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05.05.11

Imaginary Friends in Movies

In Mel Gibson's comeback film The Beaver, opening Friday, the actor plays a troubled man who uses a hand puppet as his sole means of communication. From Fight Club's Tyler Durden to Frank, the frightening rabbit in Donnie Darko, see Hollywood's most memorable made-up counterparts.

The Beaver in The Beaver (2011)

In a spooky example of art imitating life, writer-director Jodie Foster's film The Beaver stars Mel Gibson as Walter Black, a "hopelessly depressed" toy company CEO. Initially, Walter is sleepwalking through life, failing to acknowledge his loving wife, Meredith ( Jodie Foster), and sons—self-loathing teen Porter ( Anton Yelchin) and bullied grade-schooler Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart). When Meredith finally kicks Walter out, he resorts to self-flagellation before attempting to commit suicide. But Walter is saved by a beaver hand puppet he rescues from the garbage that convinces him he must "blow up" his life and start anew. The Beaver, as he demands to be called, speaks with a Cockney accent and deftly navigates Walter through life, opening the lines of communication with his wife and children and improving his struggling toy business by endorsing a line of woodcarving sets. However, as Walter becomes more and more dependent on the Beaver, driving his mental illness further down the rabbit hole, the troubled father is forced to make a difficult decision.

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Frank the Rabbit in Donnie Darko (2001)

Paying homage to the giant púca rabbit in Jimmy Stewart's 1950 film Harvey, Richard Kelly's surrealist psychological thriller Donnie Darko wins the rabbit-off. In 1988 suburbia, socially withdrawn teen Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) starts experiencing psychedelic visions of a demonic-looking rabbit named Frank who informs him, in a ghostly voice, that in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds, the world will end. Frank eventually educates Donnie on the possibility of time travel and—in Son of Sam fashion—persuades him to commit a series of crimes; including flooding the school, stealing his father's pistol, and burning down the home of a motivational speaker ( Patrick Swayze), and thus, exposing him as a kiddie-porn czar. In a mind-altering bit of foreshadowing, it's later revealed that Frank (James Duval) is the boyfriend of Donnie's sister, Elizabeth, who is played by Jake's sister, Maggie Gyllenhaal.

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Tyler Durden in Fight Club (1999)

In David Fincher's anti-consumerism cult classic Fight Club, the nameless narrator ( Edward Norton) is a disillusioned traveling salesman suffering from an extreme case of insomnia. He finds a perverted sense of emotional release by attending support groups for causes ranging from testicular cancer to blood parasites. Eventually, the man comes across Tyler Durden ( Brad Pitt), a soap salesman who invites him to live in his broke-down palace when the man's apartment is destroyed by an explosion. The duo eventually form a "fight club" for those seeking emotional release. The group snowballs into Project Mayhem, an anti-corporate, anarchic organization and, soon enough, the man realizes that the hell-raising Tyler is actually himself and he is suffering from dissociative identity disorder. "All the ways you wish you could be, that's me," Durden tells the man. "I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not."

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Elvis Presley in True Romance (1993)

A pop-culture maven's version of Bonnie and Clyde, this Quentin Tarantino–scripted crime-romance opens with comic-book-store clerk and overall geek Clarence Worley ( Christian Slater) striking out with a leggy blonde at a bar. "I always said, if I had to fuck a guy ... I mean had to, if my life depended on it ... I'd fuck Elvis," Clarence says. Later, his friend, unbeknownst to Clarence, hires him a prostitute named Alabama (Patricia Arquette) for his birthday. The two fall in love and marry the very next day. But all is not happily ever after: Alabama's gonzo faux-Rastafarian pimp Drexl Spivey (Gary Oldman) emerges and gives Clarence "the heebie-jeebies." Clarence is then visited by an apparition of his idol, Elvis (Val Kilmer), who convinces him that killing the pimp will "make the world a better place." At Drexl's, Clarence accidentally makes off with a suitcase full of cocaine, and later, when he's attempting to sell the coke to a movie producer, he takes another bathroom break, where he is once again greeted by the King. Elvis boosts his confidence by assuring him, "I like you, Clarence. Always have, always will."

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Tony in The Shining (1980)

Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Stephen King's psychological horror tome The Shining features Danny, a 5-year-old who is gifted with "shining" ability (a.k.a., ESP). He develops an imaginary friend named Tony, possibly because of physical abuse suffered at the hands of his alcoholic father, Jack Torrance ( Jack Nicholson). Danny describes Tony as "a little boy that lives in my mouth … It's like I go to sleep, and he shows me things. But when I wake up, I can't remember everything." When Tony takes over Danny's body, his voice begins to croak and he shakes his pointer finger for emphasis. Tony initially warns Danny that it's a bad idea for the family to go to the haunted Overlook Hotel. He comforts Danny while they're inside, telling him the haunted visions he's seeing are "just like pictures in a book, Danny. It isn't real." Later, as Danny's father goes mad, Tony completely takes over Danny's body, screaming, "Redrum!" Danny's mother Wendy (Shelley Duvall) soon discovers that "redrum" is "murder" spelled backward and that the screaming fit was Tony's way of foreshadowing Jack's murderous rampage.

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Bianca in Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

In this underrated dark comedy, Lars Lindstrom ( Ryan Gosling) is an awkward outsider incapable of human interaction. He spends most of his time in a converted garage behind his brother Gus's (Paul Schneider) house, oblivious that his co-worker Margo (Kelli Garner) is interested in him. One day, Lars happily announces to Gus and his pregnant wife (Emily Mortimer) that he met someone special over the Internet—a wheelchair-bound missionary of mixed Brazilian and Danish descent named Bianca. However, the couple soon discovers that Bianca is a latex sex doll that Lars ordered from an adult website. Cornered about his brother's mental state, Gus refers Lars to a local psychologist, who assures everyone that the best thing to do is go along with Lars's delusion and treat Bianca as if she were real. Lars talks intimately with Bianca, brushes her hair, bathes her, changes her clothes, and eventually introduces her to people around the town as his girlfriend, with the townsfolk reluctantly playing along. Eventually, it's discovered that after Lars's mother died during childbirth, he was forced to take care of his depressed father until his eventual death. Lars's childhood took a tremendous psychological toll on him, rendering him fearful of relationship-building.

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Fred in Drop Dead Fred (1991)

In this much-maligned black comedy, Lizzie ( Phoebe Cates) suffers from social repression due to years of abuse from her mother. She recently split from her cheating husband, Charles, and is still tormented by her overbearing mother, and has her handbag and car stolen. After her mother forces her to move back home, Lizzie releases her imaginary childhood best friend, Drop Dead Fred (Rik Mayall)—a messy-haired redhead with a predilection for green jackets—who she had trapped in a jack-in-the-box as punishment for his mischievous deeds. Fred is far from a good companion; he sinks Lizzie's best friend's houseboat, alienates her in front of friends, and gets her arrested for beating a woman over the head with her purse. Though Fred is almost vanquished by prescription medication courtesy of a local psychologist, he comes to Lizzie's rescue. He exposes Charles, who Lizzie reconciled with, as a serial philanderer, and—in a bizarre fantasy sequence—allows her to conquer her childhood demons once and for all.

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Captain Howdy in The Exorcist (1973)

William Friedkin's horror classic The Exorcist begins as archeologist Father Merrin ( Max von Sydow) searches for Pazuzu, the king of demons of the wind, in Iraq. Eventually, the demon takes over the body of 12-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), the daughter of actress Chris (Ellen Burstyn). Chris takes Regan to see a psychiatrist, where she refers to the demon as Captain Howdy, who controls Regan's actions. Eventually, Captain Howdy forces Regan to assault the psychiatrist, destroy her bedroom, projectile-vomit, spin her head 360 degrees, and masturbate with a crucifix in the film's most notorious scene. After inducing a heart attack in Father Merrin via extreme cursing and taunting, another priest, Father Karras, sacrifices himself by luring the demon into his body via exorcism, and then committing suicide.

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Charles in A Beautiful Mind (2001)

In Ron Howard's Oscar-winning film, John Nash ( Russell Crowe), a graduate student at Princeton University, is forced to room with literature student Charles Herman (Paul Bettany). Nash is a mathematical genius, and despite their contrasting majors, Charles grows to become his best friend and confidant. But the socially awkward Nash views the laissez faire lush as his foil. Charles tempts Nash away from his important studies with his pizza, beer, and whiskey, while delivering kernels of wisdom like "Mathematics is never going to lead you to higher truth and you know why? Because it's boring!" Turns out, Nash's "prodigal roommate" Charles isn't real, but rather a personification of Nash's loss of youthful exuberance. Nash also imagines Charles's adorable young niece, Marcee, as well as a Defense Department agent by the name of William Parcher ( Ed Harris), who attempts to recruit Nash to help fight Soviet spies.

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Shiloh in Wedding Crashers (2005)

Though Shiloh never actually makes a physical appearance in Wedding Crashers, he does help commitment-phobic Jeremy Gray ( Vince Vaughn) come to terms with his love for crazy Gloria Cleary ( Isla Fisher), who lies about her virginity after they first have sex, and then gives him a hand job while he's at dinner with her entire extended family at their lavish estate. Jeremy ultimately confesses to the family priest: "You wanna know what the kicker is, Father? Maybe I'm a little fucking crazy. That's right, maybe Jeremy's a little nuts. Maybe there's something about me that I'm a little cuckoo. I know it's a surprise, I know it's not on the surface. I mean, I had an imaginary friend when I was kid, and his name was Shiloh! We used to play checkers with each other every day, and bless his heart, Shiloh would always let me win!"

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Marlow Stern works for The Daily Beast and has a master's from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He has served in the editorial department of Blender magazine, as an editor at Amplifier magazine, and, since 2007, editor of Manhattan Movie Magazine.