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O Matthew, Where Art Thou?

A look inside the weird lack of Matthews (and Matts) in film and on television.

By MATT GROSS

When Downton Abbey (2010- ) returned for its fifth season, it was missing one thing that, for many fans, made the series truly worth watching: the character Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens). Crawley is the humbly born cousin who, in the absence of other male heirs, joined the estate as its future inheritor, married Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), and died in a car crash at the end of season three.

It’s not that Matthew was all that exciting. Quite the contrary. I found him dull, his reluctance to embrace the trappings of nobility uninspired and his eventual embrace of said trappings rather predictable. What did Lady Mary see in him anyway?

He did, however, have one thing going for him — one thing that made him stand out not only among the other Downton Abbey characters, but also among virtually all television and film characters:

His name was Matthew.
Downton Abbey’s Matthew Crawley. Image: The Redlist.

But Matthew Comes from God, Dammit!

Unless your own name is Matthew, you’ve probably not noticed this phenomenon. But heroes of film and TV are very rarely named Matthew or Matt. Scan through the IMDB, and you’ll find roughly 80 Matthews and 160 Matts:

  • A vampire on True Blood.
  • A recurring character on Teen Wolf, the TV series.
  • Some Matts in Maniac Cop, Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles, Race to Witch Mountain, and The Amityville Horror.

Compare that with the name Jack or David, each of which returns over 200 results and is featured in movies and shows you may actually have seen or at least heard of — which is weird, because Matthew is hardly rare in the real world.

Every year from 1981 to 2006, Matthew ranked among the top 5 boys’ names in the United States. It may never have hit No. 1 — damn you, Michael, Christopher, and Jacob! But that’s still an awful lot of IRL Matthews running around.

Many of them, of course, are actors. The names McConaughey, Damon, Broderick, Perry, LeBlanc, Modine, Fox, and even Lillard should not be unfamiliar to you. Point is, there’s a disparity between reality and Hollywood here. (Shocking, I know.)

You’d think screenwriters might latch onto Matthew for its historical resonance. From the Hebrew Matisyahu, the name means “gift of God.” Wouldn’t you like to see Alexander Payne or Terence Malick play with that?And, hey, Matthew was an apostle after all! Surely screenwriters and directors would enjoy bringing echoes of Matthew’s biblical identity into tales of powerful men and their followers?

But even in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), there’s no Matthew! Or, well, technically he’s there, credited as one of four “Other Apostles,” a category into which Luke, Simon, and presumably the lesser James were also tossed. Unsurprisingly, these apostolic extras were played by unknowns Mohammed Mabsout, Mokhtar Salouf, Ahmed Nacir, and Mahamed Ait Fdil Ahmed.

This is not to suggest that Matts have never been prominent enough characters to warrant star power. A few recognizable names pop up in the IMDB:

  • Josh Hartnett was Matt in Wicker Park.
  • Charlie Sheen was Matt in Red Dawn.
  • Keanu Reeves in River’s Edge — he was a Matt.

And did you know that Hooper, Richard Dreyfuss’s character in Jaws, had Matt as his first name? No, you probably didn’t. And that’s because, loath as I am to admit this,

Matt and Matthew are bad names for onscreen characters.
Richard Dreyfuss as Matt Hooper in Jaws. Image: Hey You Guys.

The Problems with Matt/Matthew

The problem here is multifaceted. First of all, the name Matt, when spoken aloud, sounds awful — like any sharp, random noise. The “M” is too soft to be noticed, the “A” too hard, and the “T”s cut the whole thing short before anyone has the opportunity to realize it’s a name being pronounced, rather than, say, someone shouting in pain after banging their shin on a coffee table.

Think of great movie names, like John Connor or Sonny Corleone; their phonics pulse with strength and harmony. Matt is not effective — it gets lost in any amount of background noise. That’s why, at restaurants, I always give my name as Matthew — that extra syllable elevates it out of the din.

The most euphoniously named Matt I’ve encountered is Matt Parkman, the mind-reading L.A. cop on the NBC series Heroes (2006–10). No one remembers that name but me — and perhaps Greg Gunberg, the actor who played him.

Matthew, however, fails for a slightly different reason. And that’s because Matthew means nothing. It fails to suggest character the way Felix or James might. Nor does it have the everyman genericness of John or Michael.

Those names developed their implications through thousands of years of art and literature, but during that same time period, Matthew never evolved any significant connotations. Take the most famous Matthew, the apostle — the saint! His story is simple: he was a Jewish tax collector, or publican, who was called by Jesus to follow him, witnessed the Resurrection, and wrote (or “wrote”) the first Gospel. His biggest moment came when he prompted the Pharisees’ scorn in Mark 2:16–17.

And that’s about it. Who was he, really? What was he about? And what might an artist be able to summon up in his audience by focusing on Matthew? To painters, Matthew presented an opportunity to illustrate the moment of conversion, when one abandons avarice for a higher calling. And to be frank, that’s a fairly generic Christian theme.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio turned the apostle’s tale into great art with three Matthew-themed works — the Calling, the Inspiration, and the Martyrdom — but what do you expect from Caravaggio? The artist’s name outshines his subject’s!

Shakespeare, meanwhile, included just a single Matthew in his plays: Matthew Gough, in Henry VI, Part 2. With no speaking parts, Shakespeare’s Matthew appears onstage only to be killed by some rebels fewer than twenty lines later. In fact, The Cambridge Shakespeare Library calls Matthew Gough “a ghost character.” How typical.

Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew. Image: Wikipedia.

Bad News for Matthew As Meaningful

The thing is, Matthew’s tale should be a great one. Think of it this way: Before he decided to follow Jesus, Matthew was a tax collector — but not a gray drone the way we think of them now. In the Roman era, the taxman was a tough guy, willing to use any means necessary to extract the government’s cut (and his own) from the wallets of the people. You did not want to cross him. (It’s also possible I’ve been rewatching HBO’s Rome [2005–07].)

But imagine our Matthew not just as any brutal taxman, but as one who suffers guilt over his profession. He suffers so much guilt he’s waiting for the moment when someone, literally anyone, will call on him to be a better man, even though he’ll be seen by his former comrades as a turncoat and his guru’s adherents as an irredeemable sinner.

This is a great character — a human being to inspire true art. The only problem is that this character is not called Matthew. This is really Levi, the tax-collector son of Alphaeus mentioned in Mark 2:14, who, after his conversion by Jesus, becomes officially known as Matthew.

And that’s bad news for Matthew as a meaningful name: it’s what the guy calls himself after all of his interesting conflicts have been resolved, once he’s consigned himself to being a follower and a chronicler of someone else’s story, once he’s willfully chosen to be — sorry — boring. That’s a worse connotation than having no connotation at all.

Excerpted from a longer piece.

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