How Screenwriters Described Iconic Female Characters

Posted on April 10, 2018 at 3:22 pm

We’ve seen so many awful stories about the way that female characters are described in movie scripts that it was a real relief and pleasure to read Vulture’s list of the way that fifty great characters were first imagined and described by their screenwriters.  There’s a whole extra level of delight in getting to see writing by some of the best writers in Hollywood that we would normally not get to see.  We think of them as only being responsible for the witty dialogue, but they are also every bit as good at defining a character in a few short sentences of description as they are with what we will actually hear her say on screen.  (Note: The odd capitalization of character names and other words is standard for movie scripts.)

Kyle Buchanan and Jordan Crucchiola lead off with one of the most vivid characters in the history of movies, aging theatrical star Margo Channing, as played by Bette Davis in “All About Eve :”

How do you create a memorable female character? It helps if you get it right from the very beginning, as Joseph L. Mankiewicz did in his screenplay for All About Eve when he introduced the woman who would be played by Bette Davis. “The CAMERA follows the bottle to MARGO CHANNING,” wrote Mankiewicz in his stage directions. “An attractive, strong face. She is childish, adult, reasonable, unreasonable — usually one when she should be the other, but always positive.”  

via GIPHY

One of the best ones is this wonderfully evocative introduction of the faded movie star played by Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard:”

via GIPHY

Norma Desmond stands down the corridor next to a doorway from which emerges a flickering light. She is a little woman. There is a curious style, a great sense of high voltage about her. She is dressed in black house pajamas and black high-heeled pumps. Around her throat there is a leopard-patterned scarf, and wound around her head a turban of the same material. Her skin is very pale, and she is wearing dark glasses.

Few women but Audrey Hepburn could truly live up to this description in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s:”

The girl walks briskly up the block in her low cut evening dress. We get a look at her now for the first time. For all her chic thinness she has an almost breakfast-cereal air of health. Her mouth is large, her nose upturned. Her sunglasses blot out her eyes. She could be anywhere from sixteen to thirty. As it happens she is two months short of nineteen. Her name (as we will soon discover) is HOLLY GOLIGHTLY.

via GIPHY

One of the best screen couples has got to be Nick and Nora Charles from “The Thin Man.” If you haven’t had the pleasure of falling in love with them onscreen, rest assured that this description of Nora will do it for you:

NORA CHARLES, Nick’s wife, is coming through. She is a woman of about twenty-six… a tremendously vital person, interested in everybody and everything, in contrast to Nick’s apparent indifference to anything except when he is going to get his next drink. There is a warm understanding relationship between them. They are really crazy about each other, but undemonstrative and humorous in their companionship. They are tolerant, easy-going, taking drink for drink, and battling their way together with a dry humor.

via GIPHY

I especially enjoyed the contrast between the descriptions of Sarah Connor in the first and second “Terminator” movies. And the quiz to try to guess the character from the description.

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Film History For Your Netflix Queue Gender and Diversity Great Characters Movie History Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Must-See Movie Moment: The April Fools

Posted on April 1, 2014 at 8:00 am

Happy April! This is from my book, 101 Must-See Movie Moments.

The April Fools is a 1969 film starring Jack Lemmon and Catherine Deneuve that, if remembered at all, is thought of as a dated mid-life crisis romance and a clumsy attempt by Hollywood to make something that was, to use a briefly popular term of the era, “relevant.”

Lemmon plays Howard Brubaker, a good man who tries to do his best but is not quite sure how he got caught up in the phony notions of success he seems stuck with. No one else is questioning it, so he hardly lets himself be aware of how unsatisfied he is. He is married to a woman who seems to care only about decorating their home (Sally Kellerman). His boss (Peter Lawford) encourages Howard to find happiness the way he has – by having a lot of affairs. When he politely asks a woman at the party (Deneuve as Catherine Gunther) if he can buy her a drink she takes it as an invitation to leave the party and he is nonplussed. And he is even more so when he finds himself falling in love with her. What he does not know is that she is married to his boss.

They go off together and spend an evening that will lead them both to realize how much they had been missing and how dishonest they had been with themselves.

Lemmon was so good in outlandish roles like “The Great Race” and “Some Like It Hot” it is easy to forget that no one was better at playing a decent guy struggling with the challenges of modern life and trying to do the right thing. Deneuve struggles with the English dialog, but she is so serenely gorgeous it does not really matter. It is a pleasant, if bittersweet little trifle, but one scene makes it worthwhile and that is when Howard and Catherine meet an older couple who more by example than by anything they say make them think seriously about where they want to be at that age and who they want to be with. And that couple is magnificently portrayed by two of the all-time greats, Charles Boyer and Myrna Loy.

Joseph Campbell wrote about the prevalence in myth of “the old man in the woods,” the character sought out by the hero to help guide him on his journey. Think of Yoda in “The Empire Strikes Back” or Professor Falken in “Wargames” or “Deep Throat” in “All the President’s Men” or Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films or Aslan in the Narnia movies or the psychiatrist in “Ordinary People.” These are the hero’s corner men, the ones who throw water on his face and rub his shoulders and get him back in the ring swinging. “The April Fools” is a particularly good example because as the characters played by Boyer and Loy show the younger couple how much they appreciate what they have together, we also get a sense of the older generation of actors passing the torch to Lemmon and Deneuve.

Brubaker and Catherine go to the club the boss recommended, an outlandish place with a jungle theme, where animal-skin waitresses are summoned by popgun blasts to their rear ends. They leave for a disco, where they meet Grace (Loy) and when her driver turns out to be drunk, they take her back to her home. There they meet her husband André (Boyer), who explains that nothing good happens during the day (the sun beats down, people have to work), so he has chosen to live at night (women are beautiful, there is champagne to drink). This is just one of the ways in which Brubaker and Catherine have entered an upside-down world that encourages and enables them to think about what is possible for them. Grace tells Catherine her fortune, smiling that “it’s bad luck to be superstitious but the cards are so pretty” and guiding her to let herself insist on being happy. But the most important way Grace and André guide Brubaker and Catherine is by showing them that there is such a thing as sustaining, enduring love. Whether it is Grace and André or Loy and Boyer, we cannot help being moved and inspired by the example of these wise and beautiful souls.

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Great Movie Moments Neglected gem

An Unusual Role for a Black Man in 1940

Posted on October 8, 2010 at 3:02 pm

I love catching up with old films on Turner Classic Movies, so when I saw one called “Third Finger Left Hand” starring two of my favorites, Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas, released in 1940, I set my DVR. It turned out to be a delightful romantic comedy characteristic of the era. Loy plays a very successful woman executive who made up a fake husband to avoid distracting questions about her romantic life. She tells everyone he is traveling in South America. Douglas finds out what she has done and pretends to be the husband, back from his travels. The expected complications ensue.
But what is not expected is a scene near the end as Loy, Douglas, and the lawyer who hopes to marry Loy are on a train where what at first appear to be typical black porter is waiting on them. And then it turns out that Sam (played by Ernest Whitman) is not a typical porter; he has a law degree, and he knows more about the law than the lawyer he is waiting on. For 1940, in an era where movies often cut out the scenes featuring African-American performers for distribution in the South, this was remarkably progressive. Even though there was never a suggestion that perhaps Sam might want to leave his job as a porter and go to work in the firm of the white lawyer he outsmarted.
Whitman didn’t make many other films. In those he was listed in the final credits as “Nubian Slave” or “Black Man on Train” or not listed at all. In “Gone With the Wind,” he is listed on the Internet Movie Database as “Carpetbagger’s friend (uncredited). In this movie, even with a significant speaking part, he was not listed in the credits at all, which says more about the racial attitudes at the time than the character he played. In the 1930’s and 40’s, black characters were often the ones in the movie who told the truth or otherwise explained what was going on. This was not a political statement; it was a narrative convenience to put the writer’s voice in a marginalized character who could freely be ignored by the white characters. In a sense, Sam is such a narrative convenience; he shows up to help bring the couple together. But still, Sam and the man who portrayed him, Ernest Whitman, deserve some credit for a brief movie moment where a black man got to show a little bit of what he was capable of.

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Great Movie Moments Neglected gem

I Love You Again

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Prissy, stingy Larry Wilson (William Powell) bores everyone aboard ship on his way back to the United States from a business trip. When Ryan, a fellow passenger, falls overboard, Larry is accidentally knocked overboard trying to save him. Hit on the head, he comes to as George Carey, a smooth con man whose last memory is of a train ride nine years before, when someone stole the money he was taking to bet on a fight. He has no recollection of his life as Larry, in a small town called Habersville. When he finds “Larry’s” bank book with a substantial balance, he and Ryan decide to visit Habersville to get as much of it as they can.

At the dock, they are met by Larry’s wife, Kay (Myrna Loy). Carey is smitten with her, but she has come to get him to agree to a divorce. They go back to Habersville together, where Carey and Ryan plan an elaborate swindle, with the help of Carey’s former partner, Duke. Constantly confronted with people and questions he cannot remember, Carey manages to fake his way through, even on a hilarious hike with a Scout-like troop of boys. Kay begins to warm to him, and, when she finds out the truth from Ryan, she remains loyal. Carey tries to call off the swindle, and when that does not work, resolves everything with his last con job, happily looking forward to staying in Habersville with Kay.

Powell and Loy appeared in more films together than any screen couple since the silents, and this delightful romantic comedy is one of their best films. Carey’s horror as he finds out more and more about his life as “Larry” is balanced by Powell with smooth maneuvering to keep everyone from finding out that he can’t remember anything about his life in Habersville. Loy is, as always, “the perfect wife,” witty, wise and loyal — she sees the essence of the truth and is adorably charmed by it.

Amnesia of this kind occurs only in the movies (and in soap operas). Even though it makes no sense medically, it does make sense dramatically. When Carey was hit on the head in a robbery nine years before, he became Larry, the boring businessman. It had to be because, at some level, a part of him wanted a “respectable life.” At the end, he is neither Carey nor Larry, but a synthesis of both, ready to stay in Habersville with Kay and live happily ever after. Kay’s motives are also justified. She married a bore like Larry because, as she says, she saw something exciting behind his eyes. She was the only one who glimpsed Carey inside of the stiff and proper Larry. And she also sees Carey at his best. When she says he is noble and honest, she turns out to be right.

Questions for Kids:

· What does Carey do to convince everyone that he is Larry, and that he remembers his life in Habersville?

· When is he closest to being found out, and how does he handle it?

· How does he con Duke into letting him out of the swindle?

· What do you think will happen after Duke leaves with the money?

· Will Carey be at all like Larry in the future? How?

Connections: As in “The Music Man,” this is a story about a con man who comes to a small town and is redeemed by love. Another movie with a funny scene involving a counterfeit Scout leader is “It’s a Wonderful World,” with Jimmy Stewart and Claudette Colbert, and also directed by W.S. Van Dyke. A romantic drama about amnesia is “Random Harvest,” in which Greer Garson marries Ronald Coleman, who has forgotten his past, and loses him when he remembers it.

Any of the Powell and Loy movies are a pleasure to watch, especially “The Thin Man” series and “Libeled Lady.” Harkspur, Jr. is played by Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer of “Our Gang.”

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Comedy For the Whole Family Romance

The Best Years of Our Lives

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Three men are returning home from service during WWII. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a bombardier, Al Stephenson (Frederic March), a middle- aged footsoldier, and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a sailor who has lost both hands, fly back to their home town of Boone City, excited, but a little apprehensive about beginning their post-war lives. Fred is returning to a beautiful wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo), whom he barely knows. Al is coming back to his wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), and their two children, who have grown up while he was gone. And Homer is coming back to face his family and his fiancée, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), with hooks replacing his hands.

Each of them has a lot of adjusting to do. Al is awkward with his wife at first, and insists that they go out to a bar owned by Homer’s uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael), where they meet Homer and Fred, who has not been able to find his wife. Al and Fred get very drunk, and Al and Milly take Fred home with them. Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) comforts Fred when he has a nightmare about the war, and the next morning makes breakfast for him, and drops him off at his apartment. After everyone leaves the apartment, Al and Milly reconnect to their feelings for one another. Fred finally finds Marie, who is delighted to have him home. But Homer barely speaks to Wilma.bestyears.jpg

Al returns to his job at the bank, but when he approves loans to ex-servicemen who don’t meet the bank’s requirements for collateral, his boss is concerned. At a banquet, Al gets drunk and explains movingly that he learned in the war that you have to trust people, and give them a chance, and that the rules must be changed.

Homer is still uncommunicative and withdrawn until Wilma comes to his house late one night to talk to him. He is finally able to show her the extent of his injuries, and is relieved that it makes no difference to her. They set a date for the wedding.

Fred, who was a soda jerk before the war, says that is the one job he will never do again. But he finds himself back serving ice cream, when he can’t find anything else, until he punches a customer who insults Homer and the other ex-servicemen. Marie, who cares about nothing but fun and money, is quickly bored with him, and starts seeing other men.

Fred falls in love with Peggy, but when Al asks him not to see Peggy any more, he decides to leave town. At the airport, he climbs into the cockpit of one of the old bomber planes, destined to be turned into scrap metal. He meets a man who is using the metal for building and asks for a job, explaining that he knows nothing about it, but knows that he knows how to learn. He is hired.

Fred is Homer’s best man. At the wedding, Fred sees Peggy, and the words of the wedding service seem to bring them together.

Though today’s families will have a hard time relating to the specifics of the post-war era, the theme of adaptation to changing circumstances and the need for genuine closeness is a timeless one. The most important scene in the movie is the one in which Fred realizes that he can use the same skills he used in the war — especially his ability to learn — to bring him what he is looking for. Fred and Homer both have a hard time believing that they deserve love, because each feels helpless and inadequate. Homer is afraid to risk rejection by Wilma, so he brusquely ignores her. Fred plans to leave town and never see Peggy again. But both ultimately take the risk and find the love they hoped for.

Al is also brusque and awkward with Milly at first, but by their first morning together he is ready to return to the relationship they had. Milly’s description of marriage to Peggy is particularly important in this context, making it clear that “living happily ever after” requires commitment, courage, and work.

Questions for Kids:

· What were the challenges faced by each of the servicemen in adjusting to life after the war?

· Would it have been easier for Homer if his family and Wilma talked to him about his injuries when he first came home?

· Why was it easier for Homer to talk to Fred and Al about them than it was to talk to his family?

· Why was Al so awkward with Milly at first?

· What did he mean when he talked about collateral at the banquet? Why was it important for Fred to realize that he knew how to learn? How did that change the way he thought about himself?

Connections: Harold Russell, who lost his hands in a grenade accident in training, received both a special Oscar and the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Homer. He did not make another movie until “Inside Moves” in 1980. He also served as the Chairman of President Lyndon Johnson’s Committee on Hiring the Handicapped. The movie also won Oscars for Best Picture, Actor, Director, Musical Score, and Writer. Butch is played by Hoagy Charmichael, composer of “Stardust.” A movie with similar themes is “Til the End of Time” with Robert Mitchum and Guy Madison.

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