LOS ANGELES — For your consideration: A pedophile serial killer with a creepy dollhouse hobby, a murderous Nazi who delights in tormenting Jews, and a hateful mother who abuses her daughter and granddaughter.
Hollywood loves a bad boy and so does Oscar, with academy voters nominating several roles this year that are less than cordial, if not downright crazy.
There’s Christoph Waltz for his chilling performance as smooth-talking, Jew-hunting Nazi Col. Hans Landa in “Inglourious Basterds”; Stanley Tucci for his scary, blue-eyed turn as pedophile George Harvey in “The Lovely Bones”; and Mo’Nique for her role as Mary Jones, the abusive mother in “Precious.”
So what is it about iniquitous villains that actors, moviegoers and members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences find so compelling?
“I think we take a vicarious pleasure in the problems that they present, in the pain that they inflict, and not least of which in the demise that they suffer at some point,” says Stephen Lang, who plays the vengeful, scar-faced military officer Miles Quaritch in “Avatar.”
“It’s like having a vaccine,” says Karen Sternheimer, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California. “It’s a low dose of something that you really don’t want to experience in real life, a way of experiencing something really awful about the human condition from a safe distance.”
This season’s crop of nefarious characters highlights a long-standing pattern among academy voters of tending toward the dark side.
In 1932, Fredric March won best actor for “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” And who can forget Louise Fletcher’s winning role as the cold-hearted Nurse Ratched in 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Then there’s Anthony Hopkins’ unforgettable 1991 portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs.”
Yet academy voters seem to be embracing the unsavory even more of late, reflecting a change in what kinds of roles might be considered Oscar-worthy, says Tom O’Neill, a writer for the awards-tracking Web site, TheEnvelope.com.
“We’re seeing cutthroat Hollywood exposing themselves in a clear trend ... a broader acceptance that these (evil) roles are artistic,” he says. “We’re seeing more artistic movies become darker.”
Take Heath Ledger’s posthumous Oscar last year for his supporting role as the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” a villain so vicious that playing him reportedly kept the actor up nights. Another bad guy, Javier Bardem’s cattlegun-wielding Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men,” took the same prize the previous year.
Tilda Swinton won the supporting actress Oscar for her 2007 role as a heartless, scheming attorney in “Michael Clayton.” Daniel Day Lewis took home the golden guy that same year for his leading performance as ruthless, murderous oil man Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood.” Before that, Forest Whitaker won for his turn as Idi Amin, the corrupt, bloodthirsty Ugandan dictator, in “The Last King of Scotland.”
“We all have a bit of the dark passenger in us,” says Sara Colleton, executive producer of Showtime’s “Dexter,” which follows a forensic specialist who moonlights as a serial killer of bad guys. “‘Dexter’ allows us, in a very safe environment, to explore a lot of moral boundaries.”
The actors who take on these roles get even closer to that age-old struggle than viewers and voters do.
Waltz says it was tough to play Nazi Landa, a character for whom “good and evil are categories that are not really all that relevant in his life.”
“That’s what makes it so challenging, because my little mind operates within the framework of good and evil,” he says, “and now there is someone in front of you that you’re trying to suss out who does not make these categories his frame of mind.”
Tucci, meanwhile, was afraid yet intrigued about taking on the role of the murderous pedophile in “The Lovely Bones.”
“It’s everything that you kind of hate and fear, and for that reason, it’s interesting to dive into it,” he says.
The actor was attracted to the part for the same reason viewers are drawn to watching such characters: “They’re always so interesting because they walk a fine line,” he says. “We want to see them get away with things and we want to see them get caught. We want to see how they’re not going to get caught. They’re smart, and it’s exciting.
“People are attracted to people who are on the edge.”
Still, Tucci was just as eager to shed the creepy character when filming wrapped. “I want to not think about this ever again,” he said.
So he shifted gears by playing Julia Child’s happy husband, Paul, in “Julie & Julia.”
Sternheimer, the sociologist, says our attraction to wicked characters dates back to ancient Greece and the catharsis audiences experienced while watching morality tales on stage.
“There’s always been a dark side to humanity,” she says. “If anything is different now, it’s just that there are so many more ways to experience these kinds of characters.”
Lang thinks the growing number — and growing appreciation — of villainous characters may be “sort of a postmodern phenomena.”
“Things have gotten really complicated in our world,” he says. “I’m sure they always were, but there was a certain time in the movies when it was black hats and white hats, good guys and bad guys, and I think that has changed... It comes with this age.”