Singular Alchemy: 3 Scripts That Reinvented Movie Star Personas

by ScreenCraft on July 31, 2015

Screenwriters and movie stars have to rely both on their craft and authentic selves to forge customized emotional relationships with audiences. Writers have to create the scenarios and emotional experiences out of the ether, and movie stars then need to interpret, embody and deliver them to moviegoers at large. These two subsets of creatives maximize their chances of thriving when they realize that they profoundly need and affect each other.

We've already explored generally the unique psychology of writing for movie stars, but now let's dig deeper. Because there is arguably no skill more valuable for a screenwriter than the ability to understand the concept of emotional transference and how to craft cast-able, crowd-pleasing roles...and roles that movie stars not only want but need to play from a branding perspective.

It may sound crass and reductive  to say, but movie stars are brands in the same way that Coke, Panda Express and Smith & Wesson are. They have target audiences, markets and financial partners that they need to satisfy. It's one thing (a big thing) to become a movie star. It's another thing to stay one. Talent agents and studio and network marketing machines work tirelessly--and often shamelessly--to cultivate, groom and cement leading men and women as movie stars and then ride their box office waves, yeehaw, into every market and territory in the world. This has been the way of things since movies first progressed from a technological and narrative concept into a massive consumer industry more than a hundred years ago.

But for every movie star that sticks and becomes an icon with staying power, there are untold legions of would-be stars and flashes in the pan (or perhaps pan-flashers?) who fizzle out and fade away. Bona fide movie stars, in addition to being talented (and usually preternaturally attractive), need to have a singular charisma--an initial x-factor--that endears them to audiences. But then, even more crucially, they have to be savvy enough to understand what their brand is and know how to continually maintain and optimize it for world audiences and changing times.

Sound tough? It is. Stray too far from your wheelhouse and you lose the appeal and connection to audiences that made you a star in the first place. Stray too little from your wheelhouse and everyone begins to resent you for giving them the same experience over and over again (looking at you Liam Neeson, Johnny Depp, Adam Sandler and Bruce Willis).

This is why movie stars and their teams scour tirelessly for screenplays that give them the best of both worlds. Stars crave--and some of the smartest ones even shape and create--roles that allow them to engage the tropes and personas that audiences have enthusiastically embraced while simultaneously riffing on and subverting them to provide a fresh experience. A balanced blend of old and new, of comfort food and spice.

Because movie stars don't just make movies; they foster ongoing relationships with audiences that, if skillfully and earnestly nurtured, can last years and even decades. Relationships between movie stars and audiences function (or fail) the same as romantic relationships do: once the initial attraction fades and the honeymoon period ends, active work has to be put in to keep the experience engaging and emotionally meaningful. Savvy stars understand this on a cellular level. They understand that it's crucial what screenplays they attach themselves to, and also that it's equally crucial the order in which they make them.

Clint Eastwood hung onto and developed Unforgiven for years until it was the exact right time in his filmography to make it, and if he had it made it any earlier, it wouldn't have had the meaning that it did. Similarly, last year Tom Cruise made Edge Of Tomorrowin which he ceded his typical alpha male hero status to Emily Blunt in favor of playing a slick coward forced to become heroic through extreme circumstances. That role allowed him to ultimately tap into the core character qualities we look for in a Tom Cruise role, while still meaningfully subverting them to make the experience feel fresh. 

Consequently, after that shrewd palette cleanser, audiences are now excited to see him resume the mantle of his signature, unabashedly dominant action hero Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation. Conversely, if Tom Cruise had lensed and released two Mission: Impossible installments back-to-back, would the anticipation factor be as high? Probably not. Movie stars not only need the right projects; they need the right projects at the right times.

Tom Cruise clearly grasps this; he has continually proven to be one of the savviest, most self-aware male movie stars in history, as have Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson. These three stars strategically reinvented themselves at crucial crossroads in their careers by latching onto three extraordinary screenplays: Unforgiven, Jerry Maguire, As Good As It Gets.

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Unforgiven, Jerry Maguire, and As Good As It Gets were all released by major studios  in the early to mid-1990s. They were some of the most personal films to come out of mainstream Hollywood during that decade, and though they were potentially risky properties, they all enjoyed tremendous commercial success (each grossing over $100 million at the domestic box office) and garnered significant critical acclaim, including Oscar nods.

They catered to the personalities and public perceptions of Eastwood, Cruise, and Nicholson and allowed them to reinvent themselves by providing the opportunity to explore and even subtly subvert the layers and boundaries of the masculine personas they had each created over the course of their body of work.

This phenomenon of reinvention is particularly enthralling in the case of movie stars of their caliber because audiences play such a critical role in the process of negotiating their personas and, whether consciously or unconsciously, feel that stars bring a piece of all of their previous roles to each subsequent film that they make. Consequently, a scene in one of the stars’ current films can take on a higher level of meaning when viewed in response or opposition to a scene or even an entire character from a prior project.

Unforgiven (1992), written by David Webb Peoples and produced and directed by Eastwood, tells the story of William Munny, a middle-aged reformed killer who is compelled to fall back on his old ways. The film opens with a preamble that shows Munny digging his wife’s grave while an introductory crawl informs us that Munny’s mother-in-law was heartbroken when her daughter entered into marriage with him, as he was “a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.”

We buy into this characterization of Munny—before we have even encountered him, mind you—without question because we associate Eastwood with the tough killers he played in the myriad Westerns he made prior to Unforgiven, such as A Fistful of Dollars, High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Pale Rider. Munny is trying to hide from his violent past, but that past does not need to be fully explicated to us because subconsciously we substitute Eastwood the Western star’s past for Munny’s; Munny becomes a new incarnation of characters Eastwood played previously.

This remarkable process of psychological construction and negotiated meaning takes place  practically before the film has even begun and allows William Munny to enter the narrative as a fully-formed character. This is crucial to the script's modus operandi, because Unforgiven is concerned not with building and revealing the William Munny character but with deconstructing and demythologizing him—and the romanticized gunfighter archetype he represents that is so pervasive in the Western genre.

The proper introduction to William Munny immediately begins to demythologize him. He is shown sprawling into the mud, trying to corral his pigs into a sorry-looking pen as his two young children look on blankly. Surely this can’t be, Eastwood/Munny, the toughest, most taciturn man in the West, overcome by pigs and dripping in poverty with no prospects of a better life. From the mud, Munny hears the Schofield Kid—a brash, young wannabe killer out to make a name for himself—call out to him: “You don’t look like no meaner than hell cold-blooded damn killer.” Schofield has come to recruit Munny to be his partner on a bounty to kill two cowboys who cut up a prostitute, having heard that he was “the worst, meaning the best” gunfighter around. But as the film shows in this instance and many more to come, reputations don’t often coincide with reality.

Munny initially declines the offer, insisting that his wife cured him of his wickedness and that he “ain’t like that no more.” But as he sees the Schofield Kid ride off into the horizon and realizes that nothing awaits him and his children but mud and sickly pigs, he reconsiders. The script then repeats the motif of showing Munny as incompetent as he dusts off his old peacemaker and sets up target practice with a can on a fence post and proceeds to see if he still has it. The answer is a resounding no, as he fires all six shots and doesn’t hit the can, completely impotent and incompetent. This scene is especially significant because the film is a Western, and so often in Westerns, masculinity is equated with and measured in terms of toughness and competence; after all, the gunfighter must by definition be competent, he must be the fastest draw and the best shot—otherwise he is dead.

Dismayed, Munny returns to the range, this time with a shotgun, and blows the can apart; with the bigger gun, he can’t miss. But incredibly, Munny is depicted as incompetent yet again in the very next scene when he tries to mount his horse and set off to join the Schofield Kid on the bounty. He fails—again in front of his children—miserably and repeatedly (and, at least for viewers, rather comically). His struggle to gain control of the animal recurs in the narrative and further undercuts the competent, taciturn, masculine persona Eastwood had shaped and accrued over the course of his career. This is appropriate, as Munny also struggles to control his own animal self, formerly responsible for countless acts of violence and drunken brutality.

As he rides off, he tells his children that he will be back in a couple of weeks, and to remember that “the spirit of [their] dear departed ma” watches over them. Eastwood delivers the line almost flippantly, suggesting perhaps that Munny is putting on a theatrical show, trying to delude his children and, more strikingly, himself. Does Munny really believe that his angelic, lawful, devoted, devout wife Claudia “cured” him? Or did she just facilitate his desire to hide from his own nature? And now that she’s gone, is Munny going on this killing to earn the money to secure a fresh start for his “youngsters” or is he going for the opportunity to reconnect with and rekindle his true nature that his wife helped him suppress and lay dormant for the past decade? Munny has this debate with himself throughout the narrative. 

Eastwood further undercuts his persona by staging a scene where Munny, feverish and flu-stricken from the rain, gets savagely beaten to within an inch of his life by Gene Hackman’s sadistic sheriff Little Bill Daggett, who is psychopathically committed to keeping the peace. Munny crawls without dignity out of the saloon and into the muddy streets. The scene—which parallels an earlier one in which Daggett brutalizes Richard Harris’ colorful gunfighter English Bob—shows that even the most hardened gunfighter with a mythic reputation can get sick and beaten in a fight, an unthinkable notion in all previous Eastwood Westerns. 

Munny survives, but in his delirious fever, sees mangled and frightening visions from beyond the grave, images of men he has killed and of his smallpox-infected wife. He tells Ned that he is afraid of dying and asks him not to tell his kids about any of the bad things he has said or done. But when he comes out of the coma, he is essentially reborn as his old self.

He takes part in killing the cowboys and fulfilling the bounty, and when Daggett captures Ned and kills him, Munny settles the score. He vengefully blows away Daggett, saloon owner Greeley and everyone else who gets in his way, without hesitation, and without remorse. He even drinks whiskey, not to dull the pain but because he wants to, ignoring the moral compass Claudia provided him with. He rides off into the dark night, the Angel of Death, returns to the pig farm and vanishes with his children.

Thus Unforgiven dismantles and debunks the myths of the West and the myths of Eastwood's persona—specifically, the definition that equates masculinity with steely competence and moral rectitude.

Tom Cruise plays the title character in writer/director Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire (1996), about a highly successful but insincere sports agent who realizes he hates himself and what he has become and who embarks on an emotionally-wrenching journey to rediscover and reconnect with the idealism he once had. Maguire is the long on ambition but short on scruples pitchman who exudes genuine charm and panache. He is the guy his agency would “send into the living room,” where he could convince someone to set himself on fire. He’s cool under pressure and able to turn any situation to his advantage, and he’s engaged to a beautiful woman who is as ambitious as he is. But the central conceit of the character is that his whole demeanor, in essence his whole existence, has become a façade—capable of hiding the loneliness, emptiness and lack of fulfillment he feels—from everyone except himself.

Once again, in a perfect fusion of screenplay and casting, the persona of the star fits the dynamics of the character like a glove. Tom Cruise had built his career almost exclusively playing the handsome, warm, urbane, professional male in filmic odes to testosterone like Top Gun and Days of Thunder and prestige pictures like Rain Man, A Few Good Men, The Firm and Mission: Impossible.

Just like with Unforgiven, audiences were inclined to immediately buy into the introduction of Jerry Maguire as a smooth-as-silk sports adman based on the persona Cruise had previously cultivated and negotiated with viewers. Whether it was a conscious desire on the part of Cruise or not, playing Maguire allowed him to indirectly comment on his previous roles, saying that perhaps they were not the full human beings they seemed to be. In that context, his presence adds a personal gravity to the role and the film.

In the inciting incident of the story, Maguire, alone in his hotel room, breaks down and, in a moment of epiphany or madness (as he spends the duration of the film trying to decide which one it was), writes a lengthy mission statement. Entitled “The Things We Think But Do Not Say: The Future of Our Business,” it implores his company to cut down their massive client roster and focus not on making big money but on forming close, personal relationships with the athletes they represent. He mass-copies the document and hesitantly distributes it to every soul at his agency.

The public reception is unanimous praise and applause; the private one is to axe Maguire. The film makes it readily apparent that he has but two allies on his journey: Rod Tidwell, the one client he manages to retain and Dorothy Boyd, an accountant at the agency and single mom who believes in Maguire’s idealism and risks everything by leaving the agency to go work for him.

Dorothy, Tidwell, and Maguire form a makeshift triumvirate. The single mom and pro football player both need Maguire to succeed, but for vastly different reasons. Tidwell needs Maguire to secure him a high-paying contract to finish out his career and assuage his ego and alpha maleness; Dorothy needs him to succeed because, by her own admission, she needs to feel inspired after the downtrodden and lonely life she has led.

Critical to the narrative is that Maguire also needs Tidwell and especially Dorothy, though he does not realize it until the very end of the film. Maguire loses his job, his most high-profile clients, and his power-mad fiancée. All he has left is the hope of the idealized sense of purpose he carved out for himself in his mission statement and the love of Dorothy and her young son Ray. Dorothy loves Maguire for “the man he wants to be and the man he almost is,” but he doesn’t want her love initially. It frightens him, because if he accepts that love, he has to hold himself up to the standard he laid out in his mission statement.

Maguire doesn’t simply have a change of heart in the beginning of the film and then proceed down a completely linear, delineated, forward-moving path towards transforming himself from soulless to fulfilled. On the contrary, Maguire constantly questions his mission statement and repeatedly falls back on his old, impersonal, all-business (and rather unlikable) efficiency as a defense mechanism. He floats loosely between two anchors, a human seesaw constantly tottering between the easy familiarity of the man he was and the frightening promise of the vulnerable, daring, complete man he could be.

When he finds himself falling for Dorothy as she has fallen for him, his natural impulse is to push her away, to distance and protect himself from the soul-penetrating emotions he cannot control or predict. But in another moment of weakness—which, for the compartmentalized taskmaster Maguire, is actually a moment of strength—he does not suppress his true feelings and asks Dorothy to marry him. 

While this would be (and has been) the traditional climax in many Hollywood features, it is really only the halfway point of Maguire's arc. Because initially Maguire's proposal is revealed to be just another Hail Mary sales tactic in the slick agent's repertoire; he asked Dorothy to marry him to keep her from leaving and taking another job away from him. He feels like Dorothy deserved a proposal and so he gives her one, to reward her loyalty; he's not ready to admit to himself that he truly wants to be with her. Why? Because that admission would force him to live up to the image of the man he created in his mission statement, and he doesn't know if he can do that. 

Understandably, the marriage proves short-lived when the stronger, more emotionally developed Dorothy calls Maguire on not being fully committed to her, for going through the motions (“What do you want, my soul or something?” Maguire asks). Tidwell—who, though a paycheck player on the football field, deeply loves his wife and family—also calls Maguire on his lack of commitment to the whole “husband and wife thing.”

Appropriately, Maguire and Tidwell spend the majority of the film being incomplete, but in the opposite arenas. Tidwell, all heart in his personal life, is cold and standoffish on the field. Maguire, in contrast, is all heart and commitment in his professional life, but perfunctory and even closed off in his personal one—“great at friendship, bad at intimacy” as various women proclaim in his bachelor video that is featured in the first act of the script.

As unlikely a pair as they are, Maguire and Tidwell form a symbiotic partnership; they begrudgingly inspire and facilitate each other’s breakthrough toward emotional and even spiritual wholeness. Maguire inspires Tidwell to rediscover his joy for the game (and consequently, earn the high-paying contract that has been eluding him with a vengeance) and through Tidwell, Maguire realizes that he truly does love Dorothy and needs her to feel fulfilled and whole.

Tidwell completes his journey on the field in front of thousands of football fans; Maguire must complete his in Dorothy’s house, in front of an even more intimidating audience comprised of Dorothy’s disapproving older sister Laurel and the jaded members of the divorced women’s support group she leads. In a scene that became iconic to the point of derision in the years that followed, Maguire convinces Dorothy that he is now fully committed to her, thus saving the marriage. He realizes that Dorothy completes him by inspiring him to be the man he wanted to be in his mission statement, but was not strong enough to become by himself; she anchors him to that purpose.

Thus the film shows that men are flawed, fallible, and utterly incomplete unless they allow themselves to commit fully to love in both their professional and personal lives. Like Unforgiven did for Eastwood, Jerry Maguire allowed Cruise to reconnect with audiences by engaging the cornerstones of his star persona and filmography while also subverting them to create a new, retroactive context.

Similarly, As Good As It Gets (1997), co-written and directed by James L. Brooks, allowed Jack Nicholson to build on the eccentric, abrasive, coarse roles he played in films like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, The Last Detail and Five Easy Pieces and to show the conflicted human being lying underneath the layered veneer. It tells the story of Melvin Udall, a middle-aged, obsessive-compulsive misanthrope who lives utterly alone in his New York apartment and works as a very successful author of pulp romance novels.

He is a man defined by contradiction. He writes sentimental trash and yet he is an accomplished piano player and his apartment is filled with a plethora of expensive art and books on philosophies from all over the world. A workaholic, his books are wildly popular and especially beloved by women, but he takes no pleasure in writing them. He openly expresses disdain and even disgust at the very concept of romance, and when queried by a zealous fan as to how he writes women so well, he replies, “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.”

Udall ventures out of his apartment only when he must. He believes that “people who talk in metaphors ought to shampoo [his] crotch” and does not discriminate in his disdain. The film shows early on how Udall detests his gay artist neighbor Simon, blacks, Jews, dogs, cops, actresses…everyone except Carol Connelly, the waitress who he insists wait on him at the diner he goes to every day for his meals—and the only one willing to tolerate him. Like Dorothy Boyd, Carol Connelly is a working-class single mom, and like Dorothy Boyd, she is the backbone of the film, the catalyst that drives Melvin Udall to rediscover and reconnect with his humanity—to accept love and become a whole person.

Like Jerry Maguire, this is a journey that Udall resists and struggles with for the entirety of the script. A series of circumstances inextricably binds Udall, Carol, and Simon together: whether he wants to admit it or not (he doesn’t), Udall needs Carol and Simon to save him from himself—or as Carol puts it, to not “ruin everything by being you”; Simon needs Udall to take care of his dog Verdell after he is robbed, savagely beaten and hospitalized in his home, and drive him to Baltimore to ask his decades-long estranged parents for help with medical bills; and Carol needs Udall’s help in taking care of her seriously ill son Spenser (when Carol doesn’t show up for work one day, Udall arranges and pays for expensive home medical care for Spenser so that she’ll be able to come back to work and wait on him).

Carol uses her son to hide from her loneliness just as Udall uses his ailment and intense cynicism for the same reason. But by the script's end, after a series of disastrous (and hilarious) setbacks, Udall has forged both a close friendship with Simon and a burgeoning romance with Carol, who he thinks is “the greatest woman alive” and who makes him “want to be a better man.” Unlike Jerry Maguire, however, the film ends not with the completion of Udall’s journey toward spiritual wholeness, but with the promise of completion; he still struggles with his neuroses and has a ways to go.

Although surely through no conscious effort on the part of the various creative teams behind Unforgiven, Jerry Maguire, and As Good As It Gets, the films do complement each other and are worth being looked at together. The protagonists of the three films are all characters at turning points in their lives who are compelled to examine their nature and embark on journeys to become or remain idealized versions of themselves. They all initially resist the journey and struggle with it throughout the course of the narratives.

Maguire and Udall (at least partly) desire to improve their essence, to transform from closed-off, lonely, self-sufficient workaholics with impersonal and even nonexistent human connections into emotionally whole, fulfilled human beings. Munny however, begins the narrative as the best version of himself and, without the presence of his wife to keep him honest, struggles not to regress into the amoral killer he was in the past. These are all characters whose flaws and emptiness are hidden by their reputations and highly-developed outward demeanors. The films use their protagonists to ask whether or not outwardly successful men set in their ways can change their nature—for better or for worse.

Crucially, although these are films about men, they are not driven by them. On the contrary, women—and more specifically, women who are also mothers—are presented as stronger and spiritually superior to the men. Claudia Feathers, Dorothy Boyd, and Carol Connelly function as the moral backbone of their respective narratives, and are absolutely key to the profoundly transformative journeys the male protagonists undergo. And by not challenging this hierarchy, Cruise, Eastwood and Nicholson expanded their brands to appeal to a stronger female demographic than they typically garnered. Which is not to say that this was an intentional, mercenary calculation on their part, but likely just a confident recognition of how good these respective scripts were and how the stories organically needed to be told.

Unforgiven, Jerry Maguire, and As Good As It Gets are complex, engaging scripts that revitalized and redefined their respective stars’ careers. Viewed collectively, they also accomplish the following: they defy the stereotype that glossy Hollywood narratives only present likable, simplistic characters and don’t take risks; they aim to debunk the traditional definition of masculinity as being characterized by strength, power, self-awareness and self-sufficiency; and they present reputation and professional success as being incomplete psychological and cultural constructs that, left unchecked, can prevent true emotional, human fulfillment.

These singular, amazing scripts succeeded in telling emotionally earnest but grounded narratives with complex, highly cast-able characters. They're life affirming and suggest rather skillfully that people need other people...soul help them become the best versions of themselves and to give them a centering purpose.

There is a great deal to learn from these scripts, and from the singular, transcendent alchemy that resulted from Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson specifically playing the protagonists. If you're a screenwriter, understand that casting choices and packaging can add unique dimension to your characters that rises above what you could ever put on the page. Think about real people embodying your characters and taking significant ownership in them. Desire that and hope for it to happen.

If you're an actor, respect the power of great roles in a great script. Absorb the writing. Nurture it and embody it. Tell the story. Understand that all of your roles are connected on some level, and if you're lucky enough to garner audience members that follow you from project to project, then you're in a relationship that you need to earnestly and strategically endeavor to treasure, maintain and develop.

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