee is only interested in pitching ideas to her agent, who brushes her off – that’s not what the party’s for. Lee soon leaves, stealing someone else’s coat on the way out. This scene, while not very important to the plot, shows us Lee’s disinterest in socialization and her lack of honesty or integrity. We sympathize with her because we see how much she’s struggling to make a living, but we can also easily believe this is someone who would graduate from stealing a coat to forging papers. And this comes mostly from her behavior, rather than from dialogue.

Similarly, in The Favourite (written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara), we don’t need a scene of Abigail telling someone her thoughts about marriage. We see exactly how she feels on her wedding night, when to satisfy her new husband’s amorous advances, she gives him a hand job, barely looking at him and continuing her monologue plotting her next political move uninterrupted. The writers found a way to show us that Abigail is not marrying for love or sex, but as a political ploy. And the scene demonstrates how little she cares about her husband through her behavior, rather than through her dialogue.

Using Contrast

We can also illuminate character by contrasting one character with another. This is often a major purpose of supporting characters – they offer alternative points of view on thematic issues. Here are some examples:

In BlacKkKlansman (written by Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee), we learn a lot about Ron Stallworth in his contrast with his love interest, Patrice. While Ron is trying to fit in with mainstream society and relying on the law for justice, Patrice believes that only resistance and rebellion will work. She rejects mainstream society and embraces her culture. Ron is forced to hide his job from her, an act that illustrates the complicated line he is trying to walk. Meanwhile, the character of Flip is going through his own arc – he’s never really thought of himself as Jewish (though he is), but encountering the KKK’s anti-Semitic attitude, he starts to reconsider that aspect of his identity and what it means. Contrasting these various characters and their perspectives on race and assimilation allows us to more fully understand the attitude of each one individually.

In Roma (written by Alfonso Cuaron), we see a nice bit of character behavior from Antonio (the father of the household) when he arrives home. His car barely fits between the walls of their driveway, so he has to carefully inch it in, adjusting frequently. We can contrast this later with Sofia (his wife) pulling the car in carelessly, scratching and denting it badly. Where Antonio is cautious, Sofia is emotional. This may not be so much an illustration of Sofia’s character qualities, but a sign of her emotional state within that scene. The point is, it illustrates her psychology through contrasting her behavior with Antonio’s in the simple act of parking the car.

There’s a scene in Green Book that uses contrast to delineate the two main characters. Tony buys fried chicken and convinces Dr. Shirley to eat it in the car, because Dr. Shirley has never tried it. We learn a lot about these two characters from this scene. Most obviously, we see that Tony is looser, happy to eat greasy food with his hands. Meanwhile, the idea of eating in the car without silverware is appalling to the uptight Dr. Shirley. At the end of the scene, Dr. Shirley makes Tony go back to pick up a cup he threw out the window. This shows Dr. Shirley’s respect for the rules and cleanliness – and Tony’s lack of such qualities.

On a more subtle level, this scene in Green Book is telling us something deeper about Dr. Shirley. The fact that he’s never had fried chicken – a stereotypical “Black” food – shows us that he is removed from the predominant Black experience of the time. And it’s a plant that’s paid off later when a host at a fancy dinner party serves fried chicken because that’s what the Black servants he polled thought Dr. Shirley would like. The latter scene dramatizes how the primary characteristic most people notice about Dr. Shirley is his race, and both scenes highlight his isolation.

It is useful to analyze successful movies like these to see the techniques they use so we can apply them to our own work. I’ll look at other lessons from this year’s Oscar nominated films in posts over the next few weeks.


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