11/26/2013 03:12 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2014

In Praise of Evil Old Men

I began this with broader objectives in mind but it eventually came down to just four guys: Clooney, Hanks, DeNiro, Pacino. Four pretty good actors. Boatloads of awards and blockbusters on their resumes. Pacino, at 73, and DeNiro, at 70, represent the old guard of big-time, American film actors, beloved by fans and film critics alike. Hanks and Clooney represent the next generation. At 57 and 52 respectively, they are still in their prime. Each is starring in two significant films this Fall, and their names are already being discussed by the Oscar prognosticators.

Now, here's the thought: Hanks and Clooney do not play bad guys. Captain Phillips - good guy. Matt Kowalski (I don't know if he's a captain in Gravity, but he's pretty close) - good guy. The character Clooney will play in The Monuments Men - good guy. Hanks may challenge my thesis here because he is taking on Walt Disney, but judging by the previews of Saving Mr. Banks, I suspect we're looking at another good guy.

Now consider those old-timers. Sure, today, DeNiro only plays loveable old coots in comedies, but there was a time when he was Max Cady in Cape Fear, Al Capone in The Untouchables, and somewhat nuanced crooks, but crooks nonetheless, in Goodfellas and Casino. For crying out loud, he was Don Corleone. And so was Pacino. Michael Corleone is one of the greatest monsters in American film. Nuanced, to be sure, but monstrous. And if that's not enough for you, he was Tony Montana (Scarface) to boot. And those are just the highlights.

The point is, there was a time when our biggest stars played bad guys. Not constantly, but not infrequently either. Today, it seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Consider the other major-league American actors over 70. Eastwood played a host of gunfighters and otherwise morally ambiguous characters , from Frank Morris (Escape from Alcatraz) to William Munny (Unforgiven). Nicholson - Frank Costello (The Departed) is a tremendous asshole. In The Shining, all work and no play makes his Jack a psychotic murderer. Even the gentle Dustin Hoffman managed to play Captain Hook (Hook) and a Dick Tracy villain.

It's not that Clooney (Ides of March) and Hanks (Road to Perdition) have never played characters who have done evil. But it's very rare, and even those characters have qualities that make them borderline good guys. And the same applies to many of their leading man compatriots between the ages of 45 and 60. Think of Will Smith and Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt and Kevin Costner. How many genuine bad guys, or at least, credible bad guys, (I'm not talking about Captain Jack Sparrow and I don't understand Tree of Life well enough to really have any idea what Pitt is playing there) among them?

There are exceptions: Tom Cruise has played some bad guys. Sean Penn has played a lot of bad guys. Denzell Washington won an Oscar playing a bad guy. But I would argue that back in the '60s and '70s, Hollywood was far more comfortable having its leading men portray evil characters than they are today.

So why is this the case? It could be that the era of DeNiro and Pacino was an anomaly. After all, did Hollywood leading men of the '40s and '50s play villains? Hollywood was protective of the image of its stars and usually there were contract "heavies" who took on the bad guy roles so that Wayne and Bogie could beat them down in the end. Cary Grant fans all know the famous story of Suspicion, where the ending was changed because no one wanted to see Grant as an evildoer. But as Hollywood moved into the '50s, even stars like Wayne (in Red River and The Searchers) and Bogie (in In a Lonely Place and The Caine Mutiny) began taking on bad guys. Gary Cooper did a few. Henry Fonda did a few. Only Gregory Peck was totally immune. Atticus Finch was forever a white knight.

You can see the progression of leading man roles from the '50s through '70s and '80s and onto today as an inverted parabola. American leading men were beginning a descent into the darker reaches of character in the '50s and '60s, and then coming back up to the golden age's lofty moral standards by the turn of the millennium. My own view on this is that a spark lit when the Hiroshima bomb went off and fanned through the Viet Nam and Watergate and civil rights battles caused, or perhaps permitted, us to examine the darker side of our icons. And the Hollywood leading man is certainly iconic. We may have bottomed out in 1979 when Jimmy Carter spoke of the "crisis in confidence" pervading America. But times of great national malaise often lead to the best art precisely because artists have something significant to examine. (See German film in the 1920s.) Of course, we all know Ronald Reagan made everything rosy again, and gradually it became less and less proper to see our leading men as potential monsters.

But I kind of miss the monsters. Seeing DeNiro today make one silly comedy after another is more depressing than seeing him play a villain. We're in an era where Argo beats out Zero Dark Thirty for the Oscar, which is fine. I know everyone out there loves Argo fuck yourself. But recognize that at least one of the reasons we prefer it is because it reminds us that America (and American moviemaking) can lick anyone in the world, without any of the moral ambiguity. Without any of the monsters. Without Max Cady or Tony Montana. We want to see ourselves as Captain Phillips, not as Michael Corleone. Is that really who we are?