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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Who's the Star?

“First she steals my publicity. Then she steals my lawyer, my trial date. And now she steals my damn garter.”

By Margaux Froley Outhred

You know you have a problem when Laurie Metcalf steals your show. I caught a few minutes of BIG BANG THEORY tonight, and while I admit to having what could be a premature assumption, in those few short minutes, Laurie Metcalf, who is not a regular cast member, stole the show from the two geeky male leads. (And, btw, I have nothing against Laurie Metcalf and think she’s quite talented, but she is not supposed to run away with this sitcom.)

Although this might be a random occurrence, it’s a persistent issue with new writers in both TV and film. As a general rule, the star of your movie or TV show is just that, your star. Being a writer who is theoretically writing pieces that stars want to act in, your job is to make your work castable. So what does that mean when your supporting, or guest starring characters steal the show? It probably means you left your main characters hanging.

In other words, if the studio paid Julia Roberts for a lead role, she better have lead role material in front of her. Ever since PULP FICTION, and the Tarantino-esque art of characters taking up screen time talking about nothing, the scripted world has been inundated with quirky side characters that steal the show from the more serious plot-carrying leads. For the Academy Awards, in the Supporting Actor or Actress category, I always ask myself, was the movie boring without that supporting character on screen? In most cases, yes…that supporting role stole the show. Jennifer Hudson certainly stole the limelight from Beyonce. Was that Beyonce being a poor actress, or really smart marketing on the studio’s part? Jennifer Hudson’s role carried the only story in DREAMGIRLS, so maybe technically she might have been the lead in the story. In CHICAGO, Catherine Zeta Jones stole the show, and Oscar, from Renee Zellweger, not because the story favored her more than Renee, she had the juicer role in the movie.

My theory is that in award-winning Supporting Actor or Actress circumstances, you won’t see a Best Actor or Actress win for the same project. Generally, if you give your supporting cast all the good bits, what have you left for your leads? It’s a slippery trap to fall into, but one worth trying to avoid. The only exception to this rule I could find was for MYSTIC RIVER when Tim Robbins won for Supporting Actor, and Sean Penn also won his Lead Actor Oscar.

For young writers, the tendency is to use your supporting characters for comic relief, or have them carry a quirky B-story. Fair enough, just make sure to balance that out so your leads aren’t always the straight men to their co-stars. In television specs, one of the biggest mistakes writers make is inventing a guest star that leaves your main characters in the dust. Writing in a character’s crazy Aunt Bea or long lost, quirky sister, will count against a writer trying to break in because it does not prove that a writer can utilize existing lead characters.

Don’t forget, while entertaining characters should always be the goal, your supporting characters should do just that, support your lead actors.

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1 comment:

I. M. Anonymous said...

Maybe Metcalf stole the show because...well...she can actually act. and to insult dogs, but BBT is a dog of a show. And to think CBS replaced "The Class"--which wasn't a great show but was waaaaaay better than BBT (but just about any show would be)--is almost unforgivable...

Then again, I'm no studio head, so what do I know, right?