Movie Story Type: Assumed Identity

There are genres (e.g., Action, Comedy, Drama). Cross genres (e.g., Action-Thriller, Comedy-Science Fiction). Sub-genres (e.g., Romantic Comedy, Action Adventure). And then there are what we may call movie story types. In Hollywood development circles, people use them as shorthand. If you go here, you will see several that we’ve featured on GITS including Contained Thriller, Road Pictures, and The [Blank] From Hell.

This week, we look at more movie story types. Today: Assumed identity.

This story type is different than one we have looked at previously — mistaken identity. With assumed identity stories, characters intentionally contrive circumstances to take on the role and responsibilities of another character.

Some examples of assumed identity movies:

The Lady Eve (1941): A spurned lover gets back at her former paramour by disguising herself as an English lady to tease and torment him.

Some Like It Hot (1959): When two musicians witness a mob hit, they flee the state in an all female band disguised as women, but further complications set in.

Coming To America (1988): An African prince goes to Queens, New York City to find a wife whom he can respect for her intelligence and will.

Working Girl (1988): When a secretary’s idea is stolen by her boss, she seizes an opportunity to steal it back by pretending she has her boss’s job.

Taking Care of Business (1990): An uptight advertising exec has his entire life in a filofax organizer which mistakenly ends up in the hands of a friendly convict who poses as him.

Encino Man (1992): When they find a frozen caveman in their backyard, two high school outcasts thaw him out and introduce him as a modern day high-schooler.

Sister Act (1992): When a worldly singer witnesses a mob crime, the police hide her as a nun in a traditional convent where she has trouble fitting in.

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993): After a bitter divorce, an actor disguises himself as a female housekeeper to spend secret time with his children held in custody by his Ex.

Dave (1993): To avoid a potentially explosive scandal when the U.S. President goes into a coma, an affable temp agency owner with an uncanny resemblance, is put in his place.

Mulan (1998): To save her father from death in the army, a Chinese maiden secretly goes in his place and becomes one of China’s greatest heroes in the process.

Shakespeare in Love (1998): Viola de Lesseps dresses as a man to win a role in Shakespeare’s newest play where they eventually fall in love, enabling him to write his greatest work.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999): When the wealthy father of a recent Princeton grad chats him up, Tom Ripley pretends to know the son and is soon offered $1,000 to go to Italy to convince Dickie Greenleaf to return home.

Catch Me If You Can (2002): A true story about Frank Abagnale Jr. who, before his 19th birthday, successfully conned millions of dollars worth of checks as a Pan Am pilot, doctor, and legal prosecutor.

Of course, we can go back to Mark Twain’s story “The Prince and the Pauper,” first published in 1881 for an older spin on this story type. But wait, there’s also the Biblical story of two brothers Jacob and Esau, one of whom impersonates the other to deceive their father with dire consequences.

Once again this is a story type which cuts across genres — from comedies to dramas, action to thrillers. At its core, there are several psychological dynamics a writer can explore:

* Wish fulfillment: What if like Working Girl or The Talented Mr. Ripley, a down-and-out character can taste the life of wealth and power?

* Identity: Changing one’s ‘mask’ can result in a character coming to see him or herself in a different light. Like Michael Dorsey said at the end of another assumed identity movie Tootise, “I was a better man as a woman than I was as a man.”

* Possibilities: What could a character do with a new beginning? A new name, job, family, home, even a new gender?

At the deepest level of meaning for assumed identity stories, there are two questions: Who am I? Do I really know what another person is at the core of their being?

What other qualities and dynamics do you think are present in assumed identity films? What other movies of note belong in the list?

[Originally posted October 27, 2011]
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