Humiliation scenes are tricky. They should illuminate a real personal problem, but to create more sympathy, the size of the humiliation should exceed the size of the problem. The best humiliation scenes are ones that are somewhat unjust but not entirely. Your heroes should deserve a comeuppance but get a much bigger humiliation than they deserve.
The first Iron Man movie shows how to do it right. We have a cocky and callous arms dealer who clearly deserves to be taken down a peg, but then he becomes a prisoner of sadistic Afghan warlords. Even though it’s something he’s brought upon himself, it’s even worse than he deserves, so we have no trouble sympathizing with his plight. Compare this to the lame sequel Iron Man 2, where a U.S. senator is upset that our cocky millionaire has his own personal weapon of mass destruction. We’re supposed to boo the senator, but why would we? The senator may be a jerk, but he’s totally correct. This is the tricky line you have to walk: The humiliation must be somewhat deserved but disproportionate.
- In The Awful Truth, the couple have been cheating on each other for some time, but it’s only when both parties are exposed while they have a house full of guests that they decide it’s time to divorce.
- In The Apartment, Jack Lemmon’s private humiliation spills out onto the street, where he gets hassled by the cops for spending the night in the park.
- In Witness, Harrison Ford hides a young Amish murder witness and his beautiful mother (Kelly McGillis) at his sister’s apartment. The next day, after McGillis gets annoyed at Ford’s boorishness, she cheerfully conveys to him what his sister really thinks of him, laying out a litany of his personal flaws. Coming from a witness, this embarrasses him both personally and professionally.
- In Donnie Brasco, both the feds and the Mafia brusquely tell Donnie his mustache violates their regulations, drawing the first of many ironic parallels between the two institutions. After he dutifully shaves it off, his wife says the mustache was the only thing she liked about his new identity. Clearly, he’s being pulled in every possible direction.
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES. His coworkers find out that he’s a virgin.
YES, she tries to keep the ship quarantined, but no one else lets her.
YES. Nice boy Graham bores the heck out of her on their date, disappoints her father.
YES. Her son is sent home from school for bringing a weapon.
YES. He’s sent to his death in quicksand, then sentenced to death for trying to kill the rail boss in retaliation.
YES. Both scenes above would apply, but they were both cut, so we only have a free-floating sense of his frustration, which is fine.
The Bourne Identity
YES. he literally becomes a non-entity.
YES. Finds out Annie is getting married, fears that she’ll lose her.
YES. he gets heckled for letting the Nazis pull Ugarte out of his arms, then he sees his ex-love is now with a war hero.
YES. The man next to him in the barbershop attacks his work, then he meets the real Mrs. Mulwray, who humiliates him.
YES. he misses Christmas with his family in order to keep his cover up with Lefty.
Do the Right Thing
YES. His sister heckles him on the way out the door, then he’s ordered to sweep up even though that’s not his job. Not long later, Tina calls.
YES. She gets a letter denying her a fellowship, confirming her fear that she’s not making it on her own.
YES. Dicky doesn’t show up, he’s forced into a bad fight, loses brutally.
YES. On her first day outside, she has an embarassing encounter with a cute guy.
YES. the arrest, but it’s far more than a social humiliation.
YES. The cops demands his ID, and he has to rely on Rose to defend him. He is then constantly humiliated by Rose’s parents.
YES. He’s send to the town for a fourth year in a row.
How to Train Your Dragon
YES. He almost burns the village down.
In a Lonely Place
YES. he almost gets in a fight in the street, then his few friends chew him out for almost getting in another fight at his favorite restaurant.
YES. He gets blown up by one of his own bombs in the hands of terrorists, almost killed, finds out his bombs kill kids frequently in the same way, forced to make more weapons for evildoers. (Notably, this guy was so arrogant that they had to use a flashforward structure to previewthe humiliation before we get an in-depth look at his personality, pre-assuring us that, don’t worry, he’ll get his comeuppance)
YES. Her mother tells her she lacks the ability to make it out of Sacramento. “You should just go to City College, with your work ethic. City College and then to jail then back to City College. Maybe you’d learn how to pull yourself up and not expect everyone to do everything for you...”
YES. Keeps getting sent back, finds out they’re infertile.
YES. He’s told he’ll be kicked out.
YES. Johnson rejects his call to action.
YES. Jack: It happened in the past, when he hurt his son and quit drinking. Danny: Somewhat. He’s interrogated by doctor about Tony.
YES. He has to move his sloppily parked car, oversleeps for friend’s party.
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. See above, also creepy Chilton hits on her and dismisses her, Lecter sees through her, another inmate throws something
YES. He’s told he has to stay on another season. “You can waste time with your friends when your chores are done.” And later, “It looks like I’m going nowhere.” R2D2 tricks him into removing the restraining bolt, then runs away.
YES. he gets humiliated by a script reader.