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Case Study 2: Characterization in the Films of Billy Wilder

The Original Material:

Most of [Wilder's] characters are obsessive personalities. Indeed, some are pushed to the edge of caricature, and a few are almost gargoylelike in their grotesqueness. For example, Sunset Boulevard centers on a former silent movie queen (Gloria Swanson) whose career was destroyed by the advent of sound. She is so steeped in vanity and self-delusion that she scarcely deigns to acknowledge the world Since Then--the talkie revolution. When the protagonist (William Holden) stumbles accidentally into her private world, he suddenly realizes who she is. "You're Norma Desmond. You used to be big," he grudgingly admits. "I am big," she hisses, "it's the pictures that got small." Though such characters are individualized to an indelible degree, they can also be viewed as personifications of such vices as pride, hypocrisy, and lust.

Source: Giannetti, Louis. Masters of the American Cinema. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1981. 324-325.

Note that some of the information in this passage can be taken as "common knowledge". For example, that Gloria Swanson played the character of Norma Desmond in the movie Sunset Boulevard, directed by Billy Wilder, is common knowledge. Simply viewing the movie will tell you this fact, so it would not be necessary to cite Giannetti if that were the only information you were using.

However, the passage also includes Giannetti's interpretation of the character of Norma Desmond, which he uses as a specific illustration of his theory about characterization in Wilder's movies. If you incorporate any ideas that belong to Giannetti, you must cite the specific source.


Writing Sample 1:

Many of Billy Wilder's characters can be seen as personifications of their own vices. In Sunset Boulevard, former silent movie star Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson) lives in self-delusion, hardly condescending to acknowledge the outside world since the talking picture revolution that ended her career. While she remains a strongly-defined individual, her obsession and vanity ("I am big," she says, "it's the pictures that got small") push her characterization to the edge of grotesque caricature.

Does this writing sample display academic integrity?

banned circle No. The passage, while re-written, contains significant elements of Giannetti's interpretation of the character of Norma Desmond, as well as the larger theory about Billy Wilder's characters that it illustrates. There are no citations to acknowledge the original source.

Without citation, this sample appears to represent the student's own original thinking. Yet, on close examination, we find that there is no original thought in this passage at all! Everything belongs to Giannetti.


Writing Sample 2:

Louis Giannetti (1981) suggests that many of Billy Wilder's characters represent personification of such vices as pride, hypocrisy, and lust. Norma Desmond, the reclusive former silent movie queen of Sunset Boulevard, is so steeped in vanity and self-delusion that she is "almost gargoylelike in [her] grotesqueness" (324). Nevertheless (as Giannetti briefly suggests), she remains a strongly individualized character. This can be seen in her vulnerability and developing attachment to the protagonist. She is not merely a caricature but a victim of her own vices, and we feel pity for her reclusive situation and fragile mental state.

Does this sample display academic integrity?

check markYes. Ideas that are taken from the original passage are clearly noted with in-text citations in parentheses as well as with the signal phrases "Louis Giannetti suggests…" and "as Giannetti briefly suggests". A direct quotation and specific page reference is used for the unusual phrase "almost gargoylelike in [her] grotesqueness". ("Her" is in square brackets here because the writer changed this one word to suit her purpose.) A full reference will appear in the bibliography to allow the reader to locate the original source.

Louis Giannetti (1981) suggests that many of Billy Wilder's characters represent personification of such vices as pride, hypocrisy, and lust. Norma Desmond, the reclusive former silent movie queen of Sunset Boulevard, is so steeped in vanity and self-delusion that she is "almost gargoylelike in [her] grotesqueness" (324). Nevertheless (as Giannetti briefly suggests), she remains a strongly individualized character. {This can be seen in her vulnerability and developing attachment to the protagonist. She is not merely a caricature but a victim of her own vices, and we feel pity for her reclusive situation and fragile mental state.}

Furthermore, the writer has not only used Giannetti's ideas, but has extended them with her own interpretation by building on Giannetti's brief reference to character individualization. The student's own interpretation is shown here in {purple text with curly brackets}.

Some students are anxious about using too many sources: "but then everything would be in quotations!" Good students do not merely cite and acknowledge ideas from other sources, but work to develop the skills of analyzing and integrating these ideas into their own argument or interpretation. Here's a good, simple strategy: whenever you use a source, add your own comments about how and why this passage relates to your essay question. This way, you will always show your own thinking, not merely repeat others.

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