Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: Those are the three things that men and women have as unalienable rights, according to the Declaration of Independence. Some might argue that just as the Declaration is an inalienably American document, the dedication to those particular rights counts as an intrinsic part of the American character. It stands to reason, then, that the American cinema teems with portrayals of its own people pursuing these rights, sometimes naively, sometimes stubbornly, sometimes bravely … sometimes even criminally. Here are 10 that made a very big impression — big enough that they might deserve to have their faces carved on a cinematic answer to Mount Rushmore.
10) Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939)
The American spirit is an ever-intrepid one, and it balks, sometimes violently, at boredom and oppression. For little Kansas girl Dorothy Gale, life on the farm with her kindly but strict aunt and uncle, not to mention the complaints of her uptight dog-hating schoolteacher, make her cry for escape. Dorothy’s own adventure, initiated by a twister that rips through the sepia-toned Kansas plain, takes her literally over the rainbow, into an enchanted land of witches and talking lions and straw men and all manner of weirdness. And it’s there that Dorothy learns a lesson that’s still dear to the heart of a lot of our fellow Americans: There’s no place like home. Even when we’re convinced that we can’t stand the sight of it!
9) Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967)
“We rob banks,” one of this dynamic and dysfunctional duo blurts in an unguarded moment with strangers. The real-life Depression-era boy-girl bandits didn’t exactly ooze charisma, but their movie incarnations, both gorgeous, couldn’t help but do so. That Arthur Penn’s 1967 film depicted the couple as sympathetic to foreclosed farm folk also helps their peculiar status as American Robin Hoods minus the wealth redistribution. Their legend as reiterated in film spread worldwide: French chansoneur Serge Gainsbourg wrote a tribute tune to them as a duet for himself and Brigitte Bardot, while over in Merrie Olde England, Georgie Fame sang “Bonnie and Clyde/Were pretty looking people/But let me tell you, people/They were the devil’s children.” Does every country get the outlaws they deserve? Hard to say. But I think we can all agree this couple is more palatable than, say, Mr. Manson and his “family.”
8) Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs in “In the Heat of the Night” (1967)
A groundbreaking post-Civil Rights movement depiction of an African-American character. That is, in a position of authority rather than servility. Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs is a Philadelphia detective who finds himself enlisted to help solve a Deep South murder, despite the reluctance of the bigoted Mississippi lawman Gillespie (Rod Steiger). Cool, calm, and collected, but clearly with a well of deep indignation beneath his surface, Tibbs keeps his head, and his manners, throughout, until he’s pushed the wrong way. Poitier’s character stands up against hundreds of years of racism and oppression when he responds to Gillespie’s taunt, “What do they call you up North, boy?” by very nearly spitting, “They call me MISTER Tibbs.”
7) Sally Field as Norma Rae in “Norma Rae” (1979)
The histories of American politics and activism are filled with the names of reluctant heroes, everyday people who, when called to a cause greater than themselves, rise to both the occasion and the cause with incredible strength and spirit. Sally Field won an Academy Award for playing a North Carolina single mom and textile worker who becomes a union organizer despite her initial determination not to stir up trouble at the plant. Based on the real-life story of Crystal Lee Sutton, the Martin Ritt-directed movie is a frank and gritty depiction not just of what’s at stake in big-picture struggles for workers rights, but what the cost can be for the individuals who lead the fights for those rights. The very ordinariness of Norma is part of what makes the character such an inspiration, and so uniquely American.
6) Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa in “Rocky” (1976)
“Palooka” is old-school boxing slang for “loser,” and in all the annals of boxing lore both literary and cinematic, there’s never been a palooka quite so palooka-ish as looming, droopy-lidded, marble-mouthed Rocky Balboa, a Philly mook who dreams of something like a title shot while romancing a neighborhood girl who’s so punishingly shy that she’s presumed by most of the local hood rats to be mentally disabled. Poster taglines are marketing devices, we know, but there’s hardly been an apter one than one of those for this picture: “His whole life was a million-to-one shot.” This great underdog character and his story in themselves constitute a great underdog film: The character was conceived and written by star Sylvester Stallone for himself just as he was about to bail from showbiz, and the film was made on a shoestring budget. It’s hard to look at Stallone now and see his legendary character, but every time you see the movie, he shuffles back to sleepy life, and you can’t help but root for him as he works out to Bill Conti’s cornball powerhouse theme music.
5) Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” (1993)
We love our all-American song-and-dance men and women, from George M. Cohan and Kate Smith to Lady Gaga. Tina Turner seems to represent a particularly American brand of resilience. This biopic depicts her incredibly humble origins as Annie Mae Bullock, the discovery of her dynamic musical talent, her road to both fame and a form of servitude under husband and musical partner Ike Turner, and, after a stretch of near-unendurable abuse, her liberation, which leaves her with nothing but her name. After which she goes on to even greater accomplishment, fame and fortune all by her super-bad self. And although Turner herself has made Europe her home for many years, her particular pursuit of happiness is, you have to say, as American as it gets.
4) Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” (1939)
Novelist Margaret Mitchell’s perverse Southern belle touched a deep chord in American culture well before the movie version of her book was made — so deep that producer David O. Selznick felt compelled to cast a relative unknown in the role, so as not to create a certain specific expectation. What British actress Leigh had to live up to was a Scarlett of the popular imagination, in all its bizarre glory: spoiled, petulant, pigheaded, unforgivably selfish and dissembling, but also with incredible reserves of strength, will, resourcefulness and a guile that almost resembled brilliant strategizing when perceived from a certain angle. Not to mention the all-American optimism of tomorrow being another day and all. Leigh wound up nailing the role so beautifully that it defined her subsequent career, for all intents and purposes. She only broke out of the Scarlett mold when she played an older, and almost entirely ruined, variation of the character, Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” well over a decade later.
3) James Stewart as Jefferson Smith in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939)
Funny thing about this picture: The earnest, awkward, almost criminally naïve draftee-senator played by Stewart and the gum-cracking cynical D.C. smart alecks who are so negatively awestruck by his lack of worldliness that they can’t even believe he’s too good to be true are two sides of the same American-character coin. In director Frank Capra’s wrenching tale of corruption and redemption in Our Democracy, it’s Smith, the onetime Boy Ranger leader who consults with the statue of Honest Abe at the Lincoln Memorial when he really needs boosting, who has to win over the swells who take him for a sap. Which of course he does, reminding them of their better angels, but not before going against an engine of graft so formidable that it nearly wears the young man (and the film’s audience) down to a nub.
2) John Wayne as Sgt. John M. Stryker in “The Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949)
The tough drillmaster who whips young army whelps into shape has gone through some interesting cinematic mutations over the years, climaxing in a sense with R. Lee Ermey’s formidable quasi-monster in “Full Metal Jacket.” Wayne’s Sgt. Stryker is from a different time, a different war, a war some still call the Good War. Those coming to the film expecting the character to be a patriotic cardboard cutout are in for a surprise. Wayne’s Stryker rides the recruits raw, but he’s hardly perfect himself: He drinks too much, has one mess of a personal life, all that. No paragon, then, but when it counts, he’s all guts, and by just being that, he teaches his charges, including the particularly irascible private played by John Agar, what it means not just to be a hero, but a Marine. A stirring character in a stirring film.
1) Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln in “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939)
Between the two of them, director John Ford and actor Henry Fonda etched quite a few indelible American portraits, both together and apart. “Young Mr. Lincoln” is a deceptively plain-seeming film with Fonda giving a deceptively understated performance chronicling Lincoln’s early adventures in love, loss and eventually lawyering in rural Illinois. Throughout, Fonda’s performance embodies a very basic decency and innate grasp of common sense, both practical and moral, that were to define Lincoln’s qualities as president. And there’s also the famously dry Lincoln wit, the cleverly deployed Solomonic wisdom, and more. And finally, a deep sense of individual loneliness, a sense of standing apart from the greatness of the country at the same time as one is poised to help define it. Such a paradox is also a big part of being an American, and Fonda captures it without overselling it.
*By Glenn Kenny For MSN Movies