Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Hard Bastards

Was chatting to one of my mates about actors who don't mind being unsympathetic when playing heroes. The ones who don't need to have at least one key scene where their character is shown to be a wonderful, sensitive human being. The ones who are prepared to play hard, unlikeable, even misanthropic characters. The ones who are prepared to play real bastards.

Obviously John Wayne came up. As Ethan Edwards in The Searchers -- possibly his most famous role -- he is a bitter, racist, vengeance-driven bastard. In fact I would argue that he's not even the hero of the film. Yes, he gets the most screentime and has his name over the credits but the real hero of the story is Jeffrey Hunter. Even if you don't agree that Hunter is the film's hero he is at least its conscience. He is the moral centre of the film, Wayne is just there to act hard. The same is true of Red River. Wayne starts off in his typical firm but fair persona but about halfway through the film he crosses the line and it becomes clear that he is the villain of the piece and Montgomery Clift is the real hero. Perhaps not coincidentally The Searchers and Red River are considered to contain two of Wayne's best performances.

And James Cagney. Yes, he played heroes. He even played jolly romantic leads when he was in song and dance mode. But he is best remembered for playing villains. White Heat, The Public Enemy -- he was '30s cinema's favourite psychotic gangster. Even later on in his career he could still play bastards. His portrayal of Captain Morton in Mister Roberts is hissably evil and the film's a comedy!

Humphrey Bogart also played his fair share of villains before getting a shot at a heroic role. And then he played Sam Spade; a hard, cynical, virtually amoral bastard. Not exactly role model material. Yes, he played softer roles such as in The African Queen but he still retained his hard edge. The Caine Mutiny shows him going into meltdown, his portrayal of Captain Queeg the dramtic flipside to Cagney's comedic martinet in Mr Roberts.

Other actors come to mind. Michael Caine in Get Carter. Clint Eastwood in White Hunter, Black Heart or High Plains Drifter or the original Dirty Harry.

Wayne. Cagney. Bogart. Caine. Eastwood. And then we added another name to this illustrious list ...

Richard Briers.

Yes, I know he was the voice of Roobarb and Custard. And I know he was Tom Good in The Good Life. But let's face it, Tom was a bit of a bastard. He jacked in his job and decided to basically start a farm in his Surbiton home, subjecting his wife Barbara to a life of hardship and toil and financial destituiton and he expects her to happily go along with it. And while he continually takes potshots at his next door neighbour Jerry for continuing to take part in the rat race Jerry's the one Tom goes crawling to when he needs money. Plus there's the fact that Tom obviously fancies his chances with Jerry's wife, Margo. He sees how worked up she gets when he teases her and he suspects that this passion extends to other areas.

And in Ever Decreasing Circles Briers's character Martin is basically a little Hitler. His obsession with rules and regulations and always doing everything by the book is annoying enough but he has hardly any warmth to him, any humanity. Yes, the occasional episode would show the softer side to his character but mainly he was there to be unlikeable, his desperation to cling to his ordered little world no matter what sometimes shifting from comedy to darker, more unsettling territory.

So here's to Richard Briers. One of acting's best bastards!


Anonymous said...

Richard Briers? John Wayne? All wimps compared to Detective Vic Mackey, brilliantly played by the actor Michael Chicklis in the ball-busting American cop show, The Shield.Now he IS the master bastard.

Dave Price

Stuart Young said...

Richard Briers versus Michael Chicklis? No contest! Briers would crush that Ross Kemp wannabe.