Cynthia’s Column July 2008
I have recently completed a new play and sent it out into the world. Santos is inspired by my high school drama teacher, a larger than life Chicano who was a small-parts actor with a huge personality. A complex and charismatic man. The play is not one of those sentimental heart warming pieces like Mr. Holland’s Opus. It’s more in the vein of Master Class or The History Boys. As I was writing it, the working title was Zorba the Chicano.
It is the first time I have written a piece about such a dominant Life Force character, to borrow Marc Acito’s term for those people in Broadway musicals who bring the life to the party. You know the ones who sing things like “Climb Every Mountain” and “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” Marc teaches a class on Musical Comedy at Portland Center Stage and he goes into many examples of the Life Force character in musicals.
So what happens when you take that concept of the Life Force character and translate it into plays/screenplays/novels? And how do we create those characters that are larger than life but still real breathing believable human beings? Let’s take this roadster out for a few laps around the mental track.
Life Force characters enliven many of our favorite films. In fact these films are memorable because of these characters. Often we hardly remember the stories, but the characters are vivid in our memories. Zorba the Greek was one of these. Auntie Mame blew the socks off her nephew and everyone else in the vicinity of her dazzling presence. Cyrano de Bergerac. Don Quixote. People that live life full out, pedal to the metal, no holding back, flat out full speed ahead even if it kills them. It’s not that they’re good people, or admirable or loveable. They may be none of these things. But they have this energy bursting out of them. They Live Large wherever they find themselves.
There is a canon of Girls with Life Force. They include legendary optimist Pollyanna. Anne of Green Gables. Jo March in Little Women. Scarlett O’Hara who is blazing with life force as she tries to grab her own world by the horns and wrestle it into submission. She is flawed but absolutely passionate and even in the worst of times, refuses to be beaten down by circumstances. She’s the one with the fist raised in anger declaring “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” No surprise that the best man around fell for her instantly, hard and permanently. She made the other belles look like pasty pale wallflowers.
Certain actors have so much Life Force that they are only believable when they play those roles. Robin Williams is one of these. Russell Crowe is an actor high on the Life Force scale. We want to see him in those roles whether it’s a gladiator, a math genius or a boxer. When he tries to tone himself down to a romantic comedy leading man, we’re less convinced. Kevin Kline has this life force, even in rom coms. You know the ones I’m talking about. Clark Gable was one. Life Force characters are incapable of slipping into a room unnoticed. When they walk in every head turns toward them. If Indiana Jones came to your baby shower he’d create a stir. Bette Midler can’t sneak into a party on this or any other planet.
So how do you create a Life Force character?
In creating Santos, I was lucky because I knew this man well and I remember him vividly. Some of the play’s dialogue is straight out of his own mouth, and for the rest I can clearly hear his voice in my head. How do you create one out of whole cloth?
What are the characteristics of Life Force characters?
Size. These are larger than life characters. That can be literal. Falstaff was a big guy. So was Elvis. Rasputin. William Wallace was rumored to be seven feet tall. But it can also be the size of his voice, his reach, his power. Think BIG and you’ll begin to approach the realm of the L.F.C.
Arrogance. Certainty. They are confident people, even during the occasional crisis of faith. The Music Man, Harold Hill, strides into town absolutely assured that the bill of goods he is selling (band uniforms and instruments) will be snapped up by every last citizen. Don Quixote charges straight at the windmill giants without hesitation or fear. When Starbuck, the Life Force character in The Rainmaker (Burt Lancaster, not Grisham’s) blows into a small town, claiming he can move the clouds and change the weather, he is so huge that ordinarily skeptical farmers believe him. So huge, they named the famous coffee company after him.
Positivity. They are usually upbeat positive people. You don’t find Life Force characters who are depressed or despondent. They are rarely even laid back or easy going. Many of them are determined, even driven, to make the world a better place. Dolly Levy and Emma are determined to match-make the world into couples so that everyone can live happily ever after, including themselves. And we can’t leave a paragraph on the positivity of L.F. characters without mentioning Pollyanna for whom an entire archetypal personality was named.
Creativity. Some L.F. characters are artists. Billy Elliot is bursting with Life Force energy as he dances his way out of his dead end coal mining town. Mozart in Amadeus uses his life force energy to create incredible music. (See also Shine and the new German film Titus for music as a genuine Life Force.) Alec Guinness’s artist in The Horse’s Mouth. Frida Khalo in Julie Taymor’s stunning film Frida.
Passion. Most L.F. characters have a tremendous capacity for love. Cyrano is one of the great love stories. Don Quixote loved his Aldonza. Scarlett loved Ashley, foolishly, but not without a lot of heat generated and a lot of lives disrupted. Passion is definitely one of the driving forces in Life Force characters.
Leadership. Many L.F. characters are the ones leading the charge. William Wallace in Braveheart. Henry V with “St. Crispin’s Day,” one of the great motivational speeches of all time. Even if they lead their troops to their deaths, it’s still the Life Force that’s driving these people. They can be pied pipers. People tend to follow them. On a smaller scale it’s the Life Force in Tom Sawyer that gets everyone to whitewash the fence for him.
To Be or Not to Be the Protagonist. Sometimes the Life Force character is the protagonist. Scarlett, Dolly Levi, Maria Von Trapp, Harold Hill, Cyrano, etc. But the Life Force character doesn’t have to be the protagonist. Salieri is the protagonist of Amadeus, observing and impacting the L.F. character of Mozart. Patrick Dennis is the protagonist put into the care of his Auntie Mame.
By Contrast. Sometimes a Life Force character’s impact is increased by the world they enter. In Ball of Fire, the stuffy professor/bachelors led by Gary Cooper are blown away by the sexy gangster’s moll with the great gams who hides out in their midst and Barbara Stanwyck’s dame is all the more filled with life, because of the lack of life in the musty dusty ivy covered hall of book learning she invades. Many screwball comedies of the 1930s and ‘40s played on this contrast. So Cary Grant’s myopic paleontologist made Katharine Hepburn’s ditzy heiress of Bringing Up Baby all the crazier for his stuffiness. Ditto Barbra Streisand’s loony to Ryan O’Neal’s scholar in What’s Up Doc? It’s the breath of fresh air character that wakes up the comatose one sleepwalking through his/her life. In Cabaret, Sally Bowles wakes up everyone around her in the grim colorlessness of Depression era Berlin. In My Man Godfrey, William Powell is so down and out, he’s living in the city dump when Carole Lombard descends in a tornado of diamonds and ditziness.
Look at your story and ascertain which character has the potential to be a real Life Force character. Then exaggerate, embellish, strut, fret, holler and hoot until you get some real Life Force energy generated. You can do it. And remember our motto, spoken by our Life Force cheer leader and prom queen, Auntie Mame. “Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death.”