What is it about bad boys — those characters, real or fictional, who women know are no good for them but can’t help being drawn to anyway? Is it a desire to take a walk on the wild side? A craving for the hero that no other woman can tame? A yearning to, for once, do something a little bit crazy, a little bit bad, a little bit over the line?
Case in point: Rhett Butler. A man with an impeccable reputation just wouldn’t do for Scarlett O’Hara. And while Rhett was the only man she ever really loved (once she got over the ridiculous notion of wimpy, good-boy Ashley Wilkes), even bad-girl Scarlett couldn’t hold onto her scoundrel from Charleston. Rhett’s final words to Scarlett as he left her were, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” but you kind of know that he did, she did, and we did.
Let’s push the bad meter a little more (maybe a lot more) and consider Michael Corleone (in The Godfather, Part One). The man is cold-hearted (except for his father and for Apollonia), cold-blooded (did you see the christening scene?), and coldly calculating (“Try the veal, it’s the best in the city.”) But there’s something about the character, and Al Pacino in the role, that makes women stop what they’re doing when he’s on the TV screen (for like the 100th time) and become totally entranced and unresponsive to anything else (“Honey, could you pass the popcorn? Honey? The popcorn? Earth to honey?”).
Bad boys don’t come much tougher than Ray Donovan, the ultimate fix-it guy for those who have done bad, bad,very bad things. But despite all the bloodshed, the blackmail, and the blowing away of even badder guys, Ray manages to hold on to a certain sensitivity (thanks to Liev Schreiber). I can’t help it — now that his wife is gone, Ray just kind of looks like a lost, wounded puppy (albeit a Rottweiler, but you get my point).
Then there’s Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca. Just one look at him (sigh) and you know that his past is criminal, his present is dangerous, and his future is shady at best. What redeems Rick is the return of Ilsa; sending her away with good-guy husband Victor Laszlo shows that the big lug has an even bigger heart. We’ll always have Paris, Rick — say a table for two at a little café?
Maybe this attraction to bad boys says more about us than about the characters themselves. Maybe the idea of riding shotgun with Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen), of shaking a martini with James Bond (Daniel Craig, in my case), or of playing cat burglar-and-mouse on the French Riviera with John Robie (Cary Grant) — maybe these are all ways to imagine ourselves as more exciting, more alluring, more je ne sais quoi than we may be. Or maybe it’s our imaginations doing exactly what they’re supposed to do — create the kind of irresistible scenarios that let us ask, “what if?” before getting back to our real lives, with a little smile.
How bad can that be?
ⓒ 2017 Claudia Grossman