Film study: The good, the bad and the accountant

Gene Wilder’s performance in <i>The Producers</i> is sinister, but also kooky and creative. The role belies a decades-long rollcall of tired stereotypes that too often use the accountant as the punching bag.

Gene Wilder and Ben Affleck played Hollywood accountants 50 years apart. These roles have provided office small talk, perspective and plenty to keep in mind.

By Luke Dodemaide

Perhaps the most famous accountant portrayed on screen is that of Gene Wilder’s Leo Bloom. He arrives in Mel Brooks’ The Producers in hysterics, interrupting the attempts of Max  Bialystock (played by Zero Mostel) to procure funding out of a “little old lady” and applies “academic accounting theory” to get the one-time Broadway tycoon out of a debt the size of the Big Apple.

Put simply, they will produce the greatest flop of all time, pocket nearly all the funding and deliver not a penny of profit on the production they have oversold 26 times over.

Wilder’s act is sinister, but also kooky and creative. The role belies a decades-long rollcall of tired stereotypes that too often use the accountant as the punching bag. Think Jack Lemmon’s hopelessly polite Bud Baxter in The Apartment, Kevin James’ loveless Albert Brennaman in Hitch, and Rick Moranis’ nerdy Louis Tully in the original Ghostbusters movies. The trope was largely consistent right up until 2016’s The Accountant.

Hollywood star Ben Affleck plays the title character. We first see him as he helps an elderly couple out of a taxation hole which they feared may have threatened their pension.

To thank him, the trucker-hat wearing husband invites him to his two-acre pond filled with catfish and bass.

“I don’t fish,” says Affleck’s Christian Wolff. “I shoot.” And ka-boom, the action-thriller begins.

Affleck’s portrayal of a high-functioning autistic adult was refreshingly three dimensional. The actor was only a handful of years removed from his Oscar-winning turn in Argo.

Related: Test your knowledge of accountants in film and television in this fun quiz

“It’s definitely the most complicated and interesting character that I’ve played, for sure,” said Affleck on the press tour.

“We got a lot of different responses, but really, the value was in grounding the guy and making him like real people we had met and seen in real life, rather than just an imagined version of what it might be.”

Are accountants’ portrayals on the money?

Affleck’s gun toting aside, how true are these characters to the real-life everyday accountant? Well, it is fair to say they wouldn’t stand up to audit.

“I think it says more about the actors portraying them than the actors themselves,” says Tony Nagle, a partner of Nagle Accounting located in Melbourne’s artsy hub, Fitzroy.

“But they need to view us that way. I think it is hilarious.”

Nagle’s firm is one of the largest in Australia specialising in the arts field, and in the last 18 months alone has worked closely with professionals from the Dev Patel-led production Hotel Mumbai, Elisabeth Moss’ Top of The Lake, Netflix sensation I Am Mother, and children’s phenomenon Bluey.

“To some clients, you’re the nerdy weird one, but as an accountant you are kind of like Switzerland,” says Nagle. He is quick to point out that stereotyping does come with a few positives.

“It is kind of easier because they leave you alone. Often they haven’t got the headspace for the finances – although a lot of them are wildly intelligent people.”

Although it would be easy, you don’t want to be caught out generalising arts professionals, says Nagle.

“The film industry can be complex – some of them are spending $10 million in six weeks. We have a lot of those clients, but also have a real mixture of clients. There are those that don’t want to spend more than $300 to $400. That is common.”

Acting professionals also tend to be mobile workers, many of whom segue into teaching. Those that are consistently working in the arts alone may also be working across continents – bringing myriad tax laws into play.

“There’s also a lot of complexity with different tax territories,” says Nagle. “We have a lot of actors who are really pushing to, and are, working a lot in the US now. This raises complicated US tax treaty issues and how they dovetail into the Australian context.”

His advice is to develop relationships with accountants and financial experts in those countries that keep cropping up, and he says he relies heavily on advice from the US, the UK, Canada, China and Hong Kong.

“You could be dealing with an Australian theatrical agent and an American lawyer, so it becomes an email festival,” says Nagle.

“Of course, unfortunately you cannot charge for a lot of this time, so whilst it is interesting, experience is a huge part of the job.”

Life imitating art: Movies going forward

The current state of the film industry is a far cry from the golden age. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the arts have been hit as hard as any industry on the global and domestic fronts. Nagle stresses that it pays to be compassionate.

“We’ve got an email system set up in our software sending out directives for how our clients can apply for JobKeeper, JobSeeker, state funding and local council funding because the sector has pretty much hit the wall,” says Nagle. “The industry is decimated.”

Loyalty is a two-way street and many of Nagle’s clients, despite their lack of financial literacy, have come to enjoy their annual visits.

“You can be a little bit like their local doctor; people don’t leave their accountant,” says Nagle. “They may also refer you onto their friend who is a more complex client, so you just look after people and build up a lot of goodwill.”

It’s a reminder of when Bloom met Bialystock. So destitute is Zero Mostel's Bialystock that he cries: “My windows are so dirty you can’t tell whether it is day or night”.

Moments later, Bloom details his ill-fated plan and the two are dancing around the room high on figures, fraud and a good bit of fun. “I want everything I’ve ever seen in the movies,” says Bloom. 


September 2020
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