David Prowse is not a name that most people would know, but his contribution to American pop culture is undeniable and indelible. The Bristol, England native won the British weightlifting championship three years running in the 60s, but his claim to fame roots to something else he did with his body. In 1977, and for several years to follow, Prowse donned a heavy all black outfit in order to play the role of Darth Vader in the iconic “Star Wars” series. Prowse did not provide the voice (that would be James Earl Jones), but Prowse was the man behind the mask.
The film’s director, George Lucas, originally offered Prowse the choice to play either Vader or Han Solo’s lovable wookie sidekick Chewbacca. Apparently, there was little time elapsed between the proposed choice and Prowse’s decision. “That’s the part for me,” said Prowse of Vader. “In my opinion, people will always remember the villain. They can never remember the goodies.” While Prowse’s point may not be entirely correct, given the legion of fans to this day that are dedicated to Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia, Prowse is right about one thing: Throughout cinematic history, the role of the antagonist has provided a lot of juicy parts. So long as there have been feature films, there have been richly drawn and vivid screen villains. Yet since the dawn of cinema, villains have undergone some changes.
Despite these changes, Darth Vader would absolutely be accepted in today’s multiplexes. Now more than ever, today’s more memorable cinematic villains are more likely to be characters with superpowers, or inhabiting a fantasy environment. This is attributable to several reasons, one of the most potent being Vader himself. Cinematic history has always been imbued with fantasy/sci-fi films, but “Star Wars” elevated these works to popcorn thrillers.
Lucas, along with contemporary and pal Steven Spielberg, practically invented the modern blockbuster. Since then, Hollywood has increasingly been keen on producing these tentpole pictures. In the last decade, the big studios have relied heavily on comic book and video game adaptations to draw in hoards of teenage and young adult men. As a result, villains are more likely to resemble chemically altered figures like the Green Goblin, as opposed to cold-hearted bankers such as Mr. Potter. Don’t get me wrong though, that’s not to say today’s film villains are unable to rely solely on their wits in order to pursue the greater evil, because they can.
For three years running at the end of this past decade, the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor found its way to actors Javier Bardem, Heath Ledger and Christoph Waltz, all of whom played villainous characters. Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight” may have been the evildoer in a comic book movie, sure, but the Joker has no superpowers, unless you count a superhuman thirst to watch the world burn. Anton Chigurh and Hans Landa have actual motivations for their wrongdoings outside of a vicious nihilism. In Chigurh’s case, it is a quest for money. This is a constant in cinematic history; greed has, and most likely always will be, a driving force for the villains of the silver screen. Avarice is a natural human condition that has played out in drama before the invention of movie cameras.
What has not remained a constant is the amount of female villains in the cinema. During the first decades of the film industry, films were peppered with juicy, villainous parts for women. The femme fatale, perfectly embodied by Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity,” was even something of a stock character in the 30s and 40s. Cruella de Ville terrorized family audiences in “101 Dalmatians,” and pretty much every female character in “All About Eve” is scheming and conniving in one way or another.
Those days are somewhat gone however. Try and conjure up a list of female villains from the last ten years, and you’re going to find a relatively bare piece of paper with a lonely entry of Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada.” This goes back to the studios’ insistence on catering to young boys. You would think these adolescent boys would get a kick out of seeing the hero take down a powerful woman, but the studios have instead chosen to keep these films as male-centric as possible, allowing women in roles as the buxom love interest exclusively.
Again, cinematic history is overflowing with memorable and haunting villains, ranging from Michael Myers to Tommy DeVito. I can’t wait to see what future decades of cinema have to offer us.
Zack Mandell is a movie enthusiast, writer of movie reviews, and owner of www.movieroomreviews.com which is a great source for cast interviews. He writes extensively about the movie industry for sites such as Gossip Center, Yahoo, NowPublic, and Helium.
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