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10 Essential Cinematic Antiheroes

by Jessica Kiang
April 25, 2013 3:48 PM
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Rupert Pupkin King of Comedy De Niro

30 years since its release, the undersung "The King of Comedy" seems finally to be edging into the sun to take its deserved place as not just one of the finest, smartest and most daring Martin Scorsese movies, but one of the greatest American satire movies, period. It's an excoriating, often excruciating watch, boasting razor-sharp insights into the excesses of celebrity culture and the quest for fame, but it's also, most unforgettably, a character study of one Rupert Pupkin, delusional sociopath, shit-poor comedian and all-out creep. Pupkin, whom Robert De Niro doesn't so much inhabit as crawl into, is simply one of the most offputting creations ever committed to celluloid -- a dreadful squit of a man, talentless, self-aggrandizing, self-deceiving, pathetic -- and at the same time one of the most compelling. In fact, it's easy to see why its greatest asset is also perhaps the chief reason the film bombed all those years ago: Pupkin is cringingly, writhingly, cover-your-eyes-and-hide-behind-the-sofa difficult to watch, let alone gaze at unflinchingly, as does Scorsese's camera, for nearly two hours. The film, which closes this year's Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday evening in a restored print, met with a mixed critical reception too, some immediately hailing its discomfiting genius, others rejecting it outright. Pauline Kael, a member of the latter camp referred to Pupkin as "a nothing." Respectfully, we disagree. He's much, much less than that.

King Of Comedy, De Niro, Jerry Lewis

De Niro's Rupert Pupkin, goes down below zero, below nothing, into negative space, becoming, in the process, one of the absolute finest examples of the cinematic antihero we've ever seen. It's a tradition in which De Niro and Scorsese had previously set a high watermark with Travis Bickle in 1976's seminal "Taxi Driver," and it got us thinking about other examples of this most awkward, and most potentially illuminating, of archetypes.

First, a note: the term "antihero" has been misapplied so often that it has kind of evolved a legitimate second definition (flawed hero with a dark side; villain we can't help admiring) but, traditionalists that we are, we're having none of that, so let's talk about how we drew up the parameters for this short sampler, shall we? In classic literary criticism terms, an antihero is a central character in whom are absent any heroic qualities. So we're not talking about this alcoholic-but-dedicated cop or that morally ambiguous nighttime crusader. The antiheroes we're highlighting are not motivated by a desire for justice, or defense of the weak. They are not brave, they are not admirable. They are not cool. This is not a list where you'll find Wolverine or Snake Plissken or Tyler Durden (though the Ed Norton "Fight Club" character might qualify, thorny identity issues aside). Even Tony Montana and Don Corleone don't quite suit our purposes -- there's an operatic glamor to their tragic, violent arcs that is too impressive for the sort of unsexy loserdom we want to celebrate here.

In fact, we went back to our inspiration and simply applied what we now call The Pupkin Rule: whatever you think of the character, is there even a sneaking part of you that would like to be him? If the answer's no: antihero. And that is, we think, the crux of it, and the reason why the antihero can be a place of such profound and uncomfortable truth: if a hero is a guy who in some way you want to be, then the antihero is the one who, in your downest moments, you're kind of afraid you are.

Naked David Thewlis

Johnny (David Thewlis) in Mike Leigh's "Naked" (1993)
"If you want to establish sympathy with your main character," we remember reading in a screenwriting book once, "have him help an old person, small child or animal in the opening scenes." The first thing we see Johnny, the protagonist of Mike Leigh's brilliant and harrowing "Naked" do is commit a rape. And an unambiguous, graphic rape at that. There's a challenge implicit in an opening as shocking as that: we dare you to watch this guy, we dare you to become interested in his story. And yet we do, because Johnny is a brilliantly compelling creation, a fireball of snarling, spitting, class-inflected rage, intellectual snobbery and genuine intelligence who spews out bile and brilliance in roughly equal measures to anyone who'll listen, and many who won't, as he wends his eccentric way round the streets of a seedier part of London, and in and out of the lives of his ex-girlfriend (Lesley Sharpe), her flatmate (Katrin Cartlidge) and their landlord (Greg Cruttwell). David Thewlis gives an absolutely towering performance, easily the best thing he's ever done (and on the strength of which we've been duped into forking out good money for dreck like "The Island of Dr. Moreau"), and under Leigh's direction the film becomes a masterclass in pivoting our sympathy and attention around this grotesque axis. But perhaps the most disturbing and clever thing about the film's shape is that by the end Johnny -- serial bully, psychological terrorist, misogynist (or maybe just vicious misanthrope), rapist -- is in fact, not the villain of the piece (that "honor" goes to the landlord) and as detestable a human as he is, he is recognisably a human being.

Network Peter Finch

Howard Beale (Peter Finch) in Sidney Lumet's "Network" (1976)
He may have the most memorable line ("I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore") and it may have been a role that won Peter Finch a posthumous Oscar, but the thing that qualifies Howard Beale from Sidney Lumet's "Network" as an antihero, is just what a patsy he is. Buffeted about on the tides of his own manic disorder, and borne up and down by the whims and agendas of other, more coldly calculating characters, Beale is a tragic figure whose weaknesses are manipulated by others to boost TV ratings, and who is discarded (with extreme prejudice) once his usefulness ends. In the (just barely) exaggerated world of Lumet's fictional TV station, Beale's fatal flaw is that aside from being clearly in the throes of a breakdown, he is maybe the only honest person there, and his passionate and increasingly lunatic ravings actually come from a genuine if ineffectual desire to see things change. And as long as that plays to an audience, the powers that be, best personified by a sub-zero chilly Faye Dunaway as the cunning, amoral and ambitious Head of Programming, let him rant and rave on. In many ways "Network" is a companion piece to "The King of Comedy" as a biting satire on media consumption, but Beale doesn't even have Pupkin's agency. He's playing a game that he doesn't understand the rules of, against Grand Masters: he's destined to lose, and he does.

Eddie Coyle Robert Mitchum

Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) in Peter Yates' "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (1973)
What would happen if you took one of those Robert Mitchum characters from a 1940s film noir or crime pic, aged him thirty years, and took away his cool? That's Eddie Coyle. A brilliant, minor-key riff on (rather than outright deconstruction of) the Mitchum persona of his earlier years, the Coyle featured in the gritty, unglamorised Boston underworld of Peter Yates's terrific "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" is so small-time as to be practically minute, and so long in the game as to be practically respectable. Aging and wearying of his crooked career the same way a guy who's worked in the post office for 40 years might, Coyle does the single least noble thing he can do: in order to stay out of prison he resolves to turn snitch. But in true antihero form, he can't even do that right -- bothersome conscience aside, he ends up fingering guys who've already been caught and whose names are no use to the police, and ends up ultimately being set up to take the fall by a more cunning rat than himself. And the fall, when it comes, is so anticlimactic as to be maybe the perfect antiheroic end: passed out drunk, his pants soiled from a dropped beer that looks like a urine stain, Eddie is shot in the head in a moving car, before it and his body are abandoned in the parking lot of a bowling alley. It's one of Mitchum's greatest performances, because for a guy whose stock in trade was the laconic, morally ambiguous guy with a palpable air of danger, with Eddie Coyle he manages to turn down the volume on that bristling charisma, and show us someone not just broken, but desperate.

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  • NWOS | June 30, 2013 4:38 PMReply

    You are wrong to say that antiheroes are not cool.

    For one, many antiheroes, including Benjamin Braddock (who is undeservedly snubbed) or Jim Stark are only judged to be cool as the values or mores of society shift.

    For a great example of this read Ebert's two reviews of The Graduate, one he made as a young man and another 30 years after that. His opinions of Braddock's actions change as his values begin to align not with counterculture but with mainstream culture.

    Basically, an antihero often embodies a sub- or counter-culture because their values are seen as threatening or preverse, but when that culture becomes mainstream, the antihero is seen as cool after the fact. By ignoring this, you've left out countless antiheroes, whose image has changed to be viewed in a more favorable light.

  • kindred spirit | May 4, 2013 4:04 PMReply

    Good call on Mavis in Young Adult. But you seem to have forgotten Nicole Kidman in To Die For. Talk about a classic antihero!

  • PatrickNell | April 30, 2013 9:11 PMReply

    Wait, I'm confused. "The Pupkin Rule"? So every character I wouldn't want to be is an anti-hero? That makes no sense. I think you're confusing your terms. As I read the comment section I realize more intelligent commenters are making more reasonable cases but something is definitely off in this post. In classical and earlier mythology, the hero tended to be a dashing, confident, stoic, intelligent, highly capable fighter and commander with few, if any, flaws. The classical antihero is the inversion of this. Where the hero is confident, the antihero is plagued by self-doubt. Where the hero is a respected fighter, the antihero is mediocre at best. Where the hero is brave and courageous, the antihero is frightened and cowardly. Where the hero gets all the ladies, the antihero can't even get the time of day. In short, while the traditional hero is a paragon of awesomeness, the classical antihero suffers from flaws and hindrances. Jessica Kiang's definition is "any unlikable character in cinema"... <That is such an juvenile way to put it. I mean, the biggest fault in this blog-post is the list itself. Young Adult? Jessica, you think Theron in Young Adult is among the 10 Essential "Antiheros" in Cinema History? Fire this girl right now from The Playlist...hahaha... usually The Playlist's blog-posts have some intellect in them... this post assumes the reader is a dumb film fan. I am insulted to read this as a film lover. Thank you, bye.

  • Fordwsh | April 30, 2013 8:50 PMReply

    Reading this article and the comment section made me sick to my stomach. Are you all ill-begotten feeble-minded ninny's masquerading as film-buffs? Or do you all actually agree with this idiotic definition of "Antihero" being an unlikable character. This is an insult to all film-buffs worldwide, not to mention the intellectual film-goer. This article and these people who agree with it are the reasons why American cinema is at one of it's lowest points and only declining. Please, educate yourself before making a fool of yourself on the world wide web... This article is a miscarriage. I lost many respects for The Playlist for allowing this to be published. Lost a couple credibility points in my book but hey, at least you're succeeding in further stupidifying the average film-goer.

  • Dr PTA | April 30, 2013 9:01 PM

    @FORDWSH: Don't bother. You can't convince the stubborn-novice cinephile. They are a lost cause. I, along with many of my fellow cinephile -writer-friends saw this post and laughed at the authors misuse of the term and the list itself is unarguably a childish list. You can clearly see the authors misuse of the term antihero simply by taking a look at her list, it's that clear. One glance of the list and I left the page out of embarrassment for this blog but only returned to see if the author had given elaboration in the comment section, which she didn't... (another sign of amateurism) ... the author of this article surely needs to find a new profession. She writes well... but her intellect is on par with Esquire or People magazine..

  • Xian | April 30, 2013 4:30 PMReply

    Good list; great definition. I would add that the performance should be absolutely cringeworthy... like watching Ricky Gervais as David Brent in the original "The Office." So, for those of you that have or have not seen the minor film (though some call it a masterpiece of sorts), "Cutter's Way," I submit John Heard's performance as the eponymous Vietnam vet, Alex Cutter. (Can't paste a YouTube clip here, but search for "Cutters Way It Was In My Driveway" for a sampling of Heard's acting chops). Heard seemingly channels poet Charles Bukowski in bringing the acid-tongued, stream-of-consciousness ramblings of Cutter to life. It's probably Heard's best performance, and he plays off Jeff Bridges in a way that nearly (but certainly does not) make him likable. He's a bastard, an honest asshole, moving beyond mere curmudgeon into a mean ol' sonofabitch... but because of, and by the end in spite of, his nature, he digs deep into a murder mystery that takes him into the even weirder, meaner halls of the disgustingly rich.

  • JRDonug | April 28, 2013 4:41 PMReply

    According to the author of this article and everyone who agrees with her definition of "anti-hero"... An "anti-villian" would be any character in cinema history you love/like or wish you could "be"... I hope this comment brings understanding to people who are being led to believe a false cinematic term by the novice writer of this article. I wish there was some way a more experienced/intelligent cinematic writer could re-vamp this travesty of writing/list-making haha. Thank you!

  • Hughey Bifouf | April 28, 2013 12:19 AMReply

    The one inclusion I'd deem as the most warranted: Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher.

  • DG | April 26, 2013 12:20 PMReply

    What about Reese Witherspoon in Election?

  • Xian | April 30, 2013 4:52 PM

    Redact: Because, Mavis.

  • Xian | April 30, 2013 4:32 PM

    Yeah, this list has no females, and yet... some of the best antiheroes according to The Playlist's definition are antiheroines. Good choice on Witherspoon's "Election" turn... a solid performance that makes the character seem cringeworthy and very real.

  • John | April 26, 2013 11:58 AMReply

    Completely agree that, by your own definition, Freddie Quell wouldn't qualify as an anti-hero. And admission aside, you couldn't come up with more than one female antihero?

  • SL | April 26, 2013 2:11 AMReply

    Although I know it's impossible to think of every anti-hero, I feel like Patrick Bateman from "American Psycho" needs to be on this list.

  • DG | April 25, 2013 9:09 PMReply

    Agree with Freddy Quell but disagree with the assertion that most of P.T.A's protags are anti-heros, especially Sandler's Barry Egan. I think one of the defining characteristics of the anti-hero is the inability to change, grow, or learn anything from their actions, and Egan has an arc in Punch Drunk Love that finds him (heroically) transforming from an alienated, anxiety-ridden caricature to someone capable of triumphantly defending his love and striking fear into the hearts of his enemies. Daniel Plainview and Paul Sunday also seem like anti-heros on paper but in the greater context of the movie, and as the symbols of early, burgeoning American industry, they take on mythical proportions that too me places them, if not in the realm of heroism then at least into the canon of outsiders. Great article though, and another good reminder that I really need to check out Young Adult.

  • DG | April 25, 2013 9:09 PMReply

    Agree with Freddy Quell but disagree with the assertion that most of P.T.A's protags are anti-heros, especially Sandler's Barry Egan. I think one of the defining characteristics of the anti-hero is the inability to change, grow, or learn anything from their actions, and Egan has an arc in Punch Drunk Love that finds him (heroically) transforming from an alienated, anxiety-ridden caricature to someone capable of triumphantly defending his love and striking fear into the hearts of his enemies. Daniel Plainview and Paul Sunday also seem like anti-heros on paper but in the greater context of the movie, and as the symbols of early, burgeoning American industry, they take on mythical proportions that too me places them, if not in the realm of heroism then at least into the canon of outsiders. Great article though, and another good reminder that I really need to check out Young Adult.

  • JP G | April 25, 2013 8:50 PMReply

    Here's a tribute to the wonderful film that is: "The Friend's of Eddie Coyle".
    (No links allowed it seems. Go to YT and search for "Friends of Eddie Coyle Tribute Project"
    Yes, we are no Mitchum, Yates, Jordon or Keats but we loved the movie so much and wanted to do a project so...Also, what's wrong with exposing it to the modern audience? Hope many newer and older film buffs who missed it back in the day will get around to viewing this 1973 classic and read the George V. Higgins novel that 80% of the film's dialogue is sourced from. Responsible comments welcome. Thanks!

  • JP G | April 25, 2013 9:01 PM

    *Meant to type: "Friends" of Eddie Coyle.... The lost discipline of proof reading. :-)

  • oogle monster | April 25, 2013 8:46 PMReply

    Playlist, I know we get in arguments from time to time but I forgive you for everything seeing that you put Charlize Theron's career second-best performance on this list. THANK YOU! Young Adult is such a great film.

  • Noah | April 25, 2013 8:40 PMReply

    Naked does not begin with a rape. Watch the scene again. Mike Leigh has dismissed this many times.

  • TheoC | April 25, 2013 6:50 PMReply

    The writer puts in a disclaimer/explanation of the parameters for inclusion on the list, commentors bitch about the reasoning?? Read the thing.

    Superb list well written. Affleck's Robert Ford creeps me the fuck out.

  • Shalala | April 25, 2013 8:23 PM

    Well I've read the "thing" and it's surely a well-written article, but the author is using a well-known and well-understood term (that's been understood for decades) and re-defining it as "a character you don't like"... or... "a character you don't love." The list is quite silly in and of itself, evident of a novice film-buff. Aside of the aforementioned absentees, where's Clint in Unforgiven? Min-sik Choi in Oldboy? <2 I'd strongly consider. Hope the author understands she has published an amateur article disguised as a well-written piece... :\ She's probably new to the PLAYLIST... much to learn!

  • droop | April 25, 2013 6:39 PMReply

    you clearly didn't understand the master, freddie quell is no antihero and certainly does not belong on this list, and your assessment of him and the movie are just so off the mark. he absolutely has virtues. he is kind, loyal, courageous and humble. the worst

  • Andrew | April 25, 2013 6:07 PMReply

    The King of Comedy is my favorite Scorsese film.

    And glad to see I'm not the only one who views Casey Affleck's performance as Robert Ford one of the absolute greats of recent memory. I mean, geez, it's one of my favorite performances of all-time.

  • yer | April 25, 2013 5:46 PMReply

    The King of Comedy is such an underrated film. An excellent companion piece to Taxi Driver and features one of De Niro's finest performances.

  • wes | April 25, 2013 4:47 PMReply

    I can't bring myself to watch Naked even though it's sitting in my Netflix queue.

  • Ummmm | April 25, 2013 4:37 PMReply

    Your list is missing the essential anti-hero in cinema history: Jake Gittes in Chinatown. Also good mentions could have been Hackman in The Conversation, or Gould in The Long Goodbye. No offense to the author but... this list is rubbish.

  • ORO | April 29, 2013 11:04 PM

    Actually I take that back. I redact my statement. I did some further research and realized UMMMM was closer than I thought. The author of the article is a bit off in her definition. This whole article/comment is a bit sticky. Makes me question peoples credibility/gullibility these days. Where are the intelligent cinephiles at? UMMMM at least makes an intelligent and intriguing counter argument. The author has no retort? Pity...

  • Oro | April 29, 2013 5:19 PM

    Actually, if you look up the definition/history of the term, it's much closer to that described in the article than that which you've described in your comment.

  • UMMMM | April 25, 2013 4:59 PM

    And yes, I read *your* definition of an "anti-hero"... which is basically just unlikeable characters. Not the true meaning of anti-hero. By your logic - Every unlikeable character is an anti-hero or yet, every character in history not portraying heroic qualities is an anti-hero. The point of the term anti-hero is supposed to be attached to characters that go against the conventions of the "hero" and are flawed/troubled. It's what Alan Moore/Frank Miller brought to Comic Books in 1986, and what Jake Gittes/Harry Caul are to perfection. The fact that your bending the definition to your own benefit allowing Theron from Young Adult onto this list is absurd.

  • Chris | April 25, 2013 4:29 PMReply

    What about Vincent Gallo in Buffalo '66??

  • Xian | April 30, 2013 4:18 PM

    Indeed... he's very much the antihero by Playlist's definition. Totally cringeworthy performance.

  • Todd | April 25, 2013 4:13 PMReply

    A sizeable chunk of Jack Nicholson films (Five Easy Pieces, Cuckoo's Nest, etc...)

  • JP G | April 25, 2013 8:43 PM

    Oops. I meant to say that I agree with Harley Quinn's reply to Mr. Todd's initial comment.

  • JP G | April 25, 2013 8:42 PM

    Agree with Todd. It's almost like Nicholson forced his way into the article's definition of "anti-hero" in many of his roles or that it is just what we came to expect of him. In the case of the former, it's like when one tries to be funny, they aren't as funny as they are when not trying. :-)

  • Harley Quinn | April 25, 2013 5:58 PM

    I agree that in my opinion many of Jack's roles are anti heroes, but he just makes them all too cool, at least for this particular list.

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