It's human nature to reduce everything and everyone to some sort of easily understood shorthand. Sometimes it allows for easy communication of complex ideas, eliminating all but essential facts. Other times, it paints with a broad brush that unfairly labels a person in a way that might be inaccurate or harmful.
Tricky business, stereotypes. Of course, that's never stopped Hollywood. For the film industry, stereotypes are the coin of the realm. Whether the innocent ingenue or gruff drill sergeant, the stereotype fills an important role. Here are a few films that feature some iconic stereotypes:
SUPERMAN (1978): In truth, there's not a performance in the superhero classic that doesn't fill some stereotype slot quite nicely. But while much is made of Lois, Supes and Lex Luthor, one of my favorite performances is by Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen, the perfect comic sidekick. Played with a complete understanding of what his job is, Mr. McClure's Jimmy gets in trouble, states the obvious and offers the occasional piece of exposition. It is a tribute to both the writers and actors that it's an act that never irritates.
THE BIRDS (1963): Ah, the damsel in distress, one of the more iconic stereotypes in film and fiction. While there have been many who have faced danger with the appropriate scream and terrified tension, there's a special place in the D.I.D. (Damsel In Distress) Hall of Fame for Tippi Hedren. One of director Alfred Hitchcock's famous blonds, Ms. Hedren will forever be remembered as the beleaguered girl in the phone booth under attack by a flock of frankly cranky birds. A great performance in a classic tale of nature gone awry.
SILVERADO (1985): A film constructed as a classic Western, Silverado is the perfect environment for a stereotypical Western hero or two. Kevin Kline plays the part perfectly, finding both the comedy and pathos in the role of Paden, a good man whose bad luck puts him in the role of savior for the small town of Silverado.
POPEYE (1980): There's no villain more stereotypical than Bluto. He's unattractive, mean-spirited and, to quote Olive Oyl, he's large. An interesting role because there's never any insinuation that he's misunderstood or damaged in any way, Bluto is a villain simply because every cinematic conflict needs one. Is that a two-dimensional approach to storytelling? Certainly. But this unjustly-maligned movie revels in that sort of simplicity.
CRY-BABY (1990): Cry-Baby is a streamlined post-modern homage to the juvenile delinquent film popular during the 1950s, starring Johnny Depp as Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker, a duck-tailed tough with a heart of gold. In his hands, what could have been an overly ironic role becomes an affectionate ode to all the bikers, bad boys and Brando knockoffs that preceded him.
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