Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Bret Hart versus Andy Kaufman

Yesterday, I started writing a piece about what interested me so much about Bret Hart, and the attributes that I thought made him both a great hero and a great heel.

Basically, I think what made him great was how seriously he took his character, and how much he seemed to identify with it. Bret made a fantastic hero because he actually believed that his character (and himself?) was an important role model for everyone in the audience watching.

The genuinely noble and heroic qualities of his character were incredibly believable because Bret did in fact try to be genuinely noble and heroic.

From this, came the same qualities that made him an even better heel than a hero. He easily managed to attain the ire of the fans because he started to genuinely become disgusted by the fans and the qualities that they appreciated in the new hero (Steve Austin).

This shows and makes his character very believable, but what is even more important, is once again, how he blurred the lines between reality and fiction. He was quite outspoken about his dislike of the direction of the WWE and what it was doing as a company. He clearly brought the company itself into the picture by addressing the fact that he disliked what they were doing, and thus disliked the fans and the new heros because of it.

By pulling all of this together, Bret becomes a fantastic heel.

Now, as I was thinking about this, it struck me that this is very similar to what Andy Kaufman did in making the audience believe that he, as a person, actually hated the audience and their institution.

Kaufman used his role as a character on TV (in Taxi) to make his wrestling persona more believable. Similarly, I think Bret's role as a good wrestler in the WWE made his character as a heel more believable since it seems to show him abandoning his role as a good guy (his character) out of a genuine dislike of the audience and the new WWE.

Of course, in Bret's mind, I think he probably saw the WWE as changing and his character as more constant, though from the audience's perspective, I feel this probably has more of the Kaufman-like effect of pulling the character's mask off and revealing the real person.

Then again, in Bret's case, you might say that what was in fact happening was that the real person was actually being revealed. The big difference with Kaufman is that it seems there was still another person behind all of that and everything was constructed, whereas Bret had nothing deeper, and that was actually the real him just happening to line up with the times.

Now did someone (Vince McMahon?) realize that Bret's real personality could be utilized to create a highly heel in mcuh the same way Kaufman's constructed "real" personality was used to create a highly effective heel? It is possible, I suppose, but I personally would doubt that it was constructed to that degree.

Ultimately though, Bret is a very interesting character who I think managed to get lucky and hit on that same amazing situation that made Kaufman such a spectactular heel. My intution wants to say that Kaufman was somehow better because he managed to calculate and construct this situation, whereas Bret got lucky. I feel that if I dug deep enough I could come up with an explanation for Bret's downfall as a result of this, though perhaps Kaufman would have had just as weak and sad of a downfall if he had lived long enough.

I'm not quite sure yet...


Anonymous said...

It appears that the most successful talents in wrestling base their characters on aspects of their own personalities, or even just become exaggerated versions of their real-life selves on tv. This seemed to work for Bret, who instilled his strong moral values and dignity into his character. However, it seems that eventually Bret and his in-ring persona ceased to be distinct, and so when the creative direction of the WWE began to change and didn't mesh so well with Bret's ideas for Bret, he took it much more personally. I mean, there's doing what's realistic in terms of your character, and then there's being unrealistically protective of your character. If Bret and his in-ring persona were more clearly distinct, such as that of Mark Callaway and the Undertaker, the creative changes to Bret's character would probably not have insulted him so much. But unfortunately, reality and fiction got too intertwined in Bret Hart, and he suffered because of it.

Sam Ford said...

I think you all are both right in that Bret's use of so much of his real emotions and thoughts in the character both charged his character but also led to the problems that resulted because he became so personally invested in his character's fate. It's different in the way Hogan postures for where his character goes because, in Bret's case, it was much more about the moral high road than the eventual payoff, and I don't think there's any doubt that Bret was motivated by much more than the best financial offer.

I think Bret was ultimately much more successful than Kaufman financially in wrestling primarily because he was a wrestler, and he was able to captivate people for years in the business, likely because he was so much more believable in a way.

As for WWE's intent in constructing the Bret Hart heel character, I think they brought him back intending for him to be a face and weren't prepared for Austin to get increasingly cheered, but so much of it had to do with the fact that the Bret Hart character continually complained in early 1997 about being screwed over. The idea was probably originally to get the fans behind him as the babyface who had been cheated out of his title, but instead the fans started complaining about how Bret was a crybaby and did nothing but complain. To WWE's credit, they decided to go with is and instead of having him be a babyface everyone turned on and started disliking, he turned on the fans, proelling him to the number one heel position.

As much as Bret wants to say WWE made him quit being the number one face and start being the number one heel, and he even admits this in the documentary, it is the fans who made him quit being the number one face, and WWE did him a major favor by going with it and turning him heel at a time that revitalized his character. I would argue that one of Bret's best runs was March to November 1997 up until Montreal because there was a liveliness in his character and his work that he hadn't had in a long time.