“Stupid Is As Stupid Does!” [Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump” (1994)]
As we all know, there are many types of movies, TV/cable shows, and even to some extent, plays in the theater. These can be comedies, romantic/love stories, musicals, S/F, horror, social dramas, even westerns (Ahhh well, maybe not for the theater). However, no one has ever had a category specifically for “Stupidity”. Of course, that term can also be a general term that could just apply to any badly made movie, play, or TV show. However, for this month’s post I’ll specifically discuss movies where stupidity is either a main element in a movie’s plot or as a side element or a misnomer.
The most obvious category where it can be found is in comedies. Some of the great comic teams like The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis, The Smothers Brothers, The Marx Brothers, etc. had one or more individuals acting, saying or doing dumb things which constantly got all of them into trouble. That didn’t mean that these people were necessarily mentally deficient. All of them, at times, were perfectly capable of doing something smart, clever or quick thinking to also get them out of trouble. You will also find numerous times where the supposedly “dumb” one (Harpo, Lou Costello, Curly, Lewis, Tommy Smothers) would show up the other members of their team who were also not exactly the sharpest “mental” pencils in the box either.
Most individual comedians also did bits where they, at times, did stupid things too. Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope, Woody Allen, etc. are prime examples. However, at times some comedians did cross the line into major controversy by portraying characters that could be construed as being dumb because they were mentally deficient. Two comedians accused of this, for example, were Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey (who has also been compared to Lewis). Once when challenged by critics that he was actually demeaning mentally challenged individuals, Lewis said something to the effect that he was really sort of portraying an adult as a young child or a baby inferring that his actions were either acceptable or that he was not actually demeaning mentally challenged individuals. My own opinion is, “Bullshit” (and I don’t really like your Damn movies either Jerry)! The problem with labeling mentally challenged individuals as dumb, stupid or idiotic for example in movies, TV, or the theater, and of course, in real life is that it stigmatizes, and demeans.
Mentally challenged individuals have been shown great sympathy and understanding in many powerful ways in acclaimed dramas. Lennie in John Steinbeck’s novella, “Of Mice and Men” on stage, TV, film, and even opera is a prime example. A TV episode based on the short story, “Flowers for Algernon” which was adapted into the movie, “Charly” (1968) about an intellectually disabled adult played by Cliff Robertson (who won an Oscar) is also another fine example. “Forrest Gump” (of course you knew I had to mention this one didn’t you) is a good one too. However, the last one that I’ll mention, and a personal favorite of mine, is “The Lookout” (2007).
This film was directed by Scott Frank (his first feature) and starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an individual, who, after a car accident has left him with permanent brain damage, gets involved with criminals who want to rob the small town bank where he works at as a night-time janitor. Both Frank and Gordon-Levitt (who gave an absolutely astounding performance) along with the picture itself should have all won Oscars and it is one of the greatest examples of a terrific movie, despite receiving great reviews, being totally ignored by both Hollywood and the public that I have ever seen. See it! You won’t be disappointed!
Stupid, as an insult, has been applied to other individuals in movies who were actually not mentally challenged at all. The great novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” by Victor Hugo and it’s numerous adaptions in movies, on TV, opera, and even in cartoons and comic books is an example. The Hunchback, Quasimodo, although maybe ignorant, is not stupid, but deformed, half blind, and deaf. He is a great character of literature and has been a magnet for actors in movies as diverse for Lon Chaney in the 1923 silent version and Charles Laughton in the 1939 version. The hit movie, “Johnny Belinda” (1948), based on a successful Broadway play, also had a character (Oscar winner Jane Wyman) mischaracterized as stupid rather than a deaf-mute who was actually quite intelligent. The Boo Radley character in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is inferred as mentally challenged but is actually just a shy loner who lives alone in his house because he prefers that life rather than going out into the outside world. The book and the great 1962 movie version captures that point beautifully with a small but moving early performance by a young Robert Duvall (his first film role). The TV movie, “Temple Grandin” (2010), the true story of an autistic woman (Emmy winner, Clare Danes) who revolutionized the handling of livestock on cattle ranches and slaughterhouses while also being a spokesperson on autism research is another fine example.
Directors have used characters that have not, necessarily been the smartest as an element in their movies too. There are two directors that I want to mention as great examples. The first is someone who is my pick as the greatest film director in history. Someone once asked Orson Welles (no not him) who were the three greatest film directors in motion picture history? To which, he replied, “I like the old masters, by which I mean, John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” Orson, I may dislike you, but on this point, we are in full agreement!
I will not go into detail as to why and how John Ford was a great director except as to how it pertains to this post. Ford successfully used humor, at times, to relieve tension or at other times to lessen sad or tragic film moments, usually by having some of his film actors (both in major or minor roles) acting, not necessarily mentally challenged, but rather ignorant, vain, immature, foolish ,or so stubborn that they come across as totally ridiculous. Actors like James Cagney and Jack Lemmon in “Mr. Roberts” (1955), Jeffrey Hunter in “The Searchers” (1956), Edmond O’Brien and Andy Devine in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962), Lee Marvin in “Donovan’s Reef” (1963), and Victor McLaglen in “The Quiet Man” (1952) (or just about any other Ford movie that he ever had a role in) are prime examples. However, the remarkable thing about Ford’s direction of these actors and so many others was that, while they were funny, they were more importantly, always believable and never caricatures.
The other director that I want to mention is…well not really one director, but actually, two. They are Joel and Ethan Cohen or “The Cohen Brothers.” The Cohen Brothers have, besides making great movies, made a career out of showcasing mankind at a Stupidity level the likes of which few can ever imagine. In their first movie, “Blood Simple” (1984), you have a stupid husband (Dan Hedaya) hiring a not as stupid but still pretty dumb P.I. (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill his cheating wife. Needless to say, everything goes wrong. Their next movie, “Raising Arizona” (1987), involves a not too bright ex-con (Nicolas Cage) and his wife (Holly Hunter), who can’t have kids, kidnapping a baby to raise as their own. Needless to say, everything goes wrong. Next, you have their 1920s gangster film, “Miller’s Crossing” (1990) where a half smart gangster (Gabriel Byrne) plays two warring gangster groups against each other to woo his girlfriend who is also the girlfriend of his boss and who has a lying brother that the other side wants killed (Are you confused yet?). Other than Byrne getting beat on more often than a tin drum, once again, everything goes wrong.
And so it goes on and on. You have “Fargo” (1996) where a not too bright failed businessman (William H. Macy) hires two morons to kidnap his wife to get money from her rich father. Once again (Repeat after me…), EVERYTHING GOES WRONG!!! Then you have “The Big Lebowski” (1998) with slacker/bowling ball enthusiast Jeff Bridges (AKA “The DUDE”) stupidly high through the entire movie (maybe due to the fact that he probably smoked enough grass to cover the entire playing surface of The Cotton Bowl) used as a pawn in a kidnapping plot while being helped (hindered?) by his two idiotic bowling buddies (John Goodman and Steve Buscemi). Then you have four films with actor George Clooney deconstructing his Hollywood Movie Star persona as a dumb 1930s Southern prison chain gang escapee, a half smart Hollywood divorce lawyer, a bumbling and philandering U.S. marshal, and an imbecilic 1950s Hollywood star kidnapped by a bunch of Communist writers.
The Cohen Brothers uncanny knack of constantly using main and minor characters’ comic idiocy in genre as varied as film noir, Westerns, gangster films, hard crime, Hollywood, and others with elements of musicals, S/F, fantasy, etc. thrown in here or there at different film moments make their films constantly surprising and original.
Well, that’s it for now. I hope you see that Stupidity and Idiocy are important elements in stories for all visual mediums. Unfortunately, sometimes the people who give out awards can demonstrate that better than any movie. I mean, The Cohen Brothers winning the Best Directing Oscar and Picture for “No Country for Old Men” (2007), which might have been their worst movie? Over “The Lookout”??? Are you kidding me!
I had to get that in!