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10 Essential Cinematic Antiheroes

The Playlist By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist April 25, 2013 at 3:48PM

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 movie satires, 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.
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Assassination of Jesse James Casey Affleck

Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) in Andrew Dominik's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (2007)
Andrew Dominik may be another of those directors who is more likely to populate his films with antiheroes than anyone you could recognise as an outright hero, but while his more recent "Killing Them Softly" has its advocates among us, really it felt slight in its cynicism compared to the arching, aching loss and sadness that permeates his elegiac anti-western "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." And a great part of the reason for that is the simply incomparable performance of Casey Affleck as the titular coward, possibly, hyperbole aside, this writer's favourite screen performance of the past decade. Brad Pitt's casting here was clever too, and his performance is perfectly modulated in that he allows himself to be, essentially, peripheral to Affleck's Ford. He's the outline of a man, the shoes and clothes and hair and voice of a legend -- he is what Ford is obsessed by, but the film is not about him. Instead it's about hero worship turned twisted and sour, captured unforgettably in Affleck's expression every time he looks at him: warring instincts of painful adoration and admiration, pierced by jealousy and cravenness and self-hatred. Like some of the other admirer/admired pairs on this list, the relationship turns violent, but here we go even deeper into the psychology of the antihero-as-killer. Ford just wants to be important to James, but without any of the necessary resources, it feels the only way he can make any sort of impression on his hero's life is to end it. Directly and chillingly evoking other, more recent real-life assassinations (Mark Chapman killing Lennon, or John Hinckley's Travis Bickle-inspired attempt on Reagan's life both spring to mind), Affleck's Ford is a scintillating study of misplaced ardor, the desire for notoriety and what results when you give an impotent, disaffected man a gun.

Sweet Smell of Success Curtis

Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) in Alexander Mackendrick's "The Sweet Smell of Success" (1957)
If you're in any doubt over our love for Alexander Mackendrick's tar-black, cruel-hearted masterpiece "The Sweet Smell of Success," you haven't been paying very close attention. We include in almost any list we possibly can, and here it is again, this time because of its outstanding turn by Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco, the slippery, cocky lapdog and factotum of powerful columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Falco is so willing to do anything to get a little of Hunsecker's limelight that the desperation practially oozes from him like sweat, and it's not just that he doesn't mind who he steps on on his way up the ladder, he actively seeks opportunities to extort, cajole and manipulate if it'll get him even half a rung higher. Contrast this quick-thinking irredeemably selfish persona with the fawning, grovelling way he attempts to ingratiate himself with Hunsecker and you have a particularly loathsome creation. And while in many other cases on this list, part of the fascination is in making us almost root for these unlikable characters, here we get the pleasure of watching Falco get his comeuppance, as he overplays his hand and all his delicate dastardly plans come tumbling down around his ears. The fact that most of this happens at the hands of other characters who are in no way better, but simply more powerful or luckier than he is, makes it all the more poetic.

Young Adult Theron

Mavis (Charlize Theron) in Jason Reitman's "Young Adult" (2011)
Well yes, perhaps there's a tiny element of tokenism here, but while we had to rack our brains a minute for an antiheroine to include, once Mavis Gary occurred to us, we realised she fitted in perfectly with this low company. Really one of the most unlikable characters to carry a mainstream film in recent memory, the central character of Jason Reitman's Diablo Cody-scripted film is an unrepentant manipulator queen bee, whose motivation from the get-go is to win back a married ex not so much it seems because of some deep abiding love for the man, but out of pique and wounded pride. Abrasive, untruthful and, in her own way, a raging misogynist, Mavis certainly begins as a monster of self-involvement, but as her trip home unfurls, or should we say unravels, and she makes more and more tragic miscalculations and discovers that perhaps people aren't quite so easily bullied as they were at high-school age, we start to see the edifice of this constructed version of herself crumble away to something more recognisably human underneath. And we still don't like her. Even if her motivations are later revealed to have a little more foundation than we thought, by the end, Mavis' character flaws and her capacity for self-delusion are such that she's going to turn away from the possibility of actual change and help when it comes, and resume, we have to assume, something of her former life. All kudos to Theron for portraying such a character -- we'd argue that her Oscar-winning turn as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster" is the less brave performance -- here she doesn't even have physical ugliness to hide behind.

So maybe, as Pupkin himself would say, it's better to be a king for a day than a schmuck for a lifetime, but who said you couldn't be both? This is a hugely subjective list of performances and characters that really left an impression on us, but we could have gone on forever -- the antihero archetype has been around arguably as long as fiction and has spawned hundreds of movie iterations. The sweet, or rather sour, spot we tried to find historically really occurs after the idea of the film as morality play begins to be deconstructed, because though a case could be made for everyone from Buster Keaton's Stoneface to Sam Spade being part of this tradition, there was a tendency for the antiheroes of yore to be cut from decent cloth, be it ever so rough. And as we mentioned, the ones we are most interested in here are characters with whom we empathize, without ever really sympathizing, and the idea of watching movies revolving around completely unlikable, possibly despicable and base characters seems to have been an acquired taste, like olives, that cinemagoers started to find palatable only later, most notably in the experimental, deconstructionist '70s. 

Still, there are some glaring omissions, notably droog Alex in "A Clockwork Orange," who we just felt has already had enough written about him in this context, so much so we don't have a whole lot to add. That having an antihero as your main character is a difficult sell was demonstrated by the (relative) failure of then-sure-thing Jim Carrey's foray into the territory with "The Cable Guy." And also in the realm of comedy, there's Seth Rogen's schlubby security guard in "Observe and Report" but that's a film that, with apologies to the many Playlisters who disagree, this writer just can't get with. And those are just some fairly random mentions -- at the less anti-dramatic end of the spectrum, there's a whole rogues' gallery of batshit weirdos -- from Patrick Bateman to "Chopper" to "Bronson" to Michael Douglas's character in "Falling Down," which on a different day, and with different parameters, we could have included. We also excluded foreign-language films simply for length's sake, and because we could probably devote an entire list solely to French antiheroes alone (though while many of them fit the bill in most ways, they're often still a teensy bit aspirational for us, with their cheekbones, casual sex and Gitanes). 

"The King of Comedy" closes the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday April 27th and celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Star Jerry Lewis is also being honored at this year's Cannes Film Festival, where his most recent film, "Max Rose," will screen.

This article is related to: The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Features, Young Adult, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Master


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