In his 1820 book Many Things in a Few Words: Addressed to Those Who Think, English writer Charles Colton wrote that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. In the age of popular culture, however, it is more often capitalistic expediency rather than flattery that drives one artist to closely mirror or attempt to replicate the work of another.
As an author myself, I can attest firsthand to the fact that it is indeed much easier to copy or even plagiarize the work of other writers whom I admire and respect than to come up with my own original concepts. This may very well, on the surface at least, appear counter-intuitive, as my respect for the writers in question should act as a deterrent that one would expect would preclude me from flagrantly plagiarizing their work. However, just such a sentiment is by no means a new one. Of all, the writer that I admire the most is playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. In the premiere episode of season four of Sorkin’s award-winning television drama The West Wing, entitled “20 Hours in America”; the character of played by actor Rob Lowe; Samuel Seabourne, the Deputy White Hose Director of Communications and speechwriter for the fictional President Josiah Bartlet, responds to another character complimenting a section of Bartlet’s speech by saying that he “stole” the words from the Tony Award winning 1960 Broadway Musical “Camelot”, based on Terrence White’s 1958 book The Once and Future King. When the other character reacts with disbelief, Seabourne explains by stating that that “Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright.”
To be sure, the recognition of cultural trends has never been an entirely unimportant skill for authors seeking to publish their work, dating all the way back to the time of the 8th century BCE Ancient Greek poet Homer with his works the Iliad and the Odyssey and more recently to 16th century English playwright William Shakespeare. However, in the modern age of instantaneous worldwide communication via the internet, the acknowledgement of what such trends are has never been more important to the success of a piece of writing and, by extension, its author. Evidence of this is most evident in the relatively new art form that is film and television screenwriting.
One of the greatest cinematographic challenges that any filmmaker can attempt is the translation of a theatrical drama or musical into a motion picture. Not only are such plays very nearly always hours longer than a feature-length movie, but the stage on which a play takes place often does not translate well into the larger world of a film.
Film adaptations of the plays of late 16th century English playwright William Shakespeare date back to the early 1900’s, but in the first decade of the 21st century there has been a revival of interest by film audiences in Broadway musicals. In 2005, Columbia released a film adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s Rent, in 2012, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg adapted their musical of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables for Universal, and in 2014 Disney adapted Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods into a feature-length motion picture of the same name.
The greatest challenge in adapting a stage musical to film is the contrast between diegetic and non-diegetic music. When a musical is performed on stage, it is accompanied by an orchestra playing all of the music for the play live in the theater. However, when this is done in film, it is usually as a violation of what is referred to as the “Fourth Wall”, as in Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles Brooks himself is no stranger to the Broadway stage, having adapted his 1968 film The Producers into a Tony-Award-winning Broadway musical in 2001.
The most seamless admixture of diegetic and non-diegetic music I have ever seen was featured in the May 22, 2002 Season three finale of Aaron Sorkin’s NBC television drama The West Wing, entitled “Posse Comitatus”. Directed and Produced by Alex Graves, the most emotionally impactful moment in the dramatic season finale is set to a 1994 rendition by Jeff Buckley of the 1984 song “Hallelujah”. The song, which was also used in a starkly similar way in the 2001 animated film Shrek, backdrops a tragic loss for Bartlet White House Press Secretary Claudia Jean “C.J.” Cregg played by actress Allison Janney. Janney’s performance in “Posse Comitatus” and in The West Wing’s third season earned Janney an Emmy Award for “Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series”, her third straight win of four in five consecutive years of being nominated. Janney was also nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for the third of four consecutive years.
Like the Grammy Award-winning Mark Knopfler song “Brothers In Arms” in the equally emotionally moving May 16, 2001 Season two finale episode “Two Cathedrals”, Buckley’s Leonard Cohen cover in “Posse Comitatus” makes no pretense at being diegetic in the context of Janney’s scene, set and shot on location in Lower Manhattan’s Times Square in New York City.
The scene centers around the shooting of United States Secret Service agent Simon Donovan, played by Thomas Harmon, with whom Cregg had become romantically involved. The scene where Donovan is shot while buying a bouquet of roses for Cregg at a corner store is set to the Buckley lyrics “Baby, I’ve been here before. I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor. You know, I used to live alone before I knew you.” As Donovan lies dying among the scattered flowers on the city sidewalk before the New York Police Department shows up to the scene, Buckley sings, “Love is not a victory march. It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.” The scene then cuts to Donovan’s fellow agents informing Cregg of his death, set to the lyrics “There was a time when you let me know what’s really going on below. But now you never show that to me, do you?” Cregg goes out walking alone down Broadway before collapsing in tears onto a park bench in Times Square, where she sobs uncontrollably to the words “All I’ve ever learned from love was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you. And it’s not a cry that you hear at night. It’s not somebody who’s seen the light. It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.” This near-picture-perfect matching of the visuals on the screen with the words of the song make the “Hallelujah” scene of “Posse Comitatus” one of the most emotionally moving and powerful of The West Wing’s seven-season-long run, and one of the most powerful scenes of any television show or series that I have ever seen in my life.
Far be it from merely adapting a Broadway musical to the screen, in “Posse Comitatus” Sorkin and Executive Producer Thomas Schlamme opted instead to write their own, calling the fictional play The War of the Roses. However, the episode, and with it the third Season of The West Wing, ends with the performers of the fictional musical performing a song from a real-life play. The song is “England Arise” from the 1980 play The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby by Stephen Oliver, based on the 1839 Charles Dickens novel.
The plot of “Posse Comitatus” centers on the decision by fictional Democratic President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet; played by Ramon Estevez [better known by his stage name “Martin Sheen”], to order the assassination of Abdul Shareef. This decision is complicated by the fact that Shareef is the Defense Minister of the fictional Middle Eastern sultanate of Qumar and the brother of the Qumari sultan. The title of the episode comes from the 1878 law prohibiting the United States federal government from using the military armed forces for the purposes of civilian law enforcement. Bartlet’s decision to have Shareef assassinated, therefore, would constitute a violation of not only the Separation of Powers, but also the five Executive Orders by four different Presidents of both political parties over the course of thirty years; including Executive Order 12333: “United States Intelligence Activities” signed by Republican 40th President Ronald Reagan on December 4, 1981 and Executive Orders 13355 and 13470: “Strengthened Management of the Intelligence Community“ signed by Republican 43rd President George Walker Bush Junior II on August 27, 2004 and July 30, 2008, as well as Executive Orders by Republican President Gerald Ford in 1976 and Democratic President James Carter in 1978; prohibiting the assassination of foreign officials and dignitaries.
This is what makes the scenes of Stephen Oliver’s song, also called “The Patriotic Song” intercut with scenes of American Navy Seals assassinating Shareef on an airstrip in the British territory of Bermuda so powerful as a conclusion to The West Wing’s third season. The chorus of the song reads: “And victorious in war shall be made glorious in peace.” These words are set against the visual of President Bartlet, having just received the news of Shareef’s death, stepping behind a curtain so that only his shadowy silhouette is backlit, at which point the episode cuts to black and the season ends.
The lyrics of the song: “See in the sky, fluttering before us, what the bright bird of peace is bringing”, sung over the image of the Special Forces gunning down Shareef and his entourage as they step from their airplane makes it obvious that the song is inherently if not patently non-diegetic. Yet just as quickly the scene shifts back to showing the performers of the fictional musical onstage singing the song’s idiosyncratic chorus, making the finale episode’s concluding music both diegetic and non-diegetic at the same time. Alex Graves does this so seamlessly that it should come as no surprise that the episode earned him a nomination for Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series, the third of four years of the show being nominated in that category. “Posse Comitatus” earned Sorkin a nomination for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series for the third of four consecutive years. For the show’s third season, at the 2002 Emmy Awards, The West Wing won four awards, including one for Sorkin, Schlamme and Executive Producer John Wells for Outstanding Drama Series for the third of four consecutive years.
I first discovered my talent for writing when I was in the seventh grade in the fall of 2001. I had been a fan of screenwriter George Lucas’s 1977 space opera film trilogy Star Wars and screenwriter Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek from a very early age, and so the first idea that I struck upon after discovering I could write but before I learned about international copyright law was a merger of the two science fiction series’ into one. This concept persisted until as recently as the spring of 2003.
Upon entering Stevens Point Area Senior High School in the tenth grade, I was charged by my Creative Writing teacher with writing what he referred to as a “descriptive narrative”. It was at this point, at the age of fifteen, that I saw my first episode of The West Wing, the sixth episode of the first season, entitled “Mr. Willis of Ohio”. Sorkin immediately became my role model as a writer, and I made the decision to make the main character of the “descriptive narrative” story I was writing, which I entitled “The Perfect Stranger”, a fictional future President of the United States. By the time I entered the University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point in the fall of 2008, the twelve-page story that I had written for my sophomore Creative Writing class in high school about the fictional future President, whom I named Katherine Janney after one of the stars of The West Wing, actress Allison Janney, had exploded exponentially into a more than 300-page long novel which I entitled The Imperfections in the Storm.
So I myself can attest to the ease with which derivative work tends to flow, as it was not until I reentered the UWSP in 2012 at the age of 24 that I began writing my own completely and entirely original non-derivative work of science fiction, the working title of which is The Genesis Project.
In 1997, British novelist Joanne Rowling published the first in her seven-part series of fantasy novels featuring a then-eleven-year old wizard named Harry Potter. In 2001, Warner Brothers Entertainment adapted the first of Rowling’s novels, entitled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, into a movie that they called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, starring then-eleven-year-old English actor Daniel Radcliffe as the eponymous titular character. The same year, screenwriter and director Peter Jackson adapted the first of English writer John Tolkien’s 1954 The Lord of the Rings trilogy of fantasy novels, The Fellowship of the Ring, into a movie for New Line Film Productions. The ripple effects of both of these popular culture phenomena were felt throughout the remainder of the rest of the first decade of twenty-first century.
In 2002, inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, then-19-year-old Christopher Paolini published the first in his “Inheritance Cycle” tetralogy of fantasy novels, entitled Eragon, which was adapted into a movie of the same name by 20th Century Fox in 2006, starring English actor Edward Speelers in the eponymous character. The financial success of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy, which concluded with The Return of the King in 2003, prompted Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures to adapt the first of Clive Lewis’ 1950 The Chronicles of Narnia series of fantasy novels, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe into a movie.
That same year, American writer Stephenie Meyer began a new trend in popular culture with the publication of her series of fantasy novels, entitled Twilight, featuring 104-year old vampire Edward Cullen. Learning from the success of Harry Potter, Temple Hill Entertainment and Summit Entertainment adapted Meyer’s Twilight into a film of the same name in 2008, starring 22-year old English actor Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen. The same year, Home Box Office attempted to capitalize on the new vampire trend in popular culture with their television drama True Blood.
The popularity of vampires in popular culture proved itself to be a worldwide phenomenon when the British Broadcasting Corporation came out with its own television drama series, Being Human, starring 25-year old Irish Actor Aiden Turner as 117-year old Vampire John Mitchell.
The next year, CBS Television Studios and Warner Brothers Television did the same on their joint television channel, the CW, with a drama entitled The Vampire Diaries.
Rowling published the seventh and final novel in her Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2007. The same year, Disney-ABC Television Group made their attempt at capitalizing on the popularity of the theme of young teenage wizards with their television sitcom Wizards of Waverly Place, starring a then-thirteen-year-old Selena Gomez. Warner Brothers Television also sought to likewise capitalize on the popularity of vampires with their television drama Moonlight, starring 31-year-old Australian actor Alex O’Loughlin as 85-year-old vampire Mick St. John.
The two-part Warner Brother’s film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows finished the series in 2010 and 2011. The same year, Walt Disney Pictures again sought to capitalize on the non-waning popularity of wizards when American producer Jerome Bruckheimer adapted German writer Johann Goethe’s 1797 poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, as well as the1896 poem by French composer Paul Dukas and the segment in the 1940 Walt Disney animated film Fantasia and its 1999 sequel Fantasia 2000 of the same name, into a movie, starring Jay Baruchel in the eponymous titular role originated in 1940 by Walt Disney’s animated character Mickey Mouse. Home Box Office adapted American novelist George Martin’s 1996 series of fantasy novels entitled A Song of Ice and Fire, inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, into a television drama series they called Game of Thrones.
The challenge in knowing what the current trends in popular culture are but nevertheless writing one’s own original work anyway is that publishing work that does not fit into any existing cultural trend runs the risk of it being unpopular or even rejected outright. Even work that does match with popular trends runs the same risk. The works mentioned above, following the trends of wizards, fantasy and vampires are only the works that “made it”, as it were, in the modern popular culture. But even during the fifteen-year period covered, from 1996 when Game of Thrones was published to 2011 when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released, there were quite literally dozens if not hundreds of other movies and television shows that, though they adhered to the very same exact fantasy themes, failed to make any significant impact in the culture whatsoever. As might seem to follow intuitively, the risk with work that appears to ignore or disregard known existing popular trends is even higher still. The reason this presents a challenge to writers in particular is that, I can state as one of them myself, writers tend to be by their very nature habitually and even pathologically risk-averse. Granted, one cannot be a published author in any media without having had at least some amount of experience with rejection. This, however, does nothing to lessen its crushing and devastating emotional impact when it does occur; particularly when in reference to a work in which one has placed a significant amount of emotional investment.
In the modern contemporary history of the film media, perhaps no one has made more of a habit out of bucking the cultural trends of their times, or done so with greater gusto and at times even flamboyancy than Ethan and Joel Cohen. Whether it’s with the critically acclaimed graphic violence of their debut 1984 domestically-themed noir Blood Simple; with allusions to Shakespeare’s dark 1603 tragedy Othello; or it’s the darkly quotable humor of 2000’s Oh Brother Where Art Thou; a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey set in the 1930’s Great Depression South, complete with sirens and a Cyclops; or its with creating pop culture memes nearly a decade before the advent of online internet social media with the 1998 cult classic The Big Lebowski; the Cohens have displayed an almost casual disregard for what the popular trend in the culture at the time is that aspiring authors like myself can find little alternative but to admire for its courage. More so even than the content or relative quality of the films that they produce, it is their admirable originality in an age of not only pop culture trends but social media memes that makes the Cohen brothers artists in the purest conceivable sense of the word.
In May 1984, the brothers Joel and Ethan Cohen were premiering their very first feature film, the film noir Blood Simple at the Seattle International Film Festival. There they met a fellow film producer named Jeff Dowd, a former radical political activist and member of the 1970-1971 Seattle Liberation Front, or “Seattle Seven” with then-University of Washington Assistant Professor of Philosophy Michael Lerner.
Fourteen years later, when the Cohen Brothers were writing the screenplay for their next movie The Big Lebowski, they based the character of the film’s main protagonist, Jeffrey Lebowski, on Dowd. Like Dowd, Lebowski was a former member of the Seattle Seven. Like Dowd, Lebowski enjoyed vodka, coffee liqueur and cream “White Russian” cocktails. And like Dowd, his friends knew Lebowski as “The Dude”.
The Cohen Brothers cast actor Jeffrey Bridges, star of Walt Disney’s July 1982 science fiction cult classic Tron, in the role of Lebowski. Like Tron before it, The Big Lebowski rapidly gathered a popularity that elevated it to cult classic status, and Bridges has since been typecast in other films, such the BBC’s 2009 The Men Who Stare at Goats and Disney’s 2010 Tron sequel entitled Tron: Legacy, as a Dowd-like 1970’s –style hippie character. As journalist Janey Maslin of the New York Times wrote in her March 6, 1998 review of The Big Lebowski: “Mister Bridges finds a role so right for him that he seems never to have been anywhere else.” Bridges’ character in The Big Lebowski, meanwhile, has spawned everything from “Lebowski Fest” and “The Dude Abides” festivals in Louisville, Kentucky and London, respectively to a full-blown religion, called “The Church of the Latter-Day Dude” or simply “Dude-ism”.
Many people consider The Big Lebowski to be the Cohen Brothers’ seminal masterpiece and the pinnacle of their careers.
In addition to Bridge’s iconic portrayal of Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowksi, many attribute the film’s success to its sense of anachronism. Though produced in 1998 during the latter half of the Administration of Democratic President Bill Clinton, the film takes place in the Los Angeles of 1991, during the term of Republican President George Herbert Walker Bush Senior I, successor to neoconservative icon Ronald Reagan. This is made especially poignant by the fact that Bridges’ Dowd-inspired “Dude” is the very antithesis of everything that Conservatives and Republicans both then and now stand for. In this respect The Big Lebowski is unique, in that among all of the Cohen Brother’s previous works, and with the possible exception of their 2000 comedy adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey entitled Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, Lebowski is the only Cohen Brothers film to be specifically set in a specific real-life place in America at a specific real-life time in history. Unlike other 1990’s films set in the Reagan-Bush era, however, Lebowski stands out in its utter lack of any sense of nostalgia. By placing a character inspired by a real-life member of the 1970’s anti-Vietnam-War movement in 1991, the time of the First Persian Gulf War, the Cohen Brothers use the character of “The Dude” to hold up a Clinton-era mirror to the 1980’s Cold War-era-style policies of Reagan and Bush. This is made especially poignant by the fact that many of us who were born in the 1980’s and grew up in the 1990’s under President Clinton remember quite fondly Clinton’s 90’s as a period of relative peace and prosperity, as contrasted with the half-century of war and the 1980’s series of economic recessions under President Reagan that preceded it.
That screenwriters Joel and Ethan based their December 22, 2000 adventure comedy Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? On 12th Century BCE Ancient Greek poet Homerus’s The Odyssey, with the character of Ulysses Everett McGill [played by George Clooney] playing the role of Homerus’s protagonist Odysseus [Ulysses is the Latin Roman form of Odysseus’s name], is well established. The character of Daniel Teague [played by John Goodman] is likened to Homerus’s Cyclops Polyphemus in The Odyssey.
Much has been made, though, of McGill’s use in the film of “Dapper Dan” hair gel, as it does not have any such readily apparent parallels in Homerus’s The Odyssey. However, it is likely that, as with Joel and Ethan Cohen’s March 6, 1998 comedy The Big Lebowski, there is more to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? than meets the eye of the beholder. It is possible that, in addition to Homerus’s 2nd millennium BCE epic poem, the Cohen brother in Oh Brother were drawing on another, far younger work of fantasy fiction: The Christian Bible. In the Book of Proverbs, the character of Solomon, the mythological King of Israel, lists what Christianity refers to as “Seven Deadly Sins”: Vanity, lechery, wrath, sloth, gluttony, envy and avarice.
McGill’s use of hair gel and his constant concern about his hair in general, clearly play into the first of these: Vanity. That said, a thorough overview of the rest of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? reveals at least one occurrence of each of the other six sins. Lechery, the second sin, is personified in the characters of the three Sirens [played by Musetta Vander, Mia Tate and Christy Taylor], a parallel to the Sirens in Homerus’s epic poem The Odyssey.
Wrath can have any number of parallels, whether it be Goodman’s Cyclops Teague knocking McGill unconscious with a tree branch and sadistically crushing the frog that it is believed the Sirens magically transformed one of his compatriots into, or whether it be the attempted burning at the stake of Tommy Johnson [played by Chris King] by the red-robed Grand Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan [Homer Stokes, played by Wayne Duvall], or whether it be the attempted hanging of McGill and his compatriots by the ruthless Sherrif Cooley [played by Daniel Von Bargen], a parallel to the Ancient Greek Sea God Poseidon in Homerus’s Odyssey.
Sloth could be exemplified by the repeated motif of Governor Menelaus O’Daniel, based on Conservative Great-Depression-era Texas Governor and Second-World-War-era United States Senator Wilbert O’Daniel seated on his front porch with his advisors, berating them as being simpletons. Gluttony is most obviously embodied in the character of actor John Goodman’s Cyclops Daniel “Big Dan” Teague, who knocks McGill and his compatriot unconscious with a tree branch in order to steal all their money. In Homerus’s epic Odyssey the Cyclops Polyphemus is the monstrous illegitimate bastard offspring of the ocean god Poseidon, who devours full-grown human men as well as numerous kinds of livestock whole, also a textbook emblem of the deadly sin of gluttony.
Envy, the sixth sin, can be exemplified by McGill returning home to find that his wife Penny [played by Holly Hunter], a parallel to the character of Odysseus’s wife Penelope in Homerus’s epic, is set to remarry Stokes Gubernatorial Campaign Manager Vernon Waldrip [played by Ray McKinnon]. Avarice, the seventh sin, of course, is the driving force behind McGill and his compatriots’ escape from prison: their ambition to make it back to McGill’s home for what McGill promises them is a “buried treasure” in time before the area is flooded by a hydroelectric dam and the “treasure” is lost forever. Like McGill, Odysseus’s ambition to return home to Ithaca before his wife Penelope is forced to remarry is also a display of avarice.
More so than perhaps any other, it is the female character that is the element in film and television most susceptible to falling victim to tropes. Of these tropes, the one that female characters most frequently fall into is that of dichotomy. In both film and television, the overwhelming majority of female characters fall into either one or the other of two opposing roles. A female character is either portrayed as a strong woman who has a leading role in the film and is the driving force behind it, or they are portrayed as weak-willed and emotional caricatures with little or no agency of their own that are merely swept along as the plot develops.
As is the case with so many others like it throughout popular culture, the Cohen brothers seem to have made it their mission to confound this trope by showing it to be the false dichotomy that it is.
Of the Cohen brothers’ first three films, by far the strongest female character is that of Verna Bernbaum, played by Marcia Harden, in their 1990 prohibition-era gangster-themed film Miller’s Crossing. However, the protagonist that the film follows throughout is not Verna, but rather a man, Tom Reagan, played by Gabriel Byrne. Verna’s is, at best, a peripheral character to the primary conflict of the story.
Long before I first saw actress Marcia Harden as Verna Bernbaum in Ethan and Joel Cohen’s 1990 gangster film noir Miller’s Crossing, I knew her Rebecca Halliday on Aaron Sorkin’s 2012 HBO television drama The Newsroom. With this background, it was and is very nearly impossible for me not to see the similarities between the two characters.
In Miller’s Crossing, Verna compliments Tom Reagan, played by Gabriel Byrne by saying: “Maybe that’s why I like you. I’ve never met anyone who made being a son of a bitch such a point of pride.” As if mirroring this statement, in season 3 episode 2 of The Newsroom, Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, tells Neil Sampat, played by Dev Patel: “If you think being an ass is going to make me less inclined to protect you, think again. I can out-ass anyone in the tri-state area.” To which Rebecca Halliday agrees: “He’s telling the truth.” This causes McAvoy to tell Rebecca that: “You know, it feels like you’re on my side, but just barely. “
At another point in Miller’s Crossing, Verna describes Leo O’Bannon, played by Albert Finney, by saying that “I like him. He’s honest and he’s got heart.” To which Tom Reagan replies: “Then it’s true what they say. Opposites attract.” Verna later describes herself and Tom Reagan by telling him “We’re a couple of heels.” In season 2 episode 8 of The Newsroom Don Keefer, played by Thomas Sadoski, tells Rebecca Halliday “You are a member of a godless, soulless race of extortionists.” To which Rebecca responds: “That’s fair.”
Paradoxically, of the Cohens’ first three films, the one to feature the female lead most prominently as the main character in the story is 1984’s Blood Simple. However, far from the commanding presence and willful independence of Harden’s Verna, the character of Abby Marty, played by Frances McDormand, is described in many reviews of the film as being weak-willed and lacking in agency.
Falling directly in between the strong but peripheral character of Harden’s Verna in Miller’s Crossing and the weak but primary character of McDormand’s Abby in Blood Simple is the character of Edwina McDonough, played by Holly Hunter, in the Cohen Brothers’ 1987 brooding dark-humor comedy of errors Raising Arizona. The voiceover narration for the film is by the character of Herbert McDonough, played by Nicholas Cage, and so Hunter’s Edwina is not the lead main character of the film in the same way that Abby is in Blood Simple. As Herbert’s wife and the impetus behind the film’s titular child kidnapping scheme, Hunter’s Edwina could hardly be considered as peripheral to the film’s central conflict as Harden’s Verna is in Miller’s Crossing.
However, her role as the impetus for the kidnapping scheme that becomes the film’s central conflict stems in no small part from her character’s emotional instability, a characteristic that is stereotypical of the weak female character trope.
What is by far Hunter’s most commanding scene in Raising Arizona comes when she pilots her husband’s pickup truck, with the titular baby in the passenger seat, on a daring and perilous off-road high-speed tear through the alleyways and backyards of a suburban community in order to rescue her husband, who is being pursued by police. From a feminist perspective, however, even this would be considered merely being an accessory aiding the action of the film’s male protagonist, the fact that the actions of Cage’s Herbert in the scene and throughout the rest of the film are something substantially less than heroic notwithstanding.
One might even say that the female character that has the most commanding presence in Raising Arizona, strikingly similar to that of Harden’s Verna in Miller’s Crossing, is McDormand’s cameo appearance as Edwina’s girlfriend Dot. McDormand’s Dot, from the moment she first appears on screen, displays the ability to command the attention of both Cage’s Herbert and Hunter’s Edwina. She also demonstrates that she has not-inconsiderable influence over her husband Glen, played by Sam McMurray.
Unlike Harden’s Verna, who maintains a cool, almost icy composure throughout Miller’s Crossing, the character of Hunter’s Edwina displays a severe emotional instability and unpredictability that serves to simultaneously to enhance her level of control over others, particularly her husband, and to critically undermine her candidacy for the role of the film’s protagonist. Particularly after the McDonough’s carry through with their kidnapping scheme, Edwina displays a personality of irrational mood swings that borders at times on the psychotic. This allows her to maintain very strict control over other characters such as Herbert in no small part because her unpredictability causes them to live in a state of near-constant fear of what she might say or do next.
This is illustrated most clearly in the scene when McDormand’s Dot and Glen visit the McDonough’s and their newly kidnapped child. Cage’s Herbert wants desperately to avoid spending time with Dot and Glen, for reasons that become apparent when Dot and Glen’s six uncontrollable children show up to wreck Herbert’s car. Herbert very politely says that he would like to leave with his friends Gale and Evelle, played by John Goodman and William Forsythe. However, all it takes is an unblinking, expressionless stare from Edwina for Herbert to second-guess his idea of leaving.
The irrationality and unpredictability of Edwina’s mood swings is illustrated again when she catches her husband holding up a gas station. Edwina’s first response is to take Herbert’s pickup truck and head home, leaving her husband stranded at the very gas station he just robbed. He rationale for doing this seems clear-cut, as she has their new child in the truck with her and does not want to be present when the police arrive at the robbed gas station lest she be taken in as an accessory to her husband’s crime. However, mere moments later, with the child still in the truck, Edwina decides for reasons that are never made entirely clear to turn the truck around and drive through a suburban neighborhood’s backyards to rescue her husband from being shot at by a pursuing police car.
One might say that the time at which Edwina displays the most agency of the entire story is at the end. The last we hear from Hunter’s character, she is telling her husband that she doesn’t want them to be together anymore. “I don’t care about us anymore.” She tells Herbert on their way to rescue their child from his prison friends. “Even if we do get him back safe, I don’t want to go on living with you.” Breaking off her relationship with Herbert may very well be the most strong-willed and independent thing that Hunter’s character does throughout the entire film.
It is interesting to contrast McDormand’s performance in Blood Simple to Hunter’s in Raising Arizona in part because the part in Blood Simple that went to McDormand was originally written by the Cohen brothers specifically for Hunter. McDormand has stated that one of the reasons why her character’s performance appears so aimless throughout the film is that Blood Simple was her first-ever acting experience, having been recommended for the part by Hunter, her roommate at the time. Seeing the moments of strength and will displayed by Hunter in Raising Arizona makes it interesting to contemplate whether the character of Abby in Blood Simple would have been quite as weak-willed as she turned out to be had the role gone to the actress for whom it was originally scripted.