Friday, March 13, 2009

When villains become heroes- the second-acts of cinema's best bad guys

There is a much quoted line about thirty-minutes into Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, where District Attorney Harvey Dent gravely intones 'you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain'. In a real-world context, it doesn't make much sense (does that mean that any soldier who survives war is now a villain?), but I bring it up because the opposite seems to be true in the lives of certain actors. It seems that actors who made their living as scoundrels, villains, and men of fear are finding second careers as figures of fun, outright mocking the roles that made them famous, often satirizing the very fact that they once terrified audiences in their youthful prime.

Christopher Walken inspires amusement and merriment with the same shtick that once befuddled, intimidated and terrified. Robert De Niro openly mocks his profanity-spewing, unhinged tough-guy persona in films like Analyze This, Meet The Parents and The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle. And who would have thought that Gary Oldman would become the go-to actor for characters who represented idealized decency, kindness, and fatherly compassion in the Harry Potter and Batman franchises? Now even famed oddball John Malkovich has slowly made the switch from over-articulate villain to comic relief and/or frazzled nice guy.

From appearing in the PG-rated spy comedy Johnny English (where, irony or ironies, he actually played a jewel thief) to playing a virtuous preacher battling city-wide corruption in The Changeling, the formally creepy and mysterious John Malkovich seems to be making an attempt to form a wider palette. And while the sight of an intentionally funny John Malkovich used to be a rare treat (think Being John Malkovich, where he gave the greatest performance of his career basically playing himself), his comic turns in Burn After Reading and The Great Buck Howard shows a new avenue for this celebrated 'serious actor'.

Malkovich and Walken still play villains on occasion. Walken scored with The Rundown and the surprisingly hilarious Balls Of Fury, while Malkovich is signed to play the heavy in Jonah Hex. But none of the boogie-men of the 1980s and 1990s truly terrify audiences anymore. Maybe it's just a matter of getting older. Maybe it's just a matter of actors deciding to let the audience in on the fun while they still can (I know Walken changed agents in the early 2000s and started getting a lot pickier). Whatever the reason, I'm eagerly awaiting the virtuous rebirth of (as Chris Rock introduced him at the 2005 Oscars) 'comedy superstar Jeremy Irons'. In Hollywood it seems, when you're a bad guy, you either die a villain (like, alas, JT Walsh), or you live long enough to see yourself become a hero and/or punchline.

Scott Mendelson

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