I’ve been thinking lately about heroes and sidekicks.
I realize it’s a somewhat simplistic way to break down a cast of characters, and not all stories fall into this mold. (So many of my favorite stories center around heroines instead of heroes, but that’s a post for another day.)
I’ve done my fair share of swooning over traditional heroes, literary and cinematic: Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings, Jack Kelly from Newsies, Han Solo from Star Wars (I love a man with a cheeky sense of humor), and – forever and always – Gilbert Blythe. But when two (or more) men get equal attention in a movie or a book, I often find myself falling for the sidekick.
Take the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Like everyone else, I adored Captain Jack Sparrow and howled with laughter at his antics. But I developed a crush on Will Turner: hard-working, dark-eyed, honorable. (At least in the first two movies. We won’t talk about what happened later.)
Or take a classic film I’ve loved for years: Singin’ in the Rain. Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) is the ostensible hero, and he certainly charms Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) with his smooth voice and dancing feet. But my favorite character has always been wisecracking, loyal Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor). He never misses a chance to make a wry quip, but he’s much more talented (and much less egotistical) than Don. Cosmo comes through for his friends when the chips are down – and his “Make ‘Em Laugh” comedy routine is one of the best scenes in the movie.
From the same era in Hollywood, see also: Phil Davis in White Christmas, played by Danny Kaye. Funny, kind, a gifted comedian and dancer, and considerably less conceited than Bing Crosby’s character. I could watch “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” over and over.
In The Holiday, Eli Wallach’s character (a wise old Hollywood screenwriter) tells Kate Winslet’s character, “In the movies we have leading ladies and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady, but for some reason you’re behaving like the best friend.”
I know what he means by that: it’s time for Iris to step up, take control of her life, believe she’s worthy of being loved by a good man instead of that sleazy Jasper. But I think the best friends (Cosmo, Phil, Ron Weasley) sometimes get a bad rap.
In the best stories, the sidekicks are complex, wonderful characters in their own right. And sometimes, when the heroes hew too closely to type, it’s the sidekick who shakes things up, saves the day, or has more freedom to be an individual. (I’m thinking here of A.C. Gaughen’s recent Scarlet novels, a YA retelling of the Robin Hood myth. Scarlet herself is the center of the story, but I preferred Gaughen’s nuanced portrayals of two “merry men” – John Little and Much Miller – to her moody, troubled Robin Hood.)
Don’t get me wrong: I’ll always love Atticus Finch, Lord Peter Wimsey, Joe Willard (from the Betsy-Tacy books) and Rick Castle. But you can also find me swooning – just a little – over Legolas, Mr. Bingley and Sirius Black. And if I had to choose between the stars of Singin’ in the Rain? I’ll be backstage cracking jokes over the piano with Cosmo.
(Image from Well Did You Evah)