Monday, June 28, 2010

Day 81: A chance to shine

Question: What do these films have in common, Mrs. Doubtfire, Some Like It Hot, Dave, Working Girl, Tootsie, Shakespeare In Love, School Of Rock, The Birdcage?

Answer: they are all Comedies of Disguise.

The super genre of Comedy is broad, just like Crime, and within the wide reaches of this genre are many sub-genres: comedy of manners, black comedy, satire, farce and many more, including the comedy of disguise (or identity).

Some other things that those films all hold in common: they were all huge box office hits, they were all critically well-received, they were funny AND they were vehicles providing knock-out roles ripe for virtuoso performances by an actor or actress. Dustin Hoffman got an Academy Award nomination and won a Golden Globe for playing Michael portraying Dorothy in Tootsie. Robin Williams also won a Golden Globe for being Daniel posing as Euphegenia Doubtfire. Jack Black was nominated for School Of Rock and Nathan Lane for The Birdcage. Jack Lemmon won a Globe and was Oscar-nominated for his turn as Daphne in Some Like It Hot, Kevin Kline was Globe-nominated for Dave and Melanie Griffiths was nominated for an Academy Award for Working Girl. Gwyneth Paltrow of course won her Oscar for Shakespeare In Love.

In the Ricky Gervais TV programme, Extras, Kate Winslett jokes that a sure-fire way to garner an Oscar nomination is to play someone with a disability, but my reckoning has it that the leading role in a Comedy Of Disguise shortens the odds of an award coming an actor’s way considerably.

Eighteen months ago, I script consulted on a draft of a comedy of disguise screenplay. As preparation, I quickly studied the genre as I would as if writing one myself and it didn’t take too long to become acquainted with the conventions of this genre that dates back to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night & As You Like It and Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac and probably before that (the Greeks generally did everything that we’ve seen on stage, film and television).

The dramatic cousins of the comedy of disguise are: (1) what I’ll call ‘undercover with good reason (Boys Don’t Cry, Serpico) and (2) the Superhero film (Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Zorro, The Lone Ranger); both the dramatic versions of the double-identity film rely on much of the story’s tension (not always the Central Plot) coming from the question of whether the protagonist will be unmasked, literally and or metaphorically.

Identity-duplicity subplots are also two-a-penny in many films: Harrison Ford’s streetwise Philadelphia posing as a member of an Amish community in Witness or any number of escaping allies pretending to be Nazi’s or neutrals in The Great Escape and other WWII prisoner-of-war films.

Whether central plot or subplot, dramatic or comedic, a protagonist’s story of character deception is a tried and tested winner,; with the caveat of “if you get it right” and “if you freshen the cliché”.

Whether it’s a story about a man taking on the persona of a woman (most comedies of disguise seem to be about a man playing or dressing up as a woman) or whether it’s about a slacker pretending to be a teacher, a film wherein the protagonist is going to perpetuate a duplicity on friends, family, colleagues and loved ones, has to be grounded in the first of the conventions that I observed from studying these movies at length. Ignore this one at your peril: there has to be a good reason why the character is doing this. I’ve got to know what the character wants, why they want it and I’ve got to want them to achieve their goal (this holds good for all films and all genres). It’s the rule-of-the-road for audience empathy vs audience ambivalence.

In Mrs.Doubtfire, Robin Williams’s character, Daniel, has lost the right to see his kids without an accompanying social worker and he loves kids, both personally and professionally...he’s a kids entertainer. The only way that he can get to spend time with them is by coming up with the plan to pose as a Scottish nanny and well, then the rest of the film unfolds. I want that character to have what that character wants.

In Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot Tony Curtis & Jack Lemmon are two muso’s who witness something they shouldn’t have witnessed (the St. Valentine’s Day massacre) and end up on the run from the mob that wants to silence them. I totally buy the fact (comedically) that their survival lies in dressing up as women and hiding out in an all female dance band. When Marilyn Monroe shimmies onto the screen and bewitches Tony Curtis, he then adopts another disguise in an effort to win her heart - English oil mogul - in effect playing three characters in the film. I certainly want him and Jack Lemmon to have what they want.

Day #81 Tip: Who wants what and why?
Jan Sardi, the screenwriter of Shine and Mao’s Last Dancer, worked as one of four script editors on my screenplay, The Detective, in a week-long script hothouse/intensive with me, over two years ago up at Byron Bay.

In the first session that I had with Jan, his first note was in fact posed as a question, a question he asks himself 25-30 minutes into a film (or screenplay: “Why am I watching this movie/reading this script?” It’s a tip that he picked up from the director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas, Internal Affairs), a fundamental way to interrogate a story (hopefully on A4 paper rather than on a screen 60’ by 30’), for if you don’t know why your watching a film then it’s probably not clear what the protagonist’s goal or objective is and if we don’t know what he or she wants, then what the hell are we all doing there, losing two hours that we’re never going to get back, given we have no vested interest in the central character?

David Mamet (mentioned in yesterday’s and other dispatches) puts it this way in his three-point film story blueprint:

1. Who wants what from whom?
2. What happens if they don’t get it?
3. Why now?

If I lay that breathtakingly simple dramatic ‘spirit level’ across my story/screenplay, then (and if I’m blessed with the gift/discipline of being able to be honest with myself) I can quickly tell if my story is the real deal or whether it’s masqerading as something else. And believe you me, it’s often a wake-up call for me; to quote the final two words of one of the film’s I’ve mentioned: “Nobody’s perfect”.

More duplicity tomorrow.

No comments:

Post a Comment