Friday, April 13, 2007


I had another newspaper interview this morning. I'm starting to feel almost famous! I also probably need to socialize more often so that when I get with a reporter it's not like "Hey, another human being! Someone I can talk to!" and then I jabber on endlessly. But when I was doing interviews and reporting, I much preferred the person who jabbered on to the person who barely gave yes or no answers to open-ended questions, so I guess that's not so bad.

I discovered this week that my neighborhood library branch has an excellent collection of classic films on DVD. Last night's treat was My Man Godfrey, and that, combined with last weekend's viewing of Mrs. Winterbourne, brought up a topic that's been stewing in my brain for a while. Have you noticed how many romantic comedy movies are built around mistaken identities and deceptions? Going all the way back to It Happened One Night, where she's a runaway heiress trying to go incognito and he's a reporter who figures her out but who doesn't want her to know he's a reporter (a similar situation came up in Roman Holiday), to My Man Godfrey, where a depressed wealthy man is mistaken for a hobo and hired as a butler, to The Shop Around the Corner, where they don't know they're really pen pals (updated to e-mail in You've Got Mail), to the various Doris Day/Rock Hudson movies like Pillow Talk where he pretended to be someone other than the guy she shared a party line with, on up to While You Were Sleeping, where she's mistakenly identified as the fiancee of a man in a coma, and then there's what set off the line of thinking this time around, Mrs. Winterbourne, where the identity of a homeless, pregnant teenager is mistakenly switched for that of the new wife of the son of a wealthy family during a train wreck. As much as I hate dishonesty and game playing in real life, I love these kinds of movies. I'd be furious if someone I'd met turned out to be someone other than who he let me think he was, and I can't imagine pretending to be someone else, but it makes for a great movie.

Then last summer at the Romance Writers of America national conference, I went to a workshop with screenwriting guru Michael Hauge that made it make sense. According to him, love stories in film are essentially about identity issues. The main character has some kind of persona or false front (what he called an "identity") she uses to protect herself and that hides her essence, her true self, from the world. The "true love" is the person who recognizes the essence behind that identity and can see her for who she truly is and what her potential might be. As the relationship develops, they have moments of closeness when she's functioning in her essence and relating with him, and moments of conflict when she retreats to her identity and therefore doesn't like it when he insists on relating to her essence. The "everything's doomed!" moment (or the "boy loses girl" part of the film) is when she tries to retreat to her identity one last time for fear of being hurt, but once she's experienced life in her essence, she can't stay there and has to step out and take the risk, or else she'll lose him and her true self entirely.

So, since the story is about identity anyway, it makes sense that the subtext would become text in a plot that is about things like mistaken identity or putting on a false identity. I think we as an audience are often willing to go for that because we get the sense that the fake identity the character puts on in the movie is actually more true to who she really is than her real role. For instance, I don't think anyone would criticize the Audrey Hepburn character in Roman Holiday for spending the day pretending not to be a princess, even if she was lying about who she was, because in that one day, it was her chance to really be herself without all those external trappings. In most of these mistaken identity stories, the heroine (or hero, depending on the story) may be a fish out of water in a strange situation, but it still feels somehow right, like that mistaken identity is where that person really should be, and it's the real identity that's actually false.

I think this is kind of what bothers me about Mrs. Winterbourne, Brendan Fraser's swoony tango aside. I don't feel like that heroine was ever going through any transformation, other than her hair and makeup. She remained herself throughout. It was more Brendan Fraser's character who was acting like the uptight businessman but who became looser, goofier and more appreciative of his family from interacting with her. But she was still the one in the deception who had to step out and take the risk of revealing her true identity and losing everything. We never saw that tug of war with him between his identity and his essence. The moment he realized he loved her, he was in all the way, so there wasn't the sense of struggle that makes you feel like the character has earned the happy ending.

Another thing that I've noticed seems to be in most of these stories is that it starts as a mistaken identity. The main character usually doesn't deliberately put on a false front, but instead merely chooses not to correct someone else's mistaken assumption. It's also important that the deception feels motivated -- the audience needs to feel like they'd have made a similar choice in the same circumstances, and every time the character has an opportunity to come clean, the stakes have to be that much higher, with even more reason not to tell the truth. That was where Mrs. Winterbourne worked -- if you've got a choice between being homeless, penniless and jobless with a newborn baby or else being taken in by a loving family where you'll have food and shelter, well, duh! It helps if the deception isn't entirely selfish, if there's some benefit to someone else, like protecting the newborn baby and the grandmother with a bad heart who would be devastated if she found out that her grandchild really did die in the train wreck and that it was just a case of mistaken identity.

One deception movie that doesn't work for me is The Truth About Cats and Dogs. I have a male friend who still hasn't forgiven me for suggesting that as a date movie when he had a new girlfriend (I thought it would provide conversational fodder -- boy, did it!). I'm still thinking of a way to rewrite it and make it work. In this one, the heroine is the "smart" girl who is supposedly not very pretty and who is self-conscious about that. She hits it off with a guy over the phone, but when they arrange to meet in person, she chickens out. He comes to her office to find her and arrives just as her neighbor, a model, is visiting her office and sitting at her desk, so he assumes the model is the woman he's looking for -- and she lets him think that, creating a false identity for herself. She talks to him on the phone, but makes the model pretend to be her to go out with him. I've always felt like we needed more motivation for her to do something like that, because if a cute guy shows up looking for me and assumes someone else is me, you bet I'm correcting that instead of shoving them together. Maybe if we'd seen her earlier going on blind dates and seeing the men be disappointed, or else figuring out who she is and bailing before even meeting her, we'd then know she'd have reason to think he'd be disappointed in seeing who she really was. It was an entirely selfish deception and once I can't imagine a relationship recovering from. It was an insult to him that she thought he was the kind of person who would reject her based on appearance when he already had connected with her and liked her over the phone. And now that I'm thinking about it in terms of identity and essence, her deception didn't put her in a position to be her truer self. She was actually even more false in her deception than she normally was.

Oddly, as much thought as I've put into this, I haven't ever written a real deception or mistaken identity story, though I have a few brewing in the back of my head.

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