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Role-playing gets very complicated in today’s world

Contempo movies blur the lines between victims, villains and heroes

It’s easy — and unfair — to reduce all characters in Hollywood movies to good and bad archetypes: the white hat (Gary Cooper in “High Noon”) and the black hat (Walter Brennan in “My Darling Clementine”), the superhero (Sean Connery in the Bond films) and the supervillain (Jeremy Irons’ Claus von Bulow, Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter).

There have been notable exceptions — roles distinguished by conflict and inner turmoil. And sometimes those performances are even honored. Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland and Meryl Streep are just a handful of the many who have won Oscars for portraying such characters. Leigh did it twice, as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” and as Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” De Havilland managed it as Catherine Sloper in “The Heiress,” and Streep landed her one Academy Award in the lead category by transforming herself into Sophie Zawistowski in “Sophie’s Choice.”

Still, Hollywood has often rewarded the cut-and-dried, showering the predictably brave (Cooper in “Sergeant York,” Charlton Heston in “Ben-Hur”) with Oscar gold. The utterly nefarious have been similarly feted, albeit less frequently (Michael Douglas in “Wall Street” and, of course, Irons in “Reversal of Fortune” and Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs”).

More recently, a new type has entered Oscar’s consciousness in a big way: the victim. Jodie Foster’s turn as a rape victim in “The Accused” leaps to mind, and so do both of Hilary Swank’s Acad Award-winning perfs, in “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million Dollar Baby.”

This year, though, things could be different. Suddenly, there’s a plethora of parts in which the titular heroes are also victims, and the villains are, well, not so bad. Which is not to say that the traditional rules and roles don’t still apply. They do, just less absolutely.

Take Judi Dench in “Notes on a Scandal,” a film she dominates as a deluded blackmailer who is also a repressed lesbian. She’s evil, to be sure, but you feel for her to some degree: poor old lady stuck teaching history to working-class ingrates. She just needs a friend, and a lot of therapy. And in the same film, Cate Blanchett plays her victim — but, hey, she’s not so innocent: She’s having sex with a 15-year-old student.

On the other end of the spectrum is Streep — continuing to plow the fields of comedy while leaving drama fallow — in “The Devil Wears Prada.” As an Anna Wintour manque, she thinks nothing of making life miserable for all around her. But when her marriage goes south, your heart goes out to her. (Also, she looks fabulous.)

Then there’s Annette Bening in “Running With Scissors.” She leaves her precocious son to live with a wacky psychiatrist just so she can pursue her narcissistic dreams, but at least she’s a striver. Besides, drugs make you do crazy things.

We have less trouble loving rotund Richard Griffiths in the screen version of Alan Bennett’s Tony-winning “The History Boys.” He plays a dedicated teacher markedly out of step with today’s imperatives, instilling in his students at an English all-boys school that rarest of commodities, a love of learning for its own sake. But there’s a catch. He also occasionally gropes their genitals when giving them rides home on his motorbike.

Pedro Almodovar has won two Oscars, so his films, though in Spanish, are almost automatically in Hollywood’s orbit. His latest, “Volver,” stars Penelope Cruz and certainly qualifies. As Raimunda, Cruz is a model mom, hard working and always there for her daughter. She does, however, cover up a murder — of her own husband, no less.

Speaking of killing people, what’s to be made of Ben Affleck’s compelling portrayal of George Reeves in “Hollywoodland”? The film suggests that the one-time star of TV’s “Superman” may have been the victim of foul play rather than suicide. Regardless, Affleck plays him as a sympathetic victim — an eager actor undermined by his own success — except, of course, when he’s feverishly social climbing or sleeping with the wife of an influential producers, and then dumping her for a younger model.

And how about Kirsten Dunst as Mrs. Louis XVI? In Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” the actress gives auds an airhead who loses her head. History offers no more ambiguous a victim.

Even Helen Mirren’s stately Queen Elizabeth II is not entirely free of mixed motives. As a model of stiff-upper-lip stoicism, she’s unquestionably the heroine of Stephen Frears’ “The Queen,” but she’s no teddy bear. Behind those narrowed eyes is a consummate political brain, calculating not just her future but the monarchy’s as well. And though she’s also a martyr of sorts — imprisoned in high office — her jail is a palace, and she’s given plenty of furlough.

Of course, there are still plenty of old-fashioned heroes, villains and victims on movie screens, and some of them seem pretty likely to fall under Oscar’s gaze. Jack Nicholson’s manipulative mob boss in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” is one. So is Forrest Whitaker’s Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland.” There are also the young stars of Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers” — you can’t beat WWII for heroes, villains and victims — and Nicolas Cage’s trapped firefighter in Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center.”

And let’s not forget Abigail Breslin, the child beauty queen at the center of “Little Miss Sunshine.” She may not be fighting the Big One, but it’s a battle nonetheless when you’re a member of the kooky Hoover clan. If Tatum O’Neal, Quinn Cummings and Anna Paquin have taught us anything, it’s to never underestimate the power of cute.

VICTIMS: FROM TOTAL ICON (CHICKS) TO MOST REACTIVE (HALEY)

  1. The Dixie Chicks as themselves in “Shut Up & Sing” Trapped in George Bush’s America.

    Dixie Chick Martie Maguire on being targeted by the right wing, in “Shut Up & Sing”:

    “Radio turned against us in a day. We had a song that was No. 1, and the next day, it was, like, No. 70. Nobody I know understands how this happened. If people had just had a few protests and not bought our albums, I could understand it, but it just snowballed. It brought out the ugly side of people.”

  2. Nicolas Cage as a firefighter in “World Trade Center.” Trapped in the WTC rubble.

  3. Ben Affleck as actor George Reeves in “Hollywoodland.” Trapped in a Superman costume.

  4. Kirstin Dunst as a clueless queen in “Marie Antoinette.”Trapped in Versailles.

  5. Will Ferrell as a tax man in “Stranger Than Fiction.” Trapped in Emma Thompson’s novel.

  6. Jennifer Hudson as a potential superstar in “Dreamgirls.” Trapped by her lack of good representation.

  7. Cate Blanchett as a wounded mother-wife in “Babel.” Trapped in small-town Africa.

  8. Juliette Binoche as a Bosnian refugee in “Breaking and Entering.” Trapped in London.

  9. Rinko Kikuchi as a promiscuous virgin in “Babel.” Trapped in her own grief.

  10. Jackie Earle Haley as a sympathetic sex offender in “Little Children.” Trapped in his own body.

    Jackie Earle Haley on playing a pedophile in “Little Children”:

    “When Ronny focuses on his impulses, when he’s spending time obsessing, he’s effectively removing himself from the world. He doesn’t think about how bad he’s got it. The obsessions itself allows him to escape.”

VILLAINS: FROM MOST EVIL (ECKHART) TO PAPER TIGER (STREEP)

  1. Aaron Eckhart as tobacco lobbyist in “Thank You for Smoking.” Kills millions, but is a good father.

    Aaron Eckhart on his spinmeister in “Thank You for Smoking”:

    “He’s a scuzzball with a heart. We know that maybe he doesn’t believe wholeheartedly in his product, but he loves to spin … with the merchants of death. They talk about firearms, alcohol and cigarettes and who’s killed more that week. They’re really the only people that we can talk openly with — the other killers of mankind.”

  2. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland.” Kills thousands, but employs people.

  3. Tim Robbins as apartheid enforcer in “Catch a Fire.” Enslaves millions, but is a good father.

  4. Jack Nicholson as reprehensible Mob mentor in “The Departed.” Kills dozens, but likes opera.

  5. Matt Damon as reprehensible cop in “The Departed.” Kills people, but never fails to smile.

  6. Judi Dench as blackmailer in “Notes on a Scandal.” Covets Cate, but is loyal friend.

  7. Jamie Foxx as conniving manager in “Dreamgirls.” Backstabs, but he knows talent when he sees it.

  8. Ryan Gosling as heroin-addicted schoolteacher in “Half Nelson.” Does drugs, but is a good teacher.

  9. Annette Bening as psychotic-absentee mom in “Running With Scissors.” Abandons her family, but has a real eye for color coordination.

  10. Meryl Streep as difficult magazine chief in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Torments staff, but gives her daughters a first look at new Harry Potter novel.

    Meryl Streep on her boss-from-hell editor in “The Devil Wears Prada”:

    “I was just interested in making her a human being as contradictory and messy as we all are. Most of my models for this character were of the male end. (Unfortunately we don’t have enough women in power.) Compared to the people I know, Miranda is so well behaved. She’s almost like a diplomat compared to some people who are very, very, very powerful in our business.”

HEROES: FROM MOST FLAWED (DICAPRIO) TO NEAR SAINT (BRESLIN)

  1. Leonardo DiCaprio as undercover cop in “The Departed.” Does his job, but beats several people to a pulp.

  2. Helen Mirren as imperious monarch in “The Queen.” Runs the flag half-mast, but continues to have horrible fashion sense.

    Helen Mirren on playing Elizabeth II in “The Queen.”

    “I suspect even as a young girl that she was completely without vanity, with a huge sense of duty, a great sense of responsibility, a great sense of order. There is that total lack of vanity, or a lack of ego. It’s where you go through vanity and ego into another place. And that is a place without choice.”

  3. Alan Arkin as cranky, lovable grandpa in “Little Miss Sunshine.” Inspires granddaughter, but uses heroin.

  4. Richard Griffith as instructor in “The History Boys.” Inspires male students, but also likes to fondle them on his motorbike.

    Richard Griffith on his horny professor in “The History Boys”:

    “He is deeply flawed and deeply suppressed and a closeted human being almost. He explodes into life when he can talk about his beloved literature and culture.”

  5. Penelope Cruz as put-upon mom in “Volver.” Protects her daughter, but covers up a murder.

  6. Peter O’Toole as aging actor in “Venus.” Never stops chasing life, but can be pretty grumpy.

  7. Adam Beach as a Marine in “Flags of Our Father.” Tells the truth, but can’t hold his liquor.

  8. Will Smith as put-upon dad in “The Pursuit of Happyness.” Protects son, but cannot make ends meet.

  9. Derek Luke as freedom fighter in “Catch a Fire.” Leads the cause, but fails to take out the enemy.

  10. Abigail Breslin as child beauty queen in “Little Miss Sunshine.” Follows her dream, but doesn’t realize the dream is crap.

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