Saturday, April 9, 2011

Playing the 'Bad Guy.'

So I'm watching a little more of this 'Kennedy's' thing on REELZ. Like I said before, it's not very well written but for the most part, the actors are rising above that. It's the old adage, 'Good actors can sometimes save a bad script, but a good script can never save bad actors.' It begins and ends with the actor. In Olivier's second book on acting he talks briefly about this. He says something akin to, you can take away the director, the script, even the stage, but you can't have theatre without actors. Unfortunately, there are those in this business that still consider actors a necessary evil, as astonishing as that may sound.

Anyway, I'm watching this thing and there's an older actor, don't even know his name, who is playing the role of the bitter, misguided, war-happy character of General Bennett in the series. It's a plumb little role, clearly written as the antagonist, and this poor guy is clueless. He's playing the whole thing like a petulent, fit-throwing, pouting twelve-year-old. He's completely missed the idea of always loving the character you play. Anthony Hopkins, when asked about his Emmy-winning turn as Adolf Hitler, said he needed to find a place inside himself where he thought he was right, where he was doing the right thing, where his motivations were heroic and benign. Therein, says Sir Anthony, lies the key to playing 'bad guys.'

There's nothing more satisfying than watching a really good actor grab hold of a villainous role and shake it like a dog with a bone. I'll mostly reference film villains here because that's the medium we can all identify with, generally speaking. But I once saw Stephen Lang play Colonel Jessop (the role Jack Nicholson later did in the film version) in the play, A Few Good Men in New York. What a magnificent performance of a villain that was. I still, all these years later, think of his work in that play now and again.

In terms of film, there are a few that come to mind, too, that illustrate my point. One is Gary Oldman in any number of films, but most spectacularly in a movie called The Professional. Oldman is well aware of his strength as a 'bad guy.' He is clearly cognizant of his ability to play bad guys as charming, smart, evil and explosive and this is never more apparent than in that film. If you're an actor and haven't seen it, I highly recommend it for that performance alone.

Olivier himself is at his best in an old movie called Marathon Man with Dustin Hoffman, in which he plays a NAZI scientist on the run. His dead eyes and unblinking stare are enormously creepy. And yet there are moments he can turn on the charm as easy as flicking a light switch.

And of course, there is Hopkins as Hannibal Lector. It's a text book approach to playing villains, probably to be studied by other actors for generations to come.

There are others, too, certainly worth mentioning. Take a look at Robert Mitchum in the original Cape Fear. Or, arguably, Brando in The Godfather (although, Brando being Brando, that's almost an antagonist turned into a protagonist simply through his sheer force of personality). A rather obscure one, although one of my favorites, is Ben Kingsley in a rather muddled film called Sneakers with Robert Redford. Exemplary job of good, old-fashinoned bad guy work. Try Lee J. Cobb in On the Waterfront. Another example of a personality so large it nearly overshadows the content of the script. He's just a terrible person in that movie, and yet so convincing in his through-line as an actor, it's nearly impossible to hate him.

And speaking of old films, take a glance at Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. A bad guy, to be sure, but absolutely fascinating.

Shakespeare understood this fascination we have with villains all to well. Richard III is, of course, the case in point. An entire three-hour play surrounding a purely evil character. And yet, it works beautifully (although most Richard III productions excise all of the political dialogue in that play - it's unbelievably complicated what with all of the Yorkist and Lancastrian allusions). And Olivier on film and the extraordinary Ian McKellan in the 1990's production are prime examples of an actor moving past the content and into the realm of real behavior. As Stephen King says, '...the art of creating a person rather than a bag of bones.'

Bad guys are the axis of drama, the reason for it to exist. Without the bad guy, drama becomes existential, which can be satisfying but not especially dramatic. Dramatists and storytellers have, for eons now, understood the need to simply 'root' for someone. And as far back as Aristotle we have had villains to overcome. It is essential to the arc of drama itself. In simple terms, we don't want to be angry and offended at bad 'things.' We want to be angry and offended at bad 'people.'

There is someting very satisfying about seeing a bad guy get his 'come-uppance.' One of the examples that comes to mind in film is during the final ten minutes of the movie The Verdict with Paul Newman. It's a wonderful script by David Mamet. And a great courtroom drama (courtroom dramas, for obvious reasons, especially lend themselves to good guy - bad guy work). James Mason has a moment when his entire case collapses when Newman cross-examines a woman on the stand and gets her to admit she made copies of a crucial piece of evidence. Mason looks up, startled for the first and only time in the film, eyes widening and blurts out the single word, "Objection!" In that single glance, we see the tables turn, we see the bad guy 'get his.' We see justice and moral rights upheld. It's a stunning and delicious moment.

Ask any professional actor and he'll tell you how much fun it is to play the bad guy. Much more so than playing the good guy. I've had the opportunity to play more than a few in my time and I couldn't agree more. And, as Anthony Hopkins so eloquently described, it all has to do with believing in the character, loving the character you're playing. It's not only difficult, but uninteresting, to play a bad guy as though he thinks he IS a bad guy. The trick is to play him as 'the good guy.'

It's the reason this older charcter actor in the mini-series of The Kennedy's bothers me so much. He's been given a golden opportunity. And he's squandering it by actually playing the bad guy AS the bad guy. Maybe he's being directed that way, I don't know. Wouldn't surprise me. Most directors I've come across don't understand the balancing act in playing villains. They're too afraid 'the point' will be missed. But then again, I've rarely met any directors with a healthy sense of imagination. A few, but not too many. But that's a whole different blog on a whole different day.

See you tomorrow.

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