Hitchcock famously said that “The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.” But some villains are so good – or so bad – that they transcend their pictures and become entities unto themselves.
Three of these characters – Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas, Wall Street, 1987), Tony Montana (Al Pacino, Scarface, 1983 and Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale, American Psycho, 2000) – are now so iconic that they are actually adulated for their aberrations. No one quotes Wall Street’s real hero, Bud Fox, but legions of new bankers on the real Wall Street are memorizing Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is Good” speech and shopping for shirts with French cuffs. (As someone who has worked around finance in downtown New York for years, my evidence of this is circumstantial, but I’m confident it’s true.)
Likewise, gangsters and wannabes and Soulja Boy are getting “The World is Yours” tattoos, forgetting that that motto put a thousand bullets into Scarface’s empire.
Gekko, Montana and Bateman are bad people. The only thing they’re good at is getting what they want. And all three exist within a moral universe that mirrors the real world, by which I mean they aren’t even good within their personal, fictional universes.
In the first two examples, Oliver Stone makes his characters pay for their transgressions. Although he’s the protagonist of the film, Tony Montana goes from hero to villain as Scarface progresses, and in the end his quest for money and power costs him happiness, love and ultimately his life. In Wall Street, Bud Fox triumphs over Gekko’s evil, and Gekko loses a fortune and his freedom.
Yet, those three are emulated by the exact people that shouldn’t be emulating them: the people whom the characters and films are meant to condemn.
Gekko and Bateman represent all that is wrong with financiers, the former embodying the unchecked greed and the latter the excess and emptiness. But the Dealbreaker blog – the gossip site for the investment world – has tags for “Gordon Gekko” and both “American Psycho” and “Patrick Bateman”. Hell, the Observer even decided that if Bateman were a real person he’d be working at Goldman Sachs, which means he’d probably be down with all his admirers on Stone Street after work, although Stone Street isn’t on the unofficial tour of Patrick Bateman’s New York (however, the nearby South Street Seaport is).
Don’t get these characters confused with the anti-hero. Despite what online listicles say, Tony Montana is not an anti-hero, and no one wants to be Lester Burnham, the pathetic anti-hero ofAmerican Beauty. These are also not the post-modern heroes who are willing to do bad things in order to achieve good, or who go by their own moral code. They aren’t the MacManus brothers from Boondock Saints who will kill, but only kill bad guys, or “Dirty” Harry Callahan, who breaks the law to uphold his laws.
After Grantland’s recent bracket to determine the best character on The Wire, Chuck Klosterman described Omar Little’s inevitable win as the triumph of the “rogue criminal self-creating a moral framework superior to that of mainstream society”, a perfect description for a Tony Montana-like character, but not for Tony Montana.
Another way to look at the Montana-like vs. Montana opposition is to compare Travis Bickle and Bateman. Both are iconic characters. Both are badasses. Both are psychopaths who live in their own fantasy worlds. And surely both inspire countless Halloween costumes. But only one is idolized.
Here’s why: Bateman gets what he wants. This is the quality that he shares with Montana and Gekko. They access their inner-most desires – wealth, sex, violence, power (are there really any other desires beyond those, anyway?) – and, more importantly, access them without guilt, without restraint, without regret and without a quiver of self-conscious reflection.
Unlike Omar, and unlike Bickle, although Bickle’s reality is undeniably warped, Bateman’s murders have nothing to do with a moral code. There is no Kant or Machiavelli or duty or justice. It’s just desire. And it’s a selfish desire.
Montana and Gekko are the same. Gekko is totally without limit; there’s nothing that he won’t do to make more. I’ve argued this point about him before. (“When Greed is Good”, 20 May 2011). While Fox is confined to the rules of the financial market, Gekko is able to manipulate them for his own gain, destroying the already thin morality of the system while creating profit, an act that borders on the heroic purely because it shows Gekko’s will power.
Scarface simply takes and uses because he wants.
Without going overboard into obscure psychoanalytic theory, as I’m prone to doing, these bad characters are appealing because they get what we secretly want. They are not bound by the oppressive mores and codes of the civil society that they, and we, live, and their access to pleasure is uncontested while ours is constantly restrained.
We love these deplorable characters because they do what we cannot, which is to act without guilt. We can’t act without guilt, and what’s worse, we can’t even admit that we want to. So instead we embrace these characters, these horrible people who get what they want, as a proxy for our desires, which we cannot otherwise embrace so openly. I don’t want get rich by cheating the system, but Gekko is awesome and he happens to do that.
Imagine how it must feel, to be such a sociopath, even for just one day.