The Content of Our Characters

Two March events consistently wreak havoc on my Lenten disciplines: the March Madness of NCAA men’s basketball and the annual Academy Awards ceremonies. Smack dab in Holy Week, I was a wee bit distracted.

First, the Academy Awards. The English Patient, a movie of extraordinary depth and beauty, cleaned house with nine awards. Not only recipient of best picture honors, this movie took most of the technical awards, including cinematography, sound, and costumes. Cinematographer John Seale’s stunning visual effects and screenwriter Anthony Minghella’s rich imagery create a feel that is alternately haunting and compelling.

But this should not lead us to romanticize the historical figure upon whom the film is based. Revisionism is always a danger with a powerful medium such as film. In several recent films—notably Private Parts, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and The English Patient—men of questionable character are re-created as sympathetic mavericks worthy of our respect.

Count Laszlo Almasy (played by Ralph Fiennes), around whom the interwoven stories of The English Patient revolve, is a lonely explorer whose heart is as barren as the Saharan sands he has chosen as home. In the film, and the equally compelling novel by Michael Ondaatje, Almasy is portrayed as a man with little use for ideology and whose emptiness is filled by his passion for Katherine Clifton (played by award nominee Kristin Scott Thomas), adventurer and wife of a British photographer-turned-military-spy. In the end Almasy dances with the devil by trading military secrets with the Germans in exchange for a plane with which to fetch his injured lover.

But fact doesn’t always support fiction. The New York Times reports that Hungarian-born Almasy served German military intelligence and later spied for the Soviet Union. As a cartographer with the Royal Geographical Society in North Africa, Almasy was gatekeeper to a great deal of information that aided Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in his desert war during World War II. His espionage led directly and indirectly to the imprisonment and death of many people; not, as the movie portrays, for the sympathetic ideal of intimate love, but for political expediency.

Family members of victims of his machinations have publicly stated concern over his public sanitizing in this movie. In defense, Ondaatje told the Times that his novel’s protagonist was based loosely and poetically upon the historical figure, and that "the Count’s political and social world was an irrelevant aside."


Private Parts, the film based upon the autobiographical book by Howard Stern (who plays himself), demonstrates the rise to fame and fortune of the well-known New York shock jock. Stern’s apparent faithfulness to wife Alison for 19 years becomes the justification for his racy, misogynous, racist, and ugly attacks over the public airwaves. While "parts" of his "private" life may be worthy of respect, his over-the-edge comedy routines are not.

Stern, to his credit, has figured out that most of his listeners are commuting from somewhere—the ’burbs—and his bits confirm and affirm all their most deep-seated fears and hatreds. By appealing to their baser instincts for a laugh, he exacerbates social ills.

Even more insidious is the attempt to remake pornographer Larry Flynt over as a champion of the American ideal. A man made rich (the American Dream at work) by his willingness to publish racist, violent, misogynous trash is recast in The People vs. Larry Flynt as the last great hope for freedom in these United States.

This Flynt bio-pic came out just in time to offer a boost to the 25th-anniversary issue of Hustler and Flynt’s coast-to-coast tour for his autobiography An Uncommon Man. The movie gives marketing wizard Flynt undeserved credibility, even earning his presence at the Oscar ceremony with Woody Harrelson, who played Flynt.

As Gloria Steinem argues in the pages of Ms., "A pornographer is not a matter what constitutional protection he secures. And Flynt didn’t secure much." The film sanitizes many of the other gratuitous social sins present in Hustler—the linking of violence and racism to sexism.

IN CONTRAST, TWO head coaches in the NCAA basketball tournament lead lives needing little revision. Dean Smith, coach of the perennial powerhouse University of North Carolina Tar Heels, used the occasion of this year’s post-season tournament to break the all-time victory mark for coaches, defeating former Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp’s record.

But besides demonstrating his ability on the court (not in the court like Flynt), Smith remains a popular man with his players, both current and former. In addition, Smith has taken courageous stands about nuclear proliferation and war, even during the Persian Gulf war. He stands for what’s right, even if it doesn’t appeal to the basest human instincts.

University of Minnesota coach Clem Haskins long lived with segregation, including in his basketball career. (He was not recruited by homestate Adolph Rupp’s all-white Kentucky team). He’s many times been a pioneer in breaking the great racial divide. Haskins exudes character and discipline. And he passes this on to his team—no double dribbles or double standards at Minnesota’s Williams Arena.

Howard Stern would undoubtedly mock these two men, misconstruing character for pretense. Larry Flynt would try to turn their virtue into a vice. And Count Almasy, Nazi sympathizer that he was, would likely be disgusted just to have a white man and a black man mentioned together as paragons of value.

It is always easier to destroy than to build. When we are offered heroes for the journey, we must choose wisely.

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