How Does Hollywood See Your Career?
By Larry Buhl
If you watch movies, you've surely noticed that some professions turn up a lot more often than others. Some fields (detectives, journalists and prostitutes, for instance) are overrepresented, while others are nowhere to be seen. When was the last time you saw a film about the struggles of, say, a network engineer?
And screenwriters often use these professions as a way to quickly define their characters. While there are exceptions, many films -- even great ones -- have used occupations as shorthand for personalities or "types." That's all right unless it's your job that keeps showing up -- negatively. Personal note to Hollywood: Not all journalists are hard-drinking risk-takers who can't maintain healthy relationships.
Here are some of the most common job stereotypes in cinema:
If a primary male character is intelligent, sensitive, handsome, passionate and an overall great catch, he is likely to be an architect.
Unlike people in other creative occupations, architects are assumed to be financially stable and practical. Robert Osborne, the host of Turner Classic Movies, says architects are supposedly "above reproach and not damaged, the way lawyers and judges and even doctors have been." Architects are so cool that Matt Dillon's character pretended to be one in There's Something About Mary. In the movie The Fountainhead, when Dominique, played by actress Patricia Neal, frets that she will never have Howard Roark, played by Gary Cooper, she tells him, "I wish I had never seen your skyscraper."
See also Sleepless in Seattle; Indecent Proposal; The Lake House; Intersection; Jungle Fever; The Last Kiss; Breaking and Entering; Love, Actually; and My Super Ex-Girlfriend. Twist: Female architect in One Fine Day.
If a primary character is smart, reform-minded, idealistic and fighting to save society one person at a time, he may be a teacher. Even the tormented drug-addicted teacher played by Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson was committed to helping students.
See also Stand and Deliver, Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, Lean on Me and Mr. Holland's Opus. (Exceptions: Teachers, Election.)
If a primary female character is a lonely workaholic, she is likely to be a business executive. She will be cold and caustic but will warm up when she meets the right man. This is one cliche that annoys Billy Mernit, novelist and author of Writing the Romantic Comedy. "We are stuck in this simplistic notion that a successful female businesswoman is cold and calculating or just needs a man to be happy," he says. "It's sexism written in neon."
See also Network, Baby Boom, The Devil Wears Prada and The Proposal.
If a primary character is tortured, immature, self-destructive and self-absorbed, he will be an artist, musician or filmmaker. See Pollock, Crazy Heart, Letters to Juliet and Adaptation.
If a primary character is a tireless crusader for good (or evil), he will be an attorney, DA or journalist. See Presumed Innocent, A Few Good Men, JFK, The Verdict, Michael Clayton, State of Play, Zodiac and The Devil's Advocate. (Exception: The bumbling fish-out-of-water lawyer in My Cousin Vinnie. Twist: Paralegal with a mission in Erin Brockovich.)
If the character is an uptight dweeb, he will be an accountant. The character will be the butt of jokes or will go on a high-stakes adventure that reveals his wild side. See Midnight Run, Stranger Than Fiction, Date Night, Dinner for Schmucks. (Twist: The dorky insurance adjuster with a very dark side in Fight Club.)
Film critic Dan Hudak cuts Hollywood some slack for using occupations as shorthand. "Films have a limited amount of time to convey information, so if filmmakers can show what their character is all about in one or two scenes, they'll do it," he explains. Hudak believes TV series are better-suited to showing realistic workplaces because there is time to develop the relationships and the work environment over time.
Movies about police officers, detectives and criminal lawyers naturally lead to screen action and intrigue, and nobody wants to pay $10 or more to watch people sitting in a conference room and discussing how to fix software bugs. Still, screenwriter and LA Weekly film critic FX Feeney believes Hollywood could and should give more thought to portraying a wider variety of occupations in a realistic and entertaining way. "I think work is not celebrated enough (in film)," he says. "Work is as much a part of life's meaning as love. What we miss in many films is real life being observed."
Hudak says there is another reason we see many stereotypes in film. "Mainstream movies are more likely to reaffirm society's beliefs about careers rather than challenge them," he says. "Familiarity breeds box-office dollars, and vice versa, so as long as people keep going to movies about nerdy accountants and romantic architects, we will keep getting more of them."