The Pretender Goes to the Movies

One problem I had with Killing Cool is that I didn’t want to label living people as Pretenders, i.e. persons who unconsciously assume a false sense of life. I also did not want to open myself up to charges of libel. So what I did was to comment exclusively on dead public figures, like Ronald Reagan and fictional ones like Jem and Scout Finch. At first I felt bad not being completely up-to-date and relevant, but later I was glad of it. I don’t think it’s nice to label living people.

I have come up with a list of movie and TV characters who are Pretending a false sense of life. I’m not sure whether or where to include it in the book. I’ll share some of it here.

Some actors specialize in playing Pretenders. I hope that doesn’t say anything about these actors in real life. Examples: Samuel L. Jackson, Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino. Interestingly, they are capable of doing other things. Take Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. That character was not a Pretender. He was authentically cold and evil.

My favorite female Pretenders are Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Notice how revved up all these characters, male and female are, how self-regarding, how inappropriate in their humor. Those are all marks of the Pretender type.

Some actors specialize in playing non-Pretenders too, although the only example I can think of is Sidney Poitier. Perhaps Harrison Ford would count, at least post-Star Wars. Of the older generation, perhaps Henry Fonda would count.

Sometimes you get a non-Pretender/Pretender pair of characters in the same production. In Tombstone Wyatt Earp wasn’t a Pretender and Doc Holliday was. In Deadwood Seth Bullock wasn’t and Al Swearengen was. It makes for an interesting dynamic. In Tombstone the non-Pretender gives hope to the Pretender. In Deadwood the Pretender sees through the non-Pretender in a cynical way, but also admires his moral character.

There are a lot of Pretenders in the movies (and in books and plays, too). I’ve done a bit of searching and I have yet to find someone else who describes the Pretender type in anything like the same way I do. But artists have been implicitly aware of the type for a long time, since Mark Twain at least: Tom Sawyer is a Pretender, while Huck Finn is not. Artists always know more and can portray more than they can articulate.

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