Try this: jot down a list of your Top Ten Favorite Films. Now, take a look at the list and ask yourself: what ties these films together? What does this list say about me?
Here is my list:
- King Kong (1933)
- Silence of the Lambs
- Star Wars
- Annie Hall
- Born Yesterday
- Legally Blonde
- Some Like It Hot
- When Harry Met Sally
- Home for the Holidays
My list is seemingly eclectic: different genres, plots, eras. On further inspection, however, I have come to realize that all these films have the same basic theme.
Let's start with my top 3. Kong, Lambs, and Star Wars have protagonists plucked from one environment and placed in another, unfamiliar setting. Kong is taken from Skull Island and placed in foreign and hostile New York City. Clarice Starling is removed from her FBI training to become part of a male-dominated investigation for a serial killer. Luke Skywalker goes from a quiet Tatooine to a violent galaxy at war.
These are all fish out-of-water stories. Each of these main characters is far from his or her comfort zone. Each must learn to survive in an unwelcoming environment.
Continuing down the list, this same theme keeps coming up again and again.
Annie Hall has two characters that do not fit: Wisconsin native Annie is in Manhattan. New Yorker Alvy Singer is completely unnerved when he visits Annie's family and, later, Los Angeles.
Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday (played by my favorite actress Judy Holliday) is a woman who is way out of her comfort zone in Washington DC. "I'm stupid and I like it," she declares early in the film. Eventually she wises up and ventures out, exploring the unknown and overwhelming city within which she has been placed.
And on and on:
Hair has a whole set of characters (hippies!) who do not want to fit the norm. Some of them are further taken away as they are drafted to serve in Vietnam. Legally Blonde thrusts Elle Woods, a seemingly vapid California girl, into a cold, erudite Harvard Law School. Some Like It Hot forces two Chicago musicians to take on female personae in an all-female band playing a gig in Miami. Harry and Sally are both misfits who spend most of their lives not understanding how they fit in or fit with each other. Home for the Holidays presents Claudia, a character who feels awkward and out-of-place in her work and in her family.
If I were to add more titles to my list, the same pattern continues: Tootsie, Good Will Hunting, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Rocky, Pinocchio, Cabaret, E.T., The Sound of Music.. Each of these films has a protagonist who is different, who does not fit in. Each presents a character who struggles with identity in a foreign or adverse environment.
So what draws me to these fish-out-of-water movies? Upon reflection, I realize that they have brought me comfort as someone growing up gay. When I was younger, there were no gay role models for me to follow. I knew I was different, but I did not quite understand what 'gay' was. Although none of the main characters in my favorite films are openly gay, they face adversity because they are odd or unique. They are unlike everyone else around them. These stories, on some unconscious level, helped me to find strength and fortitude when I did not have the support system I needed.
Each of these characters takes risks. None of them play it safe. As a result, some triumph (Luke, Clarice, Billie, Elle) and some do not survive (Kong, Burger in Hair, Annie and Alvy's relationship). But all of them meet their challenges head on and there is a lesson in that.
Maybe this is why I love movies so much. I have watched these films dozens of times and I will never tire of them. Somehow, they feed and support me. I have never consciously sought out films with 'identity vs. environment' themes. These films found me, in a way, when I needed them. I have loved them since.
What do your favorite films reveal about you?