Character in American Cinema

 by G. Murphy Donovan (January 2011)

When I first saw you, I thought you were handsome. Then, of course, you spoke.”Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets

All literature is the search for a better metaphor. If this is true, cinema might be described as a quest for a better image, literally and figuratively. Film and the associated crafts play a large role in the way Americans see themselves and the way others see America. For good or ill, movies are celluloid and digital records of shifting American values and culture.

Few arts are uniquely American with the exceptions of Jazz, Rock and Roll, quilting, decoy carving, barbeque, and cheeseburgers. Among these, motion pictures are preeminent. Thomas Edison had a lot of good ideas, but story telling with film is surely the most influential. From the beginning, Americans made the best good movies and the best bad movies.

That ambiguous dominance continues today. Indeed, overseas critics often characterize American motion pictures as cultural imperialism. If this is true then foreign viewers would be political masochists. Hollywood doesn’t employ many Lani Riefenstahls; propaganda doesn’t sell. And there are few aesthetic differences between propaganda and pornography, although porn will always have a more attractive bottom (line).

The words “motion picture,” movie, or film are understood universally in any language. The meaning of the adjective “American” is less clear. Americans are the descendants of people who came from someplace else. Europeans migrated because there was something lacking where they were. This is especially true for the American film industry where immigrants have played a pivotal role. Many newcomers who become Yankees seem to be hardwired as adventurers or risk takers.

The first European who laid down such a marker was John Smith, charter member of the first English speaking business in America (the Virginia Company). Smith would have been unique in any culture. He was a soldier of fortune, slave, navigator, explorer, map maker, linguist, and journalist.

He was a critic of aristocracy in an era when it was dangerous to attempt to rise above the class of your birth. Smith was an outspoken advocate of entrepreneurship and meritocracy. Many of his notions found their way into the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. To understand American character, it is important to remember that America was a business before it was a democracy. Indeed, Smith’s most famous adage still rings like crystal; “Those who will not work, shall not eat!”

A century after John Smith, the political heart of America was thriving in Virginia. Washington, Madison, Mason, Jefferson, and Henry resurrected Periclean democracy from the ashes of antiquity. With some thoughts from John Locke and Adam Smith, they created a new paradigm with a hard Yankee varnish.

The most important ideas to come from colonial forge were independence, freedom, and republican democracy. And the value established by the American Revolution and the War of 1812 was that words mattered. Ideas are worth fighting for; ideas are worth dying for. A few years later, at Gettysburg, Lincoln borrowed a euphemism (from Pericles) for such sacrifice when he called it “the last full measure of devotion.” He wasn’t taking about dying for a country; he was talking about dying for belief and ideas.

Fair play and social justice were two of those ideals. The Civil War was the great bloody test of American character, truly a red badge of courage. Slavery was freedom deferred. Slavery and states rights were the unfinished business of colonial America. Other values underscored by the Civil War were humility, optimism, and redemption; a nation humble enough to recognize error and optimistic enough to believe it could be saved from itself.

Redemption was the early golden thread of American culture; a belief in good and evil and a belief in good triumphant. The Scarlet Letter is the American novel that tells this tale best. Film classics, like On the Waterfront (1954), are direct descendants. Almost all American westerns and gangster films are less elegant morality plays. Ironically, good and evil often take the same road to the same grave – for different reasons. Shane (1953) is a good guy, but he dies too. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

Actually, it’s guns. Firearms play a large role in American’s short history. Guns of every sort are used to settle issues great and small. Film does not exaggerate so much as reflect the role of guns in American history and culture – although Hollywood body counts are more than a little fantastic. The value at work here, enshrined in the Constitution, is that Americans do not give police, soldiers and criminals an exclusive franchise on deadly force. Call it defensive lethality. Guns are closely related to a historical suspicion of intrusive government. They also represent a kind of portable fair play. From the beginning, a gun was thought to be the great equalizer – the instrument that levels the field. Indeed, that ubiquitous Colt six-shooter of the American West was called “the Peacemaker.”

God and guns is an unlikely pair but Americans believe in both. For some, Hollywood competes to be the most godless place on the face of the earth. Yet, the contradictions here are not as profound as they appear.  Elmer Gantry’s double think (1960) is as American as apple pie.

The recent film adaptation of Doubt (2008) is an excellent treatment of ethics leavened with uncertainty – an intramural moral struggle between two Catholic clerics. Say what you will about the progressive religious views of the priest and the conservative visions of the nun; kids are still trusted to their school. Faith and trust are synonymous.

Hollywood traditionally reflects this moral culture precisely because it is a product of democracy. A thousand porn films, chic flics, mindless cartoons, or paeans to political correctness are redeemed by films such as As Good As it Gets (2007). Here, Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt are pitch perfect; he as the mean neurotic intellectual and she as the hardscrabble waitress and working mom. They are a fusion of values; regret and trust. He has enough regret to become a better man and she has enough trust to love a flawed creature. America may be part moral cesspool, but some good bits still rise to the top.

The flawed hero is a staple of American film. Nonetheless, American heroes seem to be in transition. The tall strong silent type may be an endangered species. It’s hard to imagine Jimmy Stewart, Burt Lancaster, Gregory Peck, or John Wayne enjoying iconic stature today. When Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson are gone, it’s hard to fathom who will replace them. Indeed, when a hard case is needed, we now import our warriors from England (Daniel Craig) or Australia (Russell Crowe).

The pugnacious bantam – Mickey Rooney, Jimmy Cagey, Edward G. Robinson, and Humphrey Bogart – seems to have bit the dust also. Manly men and studly fellows have been cut by the soft focus of political correctness. Soft is the new hard. Pretty Boy Floyd is now just pretty. Men are weak and women are strong. Thelma might marry Louise!

The simple answer is Shakespearian. All the world’s a stage; art simply holds a mirror to life. Yet, it may be fair to ask whether these shifting values represent American character or a politicized Hollywood. Does gender bending reflect a sea change of sex roles or is Hollywood trying to peddle preferred models of politically correct sexual equality and androgyny?

After seeing Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Noel Coward claimed that, if Peter O’Toole had been any prettier, the film could have been called “Florence” of Arabia. Woody Allen has led the charge against the traditional view of American heroes – especially males. He has been making the same film for 40 years: nerdy, spectacled, neurotic New Yorker does the big city. The Allen hero only has one permanent relationship – with his therapist. His girls wear pants; quirky but capable. His men are flaccid and inept. The perennial urban putz is Allen’s most significant contribution to American cinema.

Saturday Night Live calls them girlie-men. It’s not just the obvious farce like Tootsie ( 1982) where Dustin Hoffman becomes a cross-dresser for hire, but the ease with which today’s leading men slip into mom’s lingerie.  

Craft is not the problem; the issue is casting.

Surely, the likes of Tom Cruise, Leonardo Di Caprio, Brad Pitt, and George Clooney are competent actors. At the same time, they are so pretty; it’s hard to believe they are selected for their talent. Pretty leading men give us some gross distortions. Cruise as a Nazi combat veteran in Valkyrie (2008) is an example! Put aside for a moment the whole question of Nazi “heroes,” tiny Tom could wear two eye patches, high heeled hip boots, and a monocle and still not be convincing. Di Caprio as an Irish gangster, (Gangs of New York, 2002) from the lower East Side is another charade. Many miscast extravaganzas are historical; Schindler’s List (1993) is the prominent example.

Here again, we must willingly suspend disbelief while Hollywood tries to rehabilitate the unredeemable. As this tale is told by Steven Spielberg, the action spins around a Jew and two Germans of the Nazi era. There’s a good German, a bad German, and an emaciated middleman with a big nose. The villain is played by an Englishman; the hero is played by an Irish matinee idol; and the Jewish prisoner is played by an Anglo/Indian. No menacing German to play the bad Nazi; no authentic Jew to play the inmate; and no plump, morally ambiguous burgomasters to play Schindler? Any Mel Brooks take on the Holocaust is more responsible than Schindler’s List. The problem with the Speilberg images is that they are not a way of remembering so much as they are a kind of forgetting.

Surely, Liam Neeson is no girlie-man, but just as surely, Schindler was no matinee idol. Putting a hunky face on one of Germany’s ethical ciphers is not simply bad theater, its dangerous history. Looking good appears to be the new “looking the part.” Humphry Bogart could play any part because he was everyman – he looked to be the guy next door.

While male leads are having their giblets snipped, female leads appear to be growing a pair. Thelma and Louise (1991) is a standard bearer in this class. Two gal pals beyond their prime, fed up with abusive men (are there any other kind?), launch themselves on a cross-country jaunt punctuated by boy toys, homicide, and suicide. Unfortunately, too many of these “serious” female leads are actually victims in drag – call it the digital rack.

A favorite in this genre is Monster (2003) with Charlize Theron. This bio-pic is based on the real life adventures of a serial killer. By day, our heroine was a heterosexual hooker. Her leisure was divided between her girlfriend and a series of executions where the victims are all male. Hollywood couldn’t find any redeeming features in this woman’s real story so they made one up. They made her a victim – a victim of childhood sexual abuse by, you guessed it, a male abuser. We are left in a quandary. Is abuse a prelude to sexual preference or psychosis – or both? Film has a flair for reinforcing stereotypes and rationalizing social pathology. 

Pause here for a dollar and cents reality check. Most recent artistic products, from Hollywood and the Valley, cater to pornographic, politically correct, or pubescent tastes – the loathsome and the lonesome. For the pining teen, Tom and Brad can play any role because they’re so totally cute! Adolescence and tumescence are the cash cows of the movie industry. As with Chekhov, the last act is preordained to be like the first. In any given year, most of what makes it to the screen is garbage.

Going to a cineplex today may be a little like trying to fish pearls out of a toilet; nonetheless, Hollywood continues to be ground zero for the best. To date, the American industry has produced the best genre flics. No town makes a better western, film noir, crime thriller, comedy, or musical – to note just a few examples. Yet, when it comes to history, biography, religion or great literature, Hollywood is still a tin man in search of an oil can.

Part of the problem with history and biography seems to be quality competition. The British do these things so well that Hollywood seems to have ceded the field. The English film industry also benefits from direct government subsidies on both sides of the pond. BBC will make a film at taxpayer expense and then sell it to America’s CPB where it is aired again with taxpayer help. It’s hard to compete with trans-Atlantic socialism squared. American and British “state” filmmakers now benefit from the best of both worlds; Karl Marx and Adam Smith.

Religion and great American literature are more of a puzzle. The aforementioned Scarlet Letter is an example of great source material that covers both subjects – yet to be done well by Hollywood. Hester Prynne is not simply the story of a fallen angel redeemed. The back story is even more fascinating. Hawthorne was writing in midst of the ‘great awakening,’ the Yankee critique of Luther and Calvin. 

In the process of trying to reform Catholicism, reform zealots had rejected beliefs in redemption, free will, and good works. Hawthorne, a writer with Puritan roots, and his fictional Scarlet Letter, helped to restore these core values to American variants of Christianity. A forgettable film version of the Hawthorne classic ran briefly in 1995.

John Smith and his American Indian protégé, Matoaka (aka Pocahontas), are another great tale that has been bowdlerized by Hollywood. There are hundreds of serious books on this quintessential American pair. Yet, the film industry has perpetuated myth and ignored history – in the process creating a buffoon and a cartoon. In life, these two were seminal “what ifs” of early American history.

What if Captain Smith had been returned to Virginia as governor after his burns healed? Smith had been a white slave. It is unlikely he would have tolerated that institution in Virginia. If slavery had not taken root in Virginia, how different the American 19th and 20th Centuries might have been. And Matoaka, by marrying John Rolfe (America’s first agricultural tycoon) had bridged the cultural divide between the English and the indigenous. What if this talented girl had not died at the age of 23 and returned to Virginia with her husband to create another template for European and Indian relations – another great American tale yet to be told well with film.



A short list of great American films (not listed in any particular order of merit) follows below where character, or lack of it, plays a leading role. Hollywood may improve on these but for the moment these areas good as it gets.


As Good As It Gets (2007)

No civil society is possible without trust and regret. No relationship, be it public or private, is possible without trust; no progress or change is possible without regret – seeing the error of our ways. As Good As It Gets is a painfully funny examination of these two essential human values.

Jack Nicholson plays an annoying, neurotic bigot against Helen Hunt’s burdened single mother; the improbable story of how an urbane schmuck and a tough working girl find common ground. As the tale unfolds, she is a stout lifeline to a man drowning in a sea of self absorption – or as any New Yorker might see it, obsessive compulsive disorder.

Nicholson and Hunt bring it off because they are simply the best at what they do. He has played every imaginable role except God – although he has done a very credible devil (Witches of Eastwick, 1987)). If Helen Hunt had a better agent, she might be Meryl Streep. Any film made by these actors is worth seeing.


Casablancamakes every “best” list for good reasons; a great romance, a story well told, and a timely vision of the future. In 1942, the course and outcome of WWII was far from certain. Many Americans like Rick (Humphrey Bogart) were ambiguous about Europe’s war and alliances with the likes of Vichy France.

Casablancawas prescient on both counts. In time, fiction and the real world merged. The film was a triumph that anticipated the outcome of the war. Knowing that most of the cast, save Bogart, were refugees from the Nazi Europe gives the film special merit. However, it’s hard to believe that this movie would enjoy iconic stature without the pairing of Bogart and Bergman. He was everyman and she was every man’s fantasy.

On the Waterfront (1954)

On the Waterfrontis a film maker’s response to a real world dilemma. The director, Elia Kazan, was one of Hollywood’s courageous few who named names during the anti-Communist purge of the 1950’s. Those who characterize this period as a ‘witch hunt’ seldom mention that the witches were innocent; the closet Communists were not.

Kazan’s classic tells the story of Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), an Irish dockworker who testifies against the Italian waterfront mob boss (Lee J. Cobb) who ordered the murder of his girlfriend’s brother. Eva Marie Saint does justice to her name as the picture perfect virgin. Kazan and the fictional Terry Malloy did the right thing and paid the price. Ironically, the film industry gave Kazan the Academy Award, yet never forgave him for his anti-Communist testimony – or his likening mid-century Hollywood leftists to the New York mafia.

Doubt (2008)

Doubtis an ethical tempest in a Bronx Catholic teapot. And it is a good pretext to include Meryl Streep’s work here. She is the best living actor working. If she were a man, she would be the sum of Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood. She is that good.

Here she plays ‘old school’ Sister Aloysius, foil to ‘new school’ Father Flynn (Phillip S. Hoffman). What we have here is not a failure to communicate, but an ethical triptych; a dogmatic nun, a progressive priest, and a pragmatic mother (Viola Davis). The three swirl around an axis of suspicion where there can be no comfortable resolution. Nonetheless, it is a great morality play. We are left knowing that not all moral choices are binary; some are just pragmatic. We also leave knowing that ethics are points of departure not destinations.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) is the historical antidote to Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939). The segregation and institutionalized bigotry that followed Emancipation was in many ways worse than slavery. Harper Lee rolled an expertly crafted grenade into the American psyche with her novel upon which this film was based. Gregory Peck plays the white lawyer who defends a black man wrongly accused. Unfortunately, most attorneys never approach the high standards of integrity and courage set by the fictional Atticus Finch. Nonetheless, To Kill a Mockingbird is another testimony to the virtue and costs of doing the right thing. This film also introduces a young Robert Duval, with hair – the first and last time he played a mute.

Play Misty for Me (1971)


Almost anything that Clint Eastwood does is noteworthy, even those spaghetti Westerns. Like Burt Lancaster, he gets better with age – a great hero but an even better anti-hero. Most of his small ensemble flics, the Unforgiven (1992), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Gran Torino (2008), etc. are gems. Play Misty is early Eastwood, a typical quirky slice of life. He plays a smarmy disc jockey – a rogue who beds but does not wed. One night he makes the mistake of dating a caller to his broadcast. What follows is every player’s worst nightmare; a female stalker. American women do not suffer chumps or cheaters gladly. Jessica Walter is a model for women scorned. Hitchcock never crafted a better bent babe in search of gender justice.

Eastwood, the director, like Kazan and Coppola, are great because their art always rises above their material. Their slices of life make the ordinary interesting.

Miracle (2004)

This is a small film about a coach, Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell), who takes a group of college hockey players to the Olympics. The sport is significant because hockey is as close as you can get to combat without actually firing a gun. On one level, it is a study of how talented individuals learn the value of teamwork. On another level, it is a character study of coaching or leadership. The only flaw here is the stereotyped Soviets, mere foils for the Americans. The Russian hockey team of this period was probably the best in history.

But in the end, it is compelling piece of the Cold War on film – a true tale of how an amateur team of Americans beat the Soviet national team in the 1980 Olympics. Any numbers of virtues are on display here, not the least of which is discipline and hard work. But the real bottom line is a simple message: life is a team sport.

Caddy Shack (1980)

This is the film for all those who think Americans take their sports too seriously. Golf is the antithesis of hockey; golf is as close as you can come to a real sport without exertion. Indeed, golf discourages physical effort; it is the only major recreation where players use electric carts on the playing field. No leisure activity uses more herbicide, pesticides, and green space. But the real toxic waste is the overweight white guys who play the sport. God created golf for parody, just as surely as Harold Ramis created this cult classic.

Bill Murray is featured as the deranged greens keeper who literally wages war on local gophers. Ted Knight plays the pompous, petty country club apparatchik who enforces club etiquette and shaves strokes from his game. Rodney Dangerfield plays the loud, wealthy parvenu – a study in bad taste. Deflating a sport where the “athletes” can’t carry their own equipment, this caddy-eye view of the country club set is American satire at its best.    

Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963)

The true test of character is humor; any government that can’t laugh at itself is doomed. Any screenplay by Stanley Kubric and Terry Southern is bound to be a wild ride. Indeed, Strangelove is the definitive send up of the Cold War and Russo phobia. Nothing is sacred; not politicians, not science, not the military, not strategy, and certainly not nuclear weapons. At first glance, you might not think that atomic bombs and mutually assured destruction (MAD) aren't that funny, but that would mean that you haven’t seen this movie.

Peter Sellers plays three roles, including a US president and a mad scientist (pardon any redundancy) in the company of George C. Scott, among others. Sellers should have been awarded instant citizenship or at least an American passport for his performances.

Cinderella Man (2005)


This is a true story about an uncommon man. James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) was a Depression era prize fighter and manual laborer. He loved his work, he loved his wife (Renee Zellweger), and he loved his children. He traveled a road from champ to chump and back again to champion. Along the way he worked on the docks and in construction; he and his family even spent some time on welfare (nee public assistance). Braddock and Crowe have shared DNA, descendants of Irish immigrants and pugnacious family men. Crowe is the new Robert Mitchum.

After winning the title late in life, Braddock brought a small house in New Jersey where he lived until he died. He also took a portion of his purse and paid back every dime he had ever received on public assistance. When asked why he returned the money to the state, Braddock replied that he was proud to live in a country that helped a man when he was down; yet, that didn’t relieve him from the obligation to pay that money back.

Shane (1953)

The cowboy, the gunfighter, and the Western are unique American art forms. Selecting the best here is hobbled by an embarrassment of riches; High Noon (1952), John Wayne’s True Grit (1962), the Unforgiven, and now a remake of True Grit (2010) among them.

Shane makes the cut because, like Casablanca, it features a reluctant warrior (Alan Ladd) who in the end takes on the bad guys. Our champion is a quiet man, forced by circumstance to strap on his iron. Shane is also a tale of love lost – a good man who loves another’s wife. Inevitably our hero, bleeding from his wounds, rides off into a grim sunset. Two hearts are broken; our heroine and her son. Both idolize Shane. The last scene records the plaintiff wail of the boy: “Shane! Come back, Shane!”

We mourn the lost idols of our youth. Roll credits; raise the lights; choke back tears! Good art touches our hearts.



Like Ponyboy in the Outsiders (1983), the author always walked from the dark of movie theaters into the white Bronx sunlight thinking of heroes – and a safe way home.


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