Dear drama watchers,
You might have been thinking, does this guy never not use a movie reference? Rest assured, if you’ve had that thought or uttered those words, you’re not alone. You have a large peer group.
So, I’ll do it again this week. Perhaps my favorite Christmas movie of all time is It’s a Wonderful Life, also directed by Frank Capra who directed that other movie I love starring Jimmy Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Here’s a quick synopsis.
In the fictional town of Bedford Falls, the good guys in the movie, the Baileys, run a mom and pop savings and loan institution. Everyone in town loves the Baileys—they are good and generous people. The antagonist in the movie is a crusty old curmudgeon named Mr. Potter who, in my humble and accurate opinion, is an Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder.
OCPD is not to be confused with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). They sound the same but are different phenomena. OCD is about systematized rituals like counting things, excessive hand-washing, not touching door knobs, or listening to any Justin Bieber tune on repeat. OCPD, on the other hand, is about one’s need to control people and surroundings. It’s a relational arrangement in which the unspoken set up is: “My job is to be in control; your job is to do what I need you to do and be who I need you to be.” You may recognize this as what I’ve previously referred to as the “Master Drama.” I use the master word to suggest control, not enhanced proficiency.
Anyway, Mr. Potter had a pathological need to control every aspect of Bedford Falls including the Bailey Savings and Loan (which they referred to in the movie as the “Building and Loan”). But he couldn’t. At one point he tells George:
I am an old man and most people hate me. But I don’t like them either, so that makes it all even. You know just as well as I do that I run practically everything in this town but the Bailey Building and Loan. You know, also, that for a number of years I’ve been trying to get control of it. Or kill it. But I haven’t been able to do it. You have been stopping me. In fact, you have beaten me, George, and as anyone in this county can tell you, that takes some doing.
This may sound like a flash of self-awareness for Mr. Potter but it wasn’t. It was the lead-up to a scam attempt. He butters George up and then offers him a huge salary to come run his operation which would, of course, necessitate the liquidation of the Bailey Building and Loan.
It appeared to be a your-ship’s-just-come-in job opportunity. In reality, it was a sleazy move to eliminate the one thing Mr. Potter couldn’t control. You’ve heard the phrase, “The gift has strings attached.” Mr. Potter offered George a tantalizing gift which was actually bait concealing a hook and string.
The salary offer was so sweet that George took it and reached across the desk to shake Mr. Potter’s hand. But while he was shaking that hand, it dawned on him that he’d just been scammed. He recoiled. He stepped back and wiped his hand off on his jacket like a man who’d just fished something valuable out of a toilet. He then said this:
You sit around here and you spin your little webs and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Well, it doesn’t, Mr. Potter. In the whole vast configuration of things, I’d say you were nothing but a scurvy little spider!
Notice two things here. First, George didn’t usually talk to people that way. He was so frustrated at the near-success of Mr. Potter’s manipulation, he used words that were out of step with his normal gracious manner. Healthy relationships bring out our best. Manipulators bring out our worst.
Second, he was repulsed by the attempted con. But he was also furious with himself for almost falling for it. When the veil draws back revealing who manipulators really are, we’re disgusted . . . and mad at ourselves for not seeing it sooner.
I can’t help but wonder if Frank Capra had close encounters with manipulators. In both of these movies, he captures so well the lies, the confusion, the duplicity, the demoralization, the incongruence between the public and private selves, and the crazy-making effects of drama. And in some cases, the sense of injustice that accompanies manipulation.
A number of years ago, there was a Saturday Night Live Christmas skit portraying what they called the “Lost Ending” of It’s a Wonderful Life. The skit begins where the real movie ends, with the citizens of Bedford Falls celebrating the financial rescue of their beloved friend, George Bailey. Just then, it’s revealed that Mr. Potter is in possession of the money that George was in trouble for losing. Filled with rage and indignation, the citizens turn into a lynch mob, storm Mr. Potter’s house, and beat the stuffings out of him.
This “lost ending” probably taps into something for which we all long—justice. But, with manipulators, we often don’t get to observe the kind of justice where the person admits wrongness and/or suffers consequences. Many manipulators “get away with murder” either literally or figuratively.
Like Mr. Potter, they admit nothing and seemingly experience no adverse consequences for bad behavior. Trying to establish justice, to force a manipulator to acknowledge personal wrongness against his will, has a button pushing effect and provides a way for him to keep us wrapped up in the drama.
I won’t make any promises here, but I’m going to try using fewer movie references moving forward. But, just to be clear, I’m not addicted to movie references. Really, I can stop anytime I want. And I’m not in denial about this either. I’m not. I’m really, really not.
Okay, I should probably see someone.