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On The Big Screen, The Tax Guy Can Be Your Buddy

Apr 15, 2013
Originally published on April 15, 2013 8:02 pm

It's fair to say that the bakery employees who hooted and jeered "tax maaaaaan" when mild-mannered auditor Will Ferrell showed up in Stranger than Fiction were no fans of the Internal Revenue Service. In that, they're like a lot of us, no?

So it's intriguing that Hollywood generally treats tax inspectors as nice guys. On the big screen, it's typically their IRS bosses who are the bad ones.

"High bracket, low bracket — if Uncle doesn't get his cut we nail your hide to the barnyard door," snarls Tony Randall's boss in the 1959 comedy The Mating Game. Randall himself, on the other hand, is such a nice guy that the farmer he's auditing tries to fix him up with daughter Debbie Reynolds.

The romantic possibilities inherent in a tax audit may not have occurred to most people before The Mating Game, but screenwriters love to invent new plot gimmicks. And like the rest of us, they have to file with the IRS every year. Judging from the way tax dialogue crops up in movies, it may be that if you're writing a screenplay around April 15, random lines just occur to you — "Who does your taxes?" for instance, uttered arbitrarily enough by a man covered in pink slime to the title characters in Ghostbusters, where it gets a big laugh.

There's a whole mini-genre, though, in which the tax collector figures in a more substantial way, driving more movie plots than you can shake a deduction at.

Taxes were the beginning of the end for gangster Al Capone in The Untouchables, the spark that set off a rebellion in The Adventures of Robin Hood, the reason Scarlett O'Hara dressed up in green curtains in Gone With the Wind and the first thing on Groucho Marx's agenda as president of Freedonia in Duck Soup.

There are enough movies involving taxes, in fact, that there are even micro-genres within that mini-genre. For a while, Hollywood's go-to guy for tax-related movies involving widows, for instance, was Paul Newman, who advised an elderly widow on reducing her tax burden in The Young Philadelphians; got frustrated with a younger widow who wouldn't sell the hockey team he was coaching in Slap Shot; and made so much money in What a Way To Go that his own widow tried to give it away — which even her shrink thought was nuts.

"You don't need a psychiatrist," he told her, "you need your head examined."

Hollywood is often accused of having a liberal bias, but from its movies you'd swear the film industry was as eager to get rid of taxes as any Tea Partier. In fact, there's been only one period during which the film biz hasn't been reliably down on taxes: the World War II years, when absolutely everybody endorsed sending cash to Uncle Sam. Even Donald Duck, in a spirit-raising agitprop cartoon, urged people to pay up — because America needed "taxes to beat the Axis."

Once the war was over, of course, it didn't take long for taxophilia to turn back into taxophobia, an emotional state that makes April 15 rough for many of us. Still, Hollywood has learned to exploit it — by, say, having the Blues Brothers pay off back taxes with a big concert, or letting snowbound refugees in The Day After Tomorrow stay warm by burning tax records — in all sorts of feel-good ways.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Film critic Bob Mondello knows from experience, he says, the lines will be long at the post office today. It's the last day to file taxes. Happily standing in line himself has given Bob time to think about tax-related movies.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: How do you feel about the IRS?

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "STRANGER THAN FICTION")

MONDELLO: It's fair to say these bakery employees who hooted and hollered when tax auditor Will Ferrell showed up in "Stranger than Fiction" were not fond of the IRS. In that, they're like a lot of us, no? So it's intriguing that Hollywood generally treats tax inspectors as nice guys. Their IRS bosses who are the bad ones.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "THE MATING GAME")

MONDELLO: That's Tony Randall's boss in "The Mating Game." Randall, on the other hand, is such a nice guy...

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "THE MATING GAME")

MONDELLO: ...that the farmer he's auditing tries to fix him up with daughter Debbie Reynolds.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "THE MATING GAME")

MONDELLO: The romantic possibilities of a tax audit may not have occurred to most people before "The Mating Game," but screenwriters love to invent new plot gimmicks. And like the rest of us, they have to file with the IRS every year. Judging from the way tax dialogue crops up in movies, it may be that if you're writing a screenplay around April 15, random lines just occur to you.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "GHOSTBUSTERS")

MONDELLO: There's a whole mini-genre, though, where the tax collector figures in a more substantial way, driving more movie plots than you can shake a deduction at. For instance, taxes were the beginning of the end for gangster Al Capone.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "THE UNTOUCHABLES")

MONDELLO: They were also the spark that set off Robin Hood's rebellion.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD")

MONDELLO: They were the reason Scarlett O'Hara dressed up in green curtains in "Gone With the Wind."

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "GONE WITH THE WIND")

MONDELLO: And they were the first thing on Groucho Marx's agenda as president of Freedonia in "Duck Soup."

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "DUCK SOUP")

MONDELLO: There are enough movies involving taxes, but there are even micro-genres within that mini-genre. For a while, Hollywood's go-to guy for tax-related movies involving widows, for instance, was Paul Newman, who advised an elderly widow on reducing her tax burden in "The Young Philadelphians."

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "THE YOUNG PHILADELPHIANS")

MONDELLO: Got frustrated with a younger widow who wouldn't sell the hockey team he was coaching in "Slap Shot."

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "SLAP SHOT")

MONDELLO: And made so much money in "What a Way To Go" that his own widow tried to give it away, which even her shrink thought was nuts.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "WHAT A WAY TO GO")

MONDELLO: Hollywood is often accused of having a liberal bias, but from its movies you'd swear the film industry was as eager to get rid of taxes as any Tea Partier. In fact, there's been only one period during when the film biz hasn't been reliably down on taxes: World War II, when absolutely everybody endorsed sending cash to Uncle Sam.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Are you a patriotic American?

MONDELLO: Including Donald Duck.

CLARENCE NASH: (As Donald Duck) Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Your country needs taxes for guns, taxes for ships, taxes to beat the Axis.

NASH: (As Donald Duck) Oh, boy, taxes to beat the Axis.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: That's the spirit.

NASH: (As Donald Duck) Yes, sir.

MONDELLO: Once the war was over, the spirit faded and it didn't take long for taxophilia to turn back into taxophobia, an emotional state that makes April 15 rough for many of us, but that Hollywood has learned to exploit by, say, having the Blues Brothers pay off back taxes with a big concert, or letting folks in the disaster flick "The Day After Tomorrow" stay warm by burning tax records, in all sorts of feel-good ways. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.