Posted by gregferrara on March 19, 2014
This year marks the 50th anniversary of a great kitchen sink drama, directed by Irvin Kershner, and starring Robert Shaw and Mary Ure, real life husband and wife as husband and wife. The movie is The Luck of Ginger Coffey and the lead character of Ginger Coffey is maddening. He goes against every good instinct, is a pompous you know what, and throws away a once in a lifetime chance due to his own foolish and stupid pride. Honestly, I don’t like him at all. If I met a guy like him in the real world, I’d make some pleasant small talk and hope never to cross his path again. But his story is compelling and he, as a character, is compelling. And Ginger Coffey and a few hundred (thousand?) other characters I can think of disprove the notion that you have to like the character up there on the screen. Where this complaint came from I don’t know (“I just couldn’t get into a movie with such an unlikable lead”) and I don’t care. In fact, I don’t like the lead character in quite a few of my favorite movies, and maybe that’s why they’re my favorites.
Now, of course, we’re supposed to hate the bad guys, everyone knows that. Rooting for a villain isn’t the same as having a lead character in a movie that truly isn’t likable. In other words, we’re not “rooting” for Michael Corleone, at least I hope we’re not. Well, we are, kind of, in the first Godfather. In that one, when Michael goes to the hospital to protect his father from a hit job, we do root for him. By The Godfather, Part II, all I can think is, “Burn in hell, pal!” None of that means the movie or the character are uncompelling, which should be what we’re looking for in a great movie anyway, compelling characters.
In one genre, in particular, the crime movie, unlikable and unpleasant characters are the flavor du jour of practically all crime movies. James Cagney made a career out of playing some pretty damned unpleasant characters, from Public Enemy to White Heat, and I can tell you right now, I hate both of those characters. That doesn’t mean I can’t feel a little sorry for them, too, but not like I’m going to feel sorry for a Norman Bates who, though he is a killer, has some serious psychological issues that makes you at least understand him, even as you root for his murdering ways to end. So, yes, when Tom Powers shows up dead at the end of Public Enemy, I’m not exactly crying though I do feel for the horrible mistakes he made in his life. And those conflicting feelings come from the character being compelling, not likable.
Movies have lovable characters all the time. A movie like The Thin Man has lead characters, Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy, respectively), so likable, so lovable, that anything bad happening to them would hit me square in the gut. But I don’t want that every time and, luckily, I don’t always get it. In fact, odd as it may sound, I have several favorite unlikable characters that I really like, but not actually. That is, I like the way the character pulls me into the story without ever really liking the character, if that makes any sense. My favorites cut across genres and decades, as well as acting styles.
A big personal favorite is Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in The Searchers. I don’t like him. I don’t like that guy one bit. Yeah, yeah, he brings Debbie back home but only after wanting to kill her for years and being repeatedly shamed by his nephew. I think he’s a pretty awful guy, personally, but if Ethan Edwards were a nice guy, what kind of movie would we have? Of course, he is sort of a nice guy. I mean, he does, after all, agree to go look for Debbie but as much to return her safely as to avoid her becoming contaminated with Indian blood because, well, he has no love for Indians, which doesn’t make him very likable.
Another favorite is Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. There really is almost nothing likable about this wife-beating, brother-bashing, enraged, hate-filled man. But I do feel a tinge, just a tinge, of sympathy for him at the very end when he seems to be recognizing, against all possible odds, how awful he is. Still, he’s a great character even if he is a rotten human being.
And speaking of Martin Scorsese movies, is there anyone likable in Goodfellas? Anyone? In my opinion, that’s still one of the best crime movies I have ever seen but I have to tell you, I don’t like a single character in that movie. If they all spontaneously combusted halfway through, I’d be annoyed that the plot didn’t resolve itself but wouldn’t be bothered by the characters’ demise at all. “Good riddance” is what I’d probably utter. Case in point: When Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito gets it with a shot to the temple, I remember saying, in the theater, to myself, “About time.” There wasn’t even a moment of “oh no, they killed Tommy.” Matter of fact, after he shot Spider, I really felt like his death was too easy.
Leaving the crime genre for a moment, let’s travel over to the witty banter of All About Eve. Now Margo (Bette Davis), I like. She’s mature, realistic about her age, career and talent and sincere despite all the phonies around her. Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) is also easy to like in a “oh, he’s so bad” kind of a way. But Eve? I don’t like a damn thing about her. Really, nothing. She doesn’t have the humanity of Margo, at all. That’s kind of the point and that’s why she’s so interesting, because she’s as determined and driven as they come. And yes, by the end, I kind of like her a little better thanks to Addison becoming such a controlling jerk but still, not that much. And why, oh why, did they never make a sequel with Phoebe?! She seems unlikable from the start!
Or how about one of the all-time classic screen characters, Scarlett O’Hara? Is she likable? Well, that’s hard to say. She does come through for people, oddly enough, and helps out during the worst of the war. So, yes, there she’s likable. But before, and most importantly, after, when she should have learned and grown from her war experiences, she’s still as selfish and childish as ever. But she has spirit and drive and that does, of course, make her likable even though she does so many unlikable things. She’s also portrayed by Vivien Leigh which makes it nearly impossible to truly dislike her. And yet, as a character, I don’t think, “Hey, I’d really like to befriend this gal.” But I do want to watch her story.
So let’s stop complaining that you cant’ like a movie because you don’t like the characters. Sometimes you’re not supposed to like them! Sometimes the journey is about finding out where their selfishness and arrogance will take them. And that’s as valid in storytelling as watching a good character win the day. Maybe more so, at least as far as good drama is concerned, because of the extra layer of conflict built up between character and viewer. Sometimes I like a character and want the best for them and sometimes, I don’t like them and I don’t care. As long as the story is good. It’s only when it’s bad that an unlikable character becomes a problem. And then I truly don’t care. Bad movies do that to me. Unlikable characters almost never do.
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