Unexpected Inspirations

When I was a kid Saturdays were movie day. Matinees at the theater, a drive-in after dark, or a marathon on television. My ideas about characterization were definitively shaped and formed by those cinematic experiences. For better or worse, Hollywood often provides visual inspiration when new characters come to mind. Sometimes it serves simply as an archetype but in other instances an actor breathes life into a character.

That happened recently. I’ve been working on a fun little novella about a woman, working as an estate assessor specializing in art, who stumbles across a spirit in the penthouse apartment of an antique residence hotel. The ghost just fell out of my head fully developed, detailed in appearance, complete with mannerisms and quirks.  It wasn’t until a few weeks later than I stumbled across a photograph of David Niven and realized I’d borrowed many of the characteristics I appreciate about a favored actor.

I adored David Niven. I saw all his movies when I was a kid. He was suave and erudite, always said exactly the right thing, was clever with his tongue rather than his fists, and had somewhat elastic boundaries when it came to obeying law and order (he rather enjoyed playing a thief). For me, David Niven is the quintessential jewel thief, mastermind of the art heist, and seducer of willing women who ought to know better but choose to ignore their common sense in order to enjoy a fling. Not to mention the man had elegance.

Every generation selects men and women who personify their age, but sometimes an individual comes along who crosses the generational boundaries and continues to resonate with audiences. Many of the great performers demonstrate this quality and perhaps that is one of the reasons for their success. David Niven’s memoir The Moon’s a Balloon illustrates both his professional and personal lives and shows he was an admirable man on both fronts. Unfortunately the book is out of print but many local libraries still house a copy in the permanent collections.

David Niven was renowned for making witty remarks and even when caught by surprise he usually had a snappy comeback.

I’ve been lucky enough to win an Oscar, write a best-seller – my other dream would be to have a painting in the Louvre. The only way that’s going to happen is if I paint a dirty one on the wall of the gentlemen’s lavatory.

In addition to being a tremendously successful actor, he was also a dedicated author. He wrote and published four books: two novels, a memoir, and a fun volume of Hollywood reminisces. His third novel was in progress when he succumbed to illness. For the writers in the crowd this quote will ring with a certain truth.

I make two movies a year to take care of the butcher and the baker and the school fees. Then I try to write, but it’s not that easy. Acting is what’s easy.

Charisma defies logic. Even the best looking individual can prove a dull companion. Likewise the people who don’t always strike us as being handsome can take our breath away in unexpected moments. Time lends a glamor to people and places, the years add a patina of elegance associated with bygone times and periods. Old Hollywood certainly capitalized on that idea and as a writer, so do I.

Cheers to David Niven. *clink*

Here’s a brief bit of an interview from 1972 when David describes his first disastrous romantic entanglement.

Unfortunately this link didn’t work but if you’ve another minute to spare, dash over to and watch everyone’s favorite Oscar moment: The Streaker.

Where do you find inspiration for your characters? How you ever discovered you were inspired by a real person or public figure and didn’t know it at the time? How does Hollywood most inspires you today?

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  1. #1 by Matthew Wright on June 19, 2012 - 11:26 pm

    I have the paperback edition of that book (somewhere in the pile) – a great read – funny, witty, insightful and a wonderful exposition by a great raconteur, all at once. Niven comes across as a significantly more erudite character than he perhaps tried to present himself. I also got the impression that he did rather a lot on cheek, and knew it. I always enjoyed his movies; an Englishman from the golden age of Hollywood, as it were.

    • #2 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on June 21, 2012 - 5:14 pm

      Thanks for dropping by Matthew! I have great memories of watching him in cinema. I also gathered from snippets of interviews I read that his personal life was equally interesting and marked by sad events. Some people seem to have that ability to “cheek” along…must be nice to always be prepared, eh? There are many actors I appreciate today but that vintage golden-age-esqueness (that is too a word!) of Hollywood seems a sad bygone. Just recently I realized I no longer have a clue who any of these young people are that show up in movies. *sigh*

  2. #3 by Bridgette Booth on June 20, 2012 - 5:16 am

    Old Hollywood inspires me — the glamour of Audrey Hepburn or the wit of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. I think the movies were clever and naughty, but trusting the audience to figure it out. David Niven was an excellent actor and one who had that streaker moment perfectly! 🙂

    • #4 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on June 21, 2012 - 5:18 pm

      I love Old Hollywood too. I keep thinking about setting a story there since it would give me the excuse to go hang out and pick brains. Egads…every time I hear or write the word brain my subconscious repeats it in a zombie voice. The movies WERE clever and naughty, a delicate balance of wit and sarcasm and delight that seems a hard sell these days. I know there are others out there who like them too, but I fear we’re a bit of a minority these days. The streaker things still cracks me up – what a weird “hey, whatcha wanna do today?” kind of thing. I just saw Snow White & the Huntsman and have to admit that Charliz Theron definitely has that glamorous bit down cold.

  3. #5 by Angela Wallace on June 21, 2012 - 9:08 am

    That is so funny you realized later your character was really someone else! Some of my characters are loosely based on tv or movie characters. Not the actors themselves, just fictional personas I’m drawn to.

    • #6 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on June 21, 2012 - 5:20 pm

      I think it might be impossible to create a character who wasn’t an amalgam of different people, or at least their attributes. Most of the people I’ve admired wind up working their way into a story sooner or later but they’re never recognizable…thus, I sometimes realize later where the inspiration came from. One advantage is that readers are all different ages…c’mon…you didn’t really know who David Niven was, did you? 😉

      • #7 by Angela Wallace on June 23, 2012 - 4:25 pm

        No. 😛

        • #8 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on June 23, 2012 - 6:27 pm

          Ah…but now you do!

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