Age of the Anti-Hero

April 12, 1992

When "Silence of the Lambs" won the Oscar award for best picture a few weeks ago, it raised the question, best picture of what? Of serial murderers? Of insanity? Of America in the 1990s?

It is tempting to see in Hannibal Lecter, the brilliant, utterly psychotic mass murderer of "Silence," the archetype of such real-life serial killers as Jeffrey Dahmer, who not only killed his victims but cannibalized them as well. Writer Harold Schecter speculates that the social and psychological function of horror is release the repressed. In our present youth-obsessed age, he says, we project our terror of physical death and decay onto the figure of the serial killer -- just as the 19th century sublimated its disavowed sexual impulses onto female monsters and madwomen.

But sex and death have always been primal themes. What has changed is not the taboos, but the penalties for transgressing them. A generation ago, the bad guys got their comeuppance, often in gruesomely imaginative ways. Today's malefactor is likely to walk away from the most heinous crimes -- as Hannibal Lector does -- to general applause. Welcome to the age of the anti-hero.

In the movie "Basic Instinct," the psychopathic anti-heroine-cum-writer comments offhandedly that "somebody has to die" for the drama to end. In the old days, it would have been her. Yet she not only gets to make love to the hero, but to "live happily ever after," too. Today's anti-heroes and anti-heroines are ruthless, amoral and obsessed with breaking the rules. Yet they demand we applaud on the grounds that they've been clever enough to get away with it.

After a decade of Ivan Boeskys and Michael Milkens, Marion Barrys and Jim Wrights, John Gottis and Peanut Kings, S&L scandals, Wall Street rip-offs, Defense Department boondoggles and House bank scandals, is it any wonder a cynical public no longer believes the bad guys always lose? During the go-go 1980s, the operative ethic for many ambitious people was "grab all you can get away with." Now the "in" thing is to lionize the anti-hero. That explains the popularity of this year's big Oscar winner: it's just another case of art imitating life.

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