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BAD ROLE MODELS Who's left on screen to hiss?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Round up the usual suspects!"

That might have worked in "Casablanca" 51 years ago, but when today's movie makers are casting the role of the villain, the usual suspects increasingly are off-limits.

Cast a homosexual or bisexual ("Basic Instinct," "Silence of the Lambs," "JFK"), and the gay groups will protest. Cast a woman ("Fatal Attraction," "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle"), and the feminists will cry foul. Cast Arabs or Jews, Italians or Japanese, just to name a few groups who have been offended by their Hollywood portrayals over the years, and risk a squawk from an organization that likely has "anti-defamation" in its name.

"You cannot make anyone a villain today without raising a storm of protest," says Leonard Maltin, a film historian and movie critic who appears on "Entertainment Tonight." "Certainly, sensitivities are at an all-time high."

Lawyers apparently are still fair game ("The Firm" and "Jurassic Park"), as are people with bad teeth ("In the Line of Fire") and, perennially, Nazis.

But as the makers of "Rising Sun" have found, not all former World War II enemies can be cast as the bad guy in today's movies without challenge. The movie uses an investigation of the murder of an American woman in the offices of a Japanese conglomerate as a platform for exploring fears that Japan is taking over the U.S. economy.

'Already hysteria'

"It comes out at a time when there is already hysteria about Asian immigrants and Japanese trade policies," says Karen Narasaki, a Washington-based official of the Japanese American Citizens League, one of a group of Asian-American organizations protesting the movie. "Most of the Asian characters in the movie are negatively portrayed. They're 'inscrutable.' They don't value human life."

Her complaint echoes those of countless other groups unhappy with the image Hollywood has created for them.

* Earlier this month, an Arab-American group partially succeeded in getting what its members considered offensive lyrics changed for the video version of "Aladdin," due out in October. Disney removed lyrics describing the Arab homeland as a place "Where they cut off your ear/If they don't like your face," but retained the next line, "It's barbaric, but hey, it's home."

* Last year, "Basic Instinct" managed to offend both gays and women with its depiction of ice pick-wielding lesbian and bisexual women. Gay groups disrupted shooting, revealed the movie's ending to audiences as they entered theaters, and demonstrated at the Academy Awards over this and earlier depictions of homosexual murderers.

Similarly, Italian-American groups long have decried their portrayal as murderous criminals in mobster movies such as the "Godfather" series. They and other groups have a similar message: It's not that they should never be portrayed as villains; it's that they're never portrayed as anything but villains.

"The real solution is for Hollywood to get its act together and really portray the truth of our society and show people across the board doing everything," says Michaelangelo Signorile, a New York-based gay activist whose recently published book, "Queer in America," discusses media images of homosexuals. "Then it wouldn't be a big deal to have a gay villain. But when you always have white heterosexual men as the heroes, it's a problem."

"It's only when the movie companies have shut the door to only a few narrow images that these portrayals are taken to be representative of an entire group," agrees Thomas Cripp, a history and film professor at Morgan State and Harvard universities. "If the door is open wide enough, it's not a problem."

Mr. Cripp is the author of the just-published book, "Making RTC Movies Black: The Hollywood Message Movie From World War II to the Civil Rights Era," his second in what may become a trilogy on the history of blacks in film. He argues that African Americans more commonly were ignored or portrayed as buffoons rather than demonized in past films. It wasn't until the 1970s, when blacks began making more films, that a wider range of characters -- bad and good alike -- opened up, he says.

"You can have black heavies now, now that you also have Danny Glover as a cop," Mr. Cripp says, referring to the actor's "Lethal Weapon" series.

Life imitates art?

"People have trouble separating fact from fiction," says Ms. Narasaki, citing a Supreme Court ruling last month on "hate crimes" that was sparked by a 1989 incident in which a group of black youths attacked a white youngster after seeing the civil rights movie, "Mississippi Burning." "With movies, the visual impact is so strong."

She fears that "Rising Sun" will only add to what she considers the anti-Asian sentiment currently percolating in real life.

"A lot of the public has a difficult time seeing Asian-Americans as Americans," she says. "Look at Congressman Bartlett's remarks." (Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md., drew fire earlier this year when he wondered why so many of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search winners had Asian or Middle Eastern -- rather than "normal American" -- names.)

Pushing our buttons

Hollywood, of course, is in the business of pushing buttons -- picking the right villain at the right time, the one that plays on whatever fear is gnawing at us at the moment.

Audiences roundly applauded the good wife/mother Anne Archer when she killed the bad career woman/home-wrecker Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction." Kids, no doubt many of them latchkey children, cheered on their surrogate Macaulay Culkin as he wreaked havoc on the two intruders in "Home Alone."

The evil woman character that has become increasingly common in movies -- novelist and Boston University professor Caryl Rivers dubbed her "Psychobitch" -- is part of a backlash against feminism, some women believe.

Demonizing women in movies -- Madonna in "Body of Evidence," for example, or Jennifer Jason Leigh in "Single White Female" -- is a way of confronting fears over the inroads women have made in real life, the argument goes.

Even in Disney?

The evil villainess is such a stock character in the movie industry that she turns up even in the most unlikely of films, says Karen Stoddard, who teaches a course on the image of women in American films at the College of Notre Dame.

"I just saw 'Hocus Pocus.' I thought, it's Disney, it's Bette Midler, it'll be funny," Ms. Stoddard says of the recent movie about three women executed as witches in Salem 300 years ago and reincarnated in the present. "There was so much venom in this movie. Here you have three powerful women, and yet they use that power for evil. They're horrible witches who suck the life force out of children.

"It's one thing when you go to a 'Fatal Attraction'; you're expecting to get a backlash movie. But a film like this sets you up for something totally different. That makes it more insidious."

Mr. Signorile also sees backlash in the recent rash of murderous gay villains. It's not coincidental, he says, that they appeared on screen in the wake of fears over AIDS and anger over the in-your-face tactics of some activists.

A retaliatory message

"These movies said gays can be dangerous," says Mr. Signorile, referring to "Basic Instinct," "Silence of the Lambs" and "JFK." "As the AIDS crisis wore on, I think these films were a backlash to groups like ACT-UP and Queer Nation."

Still, he remains hopeful, noting that the movie industry tends to be more open to change than others. Already, filmmakers involved with those three movies seem to have reformed, he says: Joe Eszterhas, screenwriter of "Basic Instinct," is said to be working on a script involving a gay cop; Jonathan Demme, director of "Silence of the Lambs" recently completed a movie in which Tom Hanks stars as a gay lawyer with AIDS; and Oliver Stone, who made "JFK," is said to be considering a biography of the gay politician, Harvey Milk.

If Hollywood merely puts a face on what its audiences fear, then what does this summer's crop of movie villains say about us? In these politically correct times, who is left to hate?

There's no one group under siege, and thus the messages are mixed. "Jurassic Park's" bad guy is a slobby fat guy -- is it the health movement kicking in? "Dennis the Menace's" villain is homeless -- compassion fatigue?

Practical choices

Perhaps the best villains today are the ones least likely to draw organized protest. Whoever heard of the British ("Last Action Hero") or former government-paid assassins ("In the Line of Fire") claiming discrimination?

"We've had a mini-run of British villains, and the British haven't spoken out yet in protest," Mr. Maltin notes. "And who is a safe villain these days? Someone from the federal government. What does that tell you?"

That Hollywood would rather be safe than sorry? That, as horror movie viewers should keep repeating, it's only a movie?

"I'm somewhat amused by this," he says. "A villain in a particular story is just a villain in a particular story."

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