Iconic Characters- In the Performance or Writing that is the Question

A few weeks ago I’m on FaceBook and I come across a question on my time line

Film:Characterisation vs Character interpreters.

Exactly what goes into
creating a memorably remarkable character?”

That question got me googling my brain for answers. I sifted through the archive of movies I had seen and analysed them.

The analysis raised some questions of it’s own.

Was it the way the character was written that was great?

Was it the specific actor that interpreted the character that made it great?

Or was it a perfect blend of both a well written character and a great actor that embodies the role.

Now during the googling process several names came to mind. One of them was Al Pacino.

Between 1972 and 1995 he gave some of the most memorable performances in cinema history. There were several in that decade and Pacino alone has about 4 iconic cinema characters. Michael Corleone(The Godfather),Lefty(Donnie Brasco) ,Sonny(Dog Day Afternoon),Tony Montana(Scarface). And that’s excluding his performancs in “Scent of a Woman”,”Heat” and “The Devil’s Advocate”.

In my opinion the tour de force performances in “The Godfather” & “Scarface” were enough to cement him in the annals of cinema. Cos few actors will ever play larger than life characters like that in their entire life time much less two .

Both characters have become ingrained in pop culture and their lines are instantly recognisable. Even some people that haven’t actually seen the films are still able to recognize the references and quotes. Some fans,or shall I say disciples go as far as adopting the philosophy of these characters ,dressing like them and even copying their speaking style.

So what makes Michael Corleone,Dirty Harry,Braveheart,Maximus,Morpheous,Hannibal Lecter,Jason Bourne,Marty McFly,Keyser Soze memorable characters that penetrate pop culture. Yet other characters played by the same actors make no blip on the radar.

Now, a lot of it has to do with the actor interpreting the role, and what he adds to the character that is not on the page. I remember seeing a screen test in which James Caan read for the part of Michael Corleone. Now, James Caan is a great actor and he was PERFECT in the role of older brother Sonny. But if he had played Michael, the role would not be the iconic role it is today. In that screen test he did not bring the gravitas ,quiet strength and charisma that Pacino brought to the role.

The director working with the actor is also essential to a memorable performance.The layers one director will add to the script, another director would not see and just shoot as it is on the page.The way David Fincher would work with an actor is different from the way Michael Bay would work with an actor.

Some directors have a track record for directing actors to Oscar winning performances, others have never done that in a career that spans decades.

However for the sake of brevity I’ll only focus on scripts.

It all starts with the script which is the foundation upon which everything else stands; and for a character to be memorable. They either have to be extraordinary in form or presentation(Robocop,Terminator) in ability; physical(Batman) intellectual(Sherlock Holmes), valor (Robin Hood,The Three Musketeers),or personality/appeal(Tyler Durden).

The other option is to make them fully formed with philosophies,creeds,and capabilities that facinate us. They are smarter,faster and more capable than us in all they do. Other times they can be normal like anyone one of us but going through a life changing journey we can vicariously engage in and enjoy their victory.

-The underdog that overcomes the odds(Rocky)

-The precocious and gobby teenage girl that gets pregnant(Juno),

-The mother that has to make a choice between her kids(Sophie’s Choice).

Characters that engage us in their life journey.

In creating real characters that aren’t cardboard cutouts/caricatures it starts from conception and construction of the character by the writer.Like a real human being there ought to be a biography, a life they have lived before we saw them on screen.

Everyone of us has nuances and idiosyncracies,likes and dislikes. So should fictional characters for the screen.

They ought to have a favorite food,first kiss,Mother’s Maiden name,Color of his childhood bike. Are they pro choice or pro life. What is their politics?,Religion,Profession? Did they go to a public or private school. Are they working class or middle class? What are their hobbies etc.

A writer armed with the knowledge of these little things would determine what his character would and would not do.Their speech patterns,View of the world and so much more..

The Sensei of Cinema, the Legendary Japanese Director Akira Kurosawa, who influenced George Lucas,Coppola,Scorcese,Sergio Leone and other succesful and respected directors was known to say

“With a good script, a good director can produce a masterpiece. But with a bad script, one can’t possibly make a good film”

Sydney Pollack director also said

“A great script is absolutely essential, perhaps THE essential thing for a movie to succeed”

If get the foundation right, then we have a solid base to build the others aspects of casting,directing upon.

I’m sure most of us have heard the story of the two men that embarked on a building project. The one that built his house on the sand and the man that built his house on the rock and we know the end result of each endeavor.


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