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The Hero's Role in Screenwriting

By John Hill

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Which one do women want in movies? A Rescuing Male who saves them? Or a kick-ass independent heroine?

Let us tiptoe gently into a touchy screenwriting topic.

It is the concept of The Rescuing found in reel life -- but missing in real life? Does Art imitate Life? Does Art ever really rescue anyone, or does he just watch golf on TV all weekend?

Considering all this might be helpful as we create characters, story structure and themes in our scripts. (Oh, and I'll only raise some good questions; I have no answers.)

The Rescuing Male has been a touchy topic for the last three or four decades, since God looked at Mankind, and then She said let there be the women's movement, Chippendales, sports bras and female NASCAR drivers.

And lo and behold, every beast of the field and every bird of the air shalt now have a raised consciousness...except for the guy in your office three cubicles down. And your Uncle Charlie with his Playboy© cigarette lighter.

And your last date. And...well, okay, not everyone got the word.

But long ago, it came to pass that contemporary women began to scorn the very idea of 'being rescued by a man' in normal life.

After all, women are smart, strong, equal - and what do they have to be rescued from? Technology and modern society has changed the need for (the physically stronger) men to rescue women from saber-toothed tigers or marauding casino-Americans. So this concept should have disappeared with disco, right?


Except , we often find this theme in many movies since the 70's.

So give it some thought, especially if you write a chick-flick (love story or romantic comedy). Or even for the boy-brain action-adventure genre.

Because if visceral appeal of The Rescuing Male ended three decades ago, why did women ticket-buyers create mega-blockbusters out of three overt female 'Rescuing Male' fantasies: PRETTY WOMAN, GHOST, and AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN? (All written and directed by men, by the way.) At the end of OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, Richard Gere is as close to a knight in shining armor as you can get in his white Navy uniform, marching into the grungy, dark factory where Debra Winger is a single wage slave. He literally sweeps her off her feet, carries her out into the sunlight, to marry him, taking her, as the song lyric clearly spells out, to completes the fantasy, 'up where she belongs.' She belongs, apparently, at upwards of $125 million, domestic box-office, caused by women loving this ending.

In GHOST, the fantasy of the Rescuing Male doesn't even stop at death.

The movie GHOST seems to offer the ultimate female wish-fulfillment fantasy: you can have this hunky husband who loves you so much that he'll even come back from the dead as a ghost to RESCUE you. ($200 million.)

And in PRETTY WOMAN, that full-on fantasy says a Donald Trump-esque rich guy will so love you, that even meeting you in the lowliest niche possible, immediately treats you with respect (that you apparently don't even have to earn; Julia Roberts played a street hooker), demands of others that you be treated with respect, gives you credit cards to shop with on Rodeo Drive, forgives a sexually off-putting past, proposes and carries you off to his castle (Fifth Avenue townhouse). Women LOVED this movie ($400+ million worldwide box-office; that's love) -- so was it every female's total adolescent romantic fantasy?

Gloria Steinem, you got some 'splainin' to do...

But to be fair, aren't movies the place for seeing ALL of our wildest, mostly unlikely fantasies played out sixty-feet high for two hours? Isn't this what movies often do: offering our unconscious wish-fulfillment dreams?

Most of us guys in the audience are not physical warriors, but we love watching our boy-brain fantasies in RAMBO, LETHAL WEAPON and LORD OF THE RINGS.

Female fantasies seem to be aimed at adolescence: boy meets girl chick flicks: love stories and romcoms. But male fantasies are PRE-adolescent!

We love action/adventure genres, about males successfully confronting a tough world and physically triumphantly (not the mushy stuff.)

A boy between, say, ten and twelve years old, is at the peak of his childhood physical power (but before puberty/hormones/sex/girls) so his boyhood fantasies include being a space man (THE RIGHT STUFF, STAR WARS), a firefighter (BACKDRAFT), a warrior with a sword (ROBIN HOOD, ZORRO, BRAVEHEART), a cowboy (THE UNFORGIVEN, QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER), a race car driver (THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS), a sports hero (ROCKY) or a cop (LETHAL WEAPON).

Then guys grow up and get cued (by comics, books, movies) that we're supposed to become a R escuing Male where females are concerned. Then whatever is in both our male and female psyches shows up on the big screen.

(Let me reveal my keen grasp of the obvious: girls want boyfriends; boys want swordfights. Such it has been, such it shall always be, world without end, amen.)

I don't want to strain to make a point, but don't a lot of male-oriented action movies include this dynamic too? The guy known as ya-big-lug kept having to bravely rescue Fay Wray from KING KONG. Clyde rescued Bonnie from a boring, anonymous waitress life she hated. In THE PROFESSIONALS, a team of cowboy experts are hired to rescue a man's kidnapped rich wife. In KLUTE, Donald Sutherland rescued the Jane Fonda call girl from her psycho stalker. A big part of the original STAR WARS was Princess Leah being rescued by Hans Solo.

In both DIE HARDS I & II, Bruce Willis had to keep rescuing his wife.

Ah-nuld rescues females in PREDATOR, ERASER, COMMANDO, etc. BATMAN rescues all his women, usually mid-air catches. In LAST OF THE MOHICANS, when the hero says to the heroine, when they are forced to split up, "I will find you," we know he means it. And he rescues her. So many action/adventure guy-movies also have a Rescuing Male.

Seems hard to imagine now, but in the early 80's, BEVERLY HILLS COP was a breakthrough film. Why? It was a new hybrid, that, along with 48 HOURS, invented a new genre, the action-comedy: serious violence but with a funny comic. Guns and giggles, laughs and Uzi's, belly laughs and bullets. BEVERLY HILLS COP seemed to break all the rules, a trendy new genre, hip new star -- except for one classic scene at the end you probably don't even remember.

Eddie Murphy assaults the villain's mansion, and then there's a stand-off as our hero faces the villain holds a gun to the heroine's head. The Rescuing Male moment was present, even in that rule-breaking, funny movie, as it was almost obligatory story structure moment, for success.

(Note two things in movies in general: how often a hero rescues a woman from the villain, and how often movies end with "Let's go home.")

Look at the mega-successful TITANIC. Any examples of a Rescuing Male?

Let me count the ways. Jack rescued Rose from a bad marriage to a cruel fiance, and rescuing her from loveless sex, showing her a steamy, passionate way instead. He rescued her from thinking she had no choices within her rigid class system. He rescued her from the villain chasing them through the sinking ship while shooting at them. And as the ship sinks, he rescues her from drowning. He makes sure she lives, as he sacrifices himself, glug-glug-glug.

Could there be a connection between so many Rescuing Male dynamics in one love story and the fact it's the #1 box-office hit ever? (Nah, probably just a co-inky-dink...)

Sometimes the lack of The Rescuing Male is so awkward it drives the plot.

In BRAVEHEART, the emotional trigger that propelled the Mel Gibson character to lead the Scots to rebel was English soldiers killing his wife; he couldn't rescue her and couldn't get over it. In OUT OF AFRICA, the only real plot conflict in that love story keeping boy and girl apart was that the Robert Redford character would NOT become Meryl Streep's Rescuing Male. He chose a loving, independent, healthy disengagement; she insisted on an engagement. He wasn't playing the societal role she expected he would play once they found love and that was their only real conflict.

The underrated movie, HERO, with Dustin Hoffman, Andy Garcia and Geena Davis, turns the Rescuing Male theme inside out for our amused study. When a selfish weasel of a con man is actually the hero who saves the heroine and others from a burning crashed airliner, he doesn't fit the stereotype. So a different hero is chosen in a plot mix-up, a handsome, modest, more traditional image of a Rescuing Male; gap between heroic expectation and scruffy reality drives the plot. Ben Afflect's plot conflict in CHASING AMY is that he's in love with a lesbian, who doesn't need a male to rescue her from anything, thanks anyway.

Any twists and reversals on this Rescuing Male theme like these only reinforce its power and remind us of its almost omnipresence in films.

There are more subtle variations on this this theme. In THE HORSE WHISPERER, the Robert Redford character rescues the heroine's family from falling apart, by healing horse, daughter's soul, and Mom's rigid/frigid yuppie-driven world view. In THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, the Clint Eastwood free spirit rescued the Meryl Streep farm-wife character from a life that had everything but romance. In FRANKIE AND JOHNNY, Al Pacino rescues the Michelle Pffeifer character from a life alone after she'd given up on men.

The list is timeless, endless, so common we take it for granted.

However, I'm not trying to suggest this dynamic appears in all scripts or movies, or should. Not at all. And you may be thinking, okay, so a hero rescues the damsel in distress, what else is new?

But that's just it -- when there's any kind of Rescuing Male? We take it for granted, hardly notice it, don't even question it. It is a very ingrained part in our culture, our collective consciousness. Prince Charming will show up and save the fairy tale princess (which by the way puts a lot of unconscious pressure on men in real life to always be a rescuing hero too -- which they then get in trouble for trying, with their women. "Don't problem-solve everythingI say," she complains to him. "Just be a good listener!" And he can't win. Go figure...) So maybe all this deserves some thought, especially before you write your next screenplay.

However, by now, I know what you're thinking. You're wanting to say, dude, (okay, the dude part is optional) wait a minute. Your examples are a generation old! What about modern, kick-ass, self-empowering heroines?

Fair enough.

Except if SUPERMAN caught Margot Kidder in mid-air in the 1970's, and three decades later, SPIDERMAN catches Kirstin Dundst in mid-air, both Spandexed Rescuing Males, it's a 21st century thing too. In 50 FIRST DATES, a romantic comedy, a man rescues a young accident victim with permanent, daily short-term memory loss, from a life with no sense of love and forward movement. And many other contemporary examples of it.

However, let's now look at how more recent movies do reflect a complete change of attitudes from the old Perils Of Pauline, helplessly tied to the train tracks, hoping for a Rescuing Male instead of the 3:10 to Yuma.

Many, many contemporary love stories movies and romantic comedies are NOT about 'the rescuing male' but instead are about two equals just trying to find love together, without any rescuing factor. Examples of these include SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, YOU'VE GOT MAIL), SERENDIPITY, ALONG CAME POLLY, 10 REASONS, etc. and many, many other movies.

In realistic dramas, ERIN BROCOVICH rescued herself from her single, unemployed Mom situation. Even in more recent male-oriented adventure movies, Catherine Zeta-Jones gives as good as she gets in a swordfight with ZORRO; ditto Maid Marian in Kevin Costner's ROBIN HOOD. EVER AFTER with Drew Barrymore spoofed all this with a fairy tale heroine who is strong, pro-active, smart and rescues herself, confusing the hero and our expectations.

In MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, the female protagonist made a pro-active break FROM her suffocating work-in-the-family-restaurant-schtick-and-cultural-bullying PRIOR to meeting Mr. Right THEN they went through all the funny famliy wedding shtick; she 'rescued' herself first.

Even broad comedies like SAVING SILVERMAN offer a kidnapped female victim Amanda Peet as able to outthink and outfight her two loopy male kidnappers; she saves herself.

Today's action/adventure genre films often don't even star men.

This is the era of the Kick-Ass-Female-Protagonist. In G.I. JANE, the CHARLIE'S ANGELS, and LARA CROFT movies, The X-MEN heroes included tough X-women; Carris Moss in MATRIX. Many of today's big screen women are totally able to take care of themselves, and rescue themselves, if need be. Clarice Starling goes after serial killers and Ellen Ripley keeps defeating the ALIEN, each rescuing themselves, each time. (Plus ALIAS/BIONIC WOMAN on TV.) So finally, women protagonists are totally capable in every way to men on the big screen, reel life mirroring real life on this (with women in combat in Iraq, women cops, women firefighters, etc.)

And yet...there's this wistful female call of the tame that still exists as mirrored in our big screen: the presence of the Rescuing Male in 21st century movies.

But when it's NOT a life-and-death situation, no one ever seems to ask just what a modern woman needs so badly to be rescued FROM?

I'm guessing but there seems to be a 'fear of 21st century neo-spinsterism (aging alone with career & cat)' -- and the 'rescue' from this takes the form of a loving husband who offers instead a life of marriage and Soccer-Mom-ness. (Married child chauffeurs are reading this now, in line at car pool, waiting for endless ballet recitals and Little League to end, and thinking: this is my salvation? What rescues me from the rescue?)

Still, Gloria Steinem in the 1970's said a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, which may be more glib than substantive for many women today (and I can't resist mentioning Ms. Steinem herself got married a few years ago; she decided to let her husband to keep him own name.)

In preparing this article, I emailed most of this to 6-8 female friends, for their opinions on what I suggest is the seeming contradiction between the escapist fantasy on the big screen of the Rescuing Male, and yet, after the movie, the politically-correct scorning of such a concept in reality.

Many admitted they long for a hero, but they are in short supply; they'd love a Rescuing Male in real life, but it just isn't realistic. They know they have to be able to take care of themselves, but in the dark escapist privacy a movie theater, they can enjoy a good fantasy, which is what films often offer. If a guy can love a movie where he's a tough DIE HARD-esque hero on the big screen, why can't a woman enjoy a Rescuing Male there too?

One young woman in her early 20's confided, "Of course I'd love a Rescuing Male -- I just won't admit it." She's presently working hard to be able to always take care of herself throughout her life; I'll keep her secret - but is this common? Wanting the politically-incorrect, retro-fantasy, the Rescuing Male?

So keep some of these questions in mind as you fashion your scripts.

Women today of all ages in going to the movies have every right to enjoy both types of contemporary women images now on the big screen. Those kick-ass women characters who are self-empowering, in all genres. And also the women characters on the big screen who enjoy an old-fashioned romantic cuddle with their hero who just saved them.

About John Hill

John Hill began writing as a professional screenwriter over 25 years ago. His numerous credits include GRIFFIN AND PHOENIX (2006), starring Dermot Mulrooney and Amanda Peet and QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER (1990), based on his spec script, starring Tom Selleck, Laura San Giacomo, and Alan Rickman. He has worked on staff as a writer-type producer on QUANTUM LEAP and on L.A. LAW, where he won an Emmy in 1991. He wrote a regular column for SCR(I)PT magazine for 5 years and now teaches writing and creativity at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. One-on-one mentoring in screenwriting is available. He may be reached at [email protected].
Screenwriting Article by John Hill

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