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Genre Blast: The Complications of Friendship – the Buddy Film

Let’s start this installment with a question: who is more forgiving than a spouse, knows you more intimately than a sibling, is more protective than a parent and always has your back, even in the most bizarre circumstances?

Of course the banner is a dead give-away. The answer is a true blue friend, and while friendship sounds like a potentially banal topic – or in this case, film genre – when you look very closely at this strange yet solid connection people make voluntarily and unconditionally, it’s a remarkable thing. Disparate beings bond together to face life’s challenges, usually spontaneously and based primarily on a short initial interaction. It just happens.

The “buddy film” covers more film genres than romance in that the platonic pairing doesn’t interfere with the plotline (it usually IS the plotline). A romantic relationship comes with too many strings and is a solitary practice – not at all conducive to propelling a narrative or including other characters in the action. Friends happen randomly and prove their worth in mostly unplanned circumstances. Two close friends can seem to become a third character – the “we” – and if loss or betrayal occurs at some point, the results can be harrowing.

Five “buddy films” that stick with me through thick and thin:


Midnight Cowboy – John Schlesinger (1969)

Absolutely nobody would consider Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo as being the perfect match; nor would they have predicted that this would be the first and only X-rated film to win the Best Picture Oscar. Jon Voight’s dumb-as-rocks male “whore with a heart of gold” is a helluva debut in a lead role, while Hoffman’s Ratso cemented his career after his stunning turn in The Graduate. Schlesinger’s gritty style here portrays New York City as a jungle to be escaped – something that neither character could hope to accomplish without the other.


Thelma and Louise – Ridley Scott (1991)

Odd that the most famous female buddy films was directed by someone know primarily for his somewhat male-centric action flicks, and its success makes one wonder why we don’t get more films in a similar vein. When the housewife and waitress take off on a little excursion and luck turns against them, we get to know the strength and loyalty of two women as they take on a male domain – the Road. The dominoes fall at every stop until the only way out is to call the last sot themselves and control their fate to the very end. Terrific performances by Sarandon and Davis, a great soundtrack and the stunning southwest scenery make one regret that a sequel is impossible.


My Own Private Idaho – Gus Van Sant (1991)

There is a key scene in Van Sant’s film that takes place around a campfire and it is probably one of my favorite scenes of the thousand or so movies I have watched. Mike and Scott (River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves) are street hustlers. Scott is straight, but Mike is gay and has a huge crush on his best friend. Before filming the scene, Van Sant took Phoenix aside to tell him what he wanted, primarily ad-libbed – to declare his feelings to Scott. Reeves, a close friend of Phoenix at the time, was kept in the dark and told to react to whatever he heard in a natural, honest way. The reaction, for both the characters and the real life friends, is heartfelt and priceless, making the ultimate betrayal near the end of the film all the more unsettling. Add some narcolepsy, Falstaff and Portland, Oregon, and you have a classic.


Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – George Roy Hill (1969)

Two other real-time buddies struck gold – twice – first with this jaunty western and then a couple of years later with The Sting. Newman and Redford were the prime alpha-male pairing in the Seventies, and while William Goldman’s script seems breezy for a tale of desperate and ultimately doomed train robbers, the wisecracking actually reveals the characters’ strengths and flaws. The only portion of the film that has not aged well is the “Raindrops” montage – a stylistic obsession of the era that is downright annoying today.


Hachi: A Dog’s Tale – Lasse Hallstrom (2010)  

Yes, I’m a lifetime dog owner and the Buddy Genre must definitely include an example of that interspecies relationship that is like no other. Proof? Hallstrom’s film is based on a true story (as well as a Japanese film from a few years previous.) It’s Disney, for sure, but there is an unusual intensity that develops in the story of a man who rescues an Akita Inu puppy on a train platform. More than any other “boy and his dog” film, Hachi demonstrates loyalty, gratitude and perseverance to the extreme degree. If only human-to-human bonds were this durable. It makes for rough going for the final quarter and some cynics might bail-out towards the end, but anyone who has “been there” with their non-human buddy will stick with it, sobbing all the way to the (finally) uplifting end.

OK, this is weird – two films from 1991 and two from 1969. I guess that friendship was more valuable – or marketable – in those years. Friendships can be difficult but we’d be nowhere without them and the unsolicited trust and affection they provide. What buddy films still play in your head?


One Comment

  1. Lloyd Marken Lloyd Marken June 6, 2017

    My favourite film is Thelma and Louise so no arguments there. 🙂 My favourite scene from My Own Private Idaho. Great post Steve. For my own suggestions I’m struggling to think of a truly great one. Steel Magnolias, Beaches, Fried Green Tomatoes, Frances Ha and Stand By Me all depict great onscreen friendships but aren’t necessarily perfect movies. I will say I really like Driving Miss Daisy and that end scene. The scene in the bathroom from Lethal Weapon 2 is a stellar scene between Mel Gibson and Danny Glover on the nature of their friendship. But a slam dunk just isn’t coming to me right now.

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