Villainous Brits!

A few weeks ago, the regular weather guy on the radio was sick and a British meteorologist filled in. And damned if I didn't think it was the best weather forecast I'd ever heard! The report, which called for rain on a weekend in which I was traveling, turned out to be completely inaccurate, much to my surprise. I really shouldn't have been surprised, though. I know full well the limitations of meteorology, and weather reports can't be that accurate. Truth be told, I subcounsciously placed a higher value on the weather report because it was delivered in a British accent. Its not his fault, he can predict the weather no better than anyone else in the world, but the British accent carries with it an intellectual stereotype; when I hear one, I automatically associate it with intelligence.

Which brings me to John Patterson's recent article in the Guardian in which he laments the inevitable placement of British characters and actors in the villainous roles (while all the cheeky Yanks get the heroic roles):
Meanwhile, in Hollywood and London, the movie version of the special relationship has long played itself out in like manner. Our cut-price actors come over and do their dirty work, as villains and baddies and psychopaths, even American ones, while the cream of their prohibitively expensive acting talent Concordes it over the pond to steal the lion's share of our heroic roles. Either way, we lose.
One could be curious why Patterson is so upset that American actors get the heroic parts in American movies, but even if you ignore that, Patterson is stretching it pretty thin.

As Steven Den Beste notes, this theory doesn't go too far in explaining James Bond or Spy Kids. Never mind that the Next Generation captain of the starship Enterprise was a Brit (playing a Frenchman, no less). Ian McKellen plays Gandalf; Ewan McGregor plays Obi Wan Kenobi. The list goes on and on.

All that aside, however, it is true that British actors and characters often do portray the villain. It may even be as lopsided as Patterson contends, but the notion that such a thing implies some sort of deeply-rooted American contempt for the British is a bit off.

As anyone familiar with film will tell you, the villain needs to be so much more than just vile, wicked or depraved to be convincing. A villainous dolt won't create any tension with the audience, you need someone with brains or nobility. Ever notice how educated villains are? Indeed, there seem to a preponderance of doctors that become supervillains (Dr. Demento, Dr. Octopus, Dr. Doom, Dr. Evil, Dr. Frankenstien, Dr. No, Dr. Sardonicus, Dr. Strangelove, etc...) - does this reflect an antipathy towards doctors? The abundance of British villains is no more odd than the abundance of doctors. As my little episode with the weatherman shows, when Americans hear a British accent, they hear intelligence. (This also explains the Gladiator case in which Joaquin Phoenix, who is Puerto Rican by the way, puts on a veiled British accent.)

The very best villains are the ones that are honorable, the ones with whom the audience can sympathize. Once again, the American assumption of British honor lends a certain depth and complexity to a character that is difficult to pull off otherwise. Who was the more engaging villain in X-Men, Magneto or Sabretooth? Obviously, the answer is Magneto, played superbly by British actor Ian McKellen. Having endured Nazi death camps as a child, he's not bent on domination of the world, he's attempting to avoid living through a second holocaust. He's not a megalomaniac, and his motivation strikes a chord with the audience. Sabretooth, on the other hand, is a hulking but pea-brained menace who contributes little to the conflict (much to the dismay of fans of the comic, in which Sabertooth is apparently quite shrewd).

Such characters are challenging. It's difficult to portray a villain as both evil and brilliant, sleazy and funny, moving and tragic. In fact, it is because of the complexity of this duality that villains are often the most interesting characters. That British actors are often chosen to do so is a testament to their capability and talent.

Some would attribute this to the training of the stage that is much less common in the U.S. British actors can do a daring and audacious performance while still fitting into an ensemble. It's also worth noting that many British actors are relatively unknown outside of the UK. Since they are capable of performing such a difficult role, and since they are unfamiliar to US audiences, it makes the films more interesting.

In the end, there's really very little that Patterson has to complain about, especially when he tries to port this issue over to politics. While a case may be made that there are a lot of British villains in movies (and there are plenty of villains that aren't), that doesn't mean there is anything malicious behind it; indeed, depending on how you look at it, it could be considered a complement that British culture lends itself to the complexity and intelligence required for a good villain we all love to hate (and hate to love). [thanks to USS Clueless for the Guardian article]