Film Strip by Keith Williamson
Films that use real estate as a central motif are not unusual. The topic of real estate often emerges in the background in movies that deal with relationships — sometimes as a central conflict. When was the last time you saw a movie in which someone buys a house and everything goes well? You probably haven't because there would be no interesting plot without a conflict. However, this can create a deceiving illusion of real estate deals as anything but a pleasant experience — not to mention the perception of realtors, who are so often portrayed as mean, greedy, sleazy, and deceptive people… or are they?
Real Estate Films
Did you know that the first real estate film ever was made in 1912? It was called A Real Estate Deal and it was a silent short comedy directed by Dell Henderson and written by S.R. Osborn. The film featured two real estate clerks (played by Edward Dillon and Henderson himself) trying to sell a home to a fisherman (Charles Murray). The film itself is pretty much unknown and, unfortunately, impossible to find.
These days, there are two genres that most often touch upon the topic of real estate. There are family dramas (The Money Pit, for example), and even more commonly, horrors and thrillers. The combination sounds strange at first, but it makes sense: in both cases, the plot usually starts with someone buying a new house and moving in afterward. All of a sudden, something goes wrong. In the case of horrors and thrillers, the new inhabitants are often terrorized by ghosts, monsters, or psychopathic landlords or neighbours (though this can probably also be applied to family comedies — have you seen Duplex?). In the case of family dramas, new homeowners are often mutually terrorized by one another. It's hard to guess which is worse.
Some of you may remember the article about stigmatized houses we published some time ago. We mentioned The Amityville Horror House, which got pretty famous after its story was turned into one of the scariest horror movies in the history of film. No wonder buyers are even more curious about houses' histories today. Some people just don't seem to like the idea of living on sacred Native American burial ground. It sometimes makes you wonder whether they would feel the same without all the scary stories.
The majority of real-estate-related spookiness certainly sheds some darkness on the real estate sector. But what about realtors themselves? How do they usually look and act in films? And most importantly, how are they depicted in films that are definitely not about real estate? Let's take a look at some of the most well-known realtor characters, along with some not-so-famous protagonists. Warning! Some parts of the following text may contain spoilers, so you might want to skip them if you plan to see these films.
Realtors In Movies
1. Carolyn Burnham in American Beauty (played by Annette Benning)
Carolyn is probably the most stereotypical picture of a realtor. On the one hand, she is a smart, hard-working, and strong-willed woman who always tries hard to seal the deal. On the other hand, she's having a hard time hiding her own self-consciousness issues while trying to protect her lifestyle and trying to break out of it at the same time.
Her character fits the context of the movie perfectly. The surface shines, while the inside rots. How often do we actually dream of being somewhere else with someone else, after all? However, in the end, when she doesn't turn out to be her husband's killer, it leaves the judgement of her character to the audience. She is definitely not a bad person, but she is also probably not someone you'd want to befriend.
2. Chuck Mitchell jr. in Are We Done Yet? (played by John C. McGinley)
Are We Done Yet is a mediocre comedy, but thanks to its interesting characters and plot, it's probably still worth watching.
When Nick Persons (Ice Cube) brings his new wife Suzanne (Nia Long) and her two children into his old apartment, he quickly realizes that it's simply not big enough. Another baby is on the way, so the only logical conclusion is to move into a bigger house. And that's when he hires Chuck (John C. McGinley), the realtor who's there to provide him with the house of his dreams. But Chuck is not just a realtor. After he sells your home, he is also your contractor, the city building inspector, a midwife, an electrician, a baby whisperer, and many other things, including a fire dancer and a former professional basketball player.
Under the absurd context of Chuck's multiple occupations lies yet another typical realtor depiction. Chuck is an opportunist, a businessman willing to do anything to make profit, someone who seems helpful, but in the end (though the story ends well and he's definitely not a bad guy), he's simply too much trouble and someone with whom you should avoid making deals.
3. Leo Getz in Lethal Weapon 3 (played by Joe Pesci)
Joe Pesci returns in Lethal Weapon 3 in the role of Leo Getz, an enthusiastic police collaborator — and a real estate agent. Fun fact: originally, Pesci's character was left out in the script and all his scenes were written afterwards. Wouldn't it have been a shame to omit him?
Getz arrives right in the middle of the investigation process and immediately starts to assist his friends, Murtaugh and Cole. Though he is not the hero, he certainly serves as a more positive example of a movie realtor. He's funny, useful, and willing to help. Unlike the first two films, the primary function of the real estate agent character isn't being a realtor. Rather, Leo serves as a useful and reliable advisor.
4. Joe Gavilan in Hollywood Homicide (played by Harrison Ford)
Now for something completely different. How about a moonlighting real estate broker and a homicide detective in one person? Harrison Ford stars as Joe Gavilan, an L.A. policeman, who more or less successfully combines the real estate business with chasing gangsters and solving crimes.
In the movie, he is joined by young K.C. Calden (Josh Hartnett). The new partners are assigned to investigate the murders of four men who were shot in a nightclub. During the investigation, Gavilan is distracted by a looming real estate deal that may become his key to getting out of debt, while Calden pursues his acting career dreams by trying to attract Hollywood talent agents.
Though Gavilan's real estate life interferes with his work as a detective, he still remains a dedicated police officer who does his best to solve the case. In a way, the film points out to the usually overlooked sides of our lives. Business is not always about making as much money as possible. Though Hollywood Homicide is no serious melodrama, apart from all the action, the movie also tries to say that even real estate brokers and cops have to deal with the same day-to-day issues as the rest of us.
5. Diana and David Murphys in Indecent Proposal (played by Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson)
Demi and David have loved each other since they were children. Now they are married and facing a financial crisis. In a desperate attempt to beat their unfavourable fate, they decide to try their luck in Vegas, where they hope to win enough money to finance David's fantasy real estate project. However, their plan turns out to be a catastrophic failure. After losing all their savings, they run into billionaire John Gag (Robert Redford), who is attracted to Diana. He seems to like her so much that he's willing to pay a million dollars to spend one night with her — an offer that, given David's and Diana's extremely difficult situation, seems impossible to refuse.
A contract is signed the next day and shortly after that, the arrangement is consummated. David is hoping to forget the whole incident, but despite his efforts, he grows increasingly insecure about his marriage. His insecurity is heightened when Diana discovers that Gage has bought their home while it was going into foreclosure.
Though the film has often been criticized for being too much of a romantic cliché, it is still a good story about morality and desperation. Unlike some other movies, the realtor characters are portrayed as ordinary people, with all their strengths and weaknesses, and the analysis of their actions and motivations dwells deeper under the surface of their lives than usual.
Confusion or Conclusion?
Surprisingly, the image of realtors in movies is not as one-sided as you would probably have expected. Though they have some features in common (for example, a certain level of pragmatic thinking), many of their traits are quite unique. It seems to depend on the role of real estate business in the context of the movie.
But is there such thing as a stereotype of a movie realtor? I guess we would need more examples to answer that question. And that's why we're not finished yet! In the next part of the article, we'll take a closer look at another handful of movies and TV shows with realtor characters, including probably the best real estate film ever!
6. Marilyn Fryser in Empire of the Ants (played by Joan Collins)
Most of the films we mentioned in the first article were relatively good, according to both critics and the audience. Well, Empire of the Ants is a truly bad movie.
Marilyn Fryser, a sleazy Realtor played by Joan Collins, takes a group of potential investors to a Florida resort island, where they are attacked by giant, monstrous ants mutated by nuclear waste. Sounds awesome, doesn't it?
Marilyn represents a conscienceless businesswoman trying to sell shares of a worthless construction project to a naive group of inexperienced buyers. Despite extreme circumstances, she doesn't quite have a change of heart, but this could probably be attributed to almost no character development throughout the story in general. We did mention this isn't one of the greatest films, right?
From now on, let's continue with films (and TV shows) that are actually worth watching.
7. Peter Klaven in I Love You, Man (played by Paul Rudd)
L.A. realtor Peter Klaven has a beautiful fiancé, a great job, and a little problem: he lacks a best buddy to be best man for his wedding. Time is running out, and Peter decides to try "man dating" several man, which unfortunately results in nothing but a series of awkward situations. He's just about to give up when, during an open house at one of his clients' estate, he meets Sydney Fife (Jason Segel), an investor who admits to be attending the showing simply to pick up divorced women. Despite having different personalities, the two quickly become good friends. However, nothing is as simple as it seems…
Peter is a cool guy. He's a funny, charismatic, and good-hearted man who truly believes in the lifestyle he leads. However, even he eventually realizes that he's been stuck in a routine. That's when Sydney steps into his life to remind him of some important values he's left behind. Of all the films we've mentioned, Peter represents probably the most positive portrayal of a realtor.
8. Jules Cobb in Cougar Town (played by Courtney Cox)
Cougar Town is a TV show that has gained quite a following so far, and its popularity is still on a rise. That's probably nothing to be surprised about: the overall quality of the show is very high, and its content reflects on daily worries that many of us face.
Jules Cobb is a successful real estate agent from a small town in Florida. She is a divorced woman in her forties, raising her 17-years-old son Travis and having no success in finding the right man of her age group. She tried to relive her 20s and make up for lost time by dating younger men, but she realized the limitations of her age and has had relationships with older men. Her "bad habit" of speaking her mind without thinking often makes her life hard.
Jules is said to be the unifying bond among her friends. She is also a loving mother (sometimes maybe a little too loving). Though she has no boundaries and she isn't afraid of poking her nose into anyone else's business, she truly is a reliable and good person who is always there for her friends and her son.
9. Phil Dunphy in Modern Family (played by Ty Burrel)
This is another TV show featuring a realtor in its cast. This time, however, not as the main character, but as a part of a big, chaotic family full of complicated relationships.
Phil Dunphy is a realtor — a cool realtor who self-consciously claims to have the ability to sell a fur coat to an Eskimo. Phil Dunphy is also a dad — a cool dad! At least, that's what he wants others to believe, as he is constantly trying to bond with his three kids. And even if that means acting a little strange, he has absolutely no problem with that. Phil has his heart in the right place, and he's not afraid to prove it. Once again, this is a very "humanizing" portrayal of a real estate agent in his everyday life.
10. Realtors in Glengarry Glen Ross
We were saving the best for last. Though it was not a commercial success, this conversational independent dramatic film is probably the best real estate movie ever. It was adapted from David Memet's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play of the same name in 1992. Memet wrote the script himself, while James Foley took care of the direction.
The film pictures a story of four real estate salesmen who become desperate when the corporate office sends a representative to present them with a "motivational" announcement: in one week, all except the top two realtors will be fired.
The four men are supplied with names and phone numbers of potential clients and regularly use dishonest tactics to make sales. However, many of the leads the office manager rationed out lack either the money or the will to actually invest in land.
Jack Lemmon as Shelley "The Machine" Levene, Al Pacino as Ricky Roma, Ed Harris as Dave Moss, and Alan Arkin as George Aaronow excel in portraying a group of competitive realtors determined to keep their jobs at all costs. Each one of them is different in their tactics, yet all of them share the same goal: to make as many sales as they can. The characters aren't black and white. For example, Jack Lemmon's main motivation is to maintain the ability to pay for his sick daughter's medical expenses, but he resorts to desperate acts in order to succeed in the contest. Ricky Roma is cocky, charismatic, and charming, but also ruthless, dishonest, and amoral, using his clients' vulnerabilities to his advantage. Dave Moss is a man of great ambition, but has a weak work ethic. George Aaronow has low self-esteem and an extremely dependent nature, and was somewhat forced to become a salesman to support his family after the school where he used to work as a teacher was closed down.
Although the film takes a rather negative approach toward the work of real estate agents, it reflect the competitive nature of any business.
There is probably no such thing as a typical movie or TV realtor. Their roles vary across genres, and they are often influenced by the overall quality of the film. The importance of the character matters a lot, too. If a character's description is shallow, you'll probably find a picture of a realtor who is greedy, sleazy, and amoral, with business as his or her ultimate priority. If the script is really good, the realtor is usually described with all the features and values of a common human being.
If the image of realtors in movies and TV is generally not so bad, where do all the negative stereotypes come from? The explanation is simple. Films containing "nice" realtors usually don't focus on their jobs and show much more of them than their salesman faces. However, the audience doesn't connect these features with characters' occupations, as they are able to see them for what they are in daily life. And we're not even talking about real lives here!
So next time you're ready to spit some fire out on real estate agents, lawyers, journalists, and other oft-criticized occupations, ask yourself a question: how many of them do you know in person?
Bonus: The Realtor in The Realtor (short, played by Dean St. Louis)
A married couple finds the house of their dreams thanks to Zero Realty. Though everything seems perfect, they're determined to delay the deal a little bit, hoping to get 12 free meal coupons guaranteed to any client who doesn't get his/her dream house in 30 days. However, their plan doesn't work out and things suddenly start to get wild.
You'd better see The Realtor yourself. But we warn you, when we say 'wild,' we really mean it!