Oscars of evil: Villain roles get attention

By Sandy Cohen

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 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.”

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 said.

Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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