Filmmakers, like all dramatists, know that the secret to keeping our attention is to get us to identify with their characters. Generally, that means that they're going to have to make the main character of their story a fundamentally likable sort, since we all tend to think of ourselves in that light and are therefore unlikely to identify with a thoroughly rotten protagonist. Occasionally, however, a filmmaker will take on the challenge of presenting us with a genuine louse as a main character. Winning our sympathy for such a character requires a virtuoso effort from both the screenwriter and the actor playing the role.
The most recent team to attempt this high wire act was writer-director James L. Brooks and Jack Nicholson in "As Good As It Gets." Nicholson plays a total jerk whose only claim on our sympathy is the fact that he is caught in the grip of an obsessive-compulsive disorder that limits the quality of his life severely. Sadly, he seems to have taken this as a license to impair the quality of other people's lives. Judging by the popular and critical response, it seems that Brooks and Nicholson have met the challenge successfully. For a look back at some earlier films that seek to win our sympathy for decidedly unsympathetic characters, look for these titles on home video.
"Svengali" (1931). John Barrymore, who was widely touted as a matinee idol under the sobriquet "The Great Profile," ironically posted some of his most memorable film roles as rather ugly and unsavory characters, ranging from Mr. Hyde to Captain Ahab. Here he plays the unsavory lead in an adaptation of George du Maurier's novel "Trilby." Svengali is a music teacher who specializes in giving singing lessons to wealthy matrons, then using his quasi-mystical hypnotic powers to lure them into his arms. When he meets and falls in love with a beautiful young model named Trilby (Marian Marsh) he focuses all his attention on making her an international singing star. Ultimately, however, he is frustrated because the one thing that is beyond the reach of his hypnotic spell is the very thing he wants - Trilby's love. Barrymore plays Svengali as a complete reprobate, refusing to take the easy road to winning our sympathy. He even makes it clear that Svengali seldom bathes, making him a character who literally stinks.
"My Little Chickadee" (1940). Comedian W. C. Fields spent virtually his entire career creating and developing for himself a screen persona as a total misanthrope. Drunken, slovenly, self-centered, and repulsed by children, his screen character was a virtual catalogue of human moral failings. In this classic film he teamed up with Mae West, who had built her own career on a cheerful disregard for accepted moral standards on the screen. The misanthrope and the bad girl joined forces in "My Little Chickadee" to lampoon the Western genre within an inch of its life.
"The Man Who Came to Dinner" (1941). Monty Woolley heads a top-notch cast as the acerbic Sheridan Whiteside in the film version of the celebrated play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Whiteside is an acid-tongued radio celebrity on a lecture tour through the hinterlands. Accepting a dinner invitation from some locals, whom he clearly sees as beneath him, he has the misfortune to slip on a patch of ice at his hosts' home. Confined to a wheelchair by the resulting injuries, Whiteside takes up what appears to be permanent residence in the home of the luckless family, forcing them to endure a nonstop barrage of tantrums, demands, and insults, punctuated by the arrival of a parade of eccentric hangers-on.
"Hobson's Choice" (1954). Charles Laughton stars as Henry Horatio Hobson, the thoroughly reprehensible proprietor of a successful English bootery. The firm's unassuming bootmaker, Willie Mossop (John Mills) crafts the boots for a pittance while Hobson's daughters run both the business and his household, all without financial reward of any kind. Hobson himself spends the proceeds of the business down at the local pub without ever lifting a finger to earn the money. He's a thoroughly unpleasant blowhard, but his crafty daughters have a proper comeuppance waiting for him.
As you can see, playing an unsavory leading role is a job generally reserved for the brightest lights of the thespian trade. It is a tribute to Nicholson's consummate skill that he has successfully joined that exclusive fraternity.