Is identifying with the lead crucial for a movie's success

In the Alexander the Great movie thread, Sherrerd opines:
“… identifying with the movie subject is crucial to mainstream success.”
http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showpost.php?p=20234727&postcount=14

I’m not here to specifically disagree with that but off of the top of my head it didn’t ring true. So I thought about it. Do people identify with Travis Bickle? I don’t know.

Are there movies out there in which the main character is too complex or un-likeable to identify with yet the movie still became a success?

Leaving Las Vegas.

Bonnie and Clyde. Public Enemy. Mommie Dearist.

I don’t identify with most lead characters, in film or novels. I still enjoy the experience.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
M
Double Indemnity (and other noirs)
Sweeney Todd (one can understand Todd’s motivation, but that’s not the same as identifying with him)

There are many comedies where almost everyone is stupid or horrible, and the audience is expected to laugh at the characters rather than identify with them. Idiot comedies such as Dumb and Dumber are like this. Most of the characters in Animal House are awful—you don’t want to be them (or even know anyone like them), but they’re funny. Idiots and jackasses can be hilarious.

Well, there’s a difference to me between the movie’s SUBJECT, and the film’s MAIN CHARACTER. And there’s a difference between IDENTIFYING with a subject OR a character, and feeling a sense of involvement with it.

Depends on how unrealistic the “identifying with” is, I suppose. Action movies make a ton of money–are people in the audience seeing themselves in Tony Stark and Han Solo and Jason Borne and whatever Dwane Johnson calls himself in 20fast 20furious?

I’m sure it helps. But it’s hardly essential. I don’t think I’m very much like Indiana Jones, Marty McFly, Neo or John McClane but that doesn’t stop me or lots of other people enjoying the very successful movies these characters appear in. Also, checking back at the referenced post - have we forgotten Brokeback Mountain already? And that was a romance, even.

On the other hand, it’s true that having a particular sort of character (roughly, “non-girly woman” more or less) in a leading or major role is a huge boost for my enjoyment of any film, and lots of my best-enjoyed movies (Alien, Sapphires, Room, Bend it like Beckham, Juno…) do fall into that category.

I’d rate the claim a little bit true, but mostly false.

A Clockwork Orange
Goodfellas
Psycho

There are different degrees of identifying with a character. In the strictest sense, it means you feel that you’re like the character. This isn’t very common, especially since many movies are about extraordinary people. Also, audience members aren’t all the same.

In a looser sense it means rooting for a character, wanting the character to achieve his or her goals. I may not be anything like Indiana Jones, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t pulling for him in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’m don’t have much in common with Ripley in Alien, but I had an emotional investment in the character’s survival.

Most people can’t identify with Norman Bates, but they can identify with Lila Crane. I think she’s actually the protagonist through most of the movie.

That being said, I don’t think it’s necessary to have a character to identify with. There are certain types of movies where it helps, especially thriller or suspense movies.

First: note that I said ‘mainstream success’. There are all sorts of cult-success movies that are well-known, but whose protagonists would violate the rule I believe obtains in successful blockbusters: a large part of the audience must be able to identify with the protagonist.

For example, in the top ten box office successes of all time:

List of highest-grossing films - Wikipedia

…I would argue that either the protagonist(s) embodied generally-lauded-in-Western-culture traits, or was so bland and generic that any audience member could, essentially, project themselves into the place of that protagonist. The power-fantasies front and center in many top-grossing films fit that criterion in respect of the way we like to picture ourselves able to fly or cast spells or build castles out of ice and such.

By contrast, movies such as A Clockwork Orange or Taxi Driver or The Blair Witch Project or any number of movies that are well-known and possibly critically acclaimed —and possibly successful, but not high on the mainstream-success list of top grossing films—may feature protagonists that can be identified with only in limited ways or by limited portions of the audience.

There is still audience identification with characters onscreen going on, but it’s at a more complex level than is the case with the blockbusters.

Sure, but I would say that viewers are enjoying the vicarious experience in a ‘better you than me’ way when watching characters pratfalling, walking into doors, etc. Even though we’re not putting ourselves in the character’s place the same way we do with a hero winning a fist fight, we’re still putting ourselves in the character’s place when we wince at the anvil dropped on the head.

“Identifying with a character” does not require any thought process along the lines of “I’m just like that character”…it requires only the imaginative act of putting ourselves in that character’s place. When skateboarding Marty McFly grabs onto the passing vehicle and escapes trouble, we feel exhilaration, even if we aren’t demographically (or even psychologically) much like Marty. When John McClane runs across broken glass in his bare feet, we cringe, even if we don’t personally resemble him particularly. When Neo sits up in the nutrient bath, tubes sticking out of his body, we feel his confusion and horror, even if we aren’t much like him.

I agree with this. And my thesis is, basically, that those filmmakers given blockbuster budgets are likely to try to create protagonists with whom a maximum number of audience members can feel ‘I may not be all that much like that person but I get what they’re going through–I know what that’s like.’

I think the better description is making the main character sympathetic. You don’t have to identify with him (i.e., thinking you’d do what he does if you were in his place), but you do need to feel sympathetic to what he’s going through.

Looking at some of the films mentioned
A Clockwork OrangeAlex is charming and the film makes you sympathetic to him (especially at the end)
PsychoNorman Bates is a very sympathetic character, a young man trapped and forced to clean up his mother’s mess (at least, that’s how it seems until you reach the end).
M The Lorre’s character is shown to be a tortured man and a pathetic figure
*Bonnie and Clyde.*Both actors are charming and shown to be Robin Hood figures. The ending works because we have come to care for them.
Public Enemy. Cagney is fascinating and charming, the character we love to see.

You really need to adjust those box office numbers for inflation. And realize that there are theaters in more places in the past. And a higher population. And more disposable income. Judging the most popular movies of all time is a lot more complicated than just looking at the raw dollar amount from the year it was released.

Sure, but aren’t all those points equally applicable to Alexander? If a diverse audience can empathise with Neo being hunted by Agents even though he possesses lots of characteristics that most of his audience don’t (incredibly intelligent. Notably inarticulate. Chiseled good looks) then what is it about being gay that makes Alexander unusually hard to empathise with? This seems like a comparatively little thing, that doesn’t even need to take up much story time.

And I think that one of the things that was implicit in your original post was something like “the audience for blockbusters contains a large number of teenage and young adult men who really REALLY don’t want to be gay” and I’m sure that’s true. I just think that wanting to be or imagine yourself being a character is a smaller part of the movie appreciating experience than you think. I don’t find action heroes in any way aspirational. I just like watching them.

If your original point was along the lines of “it’s harder to make a movie about a gay character because many audience members are doofi”, however, then I agree.

I like 60s Japanese monster movies, but it sure as hell isn’t because I identify with an annoying little kid in hot pants.

I suppose so. I mean, even way back, let’s take a good look at such popular classic hit films as Psycho, The Manchurian Candidate, Dr. Strangelove, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch,–The Texas Chainsaw Massacre!

These days I identify most strongly with Dean Wormer, but a case could be made for Pinto and Boone as audience identification characters. Pinto was certainly (co-writer) Doug Kenney’s stand-in character, and Boone was likely (other co-writer) Chris Miller’s.

It always depresses me when I think that I’m now as old as Giles on Buffy…

From the same page that I linked to before:

List of highest-grossing films - Wikipedia

^Full ‘adjusted for inflation’ lists have pretty much the same movies as we see in the first list, except that older movies are interspersed.

Of course “top-grossing” is not intended to be a synonym for “best” or even “best-loved”–but it does provide a shorthand way of looking at the question ‘what in storytelling and characterization works for large numbers of people?’ And that tends to be protagonists who don’t repel us or disturb us or make us uncomfortable, but instead who are bland enough to let us imagine ourselves in their situation. “What would I do if an old guy handed me a fantastic weapon and told me my father had been a powerful knight with supernatural powers, who had fought against an evil empire…???” Etc.

I think you’ve summed it up very well. (In other words: yes, that was basically what I was saying: the mass audience in recent decades–the one the movie business counts on for the majority of their revenues–tends to be a bit skittish about gay or bisexual protagonists. The Oscars may love them, but many young men do not.)