Among the many shocking revelations in the new 007 blockbuster No Time To Die, there is this bombshell: James Bond’s best friend is from Milwaukee. The BFF in question is Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), a CIA agent who often crosses paths with Bond on missions, always proving himself both a trustworthy ally and a real mensch. This little tidbit of Leiter’s biographical origins lands as a joke—the joke being, essentially: “Milwaukee? That’s random.”
The Milwaukee reference probably zoomed right by most of the film’s global viewing audience, but it made me pause. I flashed back to the many film characters with roots in Wisconsin. These people are imaginary; their authors could give them any hometown they wanted—so why, I wondered, of all places, give them a background in Wisconsin? The answers seemed to point to some very vague ideas that folks in the rest of the country hold about our fair state. Mainly, that it is random and also that it represents some kind of pure heartland spirit. Let’s start with the randomness, as it goes all the way back to the classic Hollywood era.
Prince Henry in Two Guys From Milwaukee
Randomness is certainly the joke in the 1940s screwball comedy Two Guys From Milwaukee, wherein a Balkan prince chooses to disguise himself as “just a plain guy from Milwaukee” to escape the responsibilities of royalty and learn how ordinary folks live. To him, Milwaukee has so few attributes that its value lies in its essentially bland lack of glamour or character. This also seems to be the city’s value as far as the screenwriters are concerned. When the prince encounters a genuine Milwaukeean on the streets of Brooklyn, he is quizzed as to his knowledge of the city. The questions are: does he know some guys named Russ Winnie, Larry Lawrence, or Buck Herzog? That is, three individual people in a city of about 600,000 (Milwaukee has almost the exact same population size today as it did in 1940). Milwaukee is imagined to be so small that individual people are known to every man, woman, and child in the city, and so lacking in culture or character that there are no other topics of conversation besides gossip about these individuals.
Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood
A Wisconsinite impostor is also tested on his regional knowledge in There Will Be Blood, with a similar lack of specificity. The film concerns Daniel Plainview, a gold prospector turned all-powerful oil magnate, and the loss of what little soul he possessed in the process of accruing his wealth. A nice detail of Plainview’s life is that he is said to hail from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. The birthplace is cribbed from the biography of real life oil baron Edward Doheny, but it has the ring of authenticity—Great Men of the 20th century coming from humble origins and random middle-American towns. That authenticity is somewhat subverted by one of the only conversations Daniel has about life back in old Wisconsin. He is reminiscing with a man who claims to be his long-lost brother Henry about a hometown tradition: getting “liquored up” and going to the “Peach Tree Dance.” “Henry” does not seem to know what the Peach Tree Dance is. This makes Daniel doubt that the man really is his brother; when his suspicions are confirmed, he does away with him in brutal fashion.
While compelling drama, this all comes with a lack of Wisconsin authenticity. It’s possible that there could be an event called the Peach Tree Dance in a fictional version of Fond du Lac. It is even somewhat possible that there could be a peach tree in Fond du Lac. The detail is specific, and There Will Be Blood‘s writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson is nothing if not specific as an artist, but it is not specific to Wisconsin. It appears conjured out of imagination, not knowledge or research. The Peach Tree Dance is a detail, like Fond du Lac itself, which adds to a richness of the film’s fictional universe. But, being totally untethered to anything in the area, it continues a tradition of Wisconsin-born characters: that their birthplace is of interest, primarily, because it is random. The details are supposed to make these people feel authentic without actually using any authentic details from the area. In other words, it is a specificity without specifics.
Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs
The same could be said of the character of Mr. White, the career criminal and tragic hero of Quentin Tarantino’s crime thriller Reservoir Dogs. In his undercover investigation, police detective Mr. Orange learns that White is a Brewers fan, and this leads Orange’s superior to conclude that “his ass has got to be from Wisconsin.” Another good detail, filling in the world, making it all feel real. Like Anderson, Tarantino is known for giving his characters the complexity and nuance of those from a great novel. But, alas, this is a novel whose author has never been to Wisconsin. The character bears no regional specificity (other than his being in the bag for the Brew Crew). Harvey Keitel, playing Mr. White, has a very specific accent. Milwaukee, it ain’t.
There are, however, some movies that use Wisconsin based on its actual characteristics, but these characteristics are not the most nuanced. Case in point:
Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible films
The man who jumps off of (and onto) moving airplanes, free solo-climbs the world’s tallest building, and learns to pilot a helicopter during a high-speed air chase has an appropriately Superman-esque origin story. Echoing the son of Krypton’s biography, Hunt lost his father young and was raised among the farm-y plains of flyover country. Where Superman had the fictional hometown of Smallville, tailor made to embody all the purities imbued in the heartland mythos, Hunt has the next best thing: an idealized version of the Midwest embodied as some place in Wisconsin. (A Mission Impossible fan wiki pins it down as Madison.)
That I know of, the only backstory given for Hunt in the movie series comes from the OG Mission: Impossible (1996). There, after Hunt goes rogue for the first time of many, the smarmy Impossible Mission Force Director Kittridge attempts to smoke him out by implicating Hunt’s mother and uncle in a fabricated, framed-up drug scheme. News coverage of the scandal identifies the Hunt family’s location not by a specific city or town, but only as “a farm in the heartland, the state of Wisconsin.” At least it’s not a peach farm where they speak with a Brooklyn accent, but we’re still pretty far from anything resembling knowledge of the state beyond what you’d get from the front of a postcard.
So, why Wisconsin here? It may have something to do with the fact that relatability has never exactly been Hunt’s forte (or Cruise’s, for that matter). From the beginning, his primary traits have been superhuman dexterity and a maniacal work ethic (again, not unlike the man who plays him)—and human characteristics have increasingly been shaven from the character as the franchise has continued, even as his physical prowess has become more freakishly impressive. Hunt is a kind of superman and, as is the case with the big “S” Superman, rubbing a little dirt on him from a “farm in the heartland” helps to undercut some of that super-ness and make him a shade more personable. At least, my hunch is that’s what the people who created him thought.
Jack Dawson in Titanic
The Brewers… farms… Let’s see, what else might someone who’s never been to Wisconsin know about it? How about the cold? We have “some of the coldest winters around,” according to Jack Dawson, fictional native of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin and victim of the RMS Titanic disaster. Writing Jack as from Wisconsin makes sense, from the standpoint of storytelling strategy. For one, Jack is supposed to be unschooled in the ways of snooty high society and, like Daniel Plainview, born outside the establishment. A little town in the middle of nowhere sounds right. Also, he’s got to talk about the cold, cold water of the ocean to foreshadow his death by drowning at the film’s climax. So, the filmmakers give Jack a childhood that includes a mishap during ice fishing and firsthand experience with freezing water. Writer/director James Cameron (or someone) even took the trouble to look at a map and identify a real lake in Chippewa County—Lake Wissota—for Dawson’s backstory. Despite the fact that Wissota is manmade, and didn’t exist until years after the Titanic sank, this is about the most Wisconsin specificity that we’ve seen so far.
However, the lack of the filmmakers’ familiarity with the state is belied by their choice of Jack’s hometown. Chippewa Falls is not a big place; nor is it particularly notable historically, so it’s a fair guess that Cameron pulled it from another popular movie, Annie Hall, whose titular character is also from Chippewa Falls. Why look farther than another movie (say, to reality) for inspiration if you don’t have to?
Jenny Hayden in Starman
While there is almost zero regional specificity in Starman, I find it probably the most charming use of Wisconsin in the movies listed here because it doesn’t try to attach the state to half-baked stereotypes. Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) lives in Chequamegon Bay (which in actuality isn’t a town, but a body of water near Ashland, though really who cares?), soul-sick after the recent death of her husband. Out of the blue, a disembodied alien crash-lands on her property and assumes the easy-on-the-eyes form of her deceased spouse (Jeff Bridges). Jenny and the alien embark on a road trip to Arizona to rendezvous with some more aliens, they’re chased by nefarious government agents, they fall in love, etc. What’s novel about the character of Jenny is that being from Wisconsin does not define her. She doesn’t talk about growing up on the farm or ice fishing or her love of the Packers or Brewers. She has her own life which is not dictated by outside notions of how people in the state are supposed to act. Instead, she acts like an individual person: she lives alone in the woods and owns a gun but isn’t unfriendly or reactionary, she watches home movies, she likes milkshakes.
Jenny could almost be from anywhere, but at the same time her Wisconsin origin is not random the way it is in No Time To Die or Two Guys From Milwaukee; that is, it’s not played for laughs. In a way, of course, Wisconsin is random here. The alien just happened to land in the state, but it didn’t do so in the dead of winter on a dairy farm. However, Jenny isn’t random; she’s a complex person with idiosyncratic character traits, like most of the thousands of Wisconsinites I’ve met in my life.
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