Libidinal Villainy in British Acting
British cinema has long had a tradition of characters capable of a vicious streak, and when we think back to Stanley Baker, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Robert Shaw and Oliver Reed, even Albert Finney and Terence Stamp, we notice actors containing within them an intimacy of expression that allows for the surprisingly violent. American cinema seems only occasionally to possess such actors, and this might appear paradoxical if we think how much violence is central to American film. They have undeniably produced hard-men like Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin, but is there something in the British actor that suggests a much deeper terror: a hardness of will as much as muscle, of vocal intonation as physical might? With a new generation of actors with a similar streak - Daniel Craig, Christian Bale, Michael Fassbender, Robert Carlyle and Tom Hardy - we might ask what this hardness consists of.
Since we are locating the actors within the notion of Britain and Ireland can we not take it further and ask more specifically from whence they came? Most but not all are from regional areas and from working class backgrounds. Baker and Burton were Welsh valley boys, with Baker brought up in Ferndale, a village famous for two coal mining disasters in 1867 and 1869, killing over two hundred people. Burton was the 12th of 13 children born in Pontrhydfen, also a former mining village. Connery was from working class Fountainbridge in Edinburgh, while Robert Shaw was the son of a physician. Albert Finney was the son of a bookie from Salford, Terrence Stamp has been described, by Ephraim Katz in The Film Encylopedia, as a "cockney tugmaster's son". Oliver Reed's upbringing was more privileged, and closer to Shaw's: the nephew of Carol Reed, he was brought up in Wimbledon. But just as Burton and Finney's humble backgrounds were met by upmarket educations (Burton went to Oxford; Finney to RADA), Reed seemed determinedly downwardly mobile: he dropped out of school and made money bouncing, boxing and cab-driving.
The younger generation comes from equally mixed backgrounds and educations. Bale was born of a circus-performing mum and an entrepreneurial dad, and, though his birthplace was Wales, he travelled around the world in his early years, making his debut at thirteen in Spielberg's Empire of the Sun. Daniel Craig was born in Chester, his father a publican and his mum a teacher, while Fassbender was born in Heidelberg in Germany (his mother is Irish; his father German), but brought up Roman Catholic and served as an altar boy. Hardy went to a minor public school.
Trying to claim working class roots for this streak, trying to claim it sits somewhere in the class culture the actors come from won't quite work, since some were brought up in harsher social conditions than others. After all, Daniel Day-Lewis possesses this streak, and yet he is the son of the late poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis and the actress Jill Balcon. Yet ignoring class and social milieu might not be the answer either. It is as if the actors, whichever specific social class they come from, do come from a country where class matters, and where the nature of will perhaps functions quite differently from within the American context, where class is seen, however erroneously, to be of far less importance. If we accept Bernard Shaw's claim that every time an English man opens his mouth another Englishman hates him, in the US there is the impression that you can open it as wide as you like, yell, and maybe no one will hear you for miles. Does this contrast capture something of the vicious streak we are seeking to pinpoint? Is there a repressed energy in many British actors and an expansive energy in American ones that makes the violence strangely different?
This is all very speculative and will no doubt remain so, but what we can at least try and do is ground our abstract musings in concrete examples, in looking at the type of violence expressed in some of the actors we've invoked. Daniel Craig, whether playing James Bond or a builder in The Mother, Ted Hughes in Sylvia or an artist's model in Love is the Devil, seems a man who is not so much violent as ready for it. When he destroys the kitchen he has built in The Mother, or seems to Sylvia Plath's family an unusual figure when he visits the family home in Sylvia, the body's move from the social to the violent, from holding in to hitting out, seems very subtly modulated so that the violent and non-violent lose their categories, but consequently leave everything with an air of the aggressive. Equally, when Day-Lewis in There Will be Blood sits in a room full of people telling him what he should do with his wealth, again the space is filled with the potential for violence, whether released or not. In Bronson (based on the actual prisoner Charles Bronson) Tom Hardy can bring someone into his cell with a feeling of warmth, and then suddenly turn ice-cold and bite off their ear. In each instance it is important that the violence possesses the potential for non-violence, and the non-violent the potential for violence. When Tom Hardy says in an interview that there was in the character he played and the prison environment "this edge of incredible violence. You can feel it. It's like a submarine", it is this sort of violence we are exploring in British actors. It is as if the violence should contain within it the desire not to be violent, but that the desire for violence is stronger than the wish to avoid it. Any motivational force possesses a stronger irrational one. When Craig's character destroys the kitchen he has built in The Mother, this isn't a villain making a point; more a frustration taking extreme form. Even Day-Lewis's outbursts in There Will Be Blood express a power beyond the need to illustrate it: a power that courses through the blood rather than motivationally passing through the mind.
Indeed Day-Lewis's behaviour towards the young preacher in the film as he drags him through an oil slick isn't too dissimilar to Sean Connery's attitude towards Ian Bannen's child abuser in The Offence. There is the righteous tone meeting the nerves' needs, but at the same time any moral system collapses next to the body's rage. Where many an American actor contained within the behavioural demands of villainy leaves the nervous system secondary to the motivational, perhaps many a British actor takes it beyond the generally nervous and into the libidinal. When one thinks of the aggressive streak in Plainview in There Will be Blood or Tom Hardy's Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, or at the other extreme Michael Fassbender in Shame and Daniel Craig in The Mother, whether the characters are celibates or sexually promiscuous, they all possess the libidinally forceful. The violent streak contains within it the libidinal urge.
This isn't to say that American actors aren't libidinal. Michael Douglas played a series of anti-heroic figures in the late eighties and early nineties, most of whom had a problem with keeping their peckers in their pants. Jack Nicholson's devilish figure in The Witches of Eastwick seduces all three main female characters in the film, and how could we ignore Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet and Willem Dafoe in Wild at Heart? Hopper's villainy stems from mother fixations, and Dafoe has a scene of memorably perverse sexual gamesmanship with Laura Dern. Yet in none of the characters these actors play is there quite the moral righteousness within the libidinally forceful, and perhaps one way of explaining this is to open up the debate between Freud and Jung for the purposes of archetypal villainy and libidinal violence. Where Jung can say "although we are still far from having overcome our primitive mentality, which enjoys its most signal triumphs just in the sphere of sex where man is made most vividly aware of his mammalian nature, certain ethical refinements have nevertheless crept in which permit anyone with ten to fifteen centuries of Christian education behind him to progress towards a slightly higher level" (Psychological Reflections) Freud would disagree. "I consider it the most significant advance in child education that in France the State should have introduced, in place of the catechism, a primer which gives the child his first instruction in his position as a citizen and in ethical duties which will later devolve on him. But such elementary instruction is seriously deficient, so long as it does not include the field of sexuality." (On Sexuality) Jung is hardly the priest Freud later invokes: "A priest will never admit that men and animals have the same nature, which he requires as the basis of moral precepts", but he wanted to give the sexual far less significance than Freud wished, as Jung explores notions of archetypes and myths, over selves and cells. Is this a useful way of looking at the distinction between the American actor and violence as opposed to the British approach? If one accepts that most American actors are given to motivational archetypes, is the British actor more inclined to attend to the libidinal self?
While we may have moved towards the more concrete when it comes to examples, have we at the same time opened up troublesomely the speculative field still further? Perhaps, but let us think of half a dozen characters with a violent streak played by Americans, and half a dozen played by British actors. Here are the American examples: Jack Nicholson in The Shining, Michael Douglas in Falling Down, Anthony Perkins in Psycho, Joe Pesci in Good Fellas, Denzel Washington in Training Day and Albert Brooks in Drive. Here are the British: Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises, Oliver Reed as Sykes in Oliver, Sean Connery in The Offence, Christian Bale in American Psycho, Daniel Craig in Casino Royale and Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will be Blood. Most but not all would be seen as villains, and certainly Nicholson and Douglas are positioned more as anti-heroes, characters containing within them traits that are both positive and negative.
Yet the Americans in these instances it seems are much better at creating archetypal villains, as if they are looking not to illustrate the complexity of human behaviour, but instead the teasing possibility of situation. This isn't at all a failure in-itself (actors like Nicholson, Brando and De Niro are capable of course of playing characters of immense complexity); more a choice, as the character becomes a byword for a type. One reason why we've chosen examples from significant filmmakers like Kubrick and Scorsese, and non-American filmmakers working in the US like Hitchcock and Refn, is to say firstly that this isn't a lesser form of viciousness, and secondly that it concerns the body of the actor, not only or even especially the national cinema he is working in. As with the issue of class, we can't easily reduce the problem to the nationally categorical; all we can do is explore a hunch and see if there is some validity in it.
In all six American examples we give, the streak of viciousness seem to contain within it a narrative unravelling: a teasing possibility of violence rather than its opposite. The filmmakers create situations where the violence while surprising isn't unlikely. The Shining works from the irony of Jack Torrance sitting in the manager's office at the beginning of the film insisting solitude is what he needs, and we will already be wondering if this is what is best when we hear that someone years before suffered 'cabin fever' and went after his family with an axe. Equally when Joe Pesci loses his temper with the waiter in Good Fellas, we can see it coming because earlier we've seen how he responds to anybody who isn't given him what he feels is his due. The earlier character gets beaten to death; the waiter gets his toe shot off. Just as we might wonder when Jack will crack in The Shining, so whenever a character looks like they might be seen by Tommy De Vito as denying him credence, so one anticipates the possibility of violence. Partly what makes the characters of Torrance and De Vito horribly funny is that they are working within the realm of dramatic irony, "when the audience understand the implication and meaning of a situation on stage, or what is being said, but the characters do not." (Dictionary of literary Terms and Literary Theory) What Kubrick and Scorsese do is generate situations that bring out this ironic dimension.
By the same reckoning when D-Fens in Falling Down and Detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day show a capacity for violence, half the point isn't that we are surprised but that we anticipate it. We know D-Fens is the white collar worker of entitlement, and know that his redundancy is based partly on outsourcing - and so we're not surprised when he turns on an Asian shopkeeper. Training Day, meanwhile, plays on new man Jake's need for safety and security, all the while Alonzo (Washington) passes such fear off as neurosis. But we as viewers are unlikely to share Alonzo's perspective, and quickly share Jake's at one remove. Jake (Ethan Hawke) might want to convince himself that he's being unreasonably careful: we're inclined to think he isn't being careful enough.
In Psycho it might be true that Hitchcock convinces us at the end that the mother is responsible for Marion Crane's death, but we're aware pretty quickly at the motel this is one man you don't want checking you in knowing he will soon enough be looking to check you out - evident moments later when Norman peeps through the keyhole. In Drive, Albert Brooks' character's avuncular tone masks a sadistic streak, and so when he sticks a culinary object into someone's eye, it appears less that he is acting out of character, more that he likes the smooth segueing from pleasantries to the thoroughly unpleasant.
In each instance the directors play up the suspense in the situation rather than the complexity of character, and arrive at the dramatically ironic. They are archetypal figures in the sense their behaviour is dramatically constructed more than personally revelatory. The violence isn't quite libidinal as we are couching it. But what, we may ask, of the British actors? If the character of Bane appears indebted to Tom Hardy's earlier performance in Bronson, it lies in his inner rage not his external motivation. Violence in such a character functions like sexual release, a sublimation of the id from the sexual to the physically volatile. He is the hormonally maladjusted, and his villainy comes across as curiously tragic: if only Bane and not Bruce Wayne had managed to get Miranda into bed, would the phallic desire to blow up the city have been so pronounced?
In Oliver!, one of the film's most famous moments is when Reed Kills Nancy as Oliver Twist looks on. It is a primal scene meeting primal violence, as Reed murders his lover with the awareness that Oliver has been competing with him for Nancy's affections. This is of course partly about Sikes believing Nancy has betrayed him, but can we say it is also a psychosexual beating that ends in Nancy's death? Just as a year later Reed would famously wrestle with Alan Bates in another literary adaptation, Women in Love, in a moment both aggressive and sexual, so here he also confuses sex and violence.
In American Psycho the film hardly attempts sublimation: sex and violence are closely affiliated in the mind of Patrick Bateman. He is a figure of erectile ambition, with Patrick seeing phallic symbols wherever he can find them as he proves the ultimate consumer, a man in finance who knows the price of everything and the psychosexual desire behind both subject and object. In The Offence, Connery is again a figure of psychosexuality. He is the dull police officer living a bleak life who starts to take his frustrations out on Bannen's child abuser. As he struggles to stay within the confines of the job, so we might wonder whether this is the character's prosaic boredom looking for an outlet, or a frustrated sexual desire being erroneously channelled. In Casino Royale, Craig brings a tougher edge to Bond. He is no longer the hero with perks but the figure of potential pain: someone finding it difficult to trust in a world of double-cross. Merely going to bed with Bond can put a woman's life at risk, as M caustically proposes after a beauty Bond has slept with is found dead, but another can put his well-being at risk too. He falls in love with a woman who brings out his sensitive streak all the more to pinpoint his vicious one. As the actress who plays Bond's lover in Casino Royale, Eva Green, says in interviews: Bond is a man who's been hurt in the past and gets hurt again in the film. It suggests his initial misogyny is psychosexual, that a woman has tampered with his equanimity, and the sort of sexual pleasure Bond usually experiences is replaced by libidinal despair. He can't easily distinguish between sex and violence as Bond usually can, as the job offers the casual sexual pleasure and the casual dispensing of baddies, and becomes the libidinal hero instead of the archetypal one. He is someone whose feelings get caught up in his violent impulses, and consequently makes him a much more complex figure than usual.
This is equally true of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. But where Craig's Bond confuses the sexual and the violent for the first time as he falls in love with Vespa, Plainview's problem is that his sexuality is repressed as he puts all his energy into becoming an oil man. Neither archetypal hero nor villain, he is someone who suggests the sexual in his actions, but who is devoid of sexual satisfaction in his life. Where the preacher Eli whom he kills at the end of the film is a sexless presence, casting Day-Lewis as Plainview creates a certain anomalous question: what does a man who seems so sexually charismatic do to bury these urges? The answer lies in the ending: he cannot repress them any longer and the murderous moment comes across like a complex metaphor as well as an act of graphic violence: the blood indicative of an oil spillage and orgasmic release.
Perhaps sometimes one needs to write articles that could be called perforated, write them knowing that any argument offered is suggestive rather than conclusive, capable of ready contradiction through examples that counter one's main point. But just because an article is capable of easy contradiction, this needn't mean it is without usefulness, and perhaps this is what happens when one writes on a hunch. In this instance it is a hunch that says, generally, British and American actors have a relationship with violence that is subtly different, with one based on the archetypal and the other on the libidinal, one closer to a Jungian problematic, the other to a Freudian one. Perhaps there are actors, whether American or British, who seem to capture something in between. Actors like Hopper in Blue Velvet, Dafoe in Wild at Heart, Gary Oldman in Leon and Tim Roth in Rob Roy, with the American actors leaning towards the libidinal within the archetypal, and the British actors the archetypal within the libidinal. We're looking here not at all at categorical notions, only loose definitions. "Literary scholars may write pages and pages trying to explain why villains behave the way they do; but the average reader is more likely to decide on the run, through an automatic process", says, Enrique Camara Arenas in 'Social Cognition and Literary Villainy: from Stereotype to Causal Analysis'. Is it maybe in this instance to the general, automatic process that we sense the difference between the American and British approach to violence?
© Tony McKibbin