Read part 2 of this series by clicking Louis Bloom and the Rise of the Hollywood Anti-hero (part 2)
Where is Annie Wilkes?
But where are the female anti-heroes though (or anti-heroines as the Oxford English Dictionary somewhat quaintly has it)? Looking predominantly at mainstream Hollywood cinema, as this article is, the truth is that they are just too few and far between to back up the bulk of the argument about the development of the anti-hero over the years. But this isn’t specific to the anti-hero, it’s prevalent amongst many female characters in film the world over. Looking at the list of recipients of the Best Actress Oscar (not always a good indicator of the best performances, granted) it seems that only a handful of times pre-2000 has the winner been the protagonist of the film she was in. Rather she was supporting the male character who sat at the centre of the picture. To call Hollywood a misogynistic microworld would perhaps be wrong, but in many of the cases the interesting parts for women have been written by and directed by men, and often objectified from the male point of view, used to highlight a social or political point rather than becoming a fully formed complex character of their own.
It would be fairly easy to shoehorn in a few recent examples, such as Rosamund Pike’s turn as Amy Dunn in David Fincher‘s Gone Girl, but as manipulative and conniving as she might be, she is not the main character in the film. Or perhaps Cate Blanchet’s Oscar winning performance as Jasmin in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmin? Unfortunately she’s not really an anti-hero, just a bit of a messed up girl who should perhaps know better. Also, how many times have we seen a male version of this character before? Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes in Misery is the closest thing, but again, she’s not really the central character, and it is perhaps the performance by Bates, rather than the actual character, that so ignited an interest in the audience (and gained her the best actress Oscar).
Alfred Hitchcock did better. Notorious as he was for his own personal misogyny, he certainly knew how to create a strong story, along with interesting characters to support it. The most famous and prominent example is Janet Leigh and her opportunistic thievery as Marion Crane in Pyscho. In the first scene we see how she’s being used by her lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin), she hates her job and her life and although we don’t condone her robbery, we can at least understand why she steals the money and takes to the road. However, it soon becomes clear that Hitch had ulterior motives all along, and he built up the complexity of her character so that the audience would be shocked when she is killed off by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) half way through the film. The story is in fact Bates’, and Marion is merely a MacGuffin to get to the proper crux of what Hitchcock was trying to say. Tippi Hedren in Marnie is closer to the mark. She is a self-styled thief who uses men’s own objectivity of her against them, praying on their own institutionalised misogyny for her own ends. But she’s saved by a man. Sean Connery’s Mark Rutland won’t take no for an answer when she marries then leaves him, and eventually breaks her down, unearthing the awful truth from her childhood that has turned her into the anti-social outcast she has become as an adult. She gains her redemption from the love of a good man who won’t give up on her, as if she was some kind of a shrew that needed taming. The metaphor is intentional, this is Shakespearean to the extent that he too wrote to the same rules Hollywood had been sticking so vehemently to in its own stages of development. All of Shakespeare’s best anti-heroes find their comeuppance, however much they manage to achieve: Macbeth, Iago, Shylock, Richard III, Edmund Earl of Gloucester, Titus Andronicus, even poor old Hamlet, showing us the rules haven’t really changed in five hundred years.
Another noted omission from the above argument is the place for any characters from an ethnic group other than White-European. There’s only one example that I can think of for an African-American anti-hero and that’s Samuel L. Jackson as Jules in Pulp Fiction. He’s a hit man cum debt collector who enforces Marsellus Wallace’s (Ving Rhames) business interests, spouting religious rhetoric as he shoots those that dare to cross him. And he gets away with it. He survives because he decides to leave and walk the long road like Kane from Kung Foo, not unlike many of Tarantino’s beloved Martial Arts film characters. John Travolta’s Vincent Vega stays and finds himself shot, high-lighting the importance of Jules’ departure. However, the reason he decides to leave is because he has a religious conversion. He sees the fact that he was shot at and missed some eight times as some kind of divine intervention. What greater example of bad-guy-gone-good is there than finding God (in whatever form He may appear)?
Perhaps the reason that we have so few female and ethnically diverse anti-heroes is the same reason that there are still no gay (or rather ‘out’) leading men in Hollywood. A leading actor needs to be a blank canvas that can be projected upon, and there is nothing blanker than a middle-class white guy, whose identity is so bland as to be almost invisible. Any kind of angle, whether it be ethnicity or sexuality brings with it a sense of identity, that valuable for the individual, confuses Hollywood’s audience. They can’t help but see whatever trait that actor has as something they identify them with. There have been many really great mainstream films over the last twenty years focusing on gay subject matter, often garnering Oscars for the lead actor/s; Philadelphia, My Beautiful Laundrette, Brokeback Mountain, A Single Man, Milk, and Capote to name but a few. But what do all these films have in common? All of the gay characters have been played by straight actors. Not one has featured a gay actor playing a gay character, in fact the only example I can think of is Sir Ian McKellen playing the thirties film director James Whale in 1998s Gods and Monsters, an exception that perhaps proves the rule.
Fortunately over the last ten years or so it does feel like things are changing in certain quarters. There are more female directors creating more interesting parts for women – Jessica Chastain in Kathyrn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, to name but one – and black actors taking more and more prominent leading roles, namely: Jamie Foxx, Zoe Saldana, Denzel Washington, Jessica Hudson, Halle Berry and Will Smith, but perhaps when it comes to the anti-hero there is still some way to go. Only when Hollywood truly accepts can it subvert.
It’s all in the Conclusion
To bring the argument back around full circle it seems the conclusion we can draw is that films have historically found themselves fascinated with the anti-hero just as much as they have done the hero. (In fact one of the first shorts made, back in 1903, was The Great Train Robbery, about a gang of bandits brazenly holding up a train, only to find themselves pursued by a posse.) As long as Newton’s Third Law is adhered to, and those that go against the grain of what is deemed typical moral society eventually gain their comeuppance, then a leading character can get up to pretty much anything they like nowadays.
A moral code has pervaded the mainstream for as long as films have been made, that despite a relaxing of the laws over the years has found itself elasticated but not broken in more recent times. Louis Bloom and Frank Underwood (and to a degree Hannibal Lecter) are examples of leading characters that present a moral warning to their audience. The characters find themselves so intrinsically linked to the films in which they feature that that cannot be differentiated from them, and this is because they represent something that transcends the confines of the frame. They are warnings, personified onto the screen in order to show back to their audience a particular problem, issue or paranoid fear associated with the contemporary world they sit amongst. Film is often derided as an escapist art form not on the same intellectual level as opera, theatre or fine art, but what it can do above all other art forms is represent an artistic intention acutely linked with the time it was made. The finished film stands not as a historical marker like uncurated CCTV footage, but as one person’s opinion about a specific element of the contemporary society that they live in, usually wrapped up within the sense of national and/or personal identity.
The point is that we should have no fear that Louis Bloom ends the film never finding himself punished for his crimes, or that we find ourselves strangely fascinated with his upward trajectory despite his continued cruel and vicious actions. There is an objective distance between the viewer and the character that provides a separation. We don’t identify with the character rather we find ourselves fascinated by the social commentary. Just because we watch others acting a certain way, taking what they want and hurting others in the process, on our screens, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we too want to act in the same way… Or does it?