Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Poor Mr. Collins, Part 1 - Screen Portrayals of the Character

[In Jane Austen's classic Pride & Prejudice, Mr. William Collins is a distant cousin of the Bennet family. According to the entailment laws of early 19th century England, Mr. Collins stands to inherit the Bennet home and properties, essentially making paupers of the Bennet daughters. Needless to say, these facts cast the character is an antagonist light before the reader even meets him.] 

The Popular Portrayal of Mr. Collins

Mr. Collins is not supposed to be liked. Readers and movie watchers alike are supposed to be empathizing with the heroine Elizabeth Bennet, and since her dislike of Mr. Collins is so extreme—far too extreme, in this author's opinion—movie makers seem to have gone to extra lengths to make certain the audience really, really dislikes Mr. Collins. They did this through the use of various negative male stereotypes such as age, height, presence, and even allusions to lack of masculinity. And since human beings are visual creatures, our popular impressions of Mr. Collins have been formed by the movies much more than they ever were by the book.
Pride & Prejudice (1940)

 In the 1940 version starring Lawrence Olivier as Darcy, Mr. Collins is played by Melville Cooper. Cooper takes on the role at the age of 44, playing a tall, bombastic, attention seeking Collins. Cooper wore stage makeup during filming that was intentionally designed to make him look older than his 44 years. Now, one should never expect or demand precise casting in movies. Casting directors have to look for talent, availability, presence, a whole list of qualities, and sometimes those qualities aren't found in someone who fits the textual descriptions in the novel.
That being said, it stretched credulity to cast a 44 year old actor to play a character that Austen describes as "a young man of five and twenty", who has only just been ordained a minister six months prior. 

There are many negative stereotypes that society piles on to everyone, including middle aged men, but in this application it is the contrast between a middle aged Collins and the gaggle of teenage Bennet daughters that increases the "creep" level and pushes the audience even further into dislike for Mr. Collins. What better way to make his heartless and utilitarian proposal to Elizabeth even more distasteful to the audience? Where these same actions and words from a young man could be explained as awkwardness or naivete, perhaps even come off as pathetically endearing, an older man is warranted no such leeway.
Pride & Prejudice (1940)

Cooper's portrayal of Collins is also loud and self ingratiating to the point where every person in the room simply wants to leave or force themselves to go deaf. We have become accustomed to "movie Collins" as the self-aggrandizing bore, but Austen's "novel Collins" is quite different. He is no attention seeker and his self congratulating comments revolve entirely around his fringe association with Lady Catherine de Bourge. In fact, he is described as being very grave and having excessively formal manners. Grave, formal people do not wave their monocles around a room while talking about how great they are.

I do not argue that Cooper played Mr. Collins badly. He just played a Mr. Collins that Austen would not have recognized.  

Going on to the 1995 mini-series of Pride & Prejudice, we see the same casting choices made again. Mr. Collins is played by David Bamber, this time 41 years old. Bamber's portrayal of Collins is, in this author's opinion, the least likable of all the screen portrayals. (Meaning, the Collins character is unlikable, not Bamber's acting). In this version, Collins is an absolute clown. He grins, wide and toothy and at the most inappropriate times.
Pride & Prejudice (1995)
Pride & Prejudice (1995)
He is physically clumsy and appears to be aware of it, as his comic self corrections and self-conscious looks clearly show. As with the 1940 version, the deficiencies of Bamber's Collins are only intensified in horror and inappropriateness by making him a man of middle age*. A young man with these same characteristic would probably garner a more sympathetic response from the viewing audience, and since—let us say it again—the audience is supposed to dislike Mr. Collins, this would explain the casting choice.

There is also rather a large dose of the effeminate in Bamber's portrayal, especially in the way Mr. Collins walks, waves to people, and at times downright simpers like a stage parody.

He encounters Lydia in the upstairs hallway wearing her undergarments (full dress coverings to us modern people), and reacts like a frightened rabbit (the old insulting stereotype of the gay man falling to pieces at the sight of female nudity).

This, I will speak little on, but if movie makers are in the habit of using greater society's prejudices as tools to get the audience reactions they want, one could easily argue that this was also intentional. A homophobic audience will like an effeminate Mr. Collins even less. It was, remember, 1995. Twenty-one years later and many of us can easily forget what a different world 1995 was. 

Finally, the 2005 version starring Tom Hollander is a vast improvement. Hollander is 38, still 13 years older than Austen's character, but the age is not emphasized as in the earlier movies. What is, unfortunately, emphasized to a rather shameful degree is Hollander's height. 
Pride & Prejudice (2005)
At 5'5", Hollander is shorter than practically every other character in the entire film! Camera angles seem intentionally designed to have him looking up at everyone, a supplicant, a "low man" attempting to mingle in a society that does not want him and where he is vastly out of his depth. If one needed a single image to encompass Collins's role in this film, it is that of Darcy looking down at him, both figuratively and literally, when he introduces himself at the Bingley's ball.

In 1940, Mr. Collins is a lecherous, self aggrandizing snob. In 1995, he is an insensible clown with two left feet and a head-tilt smile that would make Monty Python proud. In 2005 he is no longer a clown, no longer loud and attention seeking, and no longer the creepy older man seeking to wed a young girl. He is just...pathetic. Quiet and "small" and so beneath the attention of an outlier like Elizabeth Bennet that it is almost laughable.

And this is why Hollander's portrayal is by the far the best.

I don't wish to turn this into a movie review, but Hollander's Collins is the closest thing to Austen's original. He is grave and very formal, and speaks with the solemn air of a clergyman always presiding over a funeral, but he is also terribly uncomfortable. Hollander read between the lines and saw what the movie fans never have, and what only the thoughtful readers have probably discerned: 

  • Mr. Collins is not full of himself. 
  • He is not sure of his superiority or place.
  • His insecurity explains why he pretends so fiercely to the contrary.

Hollander gave depth to a shallow character by presenting the novel idea (almost like a fan theory) that Collins is putting up a front. He is a 19th century victim of the 20th century "fake it till you make it" attitude. He just doesn't do it very well and Hollander let the inner discomfort show through, giving the audience occasional glimpses of a guy who is just lost in a world he wasn't raised in. He's a guy who thought he was doing a good thing by offering marriage to a young woman, his cousin, who has only her father's life between her and eventual genteel poverty. As another blogger out there in the internet-lands once wrote of Collins, "This is not a dick move."

[More analysis to come in future posts. Poor Mr. Collins, Part 2 - "Not a Dick Move"] 

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