"The better the villain, the better the film."
Hollywood filmmakers tirelessly opt for portraying villains motivationally no more complex than marionettes. These Punch and Judy villains dance through film after film jerked by a paltry clutch of overworked strings: greed, sadism or comic book psychoticism. Movie audiences witness wooden-headed villains with substanceless form. They are what they do, moonwalking before us like so many Michael Jacksons growling "I'm bad, I'm bad." Such anemic villainous renderings purvey inaccurate and misguided stereotypes about the mentally ill1 and about the reality of true-life criminals, denizens of dark streets and shadowed citadels of political power.
What is the typical menu of villainous images placed before us when we dine out at a movie theater? A scientist has his face deep-cleaned in a bell jar of acid to the epidermal enthusiasm of his "beauticians" (Darkman); a group of street thugs murder a man's wife and gang rape his daughter, giggling and cackling with erotomaniacal joy (Death Wish) and in another town, another decade, another sequel, their clones do it again to his maid, this time gleefully killing the man's daughter (Death Wish II). Perhaps all this grinning and cackling began with a sadistic Richard Widmark pushing a wheelchair-bound Mildred Dunnock down the stairs in Kiss of Death. But, Lord, where will it end? A quick glance at the high concept summaries of films in production reported by Daily Variety suggests not soon.
Hollywood never seems to get the fundemental truth that Alfred Hitchcock so well understood about the audience appeal of ordinary people placed in extraordinary situations battling ordinary looking antagonists: Not only is villainous character motivation important for making the darker side of reality more comprehensible for film audiences, it generally makes for superior even memorable story telling.
Can anyone really remember the villains of RoboCop I or II or Die Harder? No, of course not. They were psychological ciphers wreaking forgettable havoc in forgettable films. But we can all remember Ernest Borgnine's Fatso in From Here To Eternity. His was a memorable, disturbing villain because he was drawn from what we all know is real life, the real life of miserable, angry people who have a chance of elevating themselves at the expense of others in a system that is uncaring or too busy to notice.
Can anyone remember the forces of evil in Sylvester Stallone's non-sequeled Cobra or the death-mongers in the dreadful Bruce Willis "actioners" Hudson Hawk or The Last Boy Scout? Of course not. But John Malkovich's multi-layered portrayal of the would-be presidential assassin and self-described, psychological soulmate of Clint Eastwood's Secret Service agent in In the Line of Fire went the dramatically riveting extra mile. Malkovich played an ex-CIA operative, betrayed and targeted by "The Company" and bent on revenge. Malkovich's villain was, for many, the pulse beat of the film.
The simple truth is that what makes a villain interesting is less often what he does than why he does it. Where would The Maltese Falcon have been without the Sidney Greenstreets, the Peter Lorres, even the Elisha Cook Jr's.? Did any of these characters giggle maniacally when they committed some villainous act? No. Did they slaughter and slash their way through the story line? No. But, they are memorable villains. They were real, fleshed out and motivated by something other than evil. Rutger Hauer's android leader in Blade Runner and Gene Hackman's Sheriff Little Bill Daggett in Unforgiven provide parallel indelibility.
The Screenwriter's Guide to Villainy
Perhaps we can offer some reminders, some helpful facts to the architects of film villainy in the form of true-life villain verities:
Fact: True-life villains in situ do not giggle and chortle unless they are simultaneously inhaling nitrous oxide.
Fact: True-life villains do not all dabble in drug dealing or hail from South America, South Africa or South Central L.A. Look at the S&L scandal.
Fact: True-life villains rarely look like Hollywood villains, Charles Mansion and Richard Ramirez notwithstanding. Look at Jeffrey Dahmer.
Fact: True-life villains do not spring into action full blown from the head of Zeus. They had parents. They had a life.
Fact: Even villains have down time.
Fact: Villains have reasons for their actions. They rationalize like you and me.
All villainy is motivated. Psychologist Kurt Lewin2 provided a simple formula for understanding motivational forces: B=f(P,E), behavior is a function of Personality factors interacting with Environmental forces. Absent one part of the equation, villainous behavior lacks plausibility; it exists merely because the screenwriter wrote it that way.
Assuming the environmental forces are in place, to understand the villain's mens rea, the screenwriter's guide to villainy might be viewed from one of two angles.
Angle 1: There but for the grace of God go I.
Almost two thousand years ago, the Roman playwright Terence observed "I am a man; I consider nothing human alien to me." Given the proper nurturing, we are all capable of anything. To understand others' villainy, therefore, we need only look into ourselves at our weakest, most enraged, or most desperate and vengeful moments.
What differentiates the child abusing from the non-child abusing parent, for example? The normal parent restrains him/herself; the abusive parent doesn't. It's not the angry impulse to "bash the kid" but the power of the inhibitory mechanism which makes the difference. In Mommy Dearest, Joan Crawford bashed away. But, we understood why. We understood her twisted values and fears. She is memorable. She is villain.
In the crudely violent but curiously sensitive and poignant low-budget film The Stepfather, the serial murderer's psychotic longing for "the perfect family" touched a chord in the audience of psychotherapists which was invited to screen a pre-release print in Los Angeles several years ago. For the psychotherapists the stepfather cum villain's gruesome reaction to inevitable disappointments in his mythic familial quest was, in milder forms, seen endlessly in so many of their patients. Frustrated children, frustrated parents all bore witness to the anger which springs from so basic a privation. The seeds of the stepfather's villainy were very real to the audience and made an otherwise repelling film strangely compelling and unforgettable.
Angle 2: Love me, hate me, just don't ignore me.
The other personality force for villainy may be seen in the observation by Erich Fromm3 that people want to have an impact on the world, something which, even momentarily, cuts them from the herd and permits them to stand alone to be counted. Fromm noted that if a person cannot create to gain attention -- and if he desperately wants attention -- he will most certainly destroy. The carousel of rare movies which give us glimpses into the personality infrastructure of pimps (Street Smart), ethnic gangs (American Me), drug czars (Scarface), all trading intimidation and death for fear-based respect and power, typifies what motivational clarity can bring to our understanding of that which both frightens and fascinates us. But for every characterologically rich Scarface portrait of drug czars, there are ten texturally impoverished King of New York drug czar cartoons.
Villainy is, in essence, behavior inspired by values which are inscrutable, aversive or repugnant to us in our more civilized moments of reflection. We console ourselves with the thought that villains are twisted aliens. Consequently, what makes a villain truly interesting is to glimpse his or her non-alien, distinctly human rationalization of these values, much as Gordon Gekko's terse philosophizing provided in Wall Street. But, was Gekko a villain to Gekko?
Psychologists like Fritz Heider4 and Leon Festinger5 note that virtually no one baldly agrees that he or she is bad or evil; that he or she is wantonly destructive or rapacious. Inevitably, if only for the sake of sanity or self-concept, villains will justify every mundane or bestial act they execute with something external to themselves. Drunks blame fights on alcohol; muggers blame the establishment or addiction; corporate rapists of the environment blame their stockholders; and Nazis blamed their victims. Good filmmakers help the audience understand the proffered villain's raison d'etre.
Alfred Hitchcock permitted us to understand Norman Bates in Psycho which elevated it above later psychopathic slasher films. We understood his torment. We were repulsed and frightened by it but we understood it. Contrast Norman Bates with Freddy Kreuger of Nightmare On Elm Street infamy. Freddy is evil. He was evil before he died and evil upon his return. Revenge does not really motivate Freddy; opportunity does; opportunity to further terrorize the innocent for his own amusement. There is nothing to really understand about Freddy Kreuger. That, unfortunately, makes Freddy far less interesting than Norman.
Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is classic writing precisely because of the pathos and tragedy of the villain, Hyde. Stevenson's brilliance, in part, came from his appreciating that all humans have a dark, uncivilized side. Ordinarily, we keep such dark impulses under fairly tight rein. But, that control can run amok and explode against others in psychopathologically violent and unpredictable ways.
Like so many instances of multiple personality, Hyde was monstrous because Jekyll was so repressed that he wouldn't or couldn't let out his more selfish needs. When they got out, in Hyde, it was monstrous. But, we understood the war between the selves of Jekyll. Therefore, we were both repulsed and sympathetic to Hyde. Psychologically sensitive adaptations of Stevenson's classic monster such as Victor Fleming's memorable 1941 remake starring Spencer Tracy stressed the emotional turmoil of Jekyll rather than his physical horror and garnered an Oscar for Tracy.
Anne Rice's rendering of Vampire Lestat, if faithfully brought to the screen by director Neil Jordan, would add intellectually nourishing flesh to the bones of so many pale Dracula screen incarnations. Lestat is a villain-monster with motive and self-rationalization.
Considering more realistic but equally mythic villains, what's most fascinating about Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy and the Mafia legend is that the Mafiosi are shown doing such villainous deeds, yet at the same time, capable of being loving parents and grandparents, committed to certain values. We see them not as true sociopaths but as people conforming to the norms of their narrow society. They do things for reasons, for honor, for ego. But, they're not "crazy" psychopathic killers all. How can normal people live such abnormal lives we wonder with fascination? Surely, they must be crazy ... in some way!
Yet, according to Gordon Allport6, when batteries of projective and objective psychological tests were done on Nazi officers after the war, searching for truly pathological clinical profiles to explain their horrifying and brutal treatment of concentration camp victims, not much turned up. They didn't reveal the expected pathological profiles. How can that be?
The answer may lie in the other critical element of Lewin's equation -- the environment.
The tiresome popularity of vicious gangs as villains in so many of today's films serves as a good lesson in motivationally dumb characters. Like other villainous retreads, our movie street gang members are violent tautologies, vicious because they are vicious. But, following Lewin's formula, we see a different confluence of determinants. A gang member (P) behaves like a normal young man when with his family (E1). His ongoing anger and resentment, fueled by oppression, poverty, racism -- and who knows what -- are contained, suppressed or even overpowered by family values, sentiments and the sheer presence of family. But, when he is in a group of his gang buddies (E2), the group postures, ventilates, activates and accentuates rage and deadly machismo. The boys get in a car, drive to another turf. Our gang member shoots (B) rivals with righteous blood-lust.
So, the gang member's villainy potential is something he carries with him, part of his personality. But, it is only ventilated given the proper environmental encouragement, a point incisively made in Machiavelli's The Prince and portrayed with stunning clarity in William Golding's Lord of the Flies. (Drive by shootings, it should be noted, are almost never executed by single gang members.) Martin Scorcese's Goodfellas and Robert DeNiro's A Bronx Tale illustrate the seminal impact of an environment that propagates anti-social or aggressive values and behavior.
Villain Creations in Film Environments
As Sam Keen has shown in his book and documentary film Faces of the Enemy7, propaganda films from all countries contrive to show forces of good triumphing over forces of evil in many gruesome and sordid ways. Our treatment of the Japanese in war propaganda films was to set them up as vermin and then eradicate them. "How many Japs have you killed today?" was the "voice over" in many such propaganda films. Nazi propaganda films compared Jews to rats and then showed them being exterminated. For Germans then, the villains were the Jews. For Jews, the villains were the Germans. Their respective cultural environments and reinforcement histories taught them these "truths."
Villain Creations in Psychological Laboratories
Phil Zimbardo's well-publicized prison study8 dramatically demonstrated that merely role-playing power or powerlessness in a mock prison environment converted well-functioning young men into authentic victims and villains in less than a week. Stanley Milgram's9 famous study of getting experimental volunteers to administer potentially lethal doses of shock to other ostensible volunteers argues the same point.
Both Zimbardo and Milgram's studies and Keen's look at propoganda films show how villainy is determined often less by personality forces than by environmental forces. Walter Mischel10 has persuasively argued that a strong environment can overwhelm a weak personality. And weak personalities are the most easily seduced by power which can even temporarily elevate them above others; the most easily seduced into the nightmare of brutality and authoritarian domination. With such power, a meek, travelling salesman for an oil company became the dreaded Adolf Eichmann.
Villainy is not worn on the face; it's crypted in the mind and heart. Al Pacino's portrayal of Michael Corleone in The Godfather saga was a virtual case study of descent into moral darkness. We watched with fascination the interplay of life forces slowly redefining the rules of Michael's life, tilting his precariously balanced morality in the corrupted direction Lord Acton so deftly prophisied.
But, rarely are we treated to insightful filmmaking. Most Hollywood villains are mere devices to impel heroism or encourage audiences to root for their dispatch in the inevitable Armageddon in the film's closing moments. For example, to allow viewers only to hate the South Africans, our latest screen villains in this post-Soviet era (Lethal Weapon II, A Dry White Season), is a creatively wasteful enterprise. Audiences should understand why many Afkrikaaners don't want to give in and give up their system to the black majority. Audiences should also be led to understand why many Palestinians turn to violence to advance their cause instead of depicting them as dimensionless, Jihad-obsessed terrorists spouting nothing but mindless rhetoric. Without learning that screen villains are self-justifying humans, audiences leave the theater hating more and understanding less about the world in which they live.
To understand the motivations of others is a fundamental step toward self-understanding, as an individual or as a nation. As film increasingly becomes the literature of modern society and, along with television, the primary agent of socialization, the entertainment media become more crucial in the formation of stereotypes and explanations of life which define a culture. Shakespeare understood the dramaturgical power of a complex villain. He rendered villains whom we understand and remember -- even cherish -- as surely as we remember our heroes. We draw upon their portraits when we travel the landscapes of our personal lives. Iago taught us the cancerous danger of jealousy, Richard III, the evil that springs from self-loathing. Shakespeare remembered and Hollywood should never forget: rarely do people or governments leap into villainous tyranny; they proceed one tragic, one rationalizing and self-righteous step at a time.
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