THE BUDDY SYSTEM

The buddy narrative long predates the buddy movie. You can date it at least from the “Epic of Gilgamesh” (circa 2000 B.C.)  a Babylonian poem found amid the clay tablets that made up the library of Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (668-626 B.C.). In the epic, King Gilgamesh so bedevils the Sumerian (Babylonian) people that they pray for relief. It comes from heaven in the form of a wild, hairy man named Enkidu, who challenges Gilgamesh, defeats him in wrestling and, of course, becomes his BFF. So tight are the two in fact that when Enkidu dies, a grieving Gilgamesh risks death itself in a vain attempt to discover the secret of eternal life.

“Gilgamesh” established important threads in the buddy narrative, including the notion of enemies turned friends and the hero and his sidekick on a series of adventures.

Other ancient buddy stories center on comrades in arms. No doubt the greatest of these is Homer’s “The Iliad” (9th century B.C.), which unspools the riveting tale of the dreadful consequences of the Greek warrior Achilles’ prideful wrath in the 10th and final year of the Greeks’ conquest of Troy. A complex antihero if there ever was one, Achilles does have a tender side, revealed in his relationship with his kinsman Patroclus. A stunning red on black ceramic plate from the 6th century B.C. depicts the younger, beardless Achilles gently binding his friend’s wounded arm as the bearded Patroclus cowboys up, turning his head so Achilles and the viewer cannot read his pain.

So intense is their relationship that when Patroclus is killed by the Trojan hero Hector, Achilles goes on a rampage that is not sated until he has defeated Hector in single-handed combat and dragged his body around the gates of Troy.

Contemporary readers tend to see these buddies in homoerotic terms. But Peter Meineck – a former member of the British Commandos whose Aquila Theatre brilliantly condensed “The Iliad” for the stage, notably at Purchase College – has told me that such intense friendships are a product of war: You are fighting only for the guys in front of, next to and behind you.

The real-life warrior Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) fancied himself an actual Achilles and his childhood soul-mate Hephaistion his own Patroclus, so much so that the two men paid homage to the mythic Greek warriors’ tombs at Troy as Alexander embarked on his conquest of the Persian Empire. So great was his grief when Hephaistion died in Ecbatana (modern-day Hamadan, Iran), that he had his friend’s physician crucified, ordered all the horses tails to be shorn and staged a funeral the likes of which the ancient world had never seen. Eight months later, Alexander himself was dead, worn out at age 32 by a lifetime of combat and loss.

War makes some buddies. Art provides the rest. Who can forget Huck helping Jim escape from slavery in Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” or Huck’s misadventures with Tom Sawyer?

Opera more your thing? Consider then Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” in which the rebellious Spanish prince of the title and the Marquis of Posa pledge their undying loyalty, which Posa makes good on by sacrificing himself to save Don Carlo from the Inquisition.

In Bizet’s “Les Pêcheurs de perles” (“The Pearl Fishers”), pals Zurga and Nadir warble a similar pledge in one of opera’s most moving duets (“Au fond du temple saint”). But when mutual love Leila rekindles a forbidden romance with Nadir, noble Zurga dies helping them to escape.

These may be the ultimate buddy stories, in which the words of Jesus ring true: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.”

The buddy system

By Georgette Gouveia

In an enchanting moment from “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes waltzes Jude Law’s Dr. Watson around the ballroom of a Swiss castle right out of “Frankenstein,” the better to deduce the activities of Holmesian nemesis Professor Moriarty.

“Who taught you to dance like this?” Holmes asks Watson archly.

Watson smiles before responding: “You did.”

That moment crystallizes what fans of the new series have long suspected: No matter how dastardly the villain or dire the circumstances, the new “Sherlock Holmes” is first and last a buddy movie.

The buddy narrative has, of course, a long tradition in Hollywood – and an even longer one in the fine arts and history. (See sidebar.) Think “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) and before that any number of war pictures and all those comedy teams – Laurel and Hardy; Abbott and Costello; Hope and Crosby; and Martin and Lewis. Indeed, “Videohound’s Golden Movie Retriever,” a bible of movies on DVD, lists some 670 buddy titles.

Nor is the buddy story limited to the big screen. Among the buds who also appeared on the small screen are Oscar Madison and Felix Unger in “The Odd Couple” and Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock in “Star Trek.”

The buddy genre owes some of its inspiration to another Hollywood staple – the strong, silent hero who strides alone through the pix of John Wayne, Gary Cooper and much later, Clint Eastwood.

“Most movies are about heroes, and heroes have flaws,” says film critic Marshall Fine (hollywoodandfine.com). “As good as you think you are, you’re better when there are two of you. The two of you make up a better you.”

That’s because buddies tend to be complementary, Fine adds. Downey’s sublimely idiosyncratic Holmes exasperates Law’s Watson in his heroic quest for normalcy but  also gives him a window onto the imagination. Watson in turn offers Holmes a secure foundation on which that window can be sprung. Finicky Felix provides Oscar with a haven of domesticity, while sloppy Oscar affords Felix the permission to play. Entirely logical Spock offers Kirk reason refined of any emotion and impulsive action while commanding, hot-blooded Kirk enables Spock to witness the vicarious thrill of visceral experience.

In what is perhaps the quintessential buddy pix, “Butch Cassidy,” and its Newman-Redford follow-up, “The Sting,” Newman’s sage sex symbol balances Redford’s relatively rookie hunk.

It’s a case, Fine says, of “Jerry Maguire’s” famous tagline: “You complete me.”

Not so black and white

The complementary nature of the buddy relationship is often accompanied by a tension born of circumstance, as in the movie “The Defiant Ones,” which finds Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier cast as members of a chain gang. The two loathe each other and not merely because they are a white guy and a black man on the wrong side of the law in the segregated South of the 1950s. As they struggle to free themselves, they come to understand that they are bound by a mutual respect and liking that extends beyond fear and even the grave.

Less than 15 years later, Hollywood would transcend racial differences in a small-screen pix that has come to define the oxymoronic male weeper and made stars of James Caan and Billy Dee Williams – “Brian’s Song.” It tells the story of Chicago Bears’ intense Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers (Williams) and his relationship with the easy-going Piccolo (Caan), a football player stricken with terminal cancer not long after turning pro. In one of the finest scenes in what many critics think is the best TV-movie ever made, Sayers accepts the George S. Halas Award for courage by noting that there’s one far worthier of it:

“It’s mine tonight and Brian Piccolo’s tomorrow. I love Brian Piccolo, and I’d like all of you to love him, too. And tonight when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him.”

What gives this scene, the film and the entire buddy genre such a searing poignance is the emotional vulnerability and depth of connection displayed by the sex that is supposed to display neither.

“Women are much more social,” Fine says. “Guys are expected to do for themselves. Women are cooperative. All women are girlfriends. Not all guys are buddies.”

You may not agree with Fine that all of us ladies are girlfriends – the various versions of Claire Boothe Luce’s play “The Women” contain a number of backstabbers. But certainly the greater socialization attributed to women could explain why there are few female equivalents of the buddy picture. Every chick flick is a potential buddy movie. Yet two stand out as female buddy pictures – the provocative “Thelma and Louise,” which sets our heroines on the buddy road of trial and relationship development; and the recent “Bridesmaids,” which proved that when it comes to being smart and sexy, the gals have it all over the guys.

A fine bromance

The buddy genre has come a long way from the days of Newman and Redford and even Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas as the sartorially splendid cops on “Miami Vice.” Which is not necessarily a good thing.

On the one hand, the advent of equal rights for women and gays has enabled the buddy genre to branch out into the bromance, where the latent homosexuality – or at least, latent homoeroticism – of the buddy story is acknowledged or played for laughs, as it is in the new “Sherlock” movies and the big-screen adaptation of TV’s “Starsky and Hutch.”

“As homosexuality has become more acceptable, people are starting to read into two guys as close friends,” Fine observes.

On the other hand, the buddy pix has descended to the low-bro depths of films like “Pineapple Express” and  “The Hangover”and the “Harold & Kumar” series, indeed almost anything starring Seth Rogen and Zach Galifianakis, who are not likely to make any woman forget Newman and Redford.

Still, on still another hand – yes, we’re a dancing Shiva of other hands – this past summer gave us “Crazy Stupid Love,” in which swoon-worthy lone wolf Ryan Gosling went all Pygmalion on hapless everyman Steve Carell and learned something about being a domesticated mensch in the process.

It is a buddy comedy that lets the ladies in. Rather than serve as the jealous wedge, they are the emotional glue that weaves the guys into what Bogie’s world-weary Rick – out for a stroll in the desert with Claude Rains’ slippery Louie – would call “a beautiful friendship.”

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