Opinion: Cinema’s Top Five Lonely Souls
Whether it is border-line psychos, love-struck couples, or even a wandering extra-terrestrial, the image of the lonely soul throughout cinema has given us some memorable characters. As old as cinema itself, this figure of a lonesome, loveable rogue on the big screen was commonplace throughout the art form’s silent era, with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Lon Chaney making an impact. Since then, actors have jumped at the chance to portray such outsiders – enabling them to get their teeth into a role, which more often than not results in Oscar recognition. In the 1950s, the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean made the complexities of such characters accessible and cool, whilst Robert De Niro in the ‘70s and ‘80s continued the trend, demonstrating his genius for morphing into a number of iconic, isolated figures.
There are many to choose from over the years: Norman Bates, in Psycho (1960); Harry Caul, from The Conversation (1974); and Edward from Edward Scissorhands (1990). However, there are certainly more out there – all roaming the cinematic landscape. Let’s take a look…
First up is perhaps the most famous loner ever to grace the big screen, Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (1976). This iconic, twisted performance from Robert De Niro catapulted his cabbie to the status of poster boy for the ‘outsider’. His depressed, awkward driver despises the streets he cruises, yet is inevitably attracted to the ‘animals’ that inhabit them. His descent into isolation is pierced by crazed moments of violence – all brought on by his desire to find meaning in his life. In a role that was layered, complex and heroic, this really was a dream for an actor to play. De Niro’s portrayal not only made it his own, but he also inspired a generation, and it remains not just his, but one of cinema’s greatest ever achievements. Honestly, would you accept a cab ride from Travis Bickle?
Next up is another Travis, this time Travis Henderson, the estranged father from Wim Wenders’ sleeper classic, Paris, Texas (1984). Beautifully portrayed by Harry Dean Stanton, we first see Travis emerging from the vast Texan desert sporting an old, scruffy suit and baseball cap. Immediately we begin to wonder: Where did he come from, where is he going? As it turns out, he is fleeing a family breakdown, which has left his wife and son in the care of his brother. As the film develops, Travis is found and slowly brought back to a state of social acceptance, where he is just about able to communicate. With this in mind, Travis begins to reconnect with those around him (mainly other outsiders) and immediately sets out to find the family he abandoned. As a film, Paris, Texas is a meditation on the absence of communication, with its focus and attention on Travis’ drifter. Stanton’s portrayal perfectly embodied the image of a man who is alienated from the American family unit. No-one, other than Stanton, could have provided Travis’ sluggish, silent mannerisms and stroll, as he wanders hopelessly, throughout the desert terrain.
A slightly different entry now, one that is central to one of the most popular comedies of the 1980s – Del Griffith in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987). Wonderfully played by John Candy, John Hughes’ classic, odd-couple road movie saw him give one of his best ever performances. His larger-than-life salesman is the perfect foil to Steve Martin’s uptight executive, Neal, as the two are forced to travel together cross-country in order for family man Neal to get back home for Thanksgiving. As the movie has family and the holidays at its centre, the two men share stories and reminisce about their respective home lives – highlighting its importance. Del frequently, yet passively, mentions his distant wife – placing a framed photo of her on his nightstand at each of their motel stops. As the film develops, Del’s loveable character is slowly peeled away to reveal a lost widow, struggling to cope. It is not until the final, moving scene that Neal realises Del’s situation, inevitably inviting him home for Thanksgiving. John Candy had one of those onscreen personas you couldn’t help but like. When we learn of his ordeal, it’s hard not to be choked up. Luckily, for us Steve Martin does the decent thing, resulting in hugely warm and uplifting ending.
Moving onto another De Niro entry, Neil McCauley from Heat (1995). As a career criminal, McCauley is disciplined to the extent that he is willing to walk away from everything in his life within 30 seconds if he feels the ‘heat’ around the corner. As result, he has a pristine, unfurnished apartment and no partner – his only relationship being with his profession. This harsh lifestyle choice seems to keep him ahead of the game, but for someone who maintains he is ‘alone, not lonely’, how long is he willing to keep it up? Although quite a clichéd criminal mastermind, McCauley is still a fascinating loner-character. As usual, De Niro plays him with intensity – albeit, thoughtful and restrained. However, his principles are threatened when he meets Eady – causing him to balance his ‘career’ with domestic commitments. After completing one last job (moments away from escape) he is ready to retire with Eady, and for a few seconds his harsh, disciplined guard is lowered until he see Al Pacino’s dogged cop approaching. He is now forced to abandon Eady, waiting in their car, and head for a getaway. The result is a classic cops and robber’s shootout, but deep down we all wish he’d gotten into that car!
Finally, onto Bob Harris and Charlotte as the isolated, bewildered couple in Lost in Translation (2003). Owning a lot to David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1946), Lost in Translation is an updated telling of the platonic love affair – this time between ageing movie star, Bill Murray and a disaffected young wife, Scarlett Johansson. In feeling both degraded and lost within Tokyo’s neon-lit city, they find solace and refuge in each other’s company. As the movie develops so too does their mutual attraction, as the half-glances and eloquent silences become more frequent. Played out beautifully against an energetic, twinkling cityscape, the film provides only subtle, gentle strokes and gestures as any form of meaningful physical contact – replacing sexual gratification with emotional longing. This is what makes the whole film work, as there’s no need for them jump into bed. Perhaps a less-gifted filmmaker would have had them rolling around, naked in each other’s arms. Thankfully, for us, Sofia Coppola resisted the temptation, offering up instead an intelligent story of isolation within a strange, daunting city.