Storybook characters are easy to envy. For one thing, their lives are unremittingly interesting. They don't spend their time doing household chores or shopping for groceries or filling out forms for bureaucrats. Instead, they have adventures, and those adventures generally have favorable outcomes. That's because they have an author controlling their destiny, generally by following Alfred Hitchcock's premise that "drama is life with the dull parts cut out."
We have all, at one time or another, daydreamed about being one of those characters. Once in a while, such wistful musings will go beyond mere daydreaming to become a full-fledged psychotic break with reality. When that happens, a person can end up actually believing that they are one of the people they have read about in books. The object of their delusion will often be a fictional hero, but may also be a real person whose life has been the subject of numerous dramatized retellings.
That's what happens to Betty Sizemore (Renee Zellweger) in the recently released "Nurse Betty." Driven over the edge by witnessing her husband's murder, she adopts the identity of a character in her favorite soap opera. For a sampling of how earlier movies have presented characters who indulge in elaborate fantasies about taking on glamorous identities, look for these titles on home video.
"Sherlock, Jr." (1924). Silent comic Buster Keaton plays a movie projectionist whose personal life has gone to pot. He's accused of a petty theft that he didn't commit, and his girlfriend wants nothing more to do with him. While running a matinee show, he falls asleep in the projection booth and dreams that he is the main character of the movie, the dashing and urbane criminologist, Sherlock, Jr. In one scene, Buster actually runs down to the front of the theater and jumps right into the screen to become a part of the movie. This idea would later be borrowed by both Woody Allen, in "The Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985), and Arnold Schwarzenegger, in "The Last Action Hero" (1993).
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1947). The movies' all time champion at assuming exotic identities must surely be Walter Mitty. Based on a character created by James Thurber, Mitty (played here by Danny Kaye) is a milquetoast magazine proofreader who regularly escapes his miserable life by imagining himself to be the colorful characters in the pulp magazine stories published by his employer. We see him imagining himself to be everything from a Western gunslinger to a riverboat gambler to a fighter pilot.
"They Might Be Giants" (1971). George C. Scott is wonderful in this unjustly overlooked gem as a New York City judge who believes himself to be Sherlock Holmes. Joanne Woodward plays the psychiatrist who is attempting to treat his delusion. Her name, inevitably, is Dr. Watson. As she gradually grows attached to her patient, their relationship becomes less clinical and more like the friendship between Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes and Watson. The title is a reference to Don Quixote, who charged at windmills with his lance in the belief that they were fearsome giants.
"The Ruling Class" (1972). Peter O'Toole stars as the 14th Earl of Gurney, who inherits an English estate and a seat in the House of Lords when his father, the 13th Earl of Gurney, dies. The awkward thing is that the newly created peer is as mad as a hatter. It seems that he believes himself to be Jesus Christ. When questioned on this point, he patiently explains that he realized one day that whenever he prayed he was talking to himself. This fiendishly caustic satire of the pretensions and eccentricities of the British upper class is a pretty wild ride. You have to be ready for anything, and therefore some viewers will simply find it annoying. If you enjoy bizarre and irreverent humor of the Monty Python variety, however, this loopy classic is not to be missed.
Despite the fact that movies such as these are based on a nearly universal type of daydream, the curious thing is that we tend to emerge from them feeling better about being who we are. On some level, they remind us that exotic lives come with a price, and that it is the drudgery of everyday existence that gives our occasional shining moments their luster.