One of the movies opening in theaters this weekend is Lottery Ticket, about a young man who finds out the ticket he bought is a huge winner. I love seeing what characters in movies do when faced with a sudden acquisition of wealth, whether it's from the lottery, an inheritance or ill-gotten riches. Few seem to enbark on a life of philanthropy -- it's always a good excuse to show off the vulgarity of the nouveau riche. The Beverly Hillbillies is the classic comic example of how funny it is to give millions of dollars to just plain folks, but Hollywood movies have a number of amusing instant rich people as well. Many characters do show their best selves when given a lot of money, too.
Here are seven fine examples of how movie characters have dealt with becoming millionaires, or at least a lot wealthier than they originally were. I thought I'd include more gold digging dames from the 1930s, but usually their "wealth" is someone else's credit line, not money of their own to spend. However, my very favorite example is at the end of How to Marry a Millionaire but I don't want to spoil it, so you'll have to find it for yourself. These are rather less spoiler-y examples.
It Could Happen to You (1994)
This light romantic comedy is probably the most appropriate movie for this list, since a lottery ticket is actually involved. Nicolas Cage buys a lottery ticket at his wife's request, but promises a waitress that if he wins the lottery, he'll share it with her. Lo and behold, he does, so we get to see how three people are affected by sudden wealth. Cage's kind policeman (remember when he used to play the non-crazy?) and Bridget Fonda's generous waitress contrast nicely with Rosie Perez as the selfish wife. And since this is a Hollywood fairy tale, everyone is ultimately given their just rewards.
The Jerk (1979)
The Jerk contains one of the funniest, most over-the-top examples of nouveau riche vulgarity ever in film, as Navin Johnson (Steve Martin) and Marie (Bernadette Peters) go to town when his invention makes him rich. They hire a butler and maid before they even more out of their apartment, but once they get more money, they move to a huge mansion. The mansion scenes were shot in the Sheik Al-Fassi Mansion on Sunset Boulevard ... with much of the original decor, including the disco room. Navin's acquisition of wealth makes him crass and gauche and hilarious. I think I just talked myself into seeing this movie again.
Easy Living (1937)
One of my very favorite rags-to-riches movies is this Depression-era screwball comedy, directed by Mitchell Leisen and written by Preston Sturges. Jean Arthur is riding to work on the top of a bus and suddenly a mink coat falls on her head, changing her entire life. She loses her job because her employers think she must have been a Bad Girl to get such a coat, but her encounters with the family to whom the coat originally belonged lead to a case of mistaken identity and suddenly she's living in a swanky hotel with a car, and dogs ... she's so bewildered she doesn't have time to be vulgar about her wealth. The scene in the Automat (pictured above), in which wealthy Ray Milland is working behind the counter but the woman in mink can't afford any of the food, is absolutely priceless.
Speaking of Jean Arthur, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (in which she plays a hard-boiled reporter) is another great "instant wealth" movie from that time.
Trading Places (1983)
I'm starting to wonder if I should write a companion list to this one about how characters handle being instantly poor ... and you get both sides of the coin in the very funny film Trading Places. Eddie Murphy's sudden elevation to riches (which he doesn't realize is due to a "nurture vs. nature" bet that Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche have made) starts down the road of big vulgar parties and ostentatious clothes, but quickly becomes conservative and even guarded of his possessions. He starts to feel confident of his skills in his new profession, well, at least until he overhears Bellamy and Ameche. Meanwhile, Dan Ackroyd has to deal with the sudden loss of wealth and position, and he doesn't handle it at all well.
Annie (1999) / Little Lord Fauntleroy (1980)
It's often enchanting to see how children in movies deal with surprise riches. Two of the classic rags-to-riches kids are Annie and Little Lord Fauntleroy. In both cases, I have to say I prefer the made-for-TV adaptations of these stories to the movies. Rob Marshall's 1999 version of the Broadway musical is more fun for me than the Annie directed by John Huston in 1982, but in both cases we get to see the little orphan girl absolutely delighted as she is taken from the orphanage and placed in the lap of luxury for a week with Daddy Warbucks. She appears to be unspoilable. The same is true of Cedric in Little Lord Fauntleroy as he leaves the streets of New York for the lavish English country estate of his uncle, the Earl of Dorincourt. The 1933 adaptation with C. Aubrey Smith is fine, but I am fond of Alec Guinness as the uncle -- and even lil Ricky Schroder in the title character -- in the 1980 version, which I grew up with. Let's hope Annie and Ceddie didn't grow to be spoiled sullen teenagers.
Brewster's Millions (1985)
I haven't seen this movie since I was a wee tyke -- okay, a high-school tyke -- and ... wait, Walter Hill directed it? Really? Directed by Walter Hill, starring Richard Pryor and John Candy, featuring a cast of solid character actors, written by the team that did so well with Trading Places ... and this movie was kind of blah for me. Still, there's some fun in watching Pryor's character try to blow through $30 million in 30 days so he can inherit an even more staggering sum of money. The one-joke expenditures (like the stamp) are much funnier than the long expensive schemes involving baseball and politics. Brewster's Millions was originally a novel by George Barr McCutcheon, written in 1902 -- it's been adapted no less than nine times for the big screen (including Miss Brewster's Millions with Bebe Daniels, which I'd love to see). Hey, aren't we due for another remake soon?
Stella Dallas (1937)
I have to say, I have always had difficulty with Stella Dallas (both this version and the 1925 silent one) in that I never thought the title character was quite as vulgar and tacky as the other characters accuse her of being. And the ending always makes me a little angry, because I think the "sacrifice" was not really necessary. This may simply be the result of changing times -- perhaps in 193x Stella really was seen as unacceptable with her shiny, glittery accessories and her "low" friends and her blunt manner of speech. Or it may be Barbara Stanwyck's excellent performance. The point is supposed to be that the feisty, brassy golddiggers from many delightful 1930s movies may not live happily ever after as society wives -- Stella is out of her depth. I think she should have refused to be ashamed, myself, but then we wouldn't have a good excuse to cry our eyes out at the end of the movie.