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Do portrayals of accountants in pop culture add up to reality?

As an undergraduate Anthropology  major with interests in film and media, I wrote my senior honors thesis on the way anthropology, as a profession is portrayed in pop culture.  The results, as you might imagine, were mixed, with the majority of anthropologists portrayed as bumbling, somewhat out-of-touch, “armchair academics” with absurdist interests in bizarre and exotic phenomena.  The alternate (and equally unrealistic) stereotype was the swashbuckling adventurer/hero a la Indiana Jones.  Needless to say, both portrayals – though based in some fact – bear little resemblance to the actual profession of anthropology, at least in its contemporary form.

This got me thinking the other day – How are accountants portrayed in pop culture?  As I did with my thesis, we can look for clues in portrayals of accountant characters in movies and TV shows.  For example, the makers of  “The Office,” (which, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is a wildly popular mockumentary-style TV show about a Scranton, PA paper company’s corporate culture), has produced a series of short videos called “The Accountants” centering around the accounting characters on the show.  You can learn more about the series by following the link.  Or,  if you’ve seen the show, you can draw your own conclusions about the way the accountants are portrayed (Angela Martin might be the show’s most fruitful example of an archetypical accountant, and thus a good place to start).

You might also check out this interesting article  which examines the way accountants are portrayed in film.  The author ends up concluding that accountant characters generally fall into a few different categories –  no surprise there.  Her categories are interesting though.  What do you think about the descriptions she’s come up with?

Lastly, scan through the following list of accountant characters in film (taken from John Schachter & Associates).  If you’re familiar with the characters and the films, can you draw any similarities?  Does there seem to be a “typical” accounting character?  If so, what does he or she look like?  What do accountants wear?  What do they do for fun?  What do they eat for dinner?  Just some questions to jog your brain!  Leave a comment if you’ve got any characters to add to the list.

  • Handsome Danny Glover is accountant Henry Sherman, Angelica Huston’s dependable second husband in The Royal Tenenbaums.
  • French superstar Daniel Autueil in The Closet is an accountant who pretends to be gay to keep his job.
  • Charles Grodin as the president’s accountant in Dave solves the budget deficit in one overnight session, leaving the White House at dawn in his prudent small car.
  • Milking his accounting talents, Charles Grodin is an accountant who steals from the rich and gives to the poor in Midnight Run. Robert De Niro tracks him down when Grodin jumps bail.
  • Gregory Peck thinks he is a cost accountant – but he is really a brainwashed spy in Mirage.
  • Ben Kingsley’s bespectacled accountant helps save lives in Schindler’s List.
  • Mary Tyler Moore gets asked on a date by her IRS auditor.
  • Joan Crawford’s accountant, wearing a green eye shade and sleeve garters, explains to her that her money is all gone in Mildred Pierce.
  • In Fargo, William H Macy’s oppressive and wealthy father-in-law does nothing without the consent of his heavyset and closed-minded accountant.
  • In The Producers, Zero Mostel ropes accountant Gene Wilder into collaborating with him on a scheme to rip off old ladies. It is the first time in his life that Gene is happy.
  • In Ghostbusters, Rick Moranis is an accountant who, although possessed by evil spirits, asks who does monstrous Sigourney Weaver’s tax return.
  • In Basquiat, the central character’s dad is an accountant, played by Leonard Jackson.
  • Woody Allen’s accountant tells him he isn’t “liquid enough” in Manhattan
  • Bill Pullman is a strange investigator in Zero Effect who poses as an accountant. He tells a client to save her “WW2 Form’.
  • In Erotica, the lead character is a bearded and gentlemanly accountant who gets increasingly hung up on a snacky lap dancer whom he is forbidden to touch.
  • In Jurassic Park, a weasel accountant spurns Jeff Goldblum’s advice and get devoured by a dinosaur.
  • Comedian and actor Eddie Izzard studied to be an accountant. He found it very boring and dropped out. Yet he refers to this experience in interviews as revealing his intelligence relative to other comedians.
  • In Shedevil, Ed Begley Jr plays a sleazeball accountant upon whom Rosanne Barr wreaks a hideous revenge.
  • Road to Perdition boasts a fey, crafty and arrogant mob accountant who gets drilled through a wall. Is this Stanley Tucci?
  • In Memento, Stephen Tobolowsky plays Sammy Jankis, the accountant who lost his memory, just like Guy Pearce’s Leonard. Or is Guy remembering something that never happened? A shout out to Stephen, who is a very good actor!
  • Charles Martin Smith plays accountant Oscar Wallace in The Untouchables. This brave soul conceives the idea of nabbing Al Capone for tax evasion.
  • Kevin James plays tax accountant Albert Brennaman, who woos and wins Amber Valletta in Hitch, just by being his booty-shaking, inhaler-snorting, passionate self.
  • Ed O’Brien is an accountant who frantically seeks the person who has poisoned him in noir classic D.O.A.
  • In Monty Python’s Meaning of Life Chartered Accountants turn pirate and plunder the business world from the decks of their absurdly-mobile office building.
  • In Stranger than Fiction, Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an IRS agent whose life turns out to be the subject of a novel Emma Thompson is writing.  With his survival dependent upon the requirements of the author’s plot, Harold follows what the moviemakers patronizingly assume is his dream, and abandons what clearly is a soul-nourishing love of numbers to croon adenoidally to the plunkings of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s lame guitar.

So, readers – and especially you accountants out there – what do you think? 

Photo of Angela Martin, the humorless accountant portrayed by Angela Kinsey, on NBC’s Emmy-award winning show, “The Office.”

June 3, 2008 Posted by | Accountants in Pop Culture | , | 2 Comments