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Definition: The imitation of another’s work as a tribute to that person. The noun is usually pronounced like its French version, hommage (ôm’j), which originally meant a vassal’s pledge of allegiance to a feudal lord.

homage in film

Acting Homage: Acting is more about imitation than invention. Even the so-called original character played by John Wayne in Westerns for a half century was an imitation of Wayne’s friend in early Hollywood, Wyatt Earp. However, an actor imitating another actor does not alone make an homage. For instance, Kurt Russell’s portrayal of Jack Burton in “Big Trouble in Little China” (1986) was, according to Russell, an imitation of John Wayne. However, Russell’s portrayal combined Wayne’s mannerisms with bull-in-a-China-shop behavior so antithetical to a Wyatt Earp image that it was obviously a parody of Wayne, not an homage. 

To be an homage, an imitation must honor the original. This does not mean an homage cannot be comedic. Tony Curtis, for instance, rightly labeled his imitation of good friend Cary Grant in “Some Like It Hot” (1959) an homage.  Funny as Curtis’ performance was, his character did woo and win Marilyn Monroe.

Debatable is whether an homage can be vocal only. For instance, does homage apply to Christian Bale’s iconic raspy voice in his portrayal of Batman in the Dark Knight Trilogy? If you ignore Bale's Batman visually, you hear an imitation of Clint Eastwood.

Scripted Homage: Most homages are scripted and consist of action and setting. Dialogue is rarely imitated probably because it would be plagiarism literally.

Most homages are brief. Such are the numerous imitations of the scene in “Duck Soup” (1933) in which Harpo Marx pretends to be the mirror image of Groucho Marx. Homages to this scene are found in films ranging from “The Pink Panther” (1963) to “Muppets Most Wanted” (2014).

Extensive homages are key to their films’ plots. For instance, in “What Lies Beneath” (2000), we see an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” (1954) in which housewife Michelle Pfeiffer spies on the house next door and eventually believes the husband living there murdered his wife. An even more extensive imitation of “Rear Window” is found in the film “Disturbia” (2007), which led to a lawsuit claiming the film owed its plot to the 1942 short story upon which “Rear Window” was based.

In general, homages are regarded as either golden threads linking cinema’s present to its past or intellectual property theft. Outcomes of successful lawsuits indicate that to constitute plagiarism an homage must represent a film’s central concept and either:

 1) be drawn from a short film/television episode no one would think of as the subject of a motion picture homage, e.g., a lawsuit against James Cameron that claimed “The Terminator” (1984) plagiarized an episode of television’s “The Outer Limits”; or

2) be drawn from a feature film that English-speaking moviegoers would not know because it is in a foreign language (e.g., a lawsuit against Sergio Leone by Akira Kuraswa that claimed “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) plagiarized “Yojimbo” (1961).

Clearly cinema is far more disposed to imitation than literature. Filmmaking is the art of visual storytelling, and although the possibility of unique stories may be endless, the possibility of unique visuals to tell them is not. After more than a century of cinema, there is little new visually under the sun. The genres of modern movies are therefore increasingly fantasy and science fiction with visuals invented using CGI (computer generated imagery).  

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