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They're Not the Same People They Used To Be
by Jon Schuller

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We all have our favorite actors and actresses and see every movie they've ever made almost obsessively. What I look for in character development and plot is how the individual actor, regardless of the role, actually makes the various transitions from the start of the film to the end. There are so many subtle shades of who he or she is when we first meet them through the extraordinary changes we see right before our eyes.

Watch George Clooney closely as he moves his character Ryan Bingham from scene to scene and even within scenes in the highly acclaimed Up in the Air (2009). The cool unemotional corporate hatchet man changes into what some of us might label a human being, especially when he visits his family and realizes how distant he's become and what's missing in his life. He perks up in the love scenes with Vera Farmiga, getting excited about corporate credit cards and million-mile air travel awards.

Sir Alec Guinness created numerous memorable roles in a long distinguished film career. Playing nine separate characters in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) is still impressive seventy years later. I can think of several outstanding parts he's done but one of the most impressive was as Colonel Nicholson, the pompous obsessive British Army officer in David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Maintaining discipline and dignity
among his battered troops in a Japanese P.O.W camp in Burma is his personal challenge. He is the epitome of the upper-class British officer: he sees only what he wants to see, immersed in his own vision of traditions and fables of an England lost forever. Throughout most of the film Guinness drives the men to build the bridge not sabotage it. Morale will be the victor. Too late he realizes what he's done, helping the enemy instead of his men. The commando team sent in to destroy the bridge (a real one by the way, not a model) encounters the incredible results of his blindness. As he dies Colonel Nicholson blows up the bridge. His character wears many faces behind which is a deeply troubled and confused man.

A personal favorite of mine is The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) an action thriller starring Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson. Two unlikely characters get involved with each other in a convoluted game of spies, private eyes, good guys and bad guys. Geena Davis is a housewife with brief visions of a past life complete with a name, Charlene Baltimore, and scary scenes far removed from her present life. Samuel L. Jackson portrays a small-time scamming private investigator who tries to find ways to make fast money. As the film progresses both actors are completely transformed several times. Mr. Jackson's character discovers strengths and
talents he never knew he had.
Ms. Davis' ability to change from a troubled housewife to an accomplished spy/assassin is no less than phenomenal in my opinion. Not just the physical changes to hair, make-up and body. But the attitudes towards friend and foe alike go from mild-mannered to deadly. Eliminating anyone who threatens her daughter's life is done with ruthless efficiency. The scene with her and Mr. Jackson in the Atlantic City hotel suite is just plain fun to watch. She goes from disheveled to glamorous in a few minutes. Her past life takes over her new one smoothly, effortlessly. More impressive than Norman Bates' mother, to name just one.

We also see an impressive transition in Sigourney Weaver's portrayal of Dr. Helen Hudson, a noted criminal psychologist who specializes in serial killers in Copycat (1995), co-starring Holly Hunter. Dr Hudson helped put a noted killer in jail (well-played by Harry Connick, Jr.) and now, one year later, is being stalked by a copycat killer who imitates famous crimes. She's become a virtual prisoner in her luxurious apartment and, more intently, in her mind. She cannot even step outside her front door without severe anxiety symptoms making her virtually immobile. Holly Hunter, as a savvy San Francisco police inspector, enlists Helen's (reluctant) advice and eventual active help in
trying to stop the new killer. We watch Sigourney Weaver take the perilous journey of re-living everything that's caused her mental imprisonment and slowly, painfully becomes physically and mentally active in the chase. In the end, Dr Hudson, like James Stewart conquering his Vertigo, triumphs over her fears and helps capture the copycat. One of the best movies of its kind.

Horst Bucholz, as the gunslinger in The Magnificent Seven (1960), tries to be tough and bad but in the end he goes back to his true identity as a kid who only wants to settle down with a beautiful girl and farm the land.

Of course, two of the best examples of transitioning movie characters are Vito Corleone and his son, Michael who moves from World War II hero to a mobster hit man avenging his father's near-death. Over time, he becomes his father, The Godfather (1972). In The Godfather, Part 2 (1974), we see the new immigrant, Vito Corleone go from innocent, hard-working grocery store employee to a small-time thief and then, a well-planned mature man who assassinates the local Black Hand boss. He becomes the local Mafia boss and everyone pays homage to him.

These and so many more show the incredible acting talents of men and women over the years. How to translate before our eyes the myriad changes in characters and their stories never ceases to amaze me.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

A Story of Bravery, Truth and Devotion

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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