Guys & Dolls: Helping a Character DO it “My Way”


For a character to be distinct (aka, “be in character”) there has to be a singular essence  (aka, “characteristic”) that 1) unifies that character’s different attributes and 2) separates it from other characters with shared attributes.  That singular, abstract essence can be understood as a “Core Value” which can then be expressed in One Word.  In that way, you can have different characters Do-ing similar things, but Do-ing them in ways that express their special way of Be-ing.

There’s an old joke involving a piece of philosophical graffiti scratched onto a bathroom stall:

“To be is to do” — Socrates.
“To do is to be” — Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Do be do be do” — Frank Sinatra.

As both the philosophers and the jokers point out—Being and Doing are two different things, yet they have a symbiotic chicken-and-egg relationship.

But in the punchline, we can learn a little of that magic formula from the Chairman of the Board, himself.  The way Sinatra blends those two thoughts shows that not only can you Be-Do in style, but there’s an existential rhythm that could only be described as doing it “My Way.”

To dig deeper into Frank’s mastery of Do-ing it his way, let’s take a look at a time that he had to Do it side-by-side with another master of performance, Marlon Brando, in the1955 film version of the Tony-award winning Broadway musical, Guys and Dolls.

The basic story, based on Prohibition-era New Yorker characters created by Damon Runyon, follows the highjinks of two “guys,” both of them gamblers trying to find a sure bet, who instead land up in the biggest gamble of all—throwing your lot in to find the true love with a “doll” of your dreams. (As an added bonus for faith-based filmmakers, the setting includes the Save-A-Soul Mission, a Salvation Army-inspired street mission. It also is probably the only film where Marlon Brando schools another character on not knowing her Bible verses. Who says popular faith-friendly films need to avoid quoting scripture J)

But back to the big play—let’s first take a look at the Be and Do of our two major players:

Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson – A good One Word for Sky is “Risk.” He’s a gambler who’s willing to bet on virtually anything for a high return. But he’s no dummy. As he lives the advice his old man gave him, he won’t take a bet where a guy says he can “make the jack of spade out of a brand new deck of cards squirt cider in your ear…because as sure as you stand there, you’re going to wind up with an ear full of cider.”

Frank Sinatra as Nathan Detroit– A good One Word for Nathan is “Maneuver.” He’s rather manipulative and weasely and spends most of the time trying to avoid marrying his long-suffering girlfriend, Adelaide (Vivian Blaine), whilst also keeping a step ahead of the police in organizing “The Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York.” He’s always got a game plan to plan a game—and a play to be a player.

When these two meet up, it’s apparent that despite their different ways of Be-ing, they have a Do-ing that’s like two sides of the same coin—two gamblers both searching for a sure bet. On on side, Nathan’s Be pre-disposes him to the Do of “only make a bet where you can game the outcome.”  Sky, on the other hand, has the complementary Do of “only make a bet where there’s an element of chance that can go your way.”  So they both make the thousand-dollar bet they think is a sure thing—Nathan will pick a girl that Sky will have to take on a dinner date in Havana.

Of course, Nathan thinks the cat’s in the bag when he tells Sky that the girl he needs to charm is Sergeant Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons), the anti-gambling crusader at the Save-A-Soul Mission.

Sky however, has his own trick to mitigate his risk—he goes to the mission and pretends that he wants to reform his evil ways. He then sweetens the pot with an offer to bring a dozen other sinners along with him. Sarah can’t resist. The misison is about ready to close its doors, and he’s giving her only way out. It’s off to dinner in Cuba!

Except…there’s one thing wrong with Sky’s plan—the very thing he was willing to Do to win the bet is the very thing his Be-ing needs to fall in love—spend a little time with a fancy dame, and you take the risk of her ringing your bell.

As would be expected, a look at the musical numbers in the show shows how the different ways of Be-ing mix and meld in different ways of Do-ing:

For example, the show opens up with Nathan’s gambling pals warning him about getting distracted with Adelaide.  They all join in singing the titular “Guys and Dolls” which does a fanciful job of setting up the whole joke within the premise—that if a guy is Do-ing something out of the ordinary, “you can bet he’s probably Do-ing it for some doll.”  Here’s an excerpt: “Guy sitting home by a television set…who used to be something of a rover. That’s what’s happening all over!” In other words, a guy has a way of “Be-ing” that makes him a “rover.” But if his Be doesn’t match up anymore with his “Do,” then it’s probably because he got his Be and Do all tangled up with some woman.

That set-up continues with a couple of numbers about Nathan’s trouble with dames. The first, “Adelaide” has Nathan crooning, “Talk about your long shots! Adelaide, is taking a chance on me.” He certainly seems to be mimicking Sky’s risk-themed Do here, but only because he’s trying to convince the police that the gamblers gathered for his illegal crap game are actually guests at his engagement party. So then in a later number, after he loses a bet to Sky and has to go to an actual prayer meeting at the mission, he finds the only thing that’s worth his maneuvering is getting Adelaide to trust that he’s giving up gambling to elope with her. Or as he puts it in “Sue Me”:“Serve me a paper and sue me…sue me…what can you DO me? I love you!”

On Sky’s side of the aisle, he first takes on Nathan’s approach to Do-ing in the number, “I’ll Know” where he tries to seduce Sarah with a claim that he can tell that his true love has come along. Quite a confident statement for someone who lives his life on chance outcomes.  Accordingly, it’s a confidence that’s met with a slap from Sarah as she tosses him out of the mission (a slap that he can only respond with Matthew 5:39 to, by the way). Later on, however, by playing through Nathan’s way of Be-ing and Do-ing, Sky is able to sing “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” with a newly discovered humility. And luck he does need to win back Sarah’s love after she refused to believe him that he had nothing to do with the crap game that took place in the backroom of the mission while they were away in Havana. Fortunately, his more mature sense of Be-ing and Do-ing gives him the chance to take a heartfelt risk on love when he tosses the  winning dice roll that allows him to deliver the dozen sinners he promised Sarah.

In the end, these two gamblers find that the biggest gamble in dating a doll is taking a risk on a situation that you’re willing to manuever to the best outcome.  And that’s where their different ways of Be-ing come together for them to both make the same wedding vow, “I DO!”

So a Core Value allows a character to act “out of character” and yet still maintain their integrity. Because acting out of character is the first step required for them to change. When they work through opposing  choices, behaviors, thoughts, and outcomes they can experience the values and attributes needed to balance out their core. It’s important to note that they don’t change into a different character like some shape-shifting chameleon.  And that even if they changed their name, they still maintain an essence of who they could BE once they find a way to DO what they DO so well.

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