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Unformatted text preview: Holden Caulfield, Alex Portnoy, and Good Will Hunting: Coming of Age in American Films and Novels Lawrence E. Ziewacz Perhaps more than any other country, the United States seems to have many authors who devote themselves to novels of the difficulty of maturing and attaining adulthood in this land of purported equality and democracy. Perhaps this literary concentration exists because the United States is a nation of immigrants who brought with them differing reli- gions, ethnic customs, and political and social beliefs that have been twisted into a fabric of dubious homogeneity in order to attain a consis- tent consensus that can be recognized as to what constitutes an American. Certainly it is never quite clear what are the exact social and monetary requirements to pass into the power play segment of American society. This lack of clarity perhaps provides confusion and stress for bright, intelligent, American youths who want to enter into the adult world, but who are fearful because of their childhood and adolescent negative experiences that indicate the adult world is not “all what’s it cooked up to be.” Thus, they hesitate to enter it in a wholehearted manner since it might mean compromising their ethics, their morals, and yes—even their innocence. As a result, these heroes rebel and mi] at their predicament and the unjustness of the “real world” which is any human’s natural destiny. Two such eminent literary heroes immediately come to mind who fit this criteria-Holden Caulfield of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Alex Portnoy of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) . I would suggest that Good Will Hunting is a film version of the novels by Salinger and Roth. Written by the co-stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleckmactually begun as a 50 page script by Damon for a screen- writing class at Harvard—«he had two semesters to go for his degree—it grippingly details the struggle of Will Hunting, a foster-home orphan in South Boston, to discover how to orient himself into the adult world and how to maximize his immense intellectual talentmhe is a genius-An the real world (Anson and Giles 96). 211 212 - Journal of Popular Culture Instead of exploiting his immense intellectual talent, Will belongs to the blue—collar world, laboring in construction or mopping floors as a janitor at MIT. He spends time “hanging around with his buddies, Chuckie (Ben Affleck), Morgan (Casey Affleck) and Billy (Cole Hauser), cheering on the Patriots, or trying to impress the educated Harvard girls, including one Skylar (Minnie Driver), over some brews in the local pub” (Wilhelm). As Jack Garner, film critic for the Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, New York, notes, “Young Will Hunting is very, very bright; a genius, actually. But he’s also bursting with confusion and rage, trig— gered by an abusive childhood and an adolescence of low expectations. Will can reason like mad, but he’s usually too mad to reason.” Will solves a difficult problem left by Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) of MIT, where Will works as a janitor. When Lambeau dis- covers that Will is the problem solver, Lambeau attempts to encourage him to utilize his talents, but “the working—class youth, who’s contemp- tuous of professors and all conventional forms of intellectualism refused to speak with him” (Howe). Will, who has been arrested previously for gang fights, once again finds himself before a judge who agrees to a deal engineered by Professor Lambeau, whereby Will meets with him once a week and with a psychiatrist once a week. However, Will devastatingly destroys five shrinks so that in desperation Lambeau turns to a former college buddy, Sean McGuire (Robin Williams), who is ensconced at Bunker Hill Community College, mourning the death of his wife. Lambeau acknowl— edges McGuire’s superior intelligence but believes McGuire is wasting his talents. However, McGuire agrees to work with Will. As one critic has noted, “the real joy of ‘Good Will Hunting’ is in the tussle of wills between Damon, an impressive actor, and Williams arguably the world’s most dynamic comedian. . . . ‘Let’s do it’ Will says with supreme irony as they mentally circle each other. ‘Let the healing begin!’ But this is a prize fight for the soul, plain and simple” (Garner, Howe). Critics’ reactions to the movie were generally favorable, although some felt that director Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy fame) had lost his edge as a leading director (McGurk, Eklias). Others believed that Van Sant “returns to his favorite hunting ground—the subworlds of grimy, poetic lost boys—and pulls us right in” (Howe). Peter Stack of the San Francisco Chronicle found “Van Sant’s off-center approach” helped “make an odd collection of characters come alive.” Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times thought that Van Sant at times has the “perfect pitch for dialogue” (Ebert). Another critic felt that it was the director’s “most natural, least flamboyant work to date. This may be a disappoint— Holden Caulfield, Alex Portnoy, and Good Will Hunting 213 ment to some die—hard fans. Smooth but not slick, Hunting lacks the archness of To Die For, the edge of Drugstore Cowboy, or the frantic fantasy of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" (Adams). Terri Sutton of the Minneapolis-.91. Paul City Pages found the movie to be “far from a’hetero sellout’ ” but observed that it did “offer stingier helpings of the director’s usual despair, loneliness, and cynicism.” Robin Williams generally received accolades for his understated, restrained, performance. As one critic noted, “his character here has a harder edge, and is a bit more volatile. It’s that roughness which endears him to both Will Hunting and the audience” (Wilhelm). However in a more curmudgeonly manner, Richard Schickel of Time magazine takes vitriolic objection to what most critics believed was the core of the film. the conflict between Damon’s character and Williams’ character. Schickel states: “This brings on Robin Williams as—what else?——the humanist shrink, himself a troubled soul, but, like Will, redeemable (they are both baseball lovers). Hearts sinking, we are obliged to endure much pseudo‘serious gabble as we head toward another painfully predictable triumph of the human spirit. There must be some better way of hunting our—and Oscar’s— good will” (80). Most critics found Minnie Driver’s casting as Skylar, Will’s love interest, to be useful and helped drive the movie. One critic, however, thought their chemistry was “less sexual and more dynamic of humor and compatible personalities than I can recall seeing in a while. Perhaps it’s Driver: her character is intelligent, capable, confident, and with much higher emotional intelligence than Damon’s high-order genius character” (MacLean). However, Driver’s casting rings a brassly discordant note for this observer. Damon’s Will is a blond studmuffin who, if surrounded by a bevy of young beauties, undoubtedly would garner more thong bikinis than the number of spandex lycra Victoria’s Secret intimates reportedly flung by middle-aged matrons at a Tom Jones concert. This purported Boston Southie has more “basic instincts”—uncross your legs and hope to die for. A more scintillating slice of sinuous sensuality who blends both intelligence and beauty, such as a more youthful Sharon Stone, would seem more natural for the part. Certainly the limp and lackluster Driver with her British accent giving a performance reminiscent of Sandy Dennis at her post nasal drip best hardly seems someone to send Will “California, dreaming.” Ringing very true to life is the relationship between Will and his chief buddy Chuckie. Chuckie constantly encourages Will to utilize his talent. In one particularly poignant scene Chuckie informs Will that all of Will's buddies would like to have his gift. Chuckie then emotionally 214 ' Journal of Popular Culture tells Will that the happiest day of Chuckie’s life is when he shows up to pick up Will and Will is not there. Certainly one can see from this previous deseription that Good Will Hunting is indeed a tale of coming of age, “of Boyz to men” so to speak. Like Holden Caulfield and Alex Portnoy, Will Hunting, a bright young- ster who is in search of finding himself, rebels in various ways and attempts to accommodate himself to the world without losing his own sense of “well-being,” and in a sense his innocence. Holden Caulfield, the youthful protagonist in The Catcher in the Rye, tells the story of three days of his life from a psychiatric institution. Psychiatrists play a role for all three protagonists. Caulfield has been expelled from three schools and is about to be expelled from Pencey Prep. He cannot relate to anyone except his sister Phoebe. He has some experiences with his history teacher, his roommate Stradlater, and another student, Robert Ackely. Caulfield leaves Pencey four days early for Christmas break and goes for a last fling in New York City. Although outwardly eschewing phoniness, Holden carries on in New York City as a phony. After a number of episodes that only confirms to Holden the uselessness of the adult world, he goes back to his parents’ apartment to talk to his sister Phoebe about his dream to become a “catcher in the rye.” He then meets his history teacher, Mr. Antolini, who makes sexual overtures. Close to a mental breakdown, Holden leaves and cavorts around town. Holden, like Will Hunting, bears a burden that haunts him—the memory of his dead brother Allie—with whom he sometimes talks. Will has the burden of foster home mistreatment, which has hardened his view of the world. One literary authority insists that Caulfield’s revolt is against time and that “time in Christianity is an agent of redemption; the Incarnation breaks into time, and after that time becomes another form of God’s mercy.” For Caulfield, though, there is no “saving doctrine or spiritual authorities to whom he can turn.” Instead, Caulfield become “an alien— ated American Adam, dreaming of a Jesus-like role as a savior of chil— dren.” Hence, Holden can save himself by saving others in his vision of things by becoming “the catcher in the rye” (Bloom 2). Both Will and Holden are alienated, but Holden’s is a more complete alienation since Caulfield’s “alienation is almost complete—from par— ents, from friends, from society in general,” while Will still has his friends who care about him (Jones 7). Both Will and Holden also possess an innocence—an innocence of youth and a realization that in entering the adult world one loses that innocence. However, Holden lacks “a concrete embodiment, for the Holden Caulfield, Alex Portnoy, and Good Will Hunting 215 ideal against which he judges, and finds wanting. . . . He has objects for his contempt but no objects other than his sister for his love—n0 raft, no river, no Jim, and no Tom” (Aldridge 9). Thus Holden “is the innocent youth in a world of cruel and hypocritical adults. . . . He is the knight— errant trying to make some sense, find some meaning, gain some under- standing of a world that won’t listen to him, a world that doesn’t care, a world that segregates the sixteen-year old, separate and never, never equal, a blind, callous, fumbling, bumbling world that often reduces him to tears” (Moore 21). Will also refuses to accept an ideal world and works hard to reject any accommodation. That there is such a thing yet in his rejection of this concept is the realization that one reacts so strongly to such a concept only when he really wants to accept it. Unlike Holden, who may be reduced to tears, Will strikes out with his fists, carrying out the pattern of violence with which he grew up. Both Will and Holden ostensibly rail against phoniness. Note in par- ticular Will’s speech when he verbally barrages the government official who seeks to hire him. Like Will, Holden can’t abide phonies yet what “Holden implicitly demands of society in the way of sincerity and decency and what society can actually can or will afford is the major problem (Wells 56—57). Indeed, Holden can detect “phoniness everywhere (except in him- self). . . . After all, Holden conforms to phoniness because he wants so badly to join the human race.” Yet Holden, in the words of William Faulkner, “tried to join the human race and failed” (Edwards 112). On the other hand, Will succeeds in the end by giving into human instincts and trusting them and by having trust in other human beings. Alex Portnoy in Philip Roth’s Portnoy ’s Complaint also seeks inno— cence, is rebellious, searches for meaning in life, and like Holden and Will, wants to join the human race but doesn’t know how to since he operates within the constraints of the Jewish culture. His revolt is two- fold—both against society in general and against the rules and regula— tions of orthodox Jewry. Writing about his success with Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth observes that “a novel in the guise of a confes— sion was received and judged by any number of readers as a confession in the guise of a novel” (Reading Myself 2] 8). Also, the fact that it was a Jew—who have mastered “social adaptation” who was doing forbidden acts and challenging the mores of society “engaged the attention of any number of middle-class readers whose own mastery of social adaptation had been seriously challenged by the more unsettling experiences of the decade" (Reading Myself 222-23). 216 - Journal of Popular Culture Portnoy’s orientation to the world and his realization of the unfair— ness and phoniness in the world begin when he realizes that his father, who works the slums for his insurance company, never received his proper rewards. Despite all the “plaques and scrolls and medals,” Portnoy realizes, as his father did not, that the senior Portnoy would never become a district manager of Boston & Northeastern, and as Alex notes, “my father, with his eighth-grade education, wasn’t exactly suited to be the Jackie Robinson of the insurance business” (Roth, Portnoy ’s 6). Yet Alex realized that “in that ferocious and self-annihilating way in which so many Jewish men of his generation served their families, my father served my mother, my sister Hannah, but particularly me. Where he had been imprisoned, I would fly: that was his dream. Mine was its corollary: in my liberation would be his—from ignorance, from exploita— tion, from anonymity” (Roth, Portnoy’s 6-7). Liberation for Alex was also liberation from the Jewish rules about proper conduct. When his cousin Heshie—an athletic star (not a greatly treasured attribute in the Jewish community)—is infatuated with Alice— the blond shikse (baton twirler)——Heshie’s romance is thwarted by Heshie’s father, who arranges a meeting with Alice and tells her that Hymie has a fatal disease and gives her $125, whereupon she ceases seeing Heshie. Everyone in the family but Heshie and Portnoy believed that Alice was only interested in Heshie for the family money. When Heshie is killed in the War, “the only thing people could think to say to my Aunt Clara and my Uncle Hymie . . . was ‘at least he didn’t leave you with goyishe children’ ” (Roth, Portnoy’s 58). Alex strives to accommodate himself to the other society—forbid- den but alluring. When he Visits his Christian girlfriend in Iowa for Thanksgiving, he is overwhelmed by the white house and being in a house with Christians—particularly as he notes—that this was the girl “who has let me undo her brassiere and dry—hump her at the dormitory door” (Roth , Portnoy ’s 219). He reflects on another Christian girl’s heart broken by him, “The Pilgrim, Sarah Abbott Maulsby—New Canaan, Foxcroft, and Vassar” (Roth, Portnoy’s 231). Alex explains why he couldn’t marry her because of her “cutesy-wootsy boarding school argot . . , the nicknames of her friends . . . Poody and Pip and Pebble, Shrimp, and Brute and Tug, Squeek, Bumpo, Baba—it sounded . . . as though she had gone to Vassar with Donald Duck’s nephews” (Roth, Portnoy’s 233). Most revealing is when Alex says to his shrink, “What I’m saying, Doctor, is that I don’t seem to stick my dick up these girls, as much as I stick it up their backgrounds” (Roth, Portnoy’s 234). Holden Caulfield, Alex Portnoy, and Good Will Hunting 217 When Sarah won’t succumb to Alex’s pleas for fellatio and will not give what Alex’s believes a reasonable answer for her refusal, he assumes it is for the same reason that his father couldn’t receive his just due at the insurance company. When Sarah finally performs the act, it is to Alex as if she were performing a chore and that there was “not much room there for love.” As Alex interpreted it, “No, Sally Maulsby was just something nice 3 son once did for his dad. A little vengeance on Mr. Lindabury for all those nights and Sundays Jack Portnoy spent collecting down in the colored district. A little bonus extracted from Boston & Northeastern, for all those years of service, and exploitation” (Roth, Portnoy 's 240). Here, much like Will and Holden, Alex strikes out at What seems to be will make him happy. Again, only the realization that the world will not change of its own volition and that he will have to sort out for him- self what makes him happy and not use revenge or class revulsion will bring Alex happiness. But this insight is not present for him. Will seemingly finally accepted “the strength and inspiration” from his interaction with Sean, while Holden and Portnoy never did come to this realization that the world is not perfect and that somehow if humans are ever to make something of their lives, accommodations must be made and that a worthwhile life can be lived without feeling that one has “sold out.” Although Good Will Hunting could be written off as a modern Horatio Alger tale and criticized for an ending that is a bit “too tidy,” arguments can be made that this film is the literary equivalent of Alex Portnoy’s and Holden Caulfield’s voyages into life. As Roger Ebert has noted, “The outcome of the movie is fairly predictable; so is the whole story, really. It’s the individual moments not the payoff, that make it so effective.” In twenty—five or thirty years from now, the crackling human dynamics, the authentic dialogue, and the universal theme of Good Will Hunting—that for mortals, exploiting the talents one has to the fullest and enjoying that experience and having someone to share that experi— ence is probably the closest thing to happiness that mortals can obtain— will still make this a movie, like the enduring novels of Salinger and Roth, that will attract a lasting audience. Works Cited Adams, Thelma. Rev. of Good Will Hunting. Dll‘. Gus Van Sant, New York Post <http://www.nypostonline.com/reviews/movies.1501 .html>. Aldridge, John W. “The Society of Three Novels.” Holden Caulfield. Ed. Harold Bloom . New York: Chelsea House, 1990. 8—9. 218 ‘ Journal of Popular Culture Anson, David, and Jeff Giles. “He’s Writing His Own Ticket.” Newsweek 1 Dec. 1997: 96. Bloom, Harold, ed. “Introduction.” Holden Caulfield. New York: Chelsea House, 1990. 1—3. Ebert, Roger. Rev. of Good Will Hunting. Dir. Gus Van Sant, Chicago Sun Times <http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/ebert_reviews/1997/12/122504. htm1>. Edwards, Duane. “ ‘Don’t Ever Tell Anybody Anything.‘” Holden Caulfield. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1990. 105-13. Eklias, Rick. Rev. of Good Will Hunting. Dir. Gus Van Sant. The Columbus Free Press 5 Feb. 1998. Garner, Jack. Rev. of Good Will Hunting. Dir. Gus Van Sant. Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY) 1 Jan. 1998. Howe, Desson. Rev. of Good Will Hunting. Dir. Gus Van Sant. Washington Post <http://yp.washingtonpost.com/E/MWASDC/OOOO/O147/cs.lhtml>. Jones, Ernest. “Case History of All of Us.” Holden Caulfield. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1990. 7. McGurk, Margaret. Rev. of Good Will Hunting. Dir. Gus Van Sant. The Cincinnati Enquirer <http://www.gocinci.net/freetime/movies/mcgurk/ goodwill.html>. MacLean, Ian. Review of Good Will Hunting. Dir. Gus Van Sant. <http://www. wenet.net/~imm/Pages/moviereview.html>. Moore, Robert P. “The World of Holden.” Holden Caulfield. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1990. 20—21. Roth, Philip. Portnoy’s Complaint. New York: Random House, 1969. —. Reading Myself and Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975. Schickel, Richard. “Tales of Young Men and Their Dreams of Glory.” Time 1 Dec. 1997: 80. Stack, Peter. Rev. of Good Will Hunting. Dir. Gus Van Sant. San Francisco Chronicle <http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article/archive/1998/ 071 10DD65304—DTL>. Sutton, Terri. Rev. of Good Will Hunting. Dir. Gus Van Sant. Minneapolis-St. Paul City Pages 18 (24 Dec. 1997). Wells, Arvin R. “Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield: The Situation of the Hero.” Holden Caulfield. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1990. 50- 57. Wilhelm, Matt. Rev. of Good Will Hunting. Dir. Gus Van Sant. <http://www. cinematter.com/movie.pbp3?gh>. Lawrence E. Ziewacz, Department of American Thought & Language, Michigan State University. ...
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