Group C: Sensitive Types. These are some of the hardest characters to make sympathetic. Americans are hard-wired to hate losers. Of course, if you think about it, that’s somewhat weird… If I were to ask you, “who’s more sympathetic, a homeless guy or a CEO?”, most people would say the homeless guy. The problem, I think, is that moviegoers aren’t looking at snapshots, we’re living with someone. We’re not being asked to judge them, we’re being asked to identify with them, to share their lives, and if you asked people which of those two they’d rather share their lives with, you’d probably get a different answer.
Subtype #1: Sensitive failure, surrounded by insensitive winners: It takes a filmmaker of extraordinary sensitivity and generosity to make us sympathize with unsuccessful people, but it can certainly be done, and I wish more filmmakers would try.
- Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, Modern Times, and most everything else.
- Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life (again, only partially: but Potter, Sam Wainwright, even his brother all qualify)
- The Rabbit in Salesman
- Albert Brooks in Lost in America and Defending Your Life
- Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross
- Michael Scott on “The Office” is an interesting case: Careerwise, he’s an insensitive winner surrounded by sensitive strugglers, but in terms of social skills he’s certainly a sensitive failure, surrounded by insensitive winners.
Subtype #2: Sensitive poor, surrounded by insensitive rich: Price and Hopkins use their class resentment to justify horrible actions. Redford, Clements and Aniston merely use it as an excuse to hold back and judge, although they come to realize they’re only hurting themselves.