“Architect” has become Hollywood’s go-to job title if you need to tell an audience that a man is eccentric and possibly troubled, likely intelligent, and makes too much money to qualify for the earned-income tax credit.
And now, here we go again. If you’re going to be upset that I’m about to reveal the plot of “It’s Complicated,” a Christmas-release date-flick, stop reading now. Oops—too late. Contrary to its title (btw, do not confuse it with the reality TV show about actress Denise Richards also confusingly titled, “It’s Complicated”) this movie is not complicated at all. I can tell you this because I’ve seen the trailer, and it pretty much tells the whole tale.
Oh wait, Steve Martin? Sensitive architect with a wacky side? Ring a bell? Yes it does! Check for “HouseSitter” in that grab-bag of unwatched VHS tapes you bought for $1 each when your neighborhood video store went belly up. The architect Martin plays in this implausible tale of a man who falls for a sociopathic squatter who's living in his house, is remarkably similar to his character in "It's Complicated." Martin will never play Lear at the Folger as long as he's taking on roles like these.
All right, all right, I admit it. Steve Martin's nice guy is a step up from the weasily ways in which we’ve most often been portrayed on film. Let me list a few these characters and their flaws before I get to the sort of person I’d like to see next time Hollywood taps our profession for a character.
Let’s start with actor William Warren who plays playboy architect Barney Dexter in the 1939 classic “Day-Time Wife.” In this day and age the amorous advances he makes toward his secretary, who’s also his associate’s spouse, would have landed him in HR hell. Well, without giving away any more about the plot all I can say is, in this case she did ask for it, but that still doesn't make it right.
In “Blondie’s Holiday,” Arthur Lake’s Dagwood Bumstead gets a $2.50 raise (that’s not per hour, that’s per week, so stop complaining about your pay) after persuading a banker to consider hiring his architecture firm. Madness and whimsy galore ensure when Dagwood gets busted after getting mixed up with bookies, while trying to parlay his windfall into a small fortune. (If you know of other Blondie movies where Dagwood gets fired from the firm let me know. They made 27 of these and I’m not watching any more of them.)
No blog about architecture flicks could be complete without mentioning Gary Cooper’s archetypal architect-as-rogue, the egotistical Howard Roark in “The Fountainhead.” Plot in a nutshell: When the design of his high-rise is compromised he dynamites it (though not before Patricia Neal, in her role as heiress Dominique Francon, utters the memorable, “I wish I had never seen your skyscraper”). He's an out of control lunatic, yes, but one must admire Roark for going through with what some of our peers ought to do in real life. If you’ve never seen it please surrender your license.
Here's Brian Dennehy as architect Stourley Kracklite in "Belly of An Architect." Can you look at that face and honestly say this guy is not a nutcase? I didn't think so. Case closed.
Here's Wesley Snipes’ Flipper Purify (where do they get these names?) who's having an affair with his Italian administrative assistant in “Jungle Fever.” He later quits his job when his bid to become a partner is rejected, even though he brings in most of the work and does most of the design. Hello? If he were the rainmaker he claims to be, I’d make him a partner in a minute. This was 1991 and work was hard to come by! Memo: put legal on speed-dial, there's a sexual harassment lawsuit waiting in the wings.
Tom Hanks' flaw in “Sleepless in Seattle,” is that he is simply too nice a guy. I’d have one word for him if he were my friend—Ambien—and this advice: Don’t leave your credit cards lying around where junior can use them to buy plane tickets.
“Twelve Angry Men” features the earnest architect Robert Cummings, portrayed by the earnest actor Henry Fonda. As a member of a jury deciding the fate of a man on trial for murder, he’s sensitive yes, but a bit of a loon too, particularly while waving around a stiletto. Tell me, Bob, ever feel tempted to do that in a client meeting? Howard Roark could learn a thing or two from him, though: he doesn’t compromise, never gives up, but he doesn’t use dynamite to make a point either. A few threatening gestures with a switchblade are sufficient.
Now, as I see it, these characters, with the possible exception of Fonda's Cummings, have a lot in common: they've got relationship issues, engage in risky behavior, they're self-destructive, drink too much, and don’t manage their money very well. And, they’re all men. Mere coincidence?
Hollywood, here’s what I’d really like to see in a lead character: A female architect, brainy to the extreme, preferably doing socially conscious work, if that might move the premise forward. Loyal husband. No philandering, no drug problems, just a good solid character who might even influence women and men to join our worthy profession. We mix the artistic with the intellectual, improve the environment, improve society, and our work has has potential for doing good things. Woman are very, very good at these things.
And, there are thousands of female architects you can use for inspiration.