Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Beloved Characters

I went to see a movie last night, which shall remain nameless to avoid spoilers, and an actor I've always enjoyed as an all around good guy, sweet, often starring as a bit of a schmuck at the beginning of a film, only to come out top dog without having compromised his good guy qualities, surprised me by playing a bad guy. I realized, when it happened, that I actually feel a little bit deceived and like I've been let down when a favorite "good guy" actor or actress turns around and does something like that. I realize that's not fair, but that's the way it is.

Andrew, at Strange Pegs posted about the pigeon-holing of actors a few weeks ago on his blog, with a post titled "Harrison Ford and the Raw Deal," which you can access by clicking on his blog name above. He said this occurred because the audience made it so. I agree with him that we pigeonhole favorites in the roles we like to see them in, and commented such. I imagine it's hard for actors to be stuck in certain types of roles, because, to my mind, it must be more fun to play all different types of characters. Otherwise, acting would get stale, would it not? If you're just playing the same role over and over again, what's the point? You may as well turn to TV and play the same guy once per week! When actors quit a TV series, they often indicate it is partially because they want to explore other characters. Their character has become a bore.

Some of my favorite actors have played bad guys. Kevin Bacon comes to mind immediately, because he plays villainous or unsympathetic characters well, despite the fact that he'll always be Ren to me (Footloose). Jeff Bridges, Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver, Kiefer Sutherland, Danny Glover, and others have all gone from beloved to bad at some point in time.

I started thinking about this again when I read Michael J. Fox's book Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist about a week ago, and he mentioned a list that exists for companies to buy. This list, which is updated annually, uses a scoring system to determine who the most trusted celebrities are. Companies can purchase this list to determine who people would react to most favorably in commercials. If people trust an actor or actress, they may just listen up when that person is peddling a product. Obviously, Michael J. Fox was on the list, as were Tom Hanks and Bill Cosby. You can't dispute that these are people we, the audience, have come to love and trust over the years.

What happens, though, when someone has set themselves up to be loved by the people? We, the audience, may stick them in a handy little labeled box, but when you look at the flipside of this, didn't they, by taking specific roles, set the audience up to love and trust them? Didn't they partially put themselves in this role, this typecast? They wanted us to like them so that we would come back for more, buy tickets, buy DVD's, buy posters or whatever other merchandise there is. If we, the audience, like them, we will see any movie that comes along with them in it. Collecting an audience is part of how they make it so big, and they allow this to happen. So some of the fault lies with them, right? Not to mention the directors who seek them in these roles in order to guarantee ticket sales for the movie they've been dreaming up.

Not only that but, at times, a director uses this likeability to string the audience along in a mystery. Look at What Lies Beneath, which was also cited in Andrew's post. We trust Harrison Ford. After all, he IS Indy. He IS Han. We have been brought up to trust this man's face, his intentions. Therefore, we are unwilling to assume he might actually be a very bad man. "No way," we say. "He can't possibly be a villain, not Harrison!" They use our complete trust to lead us on, to plant red herrings that we will desperately grasp at just to avoid the facts that overwhelmingly lead to our beloved actor as a bad guy. They paint a picture in the beginning that we are more than willing to accept, a picture of this beloved person as a great guy. He takes care of his wife, works to provide for her, makes a wonderful home for her. Why should we question this? Well, we just won't! Those sinister neighbors are far more likely to be the culprits. Of course it's them!

So you see, when someone who has made me trust them completely over the years turns to the dark side, I just can't help but feel they've wronged me in some way. That's the initial reaction, at least, though so far I've always been able to come around and enjoy their role as a villain. I'm not sure I'll ever get to the point where I won't feel a little dejected in those initial seconds, though, when one of my favorites flips my impression of them right up onto its head. That sense of disappointment will always at least wink at me momentarily, before skipping merrily off. It's the way I've been taught to think by those trustworthy faces. It would seem the relationship works in several different directions, with actors and directors using a likable character to springboard the next movie into a high grosser, and with the audience continuing to develop said trust, thus perpetuating the typecasting of certain actors. It certainly is a vicious circle.

Do you ever feel disappointed upon discovering a favorite trusted actor as a villain? Can you ultimately accept them in this role or does it ruin the movie for you? What favorites did I miss who have turned to the dark side, even if only in one role?


  1. If you are talking about the movie I think you are talking about then, yes, that was a shocker for me. This guy has ALWAYS played a good guy. Sweet, likable. You have no problem rooting for him throughout the entire film. But this time... wow. I didn't like it. Is that shallow of me? Who knows. In the end, they're actors. They WANT to be recognized for the depth of their roles, their incredible versatility.

    I can't help but think of Anthony Hopkins. Really, it doesn't get more versatile than him. At least, in my opinion. Great post, Shannon!

  2. OK. No fair. Now I can't think about anything other than the actor I'm talking about.... *think, think, think*
    I dunno... I like it when good guys become bad guys - as long as they do it well. Kevin Bacon is an awesome example of someone who does both roles well. Whenever I see him in a movie I'm hedgy, trying to figure out what he's gonna be up to... which is WAY more fun than having an actor do the obvious.

  3. the actor "YOU"RE" talking about.

  4. I too really want to know what actor/movie you're talking about!

    I think for me, it probably depends on the movie in which the actor plays against type. For example, I adore Denzel Washington but I hated his villain role in Training Day because the movie wasn't very good.

    But Robin Williams once played an insanely creepy guy in the movie One Hour Photo but it worked for me.

  5. A lot of things make me want to pull out my hair, but I'm so happy this isn't one of them.

    This is one of the things I love about being a writer - I get to be the good guy and the bad guy, sometimes all in the same day.

  6. First off, wow! Thanks! It was quite a pleasant surprise to pop over and find my name in print over here. I'm all glowy and fuzzy.

    Thinking about this some more, I think actors probably have the least part in the chain of getting type-cast. They work hard at just getting parts when they're starting out. Finally, they get a role (and most of them will take -any- role when they're starting, because that's pretty much what you have to do). That very first role often takes them down the road to type-casting as they are more and more likely to get similar roles as they go along.

    Tom Hanks is a great example. His first big role was Bosom Buddies. He went on to movies like Splash and Bachelor Party, very similar roles. That's all he did for a long while. It was a lot of hard work for him to ever get beyond that. I think it's much, much worse when you get labeled as a "hero" or "villain."

    I agree, though, about producers/directors using audience expectation as something to manipulated.

    Writers suffer the same kinds of things. I'll point at Kevin Smith and Judy Bloom as examples.

    Hmm... I had one other thing I was going to say, but it's gone now :(

  7. Yeah-- there is quite a science to how they cast... I guess we like to know who to trust. I really don;t like to see a fave good guy play a bad guy unless it is a very sympathetic villain and we can see how he is that way-- and that there is some good in there.
    (= Harrison Ford, bad? Weird.

  8. I think actors tend to get pegged in certain archetypes. And yes, sometimes it does bug me when they switch them around. I suppose the same could be said for famous writers. Can you imagine Stephen King writing a romance novel?

  9. You got an award on my blog today.

  10. Alyssia, it sounds like you may be thinking of the same one. Anthony Hopkins is a good example, too! Can't believe he didn't pop into my mind.

    Cathy, sorry! I wasn't trying to torture people, I swear! But you don't know right from the beginning that this person is bad. I feel the same way about Kevin Bacon now. I have to sort of hold my breath and wait to see which way he's going to swing.

    M.J., good point. I didn't like Denzel in that role, either, but Robin pulled off the "One Hour Photo" gig well. I don't know if it was just the nature of the bad guy or what.

    Carol, true! And sometimes you get to switch back and forth constantly all in one day. Gives new meaning to multiple personalities.

    Andrew, glad you liked the shout out! I agree on the actor's role in it being minimal compared to the rest. Tom Hanks definitely got pigeon-holed into the all around good guy. It took quite some time for him to reach his current stature as a well respected actor, rather than just a funny, goofy guy, I think.

    Jo, they definitely have the science down. Movies and books are meant to pull out a specific reaction, and you have to know how to pull the strings.

    Angela, no I cannot! That would be creepy. I'd be waiting for something to eat them or the guy to turn into a hairy beast, so I doubt it would pull off what he was hoping. Good point!

    Beth, thank you, I'll stop by soon!

  11. I think I saw the unmentioned movie over the weekend. I didn't have a problem with that particular actor in that role. I thought he did rather well, actually. Of course, I have nothing invested in said actor as I've never followed any show he's been in, and, as far as I can think, right now, I've only seen one movie with him. So, yeah, I wasn't shocked. He did well in the role. Makes me wonder if he was looking for a role like that or if they sought him out to go against audience expectation.

  12. Hmmmm...is said actor famous for his hair for various reasons?

  13. Actually, I have no idea. The only actor I know of famous for his hair, and this only because he mentions it frequently on 30 Rock, is Alec Baldwin.