So Ariel Castro, convicted of sexually preying on three young women held captive for a decade in the basement of his Cleveland home, complained at his sentencing hearing that “these people are trying to paint me as a monster and I'm not a monster.” He insisted, "I'm not a violent person. I simply kept them there so they couldn't leave.” He explained that “I'm just sick. I have an addiction. Just like an alcoholic has an addiction.” Despite it all, said Castro, “I'm a happy person inside.”
Years ago, when Roger Corman was newly back from filming his scenes as the FBI chief in Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs, he told me that Anthony Hopkins was sure to be Oscar-nominated for his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter. But Hopkins wouldn’t win, said Roger, because his character was so monstrous that no one would vote to reward him with Hollywood’s highest acting prize. Well, Roger was wrong on that one. At the 1992 Oscar ceremony, Silence of the Lambs picked up five statuettes, including best actor for Hopkins. (He beat out such notables as Warren Beatty for Bugsy and Robin Williams for The Fisher King. Also on the short list was Robert De Niro as another maniacal killer in Cape Fear.) My point is that increasingly, in today’s Hollywood, we tend to root for the bad guy.
Of course years ago actors like James Cagney became famous for playing bad guys, in such gangster films as White Heat. But Cagney’s three Oscar nominations were not for his most monstrous roles, and his single win rewarded him for playing George M. Cohan in the oh-so-wholesome Yankee Doodle Dandy. How times have changed!
By all accounts, Denzel Washington is one of the good guys in private life. But his one Best Actor Oscar came when he played a down-and-dirty rogue cop in Training Day (2001). Though Daniel Day-Lewis won his third Oscar for portraying Abraham Lincoln, his second recognized his work as the terrifyingly ruthless oil magnate in There Will Be Blood (2007). That same year, Javier Bardem won the Best Supporting Actor statuette as a psychopathic killer in No Country for Old Men. One year later, the Oscar in this category went to an even more outrageous bad guy, Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight. And in 2009, Academy voters showed Oscar love for Christoph Waltz, playing a smooth-talking but thoroughly evil Nazi in Inglourious Basterds.
Why do we like these bad guys, at least in their on-screen incarnations? They’re certainly not boring. They have energy; they have panache; they have chutzpah. Those of us who’ve worked on Roger Corman-style genre films know that success in the movie marketplace often hinges on having a truly great villain. In real life, alas, villains can be attractive too. Just look at how Adolf Hitler managed to sweep so many Europeans off their feet.
But a guy like Ariel Castro? It’s hard to imagine who would find him attractive. I can’t see him being portrayed on a movie screen as mad, bad, dangerous, and therefore exciting. Instead, he seems grotesquely pathetic. Much like, in some ways, the killer in Silence of the Lambs. Not the smart, savvy Hannibal Lecter, but rather Buffalo Bill, who brutally incarcerated female victims in order to indulge his sexual kinks. Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase about Nazi Germany, “the banality of evil,” springs to mind. I don’t know precisely how you define a “monster,” but it seems to require some superhuman quality. Ariel Castro, though, is all too human: just a sick and scary man.