Fracturing a Fairy Tale
March Madness is here. While most of the focus is on the pseudo-science of bracketology, lost work productivity and occasionally the basketball itself, one of the more commonly accepted but overlooked aspects of the NCAA tournament is the usage spike in the word "Cinderella" thanks to the reliable persistence of sports clichés. For anyone unfamiliar with what a Cinderella story means in this context, a low-seeded underdog team defies expectations before eventually losing to Duke. How low a seed should the team be and/or how far does the school have to go in the tournament? No one really knows. The term is subjective, nebulous at best. As if to illustrate this, Villanova, arguably the most famous Cinderella team in tournament history, has become a powerhouse in recent years.
Despite all this, the phrase creeps back every year because of its cultural resonance. Yet what exactly is a Cinderella story when it's not, you know, an adaptation of the Cinderella folk tale? Is it about a plucky individual who makes herself over and defies expectations? Is it about unexpected success in general? Rags to riches? Should there be a fairy godmother? Or did Disney make that one up? Anyone looking to blow up Twitter or Reddit could open this topic for debate. That's probably why a lot of movies don't try to be subtle about it. For instance, A Cinderella Story is a Cinderella story. Cinderella Man was so concerned audiences wouldn't get it that the producers made a Depression era boxing drama sound more like a gender fluid comedy. Even if it's one of those porn-like instances where we just know it when we see it, Cinderella stories are here to stay. In this spirit, the following are some titles that (we hope) qualify as Cinderella type stories or twists on the archetype.
Sabrina (1954) - Everyone forgets that this beloved romantic comedy begins with the title character trying to kill herself. As per usual with Billy Wilder films, this classic about a chauffeur's daughter who learns to crack eggs and transforms herself as a sophisticated society girl has a lot more going on beneath the surface. (Starz)
Working Girl - Mike Nichols was the Billy Wilder of his generation, meaning this is his post-feminist take on the same type of Cinderella story (Harrison Ford would go on to play more or less the same role in the actual remake of Sabrina some years later). The real magic of this story is making the shitbag filled cocaine car of 1980's Wall Street the setting for a charming rom com. Unfortunately, the cameo from Kevin Spacey has gone from a brilliant piece of early casting to some #MeToo cringes. (Cinemax)
My Man Godfrey (1936) - Not only does this screwball classic from the Depression predate the most famous version of the story, it also flips the whole damn thing on its head. Prince Charming becomes a domestic servant to help a spoiled heiress. Inverted gender politics and class consciousness ensues. It's a bit surprising that the Coen brothers haven't gone after this for an update. (Amazon; Fandor via Amazon; free on Popcornflix, Snagfilms, Tubi TV)
Little Miss Sunshine - This dysfunctional family road trip comedy from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris probably fits all those other descriptors, but it also seems like it's in the spirit of a Cinderella story. At the very least, it's about the great lengths and fairy godmother-level efforts that go into getting a girl to the dance. More broadly, it's about overlooked individuals finding their self-worth without the requisite fairy tale ending. (Hulu)
Undefeated (2011) - Life imitated art imitating life when this little documentary about an underfunded Memphis high school football team won the Academy Award. As far as the Cinderella sports metaphor goes, this inspiring true story is about as close as it gets. (Netflix)
The Florida Project - This might be more of an anti-Cinderella story (though Sean Baker's previous film was a more pointed attempt to update the fairy tale). However, this comedy about impoverished kids living in an Orlando motel is the only one on this list to feature Cinderella's Castle, one of the more ballsy guerilla shots in recent memory. (Amazon)