Tonight, Fox Broadcasting will reveal the winner of “American Idol,” but, frankly, it doesn’t matter. The show has already found its real star: judge Simon Cowell.Can you name even one judge of the Miss America pageant this year? Of course not. But Cowell has gotten more attention than any of the singers, and in the process has become America’s favorite new villain. (TV Guide called him “the Maestro of Misery”; syndie show “Extra” labeled him Sinister Simon; and an “Idol” segment featured one contestant fantasizing about running over Cowell with a new car.) “I tell them the truth,” Sinister Simon told Reel Life. “I think I am being nice, because I’m saving them a lot of anguish in the future.” So why is Cowell getting a bad rap while TV talkshow host Dr. Phil, according to the current Newsweek cover story, has thousands of fans due to his brand of “tough love,” in which he confronts people “who refuse to take a hard look at their own lives”? Is it possible that the key factor is the fact that Cowell is English and Dr. Phil McGraw is American? COWELL IS JUST THE LATEST in a long line of Brits to horrify and delight U.S. audiences. For some reason, a New England twang or a French accent do not connote villainy in the same way as an English one. (And it has to be a posh accent; working-class dialects for baddies are only used in U.K. crime dramas.) Particularly at the beginning of “American Idol,” TV scribes compared Cowell to another U.K. native, “The Weakest Link’s” Anne Robinson. Such comparisons “gave me an awful lot of anguish,” he said last week. “I didn’t want to be perceived as the nominal English villain.” Perhaps all this stems back to the American Revolution — Yankees have passed down a mistrust of the English to each new generation. Hollywood has fueled the fire; showbiz’s obsession with Brit meanies has been around since talkies began, but it’s increased in the past couple of decades. Here are a few of key moments for Brit scoundrels in Hollywood.
- Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains, “The Adventures of Robin Hood” — They were killers. Worse, they were snotty. Worst of all, they had those rich, plummy accents. A slew of actors helped reinforce the notion that an English accent is synonymous with evil, such as Trevor Howard, James Mason, Laurence Harvey, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Charles Laughton and Sydney Greenstreet (the last two actors were English, fiendish and fat — truly a terrifying combination to Americans).
- George Sanders, “All About Eve” — Addison De Witt is the only character who can control the scheming Eve Harrington. That’s because he’s a newspaper columnist (oh, if only we had that power!) and, of course, because he’s English. In an argument, Eve (Anne Baxter) throws open the door and shouts “Get out!” Sanders stares at her and quietly sneers, “You’re too short for that gesture.” This helped cement the image of Brits as people who, without even trying, can make anyone feel like an idiot.
- Joan Collins, “Dynasty” — Flouncing around with big shoulder pads and sucking in her cheeks, Collins ushered in the era when English treachery took on a heavy dose of camp. And makeup.
- Alan Rickman, “Die Hard” — The villain, Hans Gruber, is the consummate heavy: He is a German, but with an English accent. Clearly, if someone is bad, they should be played by a U.K. actor even if the character is an American (Anthony Hopkins, “Silence of the Lambs”), a Nazi (Ralph Fiennes in “Schindler’s List”), or even a monkey (Tim Roth, “Planet of the Apes”).
- Scar, “The Lion King” — For Pete’s sake, in a family of African lions, how did everyone else get an American accent while scheming Uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons) sounds like he’s from Oxford?
- Anne Robinson, “The Weakest Link” — All of Hollywood’s earlier Brit baddies were cruel because they wanted something (the oil, the money, the kingdom, whatever). Robinson, however, insults the guests for no reason. She reinforces the idea of the Brit who’s nasty for the sheer fun of it.