Authority Figures in Movies

One of the curious things about the roles of authority figures in movies is that they are very rarely played by people who have ever had any authority. One might think that this wouldn’t have too much of an impact since the actors are just reciting dialog which other people wrote. (People who most of the time haven’t had any authority themselves, but that’s a somewhat separate matter.) And in the end, authority is the ability to use force to compel people, so does it matter much what the mannerisms an actor uses are?

Actually, yes, because in fact a great deal of authority, in practice, is about using social skills to get people to cooperate without having to use one’s authority. And a great deal of social skills are body language, tone of voice, emphasis, and pacing. Kind of like the famous advice given by Dalton in Road House:

For some reason, authority figures are usually portrayed as grim and stern—at this point I think because it’s a shorthand so you can tell who is who—but there is a great deal which can be accomplished by smiling. There’s an odd idea that many people seem to have that smiling is only sincere if it is an instinctual, uncontrollable reaction. I’ve no idea where this crazy notion came from, but in fact smiling is primarily a form of communication. It communicates that one is not (immediately) a threat, that (in the moment) one intends cooperation, that the order of the moment is conversation rather than action. Like all communication it can of course be a lie, but the solution to that is very simple: don’t lie with your smile. Words can be lies, but the solution is not to refrain from speaking unless you can’t help yourself; it’s to tell the truth when one opens one’s mouth. So tell the truth when you smile with your mouth, too. And since actions are choices, one very viable option, if you smile at someone, is to follow through and (in the moment) be nice.

Anyone (sane) who has a dog knows that in many ways they’re terrible creatures. They steal your food, destroy everyday items, throw up on your floor when they’ve eaten things that aren’t food, get dog hair everywhere, and make your couches stink of dog. And yet, people love dogs who do these things to them for a very simple reason: any time you come home, your dog smiles at you and wags its tail and is glad to see you. And it’s human nature that it’s impossible to be angry at someone who is just so gosh darned happy that you’re in the same room as them.

People in authority are rarely there because they have a history of failure and incompetence at dealing with people; it may be a convenient movie shorthand that people in authority are stone-faced, grumpy, and stern, but in real life people in positions of authority are generally friendly. It’s easy to read too much into that friendliness, of course—they’re only friendly so long as you stay on the right side of what you’re supposed to be doing—but this unrealistic movie shorthand makes for far less interesting characters.

And I suppose I should note that there are some people in positions of authority who are often stone-faced and grim, but these are usually the people responsible for administering discipline to those already known to be transgressors. This is especially true of those dealing with children, who have little self control and less of a grasp of the gravity of most situations they’re in and who need all the help they can get in realizing that it’s not play time. By contrast, during the short time I was able to take part in my parish’s prison ministry, I noticed that the prison guards were generally friendly (if guardedly so) with the inmates. Basically, being friendly can invite people to try to take liberties, but being grumpy usually gets far less cooperation, and outside of places like Nazi death camps where you are actually willing to shoot people for being uncooperative, cooperation is usually far more useful than people trying to take liberties and having to be told “no” is inconvenient.

But most of the actors who play authority figures don’t know any of this; and when you research the individual actors they often turn out to be goofballs who don’t like authority and whose portrayal of it is largely formed by what they most dislike about it.

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