Thursday, February 23, 2012

Thinking About Antagonists

Recently I watched the Frank Sinatra movie A HOLE IN THE HEAD, which I saw as a child when it first came out (1959). From what little I remembered of the story, I thought of it as a romantic comedy, with the widowed father protagonist, Tony, torn between his free-spirited girlfriend who lacks any interest in family or marriage and the sweet, homebody young widow his sister-in-law introduces him to. As it turns out, the romantic thread remains a subplot, with the girlfriend departing for an unknown destination and the young widow becoming a friend rather than a lover. The main story centers on the hero’s conflict with his straitlaced, workaholic older brother, Mario. Mario and his wife fly down from New York to Miami, determined to straighten out Tony by marrying him to a sensible woman and getting him set up in a solid business, or, if that project fails, to take Tony’s preteen son back to New York and give the boy a “normal” life.

This movie provides a great example of an antagonist who is not a villain, simply a well-meaning man pursuing goals that seem right to him. Mario and his wife have a perfectly good motive for urging Tony to quit his position as manager of a hotel that has been a financial failure (he’s so far in debt that the landlord is about to terminate the lease) and abandon his get-rich-quick schemes. They sincerely believe Tony is on the road to ruin, and the audience can see their point. We can also understand why they think a nearly bankrupt beachfront hotel isn’t a proper environment for a motherless boy to grow up in. Although Mario is overbearing, bullheaded, and not very likable, he acts out of an underlying love. At the same time, the obvious love between Tony and his son makes us root for the two to stay together. As for giving up the hotel in favor of a shop somewhere in New York state, we can see from the beginning of the film that Tony just wouldn’t be himself anymore if he made that move.

In the end, Tony “wins,” not by “beating” his brother in straightforward conflict, but through Mario’s own realization that Tony and his son are happy together, and their happiness in their unconventional lifestyle trumps the considerations of financial security and conventional family life that Mario originally wanted to force on them. At the same time, Tony undergoes a crisis that awakens him to becoming a bit more responsible without losing his essential free-spirited nature. And Mario even decides he should take a vacation instead of rushing back to his New York business. The final scene of Mario, his wife, Tony, Tony’s son, and the young widow frolicking on the beach is a lovely “show not tell” of reconciliation among characters who clashed through most of the story.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

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