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By Noelle Buffam · May 30, 2011
In my world, opposites are a good thing. While many associate the term with a negative connotation, I can’t help but do the… well, opposite (ha! Keep reading. The fun wordplay doesn’t stop here). Sure, the word “opposites” conjures up images of battle and conflict. How can it not? We see it everyday when we turn on the news. People fight over ideologies. Republicans and Democrats practically strangle each other over views and positions.
However, we are lucky. We are not politicians. We are writers. And in the world of film, opposites are a very, very good thing.
Without opposite characters we wouldn't have Scarlett O’hara and Rhett Butler. We wouldn’t have Beauty and the Beast, or Kirk and Spock. We wouldn't even have Grease’s dynamic duo, Sandy and Danny. Tell me more. Tell me more.
The fact is that opposites play a huge role in films, and the “Opposites Scene” is a crucial part to any writer’s repertoire. It is so powerful that entire film premises are often based on it. The scene takes place when two opposite characters are forced to interact. The situation forces the characters to change, which allows the characters to grow closer either physically or emotionally (or sometimes both). Their differences must be believable, yet interesting. The amount and depth of differences between the characters determine how far they will have to travel to achieve their goal.
No matter what kind of film you are writing, the “Opposites Scene” can be an important tool for your character’s arc. Below are 10 Classic Opposites Scenes, not necessarily a “Top 10 List”, but instead just excellent examples to learn from. Whether these characters have opposite ideas, aspirations, or physical characteristics, they each make the “Opposites Scene” a memorable one. So, as we take a look at some ying and yang of film opposites, let the battles begin.
10. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Of all the lessons that I learned in my youth, the majority of them came from either Indiana Jones orCrocodile Dundee (I believe this is a natural phenomenon that happens when you have older brothers). Lesson one: never trust the blond bombshell. Not only is she playing you with her girlish charm (okay, so this lesson is pretty gender specific… but useful nonetheless), but she’s probably a Nazi. Enter, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In the third installment of the Indy series, we meet Professor Walton Jones, Sr. (Sean Connery), Indy’s estranged father. While the father/son duo have a lot in common, i.e. having a cool job and being awesome, they definitely have their differences. Dr. Jones, Sr. is aloof in his search for the Holy Grail, an “obsession” that Indy has “never understood. Never!” His mild way and docile manner is a direct juxtaposition against the ass-kicking Indiana Jones. Soon father and son find themselves trapped by the Nazis, tied to a chair. You know the scene. Dr. Jones, Sr. accidentally lights the room on fire. The pair has to scoot their chair into the fireplace, only to hit a lever that propels them into a Nazi planning room… and then back to the fire room… Nazi room… fire room… Nazi room. Soon enough Dr. Jones and Jr. work together to escaped. They’ve set the tone for their relationship throughout the film AND accomplished their first feat as a father/son duo. Now they just have to worry about the whole “Nazi’s taking the Holy Grail” thing.
9. The Producers (1968)
Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) is a washed up Broadway producer- intimidating, slimy, and sarcastic. Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) is a CPA- timid, nervous, and quiet. During the first scene of Mel Brooks’ classic, The Producers, the pair has a revelation: raise more money than you need for a sure to Flop Broadway Show, and no one will expect anything back. The pair would be able to make money by pocketing the difference. Bonded only by the fact that their humdrum lives are going nowhere, the unlikely duo set off on an adventure to make the worst musical ever- Springtime for Hitler. Because this film uses it as a theme, the “Opposites Scene” thrives in The Producers. However, the first scene in the film where they meet is especially classic. While both Max and Leo use banter and physical comedy to portray their character, they do so in completely opposite ways. The back and forth banter make their characters (and the movie) unforgettable in the realm of opposites.
8. How to Steal a Million (1966)
Nicole Bonnet (Audrey Hepburn) is a wealthy, good-hearted aristocrat. One night she walks in on Simon Dermott (Peter O’Toole) stealing one of the famous (but forged) paintings her father owns. In the eyes of Nicole, they are complete opposites. After she accidentally shoots him, she yells, “You should be in jail… and I should be in bed!” So true. But soon, Nicole finds out that a museum is going to conduct tests on her father’s forged statue. The good girl decides to hire the big bad thief (or at least that is what she thinks he is) to help her steal it before her father’s scam is revealed. It’s a gorgeous scene. Dermott agrees to meet Nicole at a restaurant. He enters the smokey establishment only to not recognize Nicole. She has turned bad, dressed all in black, with a black veil covering her face. At first Simon rejects her proposal, but soon he succumbs. He is smitten with her because, you know… she’s Audrey Hepburn. Soon Nicole is working hand in hand with Dermott, proving the power of a woman dressed all in black.
7. Lethal Weapon (1987)
The “Opposites Scene” and cop movies go together like peanut butter and jelly. Think of Hott Fuzz, Tango and Cash, 48 hours, orBeverly Hills Cop. But perhaps no cop movie has done it so well as 1987’s Lethal Weapon. Sergeant Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is a veteran cop of 20 years, a true family man. On his 50th birthday he gets a new partner: 37-year-old Sergeant Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson). Riggs is a suicidal alcoholic. Talk about birthday gifts. His wife was killed three years ago, and since has become violent, reckless, and (in cop lingo) a lethal weapon. Murtaugh is horrified. He can’t decide if his new partner is attempting to get a “psycho pension,” or if he’s just crazy. After an intense exchange where Riggs almost shoots himself in the mouth to prove he doesn’t care about dying, the pair goes to investigate a case. When Murtaugh approaches a man he believes is dead, Riggs ends up saving his life by shooting the perp. After the intense situation, Murtaugh asks, “Have you ever met anyone you didn’t kill?” Joking aside, their bond has been made. Murtaugh apologizes for the whole “encouraging Riggs to shoot himself in the face” bit, and even invites him into his home to meet his family. And thus the most bad-ass cop duo is born, proving that neither Riggs nor Murtaugh was (or still is) “too old for this shit.”
6. Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Few things in the world force people together like prison and war. In the 1967 classic, Cool Hand Luke, Luke Jackson (Paul Newman) is sentenced to two years in a Florida prison camp. Always having a problem with authority, Luke doesn’t take to the pecking order of the prison system. Soon he is face to face (or face to fist) with Dragline (George Kennedy), the leader of the prison gang. Luke is young and prideful. Dragline is older and stoic. After Luke challenges his authority, Dragline arranges a boxing match in which the ginormous leader beats the pulp out of Luke. However, Luke refuses to give up. The fun match turns into a horrible spectacle. The prisoners and guards beg Luke to “stay down.” He refuses. Soon, Dragline himself pleads with Luke, but he won’t give up. The fight fizzles out, but Luke has won the respect of the prisoners. Later that same day, Luke bamboozles the prisoners in a game of poker saying that sometimes “nothing can be a real cool hand.” From that point on, the two are bonded on a mutual respect, surviving the hardship of prison life, and eventually teaming together to escape.
5. Top Gun (1986)
It’s the “Opposites Scene” bromance style. Maverick (Tom Cruise) struggles to get along with his fellow students at Top Gun Naval Flying School, especially the rival top-student Iceman (Val Kilmer). Maverick is reckless and cocky, and Iceman considers his methods dangerous. The two are at odds throughout the film until, during the graduation party, they are ordered to report to Enterprise to deal with a "crisis situation.” Maverick is assigned to be back-up for Iceman and Hollywood… even though Iceman believes Maverick is in a compromised state of mind because of the death of his partner, Goose. During the engagement, Hollywood is shot down. Maverick almost retreats when the circumstances mirror what happened to Goose. However, in the time of need, Maverick yells, “I’m not leaving my wingman!” He joins Iceman and they shoot down four MiGs. Cue the Top Gun Anthem! Maverick and Iceman and return triumphantly to Enterprise, where they exchange hugs. When Maverick and Iceman come face to face, Iceman mutters those unforgettable words. Say it with me; “You can be my wingman anytime.” Aw. And just like that, drunk guys all over the world have a new catchphrase as they hang out at the bar with their BFF. High fives all around (Top Gun Style, of course)!
4. The African Queen (1951)
While the “Opposites Scene” immediately gives us images of comedy, it can also be used in dramatic films as it is in The African Queen. In 1914, Rose Sayer (Kathrine Hepburn) is a missionary living in the village of Kungdu in German East Africa. Her brother has just committed suicide when Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), a Canadian boat captain, shows up on the African Queen. Charlie has a rough and coarse manner. He is unshaven and dirty, and his boat barley runs. After helping Rose bury her brother, he takes her on board the African Queen to protect her from the Germans. Rose tries to convince him that they should team together to go south to blow up the Louisa (a German gunboat). Mr. Allnut thinks that Rose is crazy, and tells her so by calling her a “spinster” and a “crazy old maid.” Rose replies that Allnut is a “washed-up rummy good-for-nothing coward.” However, with limited options, the odd pair set out to take down the German navy. While most of the couples on this list are united by a common, selfish goal, it is important to remember that an overshadowing event or situation (like a war) can be a powerful tool in uniting two very different characters on opposite sides of the tracks, as is the case with The African Queen.
3. Toy Story (1995)
Ah. Buzz and Woody. Buzz is the enthusiastic space ranger. Woody is the realistic cowboy. Buzz is new. Woody is old. And thus begins the saga known as Toy Story. While much of Toy Story is based in the notion of opposites, the poignant “Opposites Scene” comes near the end of the film. After seeing his commercial, Buzz Lightyear jumps off a balcony to prove he is not a toy. After he crashes, he realizes he is a toy after all. This leads to one of my favorite movie scenes of all time (“Don’t you get it? You see the that? I AM… MRS. NESBITT!”). With a broken arm and a broken heart, he goes into a deep depression. In the evil Sid’s room, Buzz is strapped to a rocket while Woody is trapped underneath the crate. Seeing that Buzz’s spirit is crushed, Woody must to the unthinkable. He convinces Buzz that life as Andy’s toy is worth living, in fact, it is better than being a space ranger. He even comes to terms with the fact that Buzz is a cool toy. Buzz gets the message, and the pair work together to escape the clutches of Sid. Result: a lifelong friendship is created before you can say, “To infinity and beyond!”
2. The Odd Couple (1968)
It’s probably the most famous pairing of opposites ever: Felix Ungar (Jack Lemmon) and Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau). Oscar is a slovenly, high-spirited sportswriter. Felix is a meticulous, recently divorced hypochondriac. When Felix becomes despondent about his wife, he decides to kill himself. Luckily, he stops by Oscar’s house first, and we get one of the most famous opposites scenes ever to hit the stage and the screen. The great thing about this “Opposites Scene” is how subtlety the differences are portrayed. We see Felix, carefully tiding things up… even when he is about to kill himself. Then we jump to Oscar’s apartment: trash everywhere, piles of junk, even green sandwiches. Felix is dressed in a clean suit. Oscar is wearing a grungy t-shirt. Even the way they sweat is different. Oscar seems to be dripping with week-old pit stains, while Felix has only tiny, nervous beads of sweat on his forehead. With no other option, Oscar convinces Felix to move in with him for a while. And as luck would have it, the first “Opposites Scene” is just a subtle taste of the calamity that is yet to come, showing that atmosphere and environment can be just as telling as dialogue and action.
1. Planes, Trains, & Automobiles (1987)
As far as movie premises being based off of the “Opposites Scene,” it doesn't get much better than Jon Hughes’ Planes, Trains, & Automobiles. Neal Page (Steve Martin) is a self-absorbed cynic, determined to get home in time for Thanksgiving. Del Griffith (John Candy) is an uncouth blabbermouth, who also happens to be a shower ring salesman. As fate would have it, these two opposites end up traveling together on their journey to Chicago. Let the comedy ensue! There are plenty of funny “Opposites Scenes” in this film. However, as far as a serious opposites scene goes, Planes, Trains & Automobiles nails it right on the head, giving us one of the best dialogue exchanges in an opposites scene ever. The pair finds themselves not only sharing a hotel room, but sharing a bed. Neal quickly becomes annoyed with Del’s habits and hygiene, lashing out at Del in a mean-spirited monologue, focusing on the fact that Del talks too much. Neal mocks him by saying, “I’d like you to meet Del Griffith. He’s got some amusing antic-dotes. Oh, and here’s a gun, so you can blow your brains out.” Del is hurt. He responds back with, “I can be a cold hearted cynic like you, but I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings… I’m not changing. I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me because I’m the real article. What you see is what you get.” If you would like to see a perfect fusion of great screenwriting and tremendous acting, this moment is a must. Del goes back to bed, leaving Neal a bit stunned. Now is the moment of truth. Neal could easily leave, but he doesn’t. He gets back into bed with Del, showing that their conversation impacted him for the better. Now, Del and Neal’s real journey begins.