Writers' Note: Film Heroes
Updated: Nov 24, 2021
With antiheroes becoming a lot more common in film these days, the archetypal protagonist seems to have evolved. Although some movie lovers may find themselves longing for the days of the venerable George Bailey and the principled Atticus Finch, the BFBs have found that the concept of a “film hero” goes beyond the traits that defined the post-WWII Golden Age Hollywood. Today, they ask themselves a couple of key questions. What makes a film role model? Who has all the right qualities? Which character inspires positive change in the viewer? Here’s what was rounded up for this edition of Writer’s Note.
When I first started processing the question of who my “film hero” would be, I quickly realized that I didn’t have an answer. Relating to or idealizing fictional characters hasn’t been my bag since I was in elementary school. Since then, well, looking up to any of the characters in the movies I tend to enjoy would be concerning, to say the least. I like to analyze characters, pick them apart, and watch them hurtle towards their inevitable destruction. It’s fun. Yet, there had to be somebody worthy of the title ‘hero.’
The first place my brain went was Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) from Joe Dante’s Matinee (1993), an eccentric filmmaker/charlatan with a fondness for gimmicks in the vein of the late, great William Castle. Everything about Woolsey is the perfect expression of the joy I feel in filmmaking and filmgoing, the only character who could convince me that ‘movie magic’ was more than just some phrase backlot guides at Warner Bros. use on tourist schmucks. However, a role model old Larry Woolsey is not. That isn’t to say I wouldn’t be satisfied being him, but I certainly could never convince myself that I look up to him, especially in any genuine way. Back to the drawing board.
Upon that return, I struck gold. Gold in the shape of Mike Leigh’s cherubic face. Heroism to me is something very real, it’s a word I never use lightly. In movies, heroism is often dramatic or simple, just a matter of doing the right thing, whatever that may be. In life, it isn’t so simple. Supposedly “realistic” movies love to pay lip service to this but rarely do they follow through. Our “gritty” dramas are populated with cartoon villains and saint-like heroes that, more often than not, serve only to reinforce my cynicism. Not so in the films of Mike Leigh.
From his catalog, I’ve singled out three characters I admire, each in their own way. In chronological order: Cyril Bender (Phil Davis) from High Hopes (1988), Imelda Staunton’s title character from Vera Drake (2004), and Poppy Cross (Sally Hawkins) from Happy-Go-Lucky (2008). Heroism in Leigh’s movies is almost synonymous with kindness. In small ways, his characters do their part to make the people around them feel loved or appreciated. They give their time and effort to others, usually expecting nothing in return, often kind despite their own flaws (Cyril can be something of a little shit) or their persecution by society and the state (Vera’s kindness happens to be the highly illegal brand). They also fail. Poppy’s failures to spread joy, help others, or even just tolerate them make her not only all the nobler, but also so much more real. She’s not some magical beacon of hope in an undeniably cruel world. She’s not wildly selfless every second of her life. She just tries as best she can to be a good person. There’s not a dramatic thing about it. Characters like Cyril and Vera and Poppy are heroes. That’s what I want to be. Just someone who tries to be good and, sometimes, succeeds.
While it is very difficult to choose just one, Mélanie Laurent’s character Shosanna Dreyfus from Inglourious Basterds (2011) is an easy choice for my favorite hero of cinema. Having worked at a movie theater before, it was oddly one of the first times I had seen a film where I felt that, “this could have been me.” And being Jewish myself, I identify closely with the fears and pressures Shosanna faces in the film. However, the intensity and extent to which her experiences transpire could not be further from my own.
I am the most engaged audience member when it comes to this story. Watching Shosanna go from a literal Jew on the run to a humble theater owner to the mastermind behind a Nazi massacre is simultaneously thrilling and inspiring. We watch her rise up from a fearful victim to a courageous warrior as she strategically acquires every essential component to transform her venue into a Nazi inferno. Then, even in the end, she falters and lets her guard down, proving she is human just like the rest of us. But she is also so much more! She is a hero because she sacrifices her own life to help exterminate an evil far greater than anything she has committed. Although the scenes in this film are fictionalized, the passion, emotion, and revenge that fuels Shosanna’s actions in turn fuel our own satisfaction, and that is very real. Her character will always be “Red Dress” to me; no one wears it better. From her war paint to her affinity for David Bowie’s Cat People, Shosanna dons only pride and glory.
So, I think I would choose Lou Bloom from Nightcrawler (2014).
Just kidding! I am actually incredibly intrigued by Amy Adams’ character Dr. Louise Banks from the gloriously intricate science fiction masterpiece that is Arrival (2016). If you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading here. I must spoil it.
Sure, a lot of Louise’s heroic qualities could be a consequence of circumstance. Being given the gift of perceiving time non-linearly by a bunch of highly advanced alien creatures is pretty damn remarkable. But I also love what she stands for.
A lot of science fiction movies have a tendency to go for brawn over brains. The toughest, most common-sense-based individual with a stellar six-pack always finds his (Ellen Ripley, you are excused) way into the leadership position. The scientist is meek and cowardly. There’s no way to solve an encounter with a beast besides to kill it. General badassery is more important than diplomatic problem-solving.
But Louise is a linguist. She is gentle. Her occupation stands on the fundamentals of communication and the belief that all humans and creatures are beautiful and advanced in their own special ways. For several years, I wanted to be a linguist because of her. She combined her immense knowledge of language with intuition and sensitivity, becoming somewhat of a martyr for humanity. Knowledge of the future is an enormous burden to carry, and she carries it, knowing full well her daughter will die, with distinct grace.
Eric Heisserer has written very few other films with such precise diction (see: several terrible horror remakes and, additionally, Bird Box). It’s a wonder that the one he succeeded in was all about language. That is not, of course, without mentioning Amy Adams’ poetic performance. Louise Banks is not perfect, by any means. However, she overcomes a lot of “hero” molds by embracing her own consternation. She is brave, but not in a way that’s brash and unrelatable. She is sharp but not harsh, decisive but not inconsiderate, and she is honorable without being obnoxiously stoic. She’s a fantastic character and someone I actively look up to.
When thinking about heroes of film and who I looked up to the most, I never really thought of knights in shining armor, or samurai with swords and an utmost sense of honor, but rather the heroes who triumph over life rather than their enemies. Through this triumph, these people influence the people around them with their love of life. So for my heroes in film, I have a tie between Ferris Bueller from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and Maude from Harold and Maude (1971).
These titular characters both do not adjust to the rules society has set for them, but travel along their own path. Ferris is pitted against the school life he is stuck with throughout all of high school, and Maude is pitted against the life of the law and the sadness of others, but both of them find joy in breaking rules. Now, while I don’t necessarily justify breaking rules and laws all the time, both Ferris and Maude represent exceptions to the drudgery that so many people think life is supposed to abide by. These characters are reminders for me to always have fun, not care what others think, and through that belief, try to spread that joy by being kind to others. Ferris might be a sort of cop-out choice and Maude might seem a little unconventional, but they’re still characters that I always admire when I see them on my TV screen.
-Chance, Molly, Lydia, & Spencer