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On The Big Screen, The Tax Guy Can Be Your Buddy

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It's fair to say that the bakery employees who hooted and jeered "tax maaaaaan" when mild-mannered auditor Will Ferrell showed up in Stranger than Fiction were no fans of the Internal Revenue Service. In that, they're like a lot of us, no?

So it's intriguing that Hollywood generally treats tax inspectors as nice guys. On the big screen, it's typically their IRS bosses who are the bad ones.

"High bracket, low bracket — if Uncle doesn't get his cut we nail your hide to the barnyard door," snarls Tony Randall's boss in the 1959 comedy The Mating Game. Randall himself, on the other hand, is such a nice guy that the farmer he's auditing tries to fix him up with daughter Debbie Reynolds.

The romantic possibilities inherent in a tax audit may not have occurred to most people before The Mating Game, but screenwriters love to invent new plot gimmicks. And like the rest of us, they have to file with the IRS every year. Judging from the way tax dialogue crops up in movies, it may be that if you're writing a screenplay around April 15, random lines just occur to you — "Who does your taxes?" for instance, uttered arbitrarily enough by a man covered in pink slime to the title characters in Ghostbusters, where it gets a big laugh.

There's a whole mini-genre, though, in which the tax collector figures in a more substantial way, driving more movie plots than you can shake a deduction at.

Taxes were the beginning of the end for gangster Al Capone in The Untouchables, the spark that set off a rebellion in The Adventures of Robin Hood, the reason Scarlett O'Hara dressed up in green curtains in Gone With the Wind and the first thing on Groucho Marx's agenda as president of Freedonia in Duck Soup.

There are enough movies involving taxes, in fact, that there are even micro-genres within that mini-genre. For a while, Hollywood's go-to guy for tax-related movies involving widows, for instance, was Paul Newman, who advised an elderly widow on reducing her tax burden in The Young Philadelphians; got frustrated with a younger widow who wouldn't sell the hockey team he was coaching in Slap Shot; and made so much money in What a Way To Go that his own widow tried to give it away — which even her shrink thought was nuts.

"You don't need a psychiatrist," he told her, "you need your head examined."

Hollywood is often accused of having a liberal bias, but from its movies you'd swear the film industry was as eager to get rid of taxes as any Tea Partier. In fact, there's been only one period during which the film biz hasn't been reliably down on taxes: the World War II years, when absolutely everybody endorsed sending cash to Uncle Sam. Even Donald Duck, in a spirit-raising agitprop cartoon, urged people to pay up — because America needed "taxes to beat the Axis."

Once the war was over, of course, it didn't take long for taxophilia to turn back into taxophobia, an emotional state that makes April 15 rough for many of us. Still, Hollywood has learned to exploit it — by, say, having the Blues Brothers pay off back taxes with a big concert, or letting snowbound refugees in The Day After Tomorrow stay warm by burning tax records — in all sorts of feel-good ways.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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