Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Mad, Bad and Dangerous To Know.

The film character supposed to capture a cinema audience's imagination is the hero – the do-gooder, the saintly being, the nice guy. They always do the right thing, and will gladly sacrifice their own safety for the benefit of mankind. But this isn't always the case – often, it's the anti-hero who wins our hearts. The protagonist who is conspicuously contrary, maybe even the antithesis, to the archetypical hero. Whilst not completely villainous, they often display deeply flawed personality traits – unpredictable, selfish, immoral, dangerous or even downright insane. But on the plus side, they are often more attractive, intelligent and charismatic than your average person.

Fictional anti-heroes have been around since 1714, with prime examples being the darker characters created by the likes of Shakespeare and Lord Byron. But it wasn't until the Film Noir and Spaghetti Westerns of the 50's that they really gained popularity in the cinema context. Perhaps it was due to the disillusionment felt after the war, or maybe it was merely the recognition that all humans are fraught with flaws, but either way this new breed of Anti-heroes strongly appealed to cinema-goers on a subconscious level. So in celebration of these unlikely screen idols, here are our top ten most beloved Anti-heroes.

Harold Chasen - 'Harold & Maude'

Nineteen year old Harold is not a happy bunny; until he meets a certain geriatric lady friend. The morbid youngster's hobbies include faking elaborate suicides to frighten his over-bearing mother, driving a hearse and attending stranger's funerals. It is whilst attending the latter that he meets the wonderful Maude; charming, rebellious and a week shy of her eightieth birthday. Against all odds and social conventions, the pair fall head over heels in love.

However, his mother has other ideas, and, determined to marry him off to a suitable (young) lady, enrols him in a dating service. So naturally, Harold turns his shock tactics towards his would-be suitors in order to frighten them off, and hilarity ensues. What makes Harold the most loveable anti-hero is how we see him change from a death-obsessed, troubled boy to a young man in love, who can finally appreciate life – a transition which is cleverly represented by his complexion going from a ghostly pallor to positively peachy.

Baby Jane Hudson - 'Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?'

This cult-classic psychological thriller really brought the term 'sibling rivalry' to a whole new level. The story features former actress sisters 'Baby' Jane and Blanche Hudson, each of whom have had their moments in the spotlight whilst the other siblings their career came to a halt – and vice versa. Flash forward to 1962 - living together in their decrepit mansion, and life is not exactly harmonious, to say the least. Blanche is confined to wheelchair and holes herself away in her room watching her old films, whilst Jane is drinking heavily, grotesquely made up and planning a comeback.

Sure, Baby Jane has a few minor vices – murder, bullying her sister, and wearing too much make-up, to name a few – but somehow, you can't help but secretly love her. She is clearly emotionally fragile, bordering on downright deranged, and a shadow of her former glory. But she delivers pithy one liners such as 'Blanche, you aren't ever gonna sell this house... and you aren't ever gonna leave it either' with such venomous panache, that you're eager to see what she'll do next. Of course, what makes this film even more bitter-sweet is that the sisters were played by real life rivals Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. It's said that their on-screen antics weren't so much acting as genuine malice - Davis actually kicked Crawford in the head so hard she required stitches, and in retaliation Crawford loaded her clothes with weights for a scene where Davis had to carry her.

Alexander Delarge - 'A Clockwork Orange'

After watching the opening scenes of A Clockwork Orange, you may find it hard to believe that you will grow to love the violent, sadistic and selfish Alex. But trust me, you will. This fifteen year old boy's extra-curricula activities include classical music, his pet snake and speaking 'Nadsat' – an Anglo-Russian language unique to him and his Droogs. Although we see him break into houses, steal without so much as a second thought and even stab one of his fellow Droogs, by the end of the film you will be rooting for him.

When Alex's sins catch up with him and he finds himself in prison, he repents, discovers God and puts himself forwards for the innovative 'Ludivico' technique – cue some truly toe-curling moments of cinema. The technique seems to be a success and he is soon let back into society, but alas, his former victims are not so quick to forgive him as we are. You can't help but feel sorry for him as he's being beaten up/ tortured/ jumping out of a window, when you recall him earnestly stating: 'I just want to be good!'

Margot Tendembaum - 'The Royal Tenembaums'

Wes Anderson's 'The Royal Tenenbaums' tells the story of a dysfunctional family, consisting of two warring parents and their grown-up prodigal children, but it was adopted daughter Margot who was by far the Tenenbaum child who stole our hearts. An esteemed playwright at the tender age of fourteen, she is now depressed, estranged from her family and unhappily married. Her coping mechanism involves lounging in the bath for hours on end, a secretive and very complex smoking habit and a series of ill-advised affairs.

Margot is an intensely private and therefore a very mysterious character, and it is revealed via flashbacks that she's lived quite the life – she ran away from home as a child and returned missing half a finger, and had a short-lived first marriage to a Jamaican recording artist at the age of 19. Ultimately though, it's her deadpan expression and repertoire of witty one-liners that won us over. And with her poker-straight bob, eyes permanently encircled with Kohl and her penchant for wearing fur coats, she's quite the style icon.

Donnie Darko - 'Donnie Darko'

Mister Darko is a very troubled young man, and something of a Jeckyl and Hyde character. He has an imaginary friend, Frank, who happens to be a rather terrifying skeletal rabbit, who persuades Donnie to do naughty things, such as torch a teacher's house, flood his school and vandalise their mascot statue. However, when he isn't under the influence of Frank, he is a surprisingly sweet and charming individual, particularly when he's attempting to woo the new girl in school, Gretchen Ross. And for all his problems, he's very intelligent, with an impressive knowledge of Smurf culture and time travel. Of course, it does not tamper with his appeal that Darko was played by Jake Gylenhaal, and he instantly became a pin-up for brooding girls everywhere.

Withnail - 'Withnail & I'

Flamboyant alcoholic Withnail is a 'resting' (read: unemployable) actor who spends the majority of his time in a pub, drinking one solitary pint, with his level-headed yet anxiety prone house mate, referred only to as 'I'. Despite his privileged background, he is resoundingly poor, living in a squalid flat and scraping together small change to pay the bills. Withnail and 'I' decide that they need a break from doing, well, nothing, and head off to the countryside to stay at Withnail's eccentric uncle Monty's cottage.

However, the idyllic vacation they envisioned is not quite how things pan out. It pours with rain, they have just as little food here as they did back home and the pair find themselves involved in a few scrapes, the majority of which are due to Withnail's hedonistic tendencies – including a verbal slanging match with a local poacher, an apparent burglary and accidentally implicating 'I' in an amorous encounter with Monty. One of the reasons why Withnail – though selfish and insufferable – is a character dear in many's hearts is the fact that almost every line he utters is sheer comedic genius.

Mrs. Robinson - 'The Graduate'

The Graduate may well centre around the post-grad Benjamin Braddock, but the undisputed star is the seductive older woman referred to in the iconic line 'Mrs Robinson, you're trying to seduce me... aren't you?'. Accurately described by Ben as 'the most attractive of all my parent's friends', she has always acted the perfect ice queen... until one evening, she initiates an affair with Ben after trapping him in her humble abode under the pretence of being afraid to be home alone. A rather awkward affair commences, but Mrs. Robinson is a lady of few words, and they soon realise they have nothing in common.

But one day, our heroine lets her frosty demeanour slip when she poignantly reveals that she only married Mr. Robinson because she got pregnant and had to drop out of college. And thus, the plot thickens when her daughter Elaine enters the equation. At the insistence of Ben's parents and an unknowing Mr Robinson, Ben is forced to take Elaine on a date, and they begin to fall for one another - much to Mrs Robinson's fury. In fact, she is so against this burgeoning romance that she lies, bullies and even persuades Elaine to marry someone else in order to stop it! This may paint Mrs. Robinson in a bad light, but hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

Juno MacGuff - 'Juno'

A sarcastic, heavily pregnant, tomboy teenager may not sound like the kind of character that would steal your heart, but then again, Juno is not just any old gal. When 16-year-old Juno discovers she is pregnant as the product of a one-off dalliance with her adorable best friend Paulie Bleeker, she is remarkably unfazed and informs her parents in a hilariously matter of fact fashion ('I'm just gonna go ahead and nip this thing in the bud. Cos you know, they say pregnancy often leads to, you know...infants.'). She briefly considers abortion but, upon learning that at her stage of pregnancy the baby would have fingernails, decides against it.

Instead, she turns to her local paper's personal ads in order to find a suitable couple to adopt, and she soon settles on the very eager Vanessa and the slightly-less enthused Mark, a wealthy married couple. From then on, Juno must juggle pregnancy, bonding with the adoptive parents and her growing feelings for Paulie alongside the usual trials and tribulations of teenage life. With her biting wit and refreshingly different outlook on life, you may just find yourself hating your best friend, simply for not being Juno.

Alvy Singer - 'Annie Hall'

Woody Allen stars as Alvy Singer, a neurotic comedian with a complicated love life - a case of art imitating life if I ever heard one. Throughout the film we are treated to his compelling stream of consciousness on life, death, and in particular, love. The most significant lady in Alvy's life is the delightfully ditzy Annie Hall, a woman with an off-beat sense of humour and an even more unusual wardrobe. The film shows the ups and, more frequently, the downs of Alvy and Annie's turbulent relationship, ranging from a hilarious lobster-cooking scene to the sad moment where their relationship inevitably comes to an end. His extreme pessimism, cynicism and love/hate relationship with himself make for most entertaining viewing, and he comes out with some absolute gems, such as 'A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.'