A few little surprises in High Fidelity
by Michael Asimow
Now, for valuable prizes, who is the most surprising character in the funny, touching and altogether terrific film High Fidelity?
Nope, it isn't Rob, the protagonist, who is working his way through the top five relationship breakups he's experienced.
Sorry, it isn't either of the two musical morons working at Championship Vinyl, Robs pathetic LP rock n roll store, although they were extremely funny.
Sorry again, it isn't the teenage shoplifting skateboard thugs who turn out to be terrific musicians.
Thats it! The winner is Laura, Robs girlfriend, who leaves him for another guy at the beginning of the movie and moves back in when he finally seems to be taking control over his life. Right, she's really attractive, but what's so special or surprising about her?
She's a lawyer, dummy! And not just any old lawyera terrific person. She's kind and generous to Rob while ditching him. She is dumping him for a perfectly valid reasonhe is a total loser and their relationship was going nowhere. She's a good sport about the fact that he's harassing her and her new boyfriend. And she even takes him back after he shows signs of finding himself. She cleverly plans the publicity for his new record label. Shes a really nice person, with lots of character and good judgment. Youd definitely want her as your friend. And that is news.
Its news for two reasons. First, women lawyers in the movies invariably are pretty disgusting human beings or pretty lame lawyers. With the exception of the first important female movie lawyer--Amanda Bonner in Adams Rib (1947)--virtually every female lawyer has been either a repulsive person or an incompetent or unethical lawyer. The most recent contender was Theresa, the American Gothic lawyer in Erin Brockovich who patronized the hard-working Erin and was so uptight that she couldnt talk to the clients and or bring herself to walk through cow dung to meet one of them.
Think back to Laura Fischer in The Verdict (1982), who serves as a sexual spy on the opposition. Or Teddy Barnes in Jagged Edge (1985), who unwisely hops into bed with her client during a murder trial. Or Belinda Conine in Philadelphia (1992), whose total lack of tactical sense destroys her clients case. Or Reggie Love in The Client (1994), whose personal life is a shambles; Reggie is good-hearted but has to take advice from her 11-year-old client. Or Kathleen Riley in Suspect (1987), who has an equally terrible personal life and uses a juror as her investigator. Or JoAnne Galloway in A Few Good Men (1992), who, despite her vast court-martial experience, is so inept that her case is turned over to some jerk who never tried a case.
The list goes on and on, and the conclusion is clear. Filmmakers consistently trash female lawyers. Whether this is because women lawyers are hated and feared by audiences even more than male lawyers, or because filmmakers believe that law should be a mans profession, isnt clear, but the results are pretty obvious. Oh, you get good female paralegals (Erin Brockovich) or good female law students (A Time to Kill or The Pelican Brief), but female lawyers? Yech. You wouldnt want them as your friend or as your lawyer, or probably neither of the above.
All this has got to change, considering that the legal profession is rapidly becoming feminized (at UCLA Law School this year, the first year class was 59% female). Women lawyers are just the same as their male counterpartssome good people and good lawyers, some bad. Television reflects this well, with plenty of good female lawyer role models on Law and Order, The Practice, JAG, Family Law, L. A. Law, and Judging Amy, But feature films have a long way to go, and thats why Laura in High Fidelity was both admirable and surprising.
And now for the second reason that Laura's character was news. Since the 1970s, about 2/3 of all the lawyers in the movies have been either bad people or bad lawyers. Prior to 1970, about 2/3 of the lawyers in movies were both good people and good lawyers. These assertions are based on a study of about 300 movie lawyer roles dating back to the 1930s. See my article Bad Lawyers in the Movies, 24 Nova L. Rev. 533 (2000), for the details. The abrupt shift in the portrayal of movie lawyers closely matched an equally abrupt shift in public opinion. In the 1970s and 1980s, lawyers went right over the cliff in public opinion polls. Suddenly the number of people who thought lawyers could be trusted fell sharply. Lawyers became more unpopular than at any point since pollsters started asking about it and they remain at abysmally low levels today. Given such popular attitudes toward lawyers, it isnt at all surprising that films of the last thirty years have trashed the legal profession.
In 1998 and 1999, however, something odd happened. A number of films had lawyer characters who were decent human beings. These films were not courtroom stories or even law stories. The lawyer characters just happened to be lawyers; their profession wasnt at all essential to the narrative. Recall Stepmom (1998) , for example. In that film, Luke was caught between his new wife and his former wife who were fighting for the love of the children. Luke handles the situation very well. Hes kind to everyone, patient with his new wife's travails, great to his kids, compassionate toward his ex- (especially when she gets sick), and all around a pretty terrific guy. And Luke was a lawyer! And he didnt have to be! He could have been anything that provided an affluent life style. That filmmakers would gratuitously make this nice guy a lawyer was a big surprise. And Stepmom wasnt alone. Some very favorable lawyer characters who didn't need to be lawyers emerged in 1998 and 1999 movies, including The Thin Red Line, Enemy of the State, and The Siege.
High Fidelity joins this list. Laura didnt have to be a lawyer. Granted, she was also a lawyer in Nick Hornby's smashing novel, but the filmmakers freely changed many aspects of the novel to make it resonate better with audiences (they moved the action from London to Chicago, for example), so they could easily have given Laura a new profession. We learn nothing about what kind of lawyer Laura is, whether her firm is big or small, what she specializes in. We know that she has a pretty good income and we catch a fleeting glimpse of her at work. Thats it. She didnt have to be a lawyer at all. Any good job would have served the story equally wellbusiness executive, fashion designer, architect, editoryou name it. Why was she a lawyer? Cant saybut it was a nice surprise.
Could it be theres a trend starting here? Have filmmakers decided that lawyer trashing has been overdone? Will we see more women lawyers, who are nice people youd want as friends? Or lawyers of either gender who are decent human beings and competent, professional, ethical and loyal? Well, its a bit premature to declare a trend, but films like Stepmom and High Fidelity are getting us off to a good start.
Posted October 16, 2000
Michael Asimow, of UCLA Law School, is co-author with Paul Bergman of Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies (1996), available at local bookstores or through amazon.com. Asimow's article Divorce in the Movies: From the Hays Code to Kramer vs. Kramer is available at 24 Legal Studies Forum 221 (2000). Michael Asimow's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.