With “Birdman” hitting theaters last month, audiences were treated to an update of one of cinema’s most familiar stories: that of a “has been” making an attempt to stay relevant and survive. “Birdman” isn’t alone though; fans of television can look forward to cult classic (and personal favorite of mine) “The Comeback” returning on November 9th, after nine years. “Birdman” and “The Comeback” alone represent two polar opposite takes on a similar concept, showing the range of the “has been” subgenre. Despite their differences, “has been” films are frequently united by a vague sense of pity and tragedy projected onto the central characters. The following eight films show just how wide-reaching the “has been” subgenre is, with the films running the gamut from comedy to documentary to film noir to the avant-garde.
8. Jasmine Francis from “Blue Jasmine” (2013) – Directed by Woody Allen
The Movie: “Blue Jasmine” features Cate Blanchett as Jeanette “Jasmine” Francis, a former New York socialite and modern-day Blanche Dubois. Jasmine arrives at her working-class sister Ginger’s (Sally Hawkins) apartment in San Francisco after flying first-class from New York, despite claiming to be broke. As the film progresses, we learn of Jasmine’s decadent past: she was married to a wealthy businessman/fraudster Hal (Alec Baldwin), and spent the majority of her time attending parties with the upper crust of New York. Her luxurious lifestyle are put to an abrupt halt when Hal’s less-than-legal business practices get him put in jail, where he eventually kills himself. Jasmine—now a broken woman—has a difficult time adjusting to her new life in San Francisco.
The Has-Been: Jasmine is nasty. She looks down on nearly everyone in her life, including and especially those who are helping her. Cate Blanchett plays her with a merciless cruelty. She makes no attempt to humanize her detestable character, but Allen does a good job of fleshing out the details of her marriage in a way that makes her seem like a victim. While comparisons to A Streetcar Named Desire are obvious, “Blue Jasmine” perhaps ends on an even lower note than Williams’ classic drama; Jasmine ends up completely alone, broke, and out of her mind, without even the faintest glimmer of hope. This is a rare sort of “has been” film, that which presents a character’s complete descent into irrelevance and insanity, without allowing any form of redemption.
7. The Cast of “Galaxy Quest” (1999) – Directed by Dean Parisot
The Movie: “Galaxy Quest” centers on the cast (Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, and Daryl Mitchell) of a once-popular “Star Trek”-style science fiction show called “Galaxy Quest.” While at a “Galaxy Quest” convention, a group of people who call themselves “Thermians from the Klaatu Nebula” come up to the cast and convince them to partake in what the cast presumes is an amateur filming session. It turns out that the Thermians are actually aliens, who mistook the “Galaxy Quest” TV show as a historical document. As TV Guide would say, hijinks ensue.
The Has-Beens: “Galaxy Quest” has grown into a something of a cult classic, in no small part due to the perfectly chosen “has been” archetypes that the film centers on. Tim Allen plays the lead actor, who still enthusiastically appears as his character despite wanting to move on to something different, while Sigourney Weaver plays an actress who resents her character’s status as a sex symbol. Alan Rickman plays a classically trained Shakespearian actor who resents his character’s popularity and the typecast that has followed him, while Tony Shalhoub plays a burned out actor who is kind-hearted and completely unfazed by the insanity that surrounds him. “Galaxy Quest” is a funny, if minor film, but its wide riffing on the science-fiction and “has been” genres is certainly enough to merit a viewing or two.
6. George Valentin from “The Artist” (2011) – Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
The Movie: George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is one of the biggest silent film stars in America just as the talking films are introduced. Unlike the characters of that other film about the same time period, Valentin holds onto silent film well beyond the silent era and slowly descends into obscurity. Meanwhile, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo)—a young actress Valentin helped bring to stardom during the silent era—becomes a superstar as talking films become more popular.
The Has-Been: George Valentin is presented in typical “has been” fashion: at first, his refusal to appear in talkies is dignified, but before long, he’s a stubborn, forgotten relic of cinema’s past. Hazanavicius commits completely to his period, shooting the film in black and white and in the classic 1.33:1 screen ratio, while also keeping the film almost completely silent. “The Artist” drips with nostalgia, and features many of the most beloved tropes of silent comedies; there are hyper-intelligent dogs, characters tap dancing with each other through, and endless visual gags. The film’s most beautiful moment, however, comes when Valentin is walking the street in plainclothes when he passes a window for a clothing store and sees a suit in the window. He stands in front of it, watching his reflection superimposed over the suit, reminiscing about his days as a star. Like the silent masters that came before him, Hazanavicius needs no dialogue, and in a single scene expresses enough pain and regret to move even the most jaded audience members.
5. The Tenenbaums from “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) – Directed by Wes Anderson
The Movie: As children, Chas, Margot, and Richie Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Luke Wilson) were prodigies. Chas was a genius in international finance, Margot was a playwright, and Richie was a tennis prodigy. Of course, time wasn’t too kind to the Tenenbaum siblings, and the three peaked and burned out before they were middle-aged. The film is set into motion when their selfish and estranged father (Gene Hackman) returns to the Tenenbaum household after being kicked out of the hotel he was staying in. His reappearance opens up old wounds as the Tenenbaums struggle to adapt to adult life and cope with their various problems and feelings.
The Has-Beens: Wes Anderson’s distinct style has been the subject of so many different parodies that it’s become increasingly hard to tell if he’s yet descended into self-parody. “The Royal Tenenbaums” shows Anderson at what might be his most characteristic: his characters walk in slow motion while iconic music plays, awkwardly discuss their feelings in hushed tones, and don ridiculous matching uniforms. The three Tenenbaum siblings, though, are unlike many characters in his other films; rarely has Anderson had a character as explicitly broken as the Tenenbaums are. For instance, within the time of a single cut, Chas has transitioned from an outspoken and brilliant businessman into a hyper-cautious, out-of-touch father—his youthful focused energy transformed into frantic paranoia. These characters have been destroyed, crushed by the weight of their early successes, and “The Royal Tenenbaums” is the document of three broken characters—four if you count their father—attempting to put the pieces of their lives back together.
4. The Cast of “Dragon Inn” from “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” (2003) – Directed by Tsai Ming-Liang
The Movie: “Dragon Inn” is a 1967 Taiwanese wuxia film that was a blockbuster in its home country. Tsai Ming-Liang’s 2003 film “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” is centered on an old Taipei cinema showing “Dragon Inn” as its last film. Only a handful of people are in attendance, including two actors from “Dragon Inn”—Chuh Shih and Mio Tien, playing themselves. Tsai almost exclusively uses completely static long-takes, and the original film “Dragon Inn” is on screen for a significant portion of the film, giving the film a structural quality. “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” is certainly a challenging film, but it’s emotional and nostalgic qualities are heightened by the patient way Tsai presents his story.
The Has-Beens: While watching “Dragon Inn,” Chuh Shih begins to tear up, while Mio Tien watches intently with his grandson. After the screening is over, the two see each other exiting and smile awkwardly. Through his forced smile, Chuh Shih says, “No one comes to the movies anymore, and no one remembers us anymore.” Considering this is one of a dozen lines of dialogue in the film, it packs quite an emotional punch. These two actors were in a film that was huge when it came out, but has been lost to the Western world over time. In a self-referential way, though, “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” offers a hopeful future for Taiwanese cinema. Where “Dragon Inn” was a relatively standard and straightforward action film, “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” is a human, decidedly non-Western take on the often cold genre that is structural film. With “Goodbye, Dragon Inn,” Tsai elegantly pays his respects to his cinematic forefathers in an unprecedented way for Asian cinema. Chuh Shih and Mio Tien are presented as ghosts of the cinema of the past, and the film elevates them from the status of “has been” to “legend.”
3. Little Edie from “Grey Gardens” (1975) – Directed by Albert and David Maysles
The Movie: The Maysles brothers’ seminal documentary follows Edith “Big Edie” Beale and Edith “Little Edie” Beale, a mother and daughter who were the aunt and first cousin of Jackie Kennedy. The two—who were 80 and 58 when the film was released—live in the titular Grey Gardens, an old mansion in East Hampton, New York. Big Edie was married to a wealthy lawyer who provided for her until their divorce in 1945, and the Beales haven’t had any form of steady income since then. The mansion is in horrific condition, due in part to their poverty and Little Edie’s love of animals: they keep a large number of cats, and Little Edie feeds the stray raccoons that live in their attic. The Beales still act as if they’re made of money, and Little Edie speaks with a voice that reeks of old money. Nearly all of the charms of “Grey Gardens” are due to the humor and tragedy of the two central characters. In a way, “Grey Gardens” is a predecessor of reality television, leaning on the larger-than-life personalities of its subjects.
The Has-Been: The Beales represent the end of an era: both the periodic washing away of old money, and the tail-end of America’s Kennedy obsession. Little Edie is a bit more complicated than a crazy-old “has been,” though. Throughout the film, Big Edie recounts many of Little Edie’s former suitors, and we see pictures of Little Edie from her youth; she was an incredible beauty with aspirations of becoming a poet who never married because she didn’t particularly like any of the men who pined after her, and the men she wanted didn’t like her enough to marry her. Little Edie grew old and lonely because she didn’t get married for the sake of staying wealthy, unlike her mother, who was almost certainly attracted to the wealth of her husband. Little Edie can be seen as a tragic victim of her environment: she grew up in a household in which women (like her mother or cousin) could only be successful by marrying a wealthy and powerful man. “Grey Gardens” documents this incredible woman as the world grows out of her. In the process, the film has made her immortal. “Grey Gardens” has been adapted into an HBO film and a Broadway musical, while Little Edie has been played by everyone from Drew Barrymore to drag queen Jinkx Monsoon.
2. Jake LaMotta from “Raging Bull” (1980) – Directed by Martin Scorsese
The Movie: “Raging Bull” tells of the rise and fall of boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) as told by Martin Scorsese. After winning and losing the middleweight title, LaMotta’s life takes a sharp downward turn as he has a falling out with his brother (Joe Pesci), gets divorced, and spends time in jail for introducing men to under-age girls in his club. He slowly regains his footing, and settles down as a comedian. “Raging Bull” is of the most iconic American films ever released, with virtually every “has been” film thereafter borrowing at least a scene or two from it (see: “Boogie Nights”).
The Has-Been: Perhaps more important than the character is the actor. De Niro’s performance as Jake LaMotta has received its fair share of glowing acclaim, but it bears repeating: De Niro is straight-up revelatory as LaMotta. De Niro famously conditioned and deconditioned his body to follow the way LaMotta’s body changed from world-class boxer to down-on-his-luck New York schlub, but his performance is much more than mere weight gain and loss; he manages to imbue in his character a certain innocence that allows the audience to sympathize with LaMotta despite his character’s despicable actions. Even when LaMotta does something truly terrible—like beating his wife and significantly smaller brother—he comes across as hurting himself as much as those around him. He’s a toxic character, someone who messes up everything good around him, but between the tight screenplay and De Niro’s oddly sympathetic performance, LaMotta is the rare character that’s brutal yet impossible to hate. In short, he’s the ultimate “has been” character.
1. Norma Desmond from “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) – Directed by Billy Wilder
The Movie: Billy Wilder blends noir, showbiz-drama and offbeat comedy in this portrait of an aging silent actress Norma Desmond (played by aging silent actress Gloria Swanson) and Joe Gillis (William Holden), an unsuccessful Hollywood screenwriter who befriends her. Desmond is desperate for a comeback film and in her delusion has written an extremely long screenplay about Solome; strapped for cash, Gillis flatters Desmond into hiring him as a script-doctor for her abysmal screenplay. The film follows both Desmond’s slow but steady descent into insanity, as well as Gillis’ life in the film industry.
The Has-Been: Let me be perfectly clear: Norma Desmond is one of the greatest characters in film history, and Gloria Swanson’s reflexive take on the character is among the greatest performances ever committed to celluloid. It doesn’t hurt that she’s given some positively classic lines of dialogue: when accused of no longer being a big actress, she exclaims, “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.” With one line, Wilder and his co-writers have summed up the delusions of grandeur—and thus the tragedy—of the “has been” archetype. To cement “Sunset Boulevard”’s status as the ultimate “has been” film is the fact that Wilder casts a fair amount of “has beens” as variations of themselves; silent-film auteur Erich von Stroheim appears as an aging film director, and Buster Keaton appears as one of Desmond’s friends. In the end, the cameos, the legendary one-liners and Wilder’s novel blending of genres are merely footnotes of one of the greatest character studies of all time.Continue Reading Issue #27