Close but no Clouseau

600full-the-pink-panther-poster

So, I just finished watching the 2006 reboot of The Pink Panther with Steve Martin, Kevin Kline and Jean Reno, and all I can think is nice try.

Hollywood has always loved its remakes and reboots—this is not a new phenomenon—and sometimes they pay off. For example, I particularly enjoyed the Star Trek reboot of 2009, although its follow-up remake of Wrath of Khan was a bust for me.

But I seriously believe there are a handful of quintessential films that simply cannot be remade or rebooted, and in each case, I suspect it is because the lead character was so completely defined by the actor who played him or her.

Such is the case with Inspector Clouseau.

One of these men is an imposter

One of these men is an imposter

In the 2006 reboot and its unfathomably inexplicable sequel in 2009, Clouseau was performed by Steve Martin, a man for whom I have the utmost respect as a comedian and actor. But the key term there is “performed”. Steve Martin portrayed Inspector Clouseau.

But Peter Sellers was Inspector Clouseau. He didn’t portray or perform the honoured member of the Surete, he gave birth to the man, he lived the man, he was the man.

And when the beloved actor, comedian, writer, raconteur passed away in 1980, so too should have any thought of reviving Clouseau. For all intents and purposes, Sellers’ tombstone might also have read “Here reposes Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau”.

Sellers was that kind of an actor. He was a shape-shifter, a modern-day Proteus. Upon donning the hat, moustache and trench coat, Sellers ceased to be and Clouseau emerged.

And in giving birth to Clouseau, he launched onto the world a character that would become immortal, and thus a character who cannot simply be portrayed.

Perhaps one day, an actor will come along who can inhabit the character, be the character enough to do it justice, but I can’t think of anyone. And even if such an actor exists, someone with that kind of talent is better served giving genesis to new characters of the immortal prowess of Clouseau.

So, bless director Shawn Levy and Martin for trying, although over-trying might be more appropriate. You and the rest of the cast and crew had pretty much no chance to leave a footprint given that your predecessor left craters.

* * * * *

For reference, another actor I put in the unrebootable/unremakeable category is Orson Welles.

Can you imagine anyone else trying to step into the roles of Charles Foster Kane (Citizen Kane) or Harry Lime (The Third Man)? I can’t.

Harry Lime and Charles Foster Kane

Harry Lime and Charles Foster Kane

Cadence and Orson Welles

My favourite shot of Welles as I believe that smile and those eyes tell me everything I need to know about the man

My favourite shot of Welles as I believe that smile and those eyes tell me everything I need to know about the man

Being a good writer necessitates having a good eye and a good ear.

The good eye is the attention to details that will help you paint a word-picture of what you have seen with your physical eyes and processed in your mind’s eye. It’s not necessarily about writing long-winded passages of backgrounds or going into minute detail of a character’s physical attributes (I’ve done plenty of that), but rather in choosing the most precise and meaningful words to describe the environment or the person.

The good ear is the attention to how people communication and how they speak, not always the same thing. Again, it involves finding the right words and inflections (at least implied inflections) that give the reader and actor clues as to who this person is. And perhaps just as importantly, it is about finding just the right cadence for your character’s speech patterns.

If you listen really closely to a conversation, you’ll realize that there is little difference between speaking and singing. There is a rhythm, a cadence to speaking. Conversation is an improvised duet sung a capella. But unlike a traditional song which may have a subset of arrangements, each of us sings to our own tune, with our own rhythms and inflections. It is one of the many things that sets us apart from each other.

When writing characters, it is important to keep this in mind as all too often, a group of characters can have a certain monotone, which I use not to imply flatness so much as sameness. Often, I believe, it occurs when the writer neglects to add variety to his characters’ speech patterns and instead writes them with one voice; his or hers.

The best writers don’t make this mistake…or at least minimize its occurrences. Each character he or she presents us is truly unique, jumps off the page or screen, provides his or her own internal musical accompaniment.

One of my favourite writers of the last decade or so is Aaron Sorkin whose overall writing has its cadence but whose characters also tango (or more often tarantella) across the screen. Read the pilot to The West Wing or the screenplay for The Social Network and you will know you’re reading Sorkin.

But for me, perhaps a better example is Orson Welles, the man who would be Kane.

Recently, someone discovered a long-lost unproduced screenplay by Welles called The Way to Santiago, written in 1940-41. Another blogger discussed the find recently, and provided a link to the actual screenplay (see link below). You only have to read a couple of pages to remind yourself (or educate yourself on) how Orson Welles wrote and the energies he imbued in his characters, each one a snowflake of facets and reflections.

The opening page of The Way to Santiago

The opening page of The Way to Santiago

Now, listen to the films or read the screenplays of The Third Man, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil. Although you may question the choice of actors, you can clearly hear or see the distinctions in the characters. Bathe in the richness and depth of each one as he or she is captured for this brief moment. This is the stuff of which dreams are made.

It is also interesting to consider that Welles got his start on stage and in radio, where the human voice plays such a larger role in conveying a story than it does in film. There is much less to occupy the mind onstage or in radio and so dialogue carries a significant burden of not only informing but also entrancing the listener.

Although the stories I write are distinctly different from the Wellesian oeuvre, there is much I can and do learn from this master of the written word. He is worth the read and the listen.

A classic image of Welles in his radio days

A classic image of Welles in his radio days

Links of interest:

The Way to Santiago at Cinephilia and Beyond

The Way to Santiago, starring Howard Hesseman on Vimeo (A valiant but not brilliant attempt)

“Thank You, Mr. Welles: Definitive actor, consummate director, and true auteur” at Curnblog.com

“Screenplays by Orson Welles” (listing) on Wikipedia

Me and Orson Welles A light but adorable movie that probably portrays Welles’ character better than Welles