26 Oct 2012 09:12am

Heroes of the silver screen

Bespectacled geeks, slimy bean counters or unsung, number-wielding heroes, David Gritten looks at how accountants have been portrayed on film

Most working people I know feel their profession is misrepresented by the movies. Serving soldiers smile tolerantly at big-screen attempts to turn them into action heroes; hospital doctors are amused to be portrayed as fast-talking multi-taskers, diagnosing patients’ ailments at a glance. Journalists are cast either as crusading, truth-seeking heroes or moral reprobates, but rarely anything in between. My brother-in-law, a lawyer, rolls his eyes at the implausibilities of legal dramas – and don’t get him started on Law & Order.

I imagine accountants must feel the same way. Aren’t they usually represented on screen as people who would rather be behind a desk, earnestly poring over rows of figures, rather than getting out into the world and chasing adventure? That’s how it seems: if you introduce an accountant character into a movie, he (it’s usually a he) will probably be nerdy, timid, earnest – and a little dull. Maybe it goes with the territory: film is a medium that loves movement, and on any given day, accountancy doesn’t lend itself to action.

But of course there’s another side to accountants. They’re smart. They understand money and financing. They know strategies, devices and loopholes. And often it’s their insight and knowledge that drives the plot of the movie.

A perfect example is my favourite accountant in all of film: Leo Bloom from Mel Brooks’s classic 1968 comedy The Producers, played by Gene Wilder. (Matthew Broderick took the role in the musical version of 2005.)

Leo is a humdrum, unremarkable little chap (even his name is lifted from James Joyce’s everyman hero in Ulysses). And he’s hardly hero material: he’s shy and timid, he stutters and he suffers from panic attacks – at which point he reaches for the blue blanket he has kept near him since childhood.

One of his clients is the brash, bullying but charismatic Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), who flirts with rich widows so they will finance his plays as small investors, each getting a cut of any profits. But the plays fail, and he remains broke. One day Leo, surveying Max’s dismal accounts, says: “Let’s assume, just for the moment, that you are a dishonest man.” He explains that if they could produce plays that were guaranteed flops, they could make more money than if they were successes.

It’s on this speech that the story of The Producers turns. Max and Leo set out to find a sure-fire failure, and unearth a hideously tasteless musical about the Führer called Springtime For Hitler. They’re on their way, thanks to Leo.

Another odd-couple comedy has a fine lead role for an accountant given to panic attacks. In Midnight Run (1988) Robert de Niro plays Jack, a bounty hunter handed what seems an easy task – to bring a mild-mannered accountant known as The Duke from New York to LA to face justice. What Jack doesn’t know is that the Mob, from whom The Duke has stolen £15m, are also chasing him, with orders to kill.

Charles Grodin, as The Duke, makes a brilliant foil for de Niro. He’s a master of the double take, and his understated performance shows great deadpan comic timing. (Grodin was clearly born to play accountants; he did so again, opposite Kevin Kline, in the 1993 presidential comedy Dave.)
Accountancy also features in the prison drama The Shawshank Redemption (1994), high on many people’s list of favourite films. Tim Robbins plays Andy Dufresne, jailed for life for a double murder on skimpy evidence. Dufresne is a banker by profession, but behind bars he functions as an accountant, first helping a brutal chief guard with his tax problems, and eventually working his way up to financial director duties for the entire prison. His expertise with money proves crucial to the film’s clever ending.

In The Untouchables (1987), it’s an accountant once more who proves crucial to the story. Kevin Costner stars as Eliot Ness, a Treasury agent charged with bringing down Chicago mobster and bootlegger Al Capone. But it’s a bespectacled accountant, Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), who points out that if they can’t convict Capone for his bloody crimes, they can at least get him for income tax evasion.

Arguably the most heroic accountant in film history is a real-life figure, Itzhak Stern, played by Sir Ben Kingsley in Schindler’s List (1993) as a fussy, slightly nervous man blinking behind his spectacles. He nevertheless saved hundreds of lives.
After Stern, himself Jewish, pointed out to Schindler that he could employ Jewish workers cheaper than Polish labourers, he was given free rein to run Schindler’s factory, and gave jobs to Jews who would otherwise have perished in Nazi death camps. He forged documents, making teachers and academics appear to be “essential” machinists and factory employees. The film bears Schindler’s name, but accountant Stern is its other, less celebrated, hero.

Occasionally, accountants are portrayed as unattractive figures. One such is David, played by Christopher Eccleston in Danny Boyle’s 1994 debut film Shallow Grave. He’s one of three friends in an Edinburgh flat who find their new flatmate dead in his room – with a suitcase full of cash beside him, which they keep. David’s behaviour becomes increasingly odd – he drills holes in the attic to spy on his newly rich friends, and tries to make off with the loot. Not very professional.

In 1984 hit Ghostbusters, geeky, awkward accountant Louis Tully, played by Rick Moranis, is possessed by evil forces hell bent on destroying New York city.

And in Billy Wilder’s 1960 classic The Apartment, Jack Lemmon is an accountant working in a huge New York office who allows his bosses to use his apartment for extra-marital liaisons. Lemmon’s character is in danger of losing his moral compass until the love of a good woman (Shirley MacLaine) rescues him.

So do accountants get a fair deal from the movies? On balance, I think so. It would certainly be hard to argue that their portrayal on film has diminished public respect for them as a body. After all, the qualities most people value in accountants aren’t necessarily those that translate easily to big screen entertainment.

For every film that portrays accountants as geeky or unadventurous, I can think of another in which they’re shown to be decent, smart and sometimes downright ingenious. That’s not such a bad professional image. But whatever you think of how the profession is portrayed, it could be worse: you could be bankers. Or politicians.

David Gritten is the Daily Telegraph’s film critic and has been writing about films and filmmakers for 20 years