When bad is good

Heath Ledger's Joker is the latest villain we love to hate

by Robert W. Butler

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

28 July 2008


Oh, Hannibal, you big, lovable teddy bear, you. Come give us a hug! Yes, we Americans do love our movie villains. And the nastier the better.

You wouldn’t think that in a time of terrorism and uncertainty we’d cozy up to characters that represent the worst in human nature. But just look at all the bad guys who in recent years have gone home with an Oscar:

Forest Whitaker as dictator/cannibal Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland.” Sean Penn as a Boston mobster in “Mystic River.” Denzel Washington as a corrupt cop in “Training Day.”

OSCAR-WINNING VILLAINS Initially Oscars almost always went to heroic performances. But since the 1960s bad guys have been regularly taking home the statuette: 1931: Fredric March, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (decent doctor, murderous alter ego) 1949: Broderick Crawford, “All the King’s Men” (brutal Southern demagogue) 1962: Ed Begley, “Sweet Bird of Youth” (powerful local political boss) 1965: Shelley Winters, “A Patch of Blue” (controlling, racist mother) 1968: Ruth Gordon, “Rosemary’s Baby” (murderous Satan worshipper) 1972: Marlon Brando, “The Godfather” (Mafia don) 1974: Robert De Niro, “The Godfather Part II” (Mafia don) 1975: Louise Fletcher, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (sadistic mental ward nurse) 1976: Faye Dunaway, “Network” (ruthless, amoral TV programmer) 1987: Michael Douglas, “Wall Street” (ruthless, amoral financier) 1990: Kathy Bates, “Misery” (psychopathic stalker, kidnapper, killer) 1990: Joe Pesci, “Goodfellas” (murderous loose-cannon mobster) 1991: Anthony Hopkins, “The Silence of the Lambs” (serial killer, cannibal) 1995: Kevin Spacey, “The Usual Suspects” (mysterious, legendary crime lord) 1997: James Coburn, “Affliction” (hateful, sadistic father figure) 2001: Denzel Washington, “Training Day” (corrupt L.A. police detective) 2003: Sean Penn, “Mystic River” (South Boston gangster) 2003: Charlize Theron, “Monster” (prostitute and serial killer) 2006: Forest Whitaker, “The Last King of Scotland” (dictator and cannibal) 2007: Daniel Day-Lewis, “There Will Be Blood” ( misanthrope and murderer) 2007: Javier Bardem, “No Country for Old Men” (conscienceless, unstoppable hit man) 2007: Tilda Swinton , “Michael Clayton” (lawyer willing to murder for a client)

And at this year’s Oscars alone: Tilda Swinton as an ethics-challenged lawyer in “Michael Clayton,” Daniel-Day Lewis as a murderous misanthrope in “There Will Be Blood ” and Javier Bardem as a remorseless killing machine in “No Country for Old Men.”

And now we have the late Heath Ledger and his maniacal turn as the Joker in the new Batman movie, “The Dark Knight.”

“Mad-crazy brilliant,” Rolling Stone wrote. “He’s out-villained Hannibal Lecter,” raved Gary Oldman, who plays Lt. Jim Gordon in the film.

Ledger’s performance is amazingly good, making the Joker a crazed nihilist whose only motivation is to spread anarchy. The actor not only got lost behind the makeup - white face, smeared lipstick, raccoonish eyeliner - but he got lost in the character. It’s hard to imagine that this is the same young man who played the conflicted, gay ranch hand in “Brokeback Mountain.”

Fifty years ago these characterizations of villains in film not only wouldn’t have been honored, but they also wouldn’t have made it to the screen.

For the first 40 years of the Oscars, the statuette almost never went to a villain. There were a couple of exceptions, like Fredric March’s win for 1931’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (although for half of his screen time he was playing a good guy). But the American ethos in the first half of the 20th century was firmly rooted in 19th-century ideas of heroism. That’s what we aspired to, and that’s what we honored with our awards.

And then Oscar began changing.

Critic, author and TV personality Leonard Maltin thinks the shift may have begun in the 1950s with Marlon Brando and James Dean.

“That was the flowering of the antihero, the young rebel,” he said. “The traditional hero seemed too one-dimensional for the times. The antihero was still our hero, but he was recognizably human, with flaws and attitude. Then the ‘60s and the counter culture arrived, andthe traditional hero was unseated. We found ourselves rooting for Bonnie and Clyde.”

Something like that happened in the 1930s, when America’s shift from a rural to an urban society resulted in a fascination with the gangster film. But back then Oscars weren’t given to actors for playing crooks.

“For the first half of the last century, movies saw everything in black and white,” said Lynn Bartholome, president of the Popular Culture Association. “A female character was either a goody-two-shoes or an evil woman. Cowboys wore white hats or black hats. Film noir rarely offered characters who occupied a middle ground - you were either all good or all bad.

“It was ridiculous, but that’s the convention society clung to.”

By the early 1970s, though, America had been through a Cold War, a shooting war in Vietnam, the civil rights struggle and the rise of youth culture. Black and white was quickly morphing into gray.

When 1972’s “The Godfather” won multiple Oscars, including one for Marlon Brando’s depiction of mob master Vito Corleone (two years later Robert De Niro won an Oscar for playing the same character as a young man in “The Godfather Part II”), it broke a tradition of giving the industry’s highest honor to virtuous characters.

Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, notes that the novel “The Godfather” came out in 1969 - the same year moviegoers flocked to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Wild Bunch” and “Midnight Cowboy.” In these films thieves, killers and hustlers were the protagonists.

“Before this, Hollywood was defined by and had a sense of cultural obligation that the good guys would win in the end,” Thompson said. “In TV it was actually inscribed in the national code of broadcasting . For a long time there was an institutionalized system that limited how much ambiguity about good and bad you could present on the screen.

“But by the early ‘70s we were seeing a complete unraveling and restructuring of cultural expectations. All of a sudden you had audiences identifying with bad guys.”

Humans have always been fascinated by the dark side of human nature, Thompson said. “Most of Shakespeare’s great characters are real rogues, even cads. There’s a vibrancy that comes out of a flawed character. It’s actually easier to identify with those guys. Perfection isn’t all that interesting ... or that much fun for an actor to play.”

Kansas City native and Oscar-winner Chris Cooper, who early in his career specialized in playing decent Everymen, in recent years has landed several villainous roles, including a corrupt CIA spymaster in “The Bourne Identity” and the plum part of real-life FBI traitor Robert Hanssen in “Breach.”

“Playing a villain ... it really frees an actor up,” Cooper said in a phone call from his home outside Boston. “Playing a virtuous person is a bit of a tightrope routine. It may not look hard, but an actor has to toe the line. You’re trying to please the audience’s idea of a hero.

“A villain, though, is full of possibilities. The biggest problem I had with playing Robert Hanssen, having talked to his colleagues, was to make a really boring guy interesting.”

In recent years the public’s fascination with evil has become obsessive. Documentaries about real-life serial killers inundate cable channels. “Dexter,” Showtime’s series about a serial killer who works for the police, last season made the jump to a major TV network (CBS).

You can thank Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning portrayal of cannibal/serial killer Hannibal Lecter in 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” Bartholome said.

“After Hannibal we began to look at the dark side and started to see that maybe there’s a goodness in the bad guy. We know Hannibal is a horrible being, but he attracts us, and in some ways we even feel sympathy for him. There’s humanity even in bad guys. Maybe there’s an explanation for his badness.”

Bartholome got a firsthand look at the public’s fascination with the dark side when she worked on a book with Lorena Bobbit, who in 1993 gained notoriety for emasculating her husband with a kitchen knife.

“Far from being shunned, Lorena was viewed by some as a star. She got marriage proposals and gifts, showed up in People’s list of most influential people of the year, was offered a fortune to pose in Playboy.

“And how many women are totally intrigued with Tony Soprano, this big fat guy who goes around cheating on his wife and committing murder? But people like him. Ask anybody on the street and they’ll say, ‘Tony Soprano? Yeah, he’s cool.’”

What sets Ledger’s Joker apart is that he represents pure evil and malevolence. He may have a history, but every time he talks about his past he changes the story.

His goal is not money or fame or women or power. He simply wants to destroy everything, and he’s not dissuaded by fear, threats or reason.

Several times in “The Dark Knight” the Joker is referred to as a terrorist, and the entire film reflects a post-9/11 aura of fear, uncertainty and moral ambiguity.

Not everyone enjoys the Joker’s almost elemental villainy.

“I just found him too sick and twisted,” Maltin said. “I admire Ledger’s performance, but I derive no pleasure from it. I found it hard to enjoy watching the antics of a terrorist in a post-9/11 world. I realize that the film is making a statement about all of that, but the truth is that I wasn’t having much fun watching it.”

Maltin’s is probably a minority opinion. Reviews of Ledger’s performance have been uniformly glowing, and audiences responded to the tune of a record $158.4million on opening weekend.

Even when we’re terrified by real-world events, Thompson said, we’re still eager to be scared at the movies.

“We’re seduced by the idea of looking into the heart of darkness. There is nothing more compelling or thrilling than messing around with the very limit of what the human animal is capable of.”

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