Sir Christopher Lee has passed into the West and into legend. His long career and abilities are now being examined far and wide by those who worked with him and those who admired, his many, many, films, amidst his other accomplishments.
What I’ve found interesting is the focus on how he spent much of his career as the (very effective) villain, at first ostensibly because his looks were considered too ‘exotic’ to be considered a leading man. This is contrasted to how many fans have described his voice. He may not have defined the ‘look’ of a Hero but he certainly came to define a type of aristocratic and learned Englishman. This combination of hauteur and questionable status found expression through his Sherlock Holmes and also in the Musketeers’ series of films, and also as Lord Summerisle, particularly when juxtaposed with Edward Woodward’s Sgt Howie.
As Saruman, he was the highest power for good in Middle Earth, and Lee evoked all the imperious arrogance, power and also fear across all the films that lead to his character’s ultimate downfall in (the good cut of) The Return of the King. He captured perfectly where his character was heading in Lee’s final scenes in Battle of the Five Armies, which is a bonus we should thank Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson for, not be all waah, waah about because ‘it wasn’t in the books.’
We can argue that Lee’s aesthetic leant characters both familiarity, but also a dignified ‘Otherness’ – if a straight, while male actor can indeed be other. Perhaps he is the source of Hollywood’s fascination of casting English actors as villains, even if they have to put on German (Die Hard) or South African (Age of Ultron) accents?
However, we should question why this ever became a trope. ‘Foreign’ should not only ever equal bad. Can we see others not as exotic but as human? In Australia, we shouldn’t have to have an award-winning actor such as Miranda Tapsell (The Sapphires and Love Child) demanding roles that are not just about the ‘otherness’ of Aboriginality, for instance.
Stories can be full of heroes and villains of all sorts. Square jawed All American types could be your rampant doom merchants in Bond films if both written and cast that way. Indigenous characters can be heroes , women (of any ethnicity) can and should be the central characters of superheroes films. We shouldn’t Marvel at this, we want this. We want more than just a blonde male Bond in the 21st century, we want diversity. Lee, who wanted to play Gandalf so many years ago, not only a Bond villain, would have wanted this too.