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The Hollywood Insider Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Breakfast at Tiffanys, Audrey Hepburn

Photo: The Manic Pixie Dream Girl

A Short Overview: The Origins of The Manic Pixie Dream Girl

In 2007, film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl in a review of the film ‘Elizabethtown’, starring Orlando Bloom and the original MPDG in question herself, Kirsten Dunst. His description of the trope is as follows: “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” 

Let’s break this down elementary-school style; “Manic” begs the image of excitement, of high energy, combined with the “pixie”, the dainty, mischievous mythical figure of folklore. Then, “dream girl”. Now that’s a little more subjective. What does it mean to be a ‘dream girl’ in this romantic comedy genre? Whose dream are we talking about?

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Oh, we’re talking about his dream. The aimless and brooding male protagonist in desperate need of a guardian angel to lead him through a tale of drama and romance. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is cemented as this guardian angel, memorable because of her intrinsic importance to the inner life of her male counterpart and underdeveloped inner life in contrast. Some would call this parasitic, romantic comedies call it.. Well.. romantic. Let’s explore the most memorable Manic Pixie Dream Girls of Cinematic history and analyze what makes this ‘Manic Pixie’ so ‘Dream Girl’ after all.

I think it’s best if we attempt to educate ourselves by exploring some of the crown examples.

As an introduction to this short exploration of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, I would like to reference this poem from Olivia Gatwood, titled in Her honor.

“Manic Pixie Dream Girl says ‘I am going to save you’. Says, ‘don’t worry, you are still the lead role. This is your love story about the way I teach you to live.”

The Prototypes: Holly Golightly in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’

The best ‘vintage’ example of the MPDG comes from the classic 1961 film, ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, starring female cultural icon Audrey Hepburn. In this Cinematic cornerstone, Hepburn embodies the effortlessly eccentric Holly Golightly to balance out the brooding, blocked writer Paul Varjak as her neighbor. Though her characterization can be considered less contingent than many of the other women on this list, she still lives on as an image of elegant quirkiness for the average male in the mid-century.

We eventually learn that Holly Golightly used to be Lula Mae Barnes, a former country girl who transformed into the shining jewel of a Manhattan socialite. Within the complexity of her rural, ‘low-class’ background lies that clichéd charm of the rags-to-riches woman, colored by the difficult experience to eventually come out looking as good as new. What is more dream girl than one who is enigmatic enough to reinvent herself, and to be so beautiful when she does it?

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Ramona Flowers from ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’

For all of her spunk and sardonicism, Ramona Flowers (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’ is one of the most paramount examples of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. In fact, the entire crux of the plot relies on the way that defeating her “seven evil exes” affects the life and self-esteem of her nerdy pursuant, Scott Pilgrim. Before Ramona, Pilgrim is a man without much purpose, dating a high schooler as a 22-year-old man and playing bass in a relatively unsuccessful band. One day, Ramona passes him – delivering mail by roller skates, of course – in a flurry of Manic-Panic-esque (no pun intended) hair dye. When he finally catches up with her, she is so enchantingly unique and mysterious that there is no going back. For Scott, what begins as a journey to ‘get the girl’ ends in a philosophical journey to self-respect.

As much as I love Ramona Flowers, she is only a few levels away from pure cardboard-cutout levels of the ‘Dream Girl’ cliché. An attractive outsider, Ramona has the sarcasm and magnetism required for her place on this list, but not the depth to expand beyond it. 

Penny Lane from ‘Almost Famous’

In ‘Almost Famous’, Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson) is the ultimate groupie, or a ‘band-aid’, as she lovingly refers to her position on the sidelines next to the rock band, ‘Stillwater’. Penny Lane is one of the most fabled of these characters due to her style and grace; she’s spunky, self-assured, and content with her position beside and behind the band, re-appropriating the groupie lifestyle into an art form.

But Penny Lane isn’t the protagonist, of course, the young Cameron Crowe transplant, William, played by Patrick Fugit, is. When young William visits a Black Sabbath show under the direction of famous rock journalist Lester Bangs, he inadvertently involves himself with a clan of rockstars and roadies that influence the course of his life forever. Penny is among these as the first to take him under her wing, their relationship mingled with the flavor of mentorship and his young, idealistic crush. After William reveals that the main guitarist Russell, played by Billy Crudup, barters Penny Lane and a group of the other pixie-like band-aids for “$50 and a case of beer”, we receive a tender glimpse of her true vulnerability.

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This peek behind the mask of Penny Lane, now as immortal as the Beatles song that she nabbed it from, is what distinguishes her from the other few characters that have been mentioned on this list thus far.  For a moment, Penny Lane is separated from the fragile reality of her fantastical role as the quirky, street-wise lead band-aid. She is laid bare, eternally deduced to the emotional and mystical service that she can provide to others. Her sensitivity is romantic and desperate and true. That’s why Penny Lane serves as the last example before turning over to some more complicated instances of the MPDG, because she scratches the surface of this façade to reveal something far more intriguing and telling about these characters at large.

The Subversions: When She’s More Than Just a Dream Girl

Summer Finn from ‘500 Days of Summer’

500 Days of Summer’, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, is one of the most obvious examples that uses this trope for the purpose of conscious commentary. Gordon-Levitt plays Tom Hansen, a man who has been searching for a soulmate all his life. Summer, played by Deschanel, is the practical and individualistic object of his desires. Deschanel certainly feels like a strategic choice, what with her frequent ukulele playing and perfect blunt bangs, harkening back to an era filled with thick-rimmed glasses and Fuji-film polaroids.

This idealized image is all on purpose; through the fractured perception of Tom, Summer is not only everything he’s dreamed about, but everything he feels he deserves in a life partner. Despite his feelings for her, Summer is not as awe-stricken and ready to be swept off of her feet as what every single film and fairytale would have led him to believe. She is flighty, emotionally isolated, and uninterested in becoming the canvas through which Tom can produce a romantic magnum opus; as he sacrifices everything at the altar of Summer, seeking the clarity only a Manic Pixie Dream Girl can deliver to a brooding male character like him, she has already moved on to bigger and better things.

Clementine Kruczynski from ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ would elevate the romantic genre with a sci-fi angle and emotionally nuanced performances from powerhouses like Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey (in what was then his best performance since ‘The Truman Show’). Winslet plays Clementine Kruczynski, who though she is impulsive, dye-stained, and irreverent, presents a much more dimensional insight beneath the faćade of quirkiness that Kaufman crafts between this acclaimed duo.

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Clementine completely embodies the most unsavory parts of this so-called “manic” woman, filtering her image through Joel and the dichotomy of their opposing personalities. While Joel is all that you might expect from our emotionally stunted protagonist, Clementine counters with a shameless, authentic volatility. By all accounts, both characters are as incompatible as they are individually flawed. Here, Clementine subverts our expectation through her self-awareness, admitting that while many men see her as a savior, she is, in fact, just a “f’ed up girl looking for her own peace of mind’. Rather than the victimized sensitivity of a character like our beloved Penny Lane, Clementine is allowed to truly live through the irrational breadth of her feelings and mistakes, delivering agency to the trope that so often goes without it.

Young Woman from ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’

In ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’, the most recent project from the enigmatic writer and director Charlie Kaufman, once again explores the relationship between perception and reality, between the memory and the present, between self and other. 

The MPDG in question is visiting her boyfriend’s parents’ house. Jesse Plemons plays Jake, her boyfriend, along with his parents, played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis. Jessie Buckley stars as the Young Woman, who never receives a name, or neither, she receives many names over the course of the film; Lucy, Louisa, Ames. The details of her personhood are not important, or rather, they’re as transient as his idea of her.

You see, ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ actually comes through the psyche of an aged and depressed Jake, who is now a janitor peering back on what could have been in his life, or rather, who could have been. Her existence is surreal, tethered together by a collection of female figures that add up to the hazy image of his tragic, hypothetical soulmate: Lucy, Louisa, Ames. The details are unimportant. 

The idea of her, that’s what matters.

“Once, I told you I was afraid of my father, and for a moment, I looked so human that the audience lost interest.

You saw the crow’s feet at the sides of my eyes and a small chip on my front tooth.

I looked just like everyone else.”

By Grace Smith

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