Fighting Class with Class

“Class is an aura of confidence that is being sure without being cocky. Class has nothing to do with money. Class never runs scared. It is self-discipline and self-knowledge. It’s the sure-footedness that comes with having proved you can meet life.”
– Ann Landers, fictional advice columnist

This article may contain spoilers for the films Working Girl, Quiz Show, and Pride and Prejudice.

Class isn’t something that is discussed much in popular culture, outside of Jersey Shore residents who claim that they have it in spades. The Oxford English Dictionary defines class as “High quality; outstanding ability or distinction; elegance or refinement of style, taste, or manner.” In real life, the description is mostly reserved for unexpected, gentlemanly acts that show a sense of character beyond the call of social duty. Judging by how rarely the term is used in actual conversation, it’s no wonder that movies seem to have a malleable understanding of who can or can’t be classy – a rather flexible array of people that can include protagonists, villains, or secondary characters with little weight on the plot.

The quintessential barometer of class is Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn), of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) fame. As timeless as Chanel, Holly, in her floor-length dress, pearls, and cigarette holder, is regarded as a fashion icon for the mysterious and alluring 20th century woman. In the film, her story is told by Paul (George Peppard), who moves into her apartment building and is immediately besotted with her. One aspect of her character that might not be apparent, however, is the fact that she is, in fact, a prostitute. Her stipulations, “Fifty dollars for the powder room,” have been interpreted otherwise, and it’s tempting to assume other theories because of the actress who plays her, but as a fact it’s hard to fight that a woman known for her simple elegance here plays a role disdained by society. Thus, the two concepts are not mutually exclusive.

Another example of class differentiation can be found in Working Girl (1988), a movie about how a financial executive, Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver), attempts to steal an idea from her secretary, Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith), and pass it off as her own. Rather than accept her fate at the bottom of the totem pole, Tess uses her smarts and ambition to overthrow Katharine and get ahead in her career. Part of the success of the film is due to its theme of the underdog rising to the top, but there’s more to it than that. Before any of that drama happens, Katharine needs to train Tess in the art of presentation and, by extension, how to behave in a classy manner. In the scene when Katharine and Tess first meet, boss tells employee that she has to start dressing to represent her. “[W]e have a uniform,” says Katharine. “Simple, elegant, impeccable. ‘Dress shabbily, they notice the dress. Dress impeccably, they notice the woman.’ Coco Chanel.” Tess, bedecked in her 80’s finest with heightened hair and jangling plastic accessories, asks how she looks. Katharine, without making eye contact, responds, “You look terrific. You might wanna rethink the jewelry.” Indeed, over the course of the film, Tess’s hair gets smaller and her clothes get tamer as she learns how to battle Katharine on her own terms. Later, though, Katharine bursts into the boardroom where Tess is posing as an executive and shames Tess in front of the entire boardroom (not to mention Harrison Ford). This behavior belies the earlier lessons she tried to instill in Tess because however much she gives an impression of class and cool, Katharine has no qualms about stealing Tess’s idea or debasing her in public – both decidedly unclassy moves. Tess, though she gets in a satisfying zinger, acts with restraint when she convinces the CEO that she was the originator of the idea.

Another example of class at play is in Quiz Show (1994), a film about game show contestants who are fed the answers, a practice used to provide the network with higher ratings. Part of the shock value of the story is that the producers were able to rope such a scholarly and socially accepted man as Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) into their scheme. When a Queens resident, the very Jewish and somewhat buffoonish Herbie Stempel (John Turturro), claims that when he was on the show he was given the answers and thus Van Doren, his replacement as champion on the show, must have been a part of the scheme as well, he is mocked, asked about his psychiatric health, and told in this scene, “Charles Van Doren is a professor at Columbia University. A masters degree in astrophysics. A PhD in literature. Hails from one of the most prominent intellectual families in this country. Isn’t it just possible, Mr. Stempel, that you got the answers and he didn’t?” Certainly Van Doren’s pedigree is part of what makes people believe he is innocent of wrongdoing, but also cited in his credentials is his impeccable lineage. The implication here is that no one could suspect a member of such an elite social strata of cheating. And yet, Van Doren confesses, dashing beliefs and lowering himself to the same level as Stempel. Whether or not Stempel exemplified good behavior per se is, of course, up to the viewer, but there is no doubt about the fact that Van Doren exhibited behavior that was not in compliance with his social standing.

Naturally, Pride and Prejudice (specifically Joe Wright’s film from 2005) also shows a representation of the gap between people of a high class and the lack of class that they display. Most of the middle-class Bennetts behave crassly, which is Mr. Darcy’s (Matthew Macfadyen) reason for Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) in this scene for why he broke off her sister’s courtship with his friend. Worse than their “want of connection,” as Elizabeth calls their inferior status, is a much grander issue, as Mr. Darcy illuminates: “It was the lack of propriety shown by your mother, your three younger sisters; even on occasion your father.” He does, however, excuse Elizabeth, adding, “Forgive me. You and your sister I must exclude from this.” By this he means that the conduct of the two older sisters at least surpassed their birth. This description contrasts with the case of Lady Catherine de Bourg (Judi Dench), Mr. Darcy’s aunt and a member of the aristocracy. She is the one who shows up in the middle of the night, ready to intimidate Elizabeth out of “seducing” her nephew. This act in itself – arriving unannounced, disturbing the family, and trying to force her agenda on others –  proves her capable of far less refinement than her birth would imply.

Lady Catherine’s choice of action is present in quite a few movies, many of them romantic comedies: A character who believes himself better than others because of his breeding attempts to dislodge an unsuitable courtship and by doing so reveals the sordid means to which he will stoop. The character is usually trying to “save” a family member from making an irrevocable mistake by marrying a member of the lower classes and ends up resorting to dirty deeds to get the job done. Sabrina (1995), Sweet Home Alabama (2002), and The Notebook (2004) all contain versions of this character. And in every one of those films, the character’s actions are exposed so that he or she is put to shame.

These are not merely Cinderella stories, where good people get rewarded for their goodness in rags-to-riches tales. They are also stories of triumph over breeding. While the audience loves to root for characters who compensate for their lack of money and opportunity, who put themselves on equal footing with the villains, who even manage to surpass them, there is something to their nature that makes their victory even more satisfying. These characters come armed with the one thing their opposers lose along the way: Class. They prove that being rich, famous, or connected makes no difference if their actions don’t reflect a higher mindset as well. These are stories not just of an underdog getting his due – they exist as proof that you don’t have to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth to be a decent human being.