Crime and Celebrity: our fascination with the villains

The conviction of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger for his role in 11 murders and a host of other criminal activities has been followed by the familiar media revelation that he was the ‘inspiration’ for Jack Nicholson’s character in Martin Scorcese’s 2006 film, The Departed.

Nicholson’s portrayal was widely praised. His “flawless performance as the increasingly unhinged crime boss is a marvel of manic, paranoid ruination” one critic purrs with excitement. “He’s a joyfully vulgar psycho” remarks another.

Nicholson's Frank Costello was supposedly based on the real-life Whitey Bulger
Nicholson’s Frank Costello was supposedly based on the real-life Whitey Bulger

We should detest such characters, even the critics admit it. Yet, throughout history, they have always been our favourites, the most exciting screen presence imaginable. The glamorisation of crime on the big screen and in our public opinion is certainly no new phenomenon.

So whilst prosecutors may decry Bulger as a merciless criminal, his comparison to Nicholson’s character in a Hollywood movie, the photographs of him with celebrities of the day and his notorious evasion of capture somehow dilute his appalling crimes in our minds.

Bulger with the Boston Bruins' Chris Nilson
Bulger with the Boston Bruins’ Chris Nilon

An early example of this sensastionalisation of vicious outlaws is the ‘Wild West’, that subversion of history, created half-a-century later by pamphleteers and ambitious authors. The fugitives of the 1930s – Bonnie & Clyde, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson – these are names we know even today. Not necessarily for their criminal endeavours but for their almost heroic portrayal in popular history.

A thug but a tabloid favourite - John Dillinger
A thug but a tabloid favourite – John Dillinger

Fast-forward to after WWII and you have the Mafia myth, the false perception of an honourable society of Sicilian heritage where family matters before anything else; Henry Hill and his fellow ‘Goodfellas’, who peddled heroin yet who earn your sympathy through the portrayal of their tragic downfall on screen.

There is an uneasy relationship, undoubtedly, between criminals, the media and the entertainment industry. No director, author or columnist would deliberately seek to glorify the criminal pursuits of these often monstrous people, yet the sheer uniqueness of character they embody, their abnormal lives, makes them exciting and interesting. We would never choose to follow their paths yet we allow ourselves to imagine what it would be like for just a fraction of a second.

Criminals and outlaws may live more exciting lives than us law-abiding citizens. But that is not to say that we want to switch places with them.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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