Saturday, November 15, 2014
On Being Pro-Antagonist
Oh, those villainous, oftentimes handsome devils! Whether it is the sustained thunder of a hypnotic voice, the sideways smirk revealing the hatching of a devious plot, or a subtle, irresistible humor, they are the scoundrels we “love to hate.” So what started my intrigue with the “dark side,” as a child longing to be a “real” writer someday . . ?
Perhaps it was a bit worrisome to some that it was rarely the leading man for me . . . In classic Disney animated features I invariably gravitated toward the dynamic personalities of Aladdin’s Jafar, The Jungle Book’s Sheer Khan, the sensual and bold Ursula of The Little Mermaid fame, and charming, raven-haired Captain Hook, Peter Pan’s arch-nemesis. Even the tormented priest in The Hunchback of Notre Dame had a haunting appeal . . . For Pete’s sake, though—what was it?
I hazard that, regarding the aforementioned, stacked against the protagonists these anti-heroes had, for me, the most dimension, the most realization, and free-agency . . . There were motives, not simplistic heroism of “A leads to B leads to Happy Ending C.” Many times these characters even experienced crises of conscience, indulged us with glimpses of tortured souls, and sometimes bore affection for their adversaries.
As I grew older and my love for classic film developed under the tutelage of very artistically-minded parents, my interest became more contemplative. Why in the world do these antagonists captivate? It was not Michael York’s impressionable professor role in the musical Cabaret, but the golden Maximillian with his twinkling eyes and opportunistic, sleazy magnetism. It was not gorgeous Omar Sharif’s Yuri Zhivago, or the impassioned, dedicated Pasha Antipov in David Lean’s version of Dr. Zhivago, but the sting of Komarovsky’s pragmatic wit and skewed honor that drew me.
Leading them all was another, however, a character who inspired my writing journey in earnest. He was the kind of man one should never bring home to Mother; a gambler who regularly visited houses of ill repute. It was thought he might have even sired a bastard or two. He ran blockades for his own gain, betraying cause and country as his whim carried him, and played on the vulnerabilities of a clearly unstable young woman with a host of issues . . .
He stood at the bottom of a staircase with a crooked smile and I was ruined.
Margaret Mitchell named him Rhett Butler.
But Rhett was the hero, wasn’t he? . . . Didn’t he save Scarlett? Over the years my interpretation of Gone with the Wind evolved from Rhett as unattainable love, to hero, to . . . just one interesting S.O.B. What I learned about Cap’n Butler was . . . he didn’t save Scarlett at all. He enabled Scarlett with the tools to save herself. But that green-eyed, enchanting, headstrong girl who was so appealing to so many was too much for nearly anyone she encountered. Like the scrawling on a bathroom wall says: “No matter how good they look, somebody somewhere is putting up with their ____.”
Scarlett, in the original work, sequel notwithstanding, was hard to handle, shall we say, for the men in her life. Her epiphany revealed itself in those sparkling green orbs, alight with the knowledge that she was enough for herself. That tomorrow, indeed, was another day and Rhett Butler could go off and be Rhett Butler. Maybe he’d come back; maybe he wouldn’t. And that was, somehow, okay in that moment.
As to Rhett? “Frankly my dear . . .”
I realized, perhaps subconsciously then, that I wanted to write about people like this; people who were a bit broken, people who were damaged, messy, and complex. People who were misunderstood. Villains come in many forms in “real life,” and for entertainers like myself, we channel them into our art. I have thus far portrayed, eagerly, riskily at times, the desperados of the 16th century, such as the unforgettably brutal 3rd Duke of Norfolk and, in my most recent work, Margaret Tudor’s less-than-wise choices in men . . . My lifelong fascination with human behavior will not stop there, whether they be victims, renegades, or, my very favorite, a bit of both; people who culminate into the real, the complicated, the bruised but never broken SURVIVOR.