Alfred Hitchcock once said: ‘The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture’. “Villain” however, didn’t clearly mean “bad guy” till the 1800s. The Medieval Latin villanus meant villager, which went on to be used to describe those outside of polite society: the poor, criminals, etc. A villain therefore, can be said to simply be an outsider, a malcontent over-reacher who isn’t satisfied with his lot; he is the outcast, cast in the role of the baddy.
My ultimate movie villain is Hollywood itself. Its victims are long-suffering and wither away slowly. It even transforms heroes into villains! After all, it’s a brutal place, and being spurned by it is a pretty dry pill to swallow.
When Hollywood rejects you, in your mind it naturally becomes the corrupt, dollars-in-his-eyes, cigar-smoking, corporate big-shot
Case and point: David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001). In this film, people dream, hallucinate and envision alternative realities. Everything is an illusion, and while we hear music, “No hay banda!” (there is no band). The dream of being a Hollywood star is not as it seems as Lynch demythologises this fantasy inventively through his presentation of the toxic relationship between actor and Hollywood director. When Hollywood rejects you, dashing your dreams, in your mind it naturally becomes the corrupt, dollars-in-his-eyes, cigar-smoking, corporate big-shot looking out for his own interests, who wouldn’t know true talent if it smacked him across the face. You can’t recognise your own flaws, or at least you don’t want to – delusion is much more flattering. Hollywood then deludes itself in the same way: it rejects you based on you not being the polished product, the promotable starlet, and then blames your lack of talent and charisma. It’s a toxic relationship with both sides spewing venom at each other. Here the Hollywood dream becomes a nightmare, and we’re left with the sense that following your dreams can become more menacing and soul-destroying than it can be fulfilling.
This is certainly the case in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), an eerie psychological thriller in which Jane, a forgotten, fame-hungry child-star, lives with and abuses her disabled sister Blanche, who did enjoy success in Hollywood. Jane, now an old woman, is a one-trick pony whose mind is rapidly deteriorating: she creepily, endlessly repeats the one number she used to perform in her hay-day, while trying on sickly pink ribbons and dresses. We don’t know if she crippled her sister on purpose, we don’t know if she’s planning on killing her, but we do know that the fleeting fame show-business provided her with, only to take it away from her again, has created a monster.
While Hollywood itself is going through a crisis of its own as the silent-movie era comes to an end in the film; it can no longer contain its own legends.
However, even those that make it in Hollywood don’t stand a chance. In Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), silent-movie star Norma Desmond lives a Miss-Havisham type existence, stuck in the past, dependent on fake fan-mail penned by her butler, desperately clinging to her fame. While Hollywood itself is going through a crisis of its own as the silent-movie era comes to an end in the film; it can no longer contain its own legends. Thus, it rejects the very stars that gave it life. Everyone has their sell-by-date but once larger-than-life, how can you settle for life alone? Norma Desmond can’t. Despite being a tragic victim of the silver-screen, she is still made villainous by it, as in the film’s opening scene, an ambitious, young screen-writer lies dead in her pool, all thanks to her.
Hollywood knows we’ll buy into it as a dream, as a business, and as a lie. It’s the perfect, villainous, bad guy.