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American stereotypes on film - 26 September 1997

A gentleman from London who, I gather, for reasons of ill health has had to stop driving a car, has had all the more time to become what he calls an “interested spectator on the sidelines” of other people’s driving, but especially (and to his concern and alarm) the picture he gets from the movies of American drivers.

Well, since there are at the present count 163 million licensed American drivers, they must come at every degree of competence, and it would be rash to make any generalisation about them. Except that they drive cars more than the people of other nations, if only because the United States is the largest continent that is pretty evenly settled – two-thirds of it anyway.

Throughout all my time as a daily correspondent, the American motorist had a bad reputation – one, I hasten to say, given him by foreign correspondents stationed in this country. There was one piece that you wrote automatically three times a year, thanks to the National Safety Council, which always issued a report on the number of deaths from automobile accidents right after Independence Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving Day, the three main national holidays when most cars are on the road.

The council put out horrifying whole numbers followed by the percentage change – up or down – over last year. Thus the British, French, Italian and other correspondents were able, three times a year, to register shock and grief by announcing that yesterday alone, 5,300 people, say, died in motor car accidents. Appalling!

I used to follow this custom and registered the appropriate shock until one year it occurred to me to ask how many cars were on the road on those teeming holidays and how many miles did they travel.

I dug out from the National Safety Council a figure it didn’t routinely put out; that there was in any year an average of three motor car deaths for every 100million miles driven. Need I add that in one United Nations survey of driving in many countries, the United States came way down the list of unsafe drivers.

I could tell you the two top winners with a really hair-raising percentage of accidents per thousand miles driven, but their dubious distinction (and the publication of it) was why the United Nations stopped circulating surveys of that kind. The nations who came out worst protested bitterly at such flagrant lying.

Of course we should have guessed that they would, but I never guessed that this hyper, almost hysterical, sensitivity would extend to the simplest description of a country in terms of wealth.

For a year or two, I wrote scripts for a series of documentaries on the remarkable work done by many selfless people in the non-governmental agencies of the United Nations like the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Health Agency and so on.

And in the first script, I know, we talked blithely about poor nations. Immediate hot protests from the poor nations. We had to change the scripts to read underdeveloped nations, and so ever afterwards they were to be described in all United Nations publications.

But then the underdeveloped nations raised a howl. Every nation on earth that wasn’t developed, even if it was a bare and famished land, had to be called a developing nation.

I hope these facts and thoughts comfort my friend in London who, like the rest of us, tends to take for granted as reality what he sees in the movies. What he has in mind is not the hectic tearing and squealing up and down the hilly Streets of San Francisco, a television series you may recall that did much to fix a pretty scary mental stereotype of my favourite city.

No he’s, he’s worried about subtler perils. In the movies, he’s worried about the way American cars start themselves, without the intervention of a key. He’s shocked by the way drivers twist and turn the steering wheel like, he says, “A little boy playing cars with an imaginary wheel”. He’s more worried still by the fact that you rarely see a driver fasten his seat belt. Isn’t it legal? The answer there is yes, compulsory in 48 of the 50 states. The other two are moving towards it.

But surely, Mr Vale, you don’t want the movies to copy real life in such small matters? You know how in gangster films the hoodlum who has just committed the murder escapes, panting to his hideout or love nest, and the first thing he does is turn on the radio just as a voice says, “A three-state alarm has been ordered by the city police department searching for the escaped murderer of …” And that’s enough. It’s all he needs to know and we too.

Imagine if we saw the real scene: the hood escapes, he enters his love nest, his tootsie isn’t home, he gets mad, he smokes a cigarette, he wanders to the window, he turns on the radio and listens to a half-hour of the news and eight commercials, and then starts fiddling through the frequencies to find out one that’s looking for him. Come on, good sir, be grateful that the movies do not in these mundane matters attempt to imitate life.

The complaint goes, however, to a more substantial grievance held by lots of people that the professions, as we used to call them, are in the movies peopled by stereotypes; and false ones at that. I know myself how irritated I used to get at the depiction in movies not only by Hollywood (Elstree too) of a newspaper man.

First, in my time they always wore a hat – a trilby in Britain, known as a fedora in America. Very odd, isn’t it, that the same article should be named after two different stage stars? The hat was always worn on the back of the head and tucked in the brim was a press pass. The man – always a man in those patriarchal days – wore his shirt collar unbuttoned, allowing his tie to drift down his chest. I never saw a newspaper man then or now so attired. Then once he sat at his typewriter, he shook a cigarette out of its pack with a single tap, ran the paper in, typed two words, tore the paper out, crumpled it and threw it in the wastebasket.

Of course dress and types, not to mention typewriters, have changed drastically since then, but to this day I never see a recognisable reporter in the movies. Lawyers make the same complaint; and doctors who very rarely see a doctor who’s not in a crisis. But doctors in the movies require very little acting ability. They must look grave, walk briskly in through somebody’s front door, whip out a stethoscope, bend over, look up and slowly shake their head.

I often think that in spite of such fussy complaints, we secretly get so taken in by these stereotypes that we can’t remember what the real thing looks like. I heard a man the other day try to describe a man who’d been made the vice president of an insurance company. “Well,” said the man, “he was a tall, very grave, rather austere-looking fellow.

"Looks,” he said, “like a justice of the Supreme Court.”

What he unconsciously meant was the man looked like a justice of the Supreme Court as seen by Central Casting. The truth is that if you look at a group photograph of the present Supreme Court, you won’t find one who is tall, austere, grave – quite apart from the fact that two of them are women. Of the other seven, I’d say that in turn four of them look like a small-town banker, a Pullman porter, a retired gardener, a science teacher. That is, only if you share my preconceptions of what a small-town banker, Pullman porter, gardener, science teacher look like. In real life, they probably look like four other professions.

There’s no way out. All of us, having once (in childhood probably) acquired a set of photographs in our mind of what certain trades and professions look like, never lose them.

I can never forget an interview I once had long ago, the last I would ever have, with the Speaker of the House, Mr Sam Rayburn, a large, soft-spoken Texan with a shiny, very bald head devoid of all decoration. Or, as he being a southerner would say, he positively disdained to “wear a scratch”.

I was preparing for a television programme, a documentary feature called A Clean Fresh Breeze. It was an attempt to trace the life of a new Congressman from the beginning to the end of his two years to show what he thought it would be like and how it would turn out.

I had to get the speaker’s permission to find two men running for Congress – one a Democrat, the other a Republican – and then, down the months, we’d film both of them.

Well the project got very complicated. We couldn’t find two candidates of the two parties who in the first place had the time; and, after all, we took an awful gamble on how things would turn out. So in the end, we found a fine, young actor and wrote an imaginary script.

I had to go back to Mr Sam Rayburn, thank him for his help and tell him our solution. It was not long after Hollywood had made the sentimental picture with James Stewart, Mr Smith Goes To Washington, portraying a fine, idealistic young man who gets into Congress and exhausts himself in a very noble speech, denouncing the epidemic corruption he finds all about him.

I might have guessed when I told Mr Sam what we’d done, the veins bulged in his neck, he shook his shining bald head, he raised his soft voice and cried, “That picture was the most damnable libel I have ever seen on the finest body of men in the United States.” Wow!

He saw me to the door of his office. “You ever known an actor, son?” I said, “Yes indeed.” He replied at once, “They do their teeth over pearly white and they wear a scratch. Good day to you, sir.” “And to you.”

THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING OF THE ORIGINAL BBC BROADCAST (© BBC) AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

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