HOLLYWOOD — The individual struggle is as endemic to feature films as it is to classic literature dating back to Greek myth. If one looks at the way the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has historically voted, these solitary heroes — whose trials usually involve testing the limits of their capabilities while challenging the status quo — are favored representatives in the Oscar pantheon.
This year is no exception. From Russell Crowe’s warrior general in “Gladiator” to Julia Roberts’ awakened activist in “Erin Brockovich” to Juliette Binoche’s benign iconoclast in “Chocolat,” these characters are born out of dramatic necessity.
“How do you represent a sentiment that grows within an entire community or a true grassroots movement?” asks Chris Mott, a professor of American literature at UCLA. “These individuals have to come forward so that the reader or the viewer has something to hook on to, has an anchor, has someone with whom to identify.”
The appeal of these protagonists is attributable in no small measure to society’s need for heroes as a guiding and unifying force. In an age when technology has engendered passivity and role models of substance have been supplanted by celebrity worship, even the lead character in “Cast Away,” whose challenge is mere survival, takes on the weight of spiritual epiphany.
“Despite the fact that modern technology has given people the possibility to communicate much more readily from their homes, it also has created a more isolated, lonely existence for people, not unlike the main character in our movie,” says “Cast Away” co-producer Steve Starkey. “Tom Hanks finds himself on this island and must break out of his situation or languish in complete solitude. And I think that’s something people can relate to when they’re contemplating ways to propel themselves out of their own sense of stasis and ennui.”
Adding dramatic impact to “Cast Away” is the prohibitively remote and rugged nature of the island on which Hanks is stranded. The desolation, compounded by gloomy skies and rough seas, is palpable. The notion that there are actually places on Earth that are uncharted and untamed gives the story an almost otherworldly quality.
“By stripping away everything that we know in our modern world, it allows us to cut to the very basic emotions of human existence,” adds Starkey. “There’s something about this very pure and primate environment that’s exciting for people in this day in age, when you don’t think that sort of place exists except outside of our solar system.”
“Erin Brockovich,” on the other hand, is grounded in the all-too-real world of lower-middle-class suburbia, pitting the hero against Pacific Gas & Electric as defender of the common good, a tradition that recalls Frank Capra’s best films (“It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”). And in the wake of the November election, where literally every vote counted, “Erin Brockovich’s” conceit that one person can make a difference in society continues to resonate almost a year after its release.
Minority of one
In the film, Roberts’ title character acts as a social lightning rod, seeking justice for hundreds of people in a town where the groundwater has been contaminated. As Ben Kingsley’s character states in “Gandhi”: “If you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.”
But the film that “Erin Brockovich” most recalls is “Norma Rae,” featuring Sally Field’s Oscar-winning turn as an exploited laborer who acts as a catalyst in forming a union of textile workers. Like “Erin,” “Norma Rae” is based on a real-life character, is a single parent who’s endured a string of unhealthy relationships, is made to feel marginalized because of financial hardship and lack of opportunity, and who takes up a cause that gives meaning to her life.
“Modern democracy is predicated on the notion that, rather than an aristocratic idea where your blood determines the quality of your character and your rank, the notion that peons from nowhere can exhibit equally noble qualities is a cornerstone of the American mythos,” says Mott, referring equally to “Erin Brockovich” and “Gladiator.”
Ultimately, however, it’s the selflessness of these titular characters that is most inspiring. As Joseph Campbell state’s about the hero’s adventure in “The Power of Myth”: “When we quit thinking of ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.”
Do the right thing
“I think that one of the things that made Erin so appealing to people is the fact that she’s not superhuman,” says Susannah Grant, the film’s Oscar-nominated screenwriter. “She’s a normal but very decent person at her core. She doesn’t do anything that any one of us couldn’t do if we decided to do the right thing. And what’s exciting about that for people as that it’s not alienating. It gives you a sense of limitless possibility and you’re own power by virtue by watching hers.”
Grant’s claim is echoed by Javier Bardem, nominated for his role as persecuted Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in “Before Night Falls.”
“Maybe the most extraordinary thing in this movie is the figure of the human being beyond everything, which is more important than any hero,” says Bardem. “Although I do believe Reinaldo is a modern hero, some kind of Don Quixote trying to fight against the windmills. The principle struggle with Reinaldo in this case was to survive in order to leave a legacy, which was his art. Instead of killing somebody, or killing himself, which he tried several times, he put his anger and his hate into his art.”
Hero as martyr
Because Bardem didn’t know who Arenas was when director Julian Schnabel asked him to play the role, he dove into Arenas’ books.
“The first figure that came to my mind was Federico Garcia Lorca, who was killed in Spain because he was a homosexual and because he was a poet, and Oscar Wilde, who was jailed in Victorian England because of his homosexuality,” says Bardem. “(Arenas) talks about totalitarianism, but also he talks about us as individuals: What do we do with people who we hate, or who we are afraid of? And that’s why I believe this movie is so powerful because people identify with that.”
The artist as hero strikes a particular chord with filmmaker Philip Kaufman, whose “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “Henry and June” depicted artists as revolutionaries. Kaufman, who directed Geoffrey Rush’s Oscar-nominated performance as the Marquis de Sade in “Quills,” is drawn to what he calls the thoughtful hero.
Defenders of the life force
“These are all people who are trying in a complicated world to find out where heroism might lurk,” says Kaufman. “It doesn’t have to be a revolutionary principal. You don’t have to be Che Guevara up in the mountains. You can be a Henry Miller or an Anais Nin — someone who’s devoted their life to being on the wrong side of the easy way; defenders of the life force against the forces of dullness and mediocrity. You think of van Gogh in painting or Nijinsky in dance. These are the epic conflicts that leave a poetic legacy that is inspiring.”
What “Gladiator” shares with “Before Night Falls,” “Cast Away” and “Quills” is the hero’s dogged pursuit of destiny even when staring death straight in the face. Again, to quote Campbell, “This recognition of mortality and the requirement to transcend it is the first great impulse to mythology.”
As Maximus, Crowe, moments before the film’s opening battle, tells his men: “What we do in life echoes in eternity.”
Maximus is a hero of Homeric proportions. In fact, “The Odyssey” is echoed in “Gladiator” from the beginning. Like Odysseus after his valor in the Trojan War, Maximus’ greatest wish after leading the Roman legions to victory in Germania is to return home to wife and son.
But when Maximus is betrayed and his family is brutally murdered, the hero faces a much greater challenge. Instead of the Ithaca of “The Odyssey,” where Penelope awaits Odysseus’ return, Maximus envisions his reunion in Elysium, the afterlife.
“Here we have a Roman general, at that time one of the most powerful men in the world,” says “Gladiator” co-producer Douglas Wick. “And the idea of taking a hero and then pulling away his social context, so all that’s left is his inner life, and then finding out what he’s made of, what resources he then has, for me was a fascinating predicament.
“Those kinds of stories are very revealing of the human spirit. Who are you without your social context?”
The fact that Wick could be talking about the heroes of “Cast Away,” “Quills” and “Before Night Falls” makes his question all the more universal.