ONCE YOU COULD tell a bad guy by the color of his hat. Now it's the color of his hair.
We should have seen it coming. In the early James Bond film "From Russia With Love," the SMERSH killer was the essence of Aryan. The American-made war movies of the 1940s celebrated diversity, but they didn't really prepare us for the heroes and antiheroes of the 1980s.
In general, blonds used to have more fun: The late '50s to early '60s were halcyon for button-down types like Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue and Pat Boone. They were heroes suited to the prosperous, blase' "Happy Days." Back then the movies' answer to ethnic was Frankie Avalon.
"But then all of a sudden, everybody had had it with the back seat," says director John G. Avildsen ("Rocky," "The Karate Kid"). "The blacks said 'enough' in the late '50s, the students said 'enough' in the '60s, and the women said 'enough' in the '70s. The vibrations of the culture shake the screen. And nobody wants to be pointed at as a bigot."
So new dark-haired heroes emerged, often banded together in multi-ethnic Mod Squads. And inevitably, blonds became the establishment villains. The trend represents more than the ancient rope-tug between haves and have-nots. "It's the reemergence of the American dream," says Richard Stephens, sociologist at George Washington University. "We've had such bad world press on our divisiveness. It's a calculated thing on the part of the producers to show the other faces of America."
Now the Lacoste alligator is tormenting minorities. And the villain of the decade is a fair-haired boy. Former golden boys are up against everybody from gays to fatties in a surfeit of centrist films, most recently "The Karate Kid" and "Revenge of the Nerds."
The "Nerds" creators wanted to be among the first to zing Oxford cloth. "Yeah, we hate preppies," says Steve Zacharias, who cowrote the film with Jeff Buhai. "We were trying to show that the empty-headed beautiful people who seem to be running the world aren't. It's the smart people who are persecuted because they're not as attractive. Henry Kissinger is probably the most famous nerd." Indeed, the writers say they used him as a heroic model. Buhai says that he and Zacharias were pro-establishment until "God took away our hair," and adds, "We tried to write almost an anti-Nazi movie." Naturally, the villain is Aryan.
In "Nerds," Ted McGinley, blond with cheekbones like oar blades, is president of Alpha Beta fraternity (another member is Matt Salinger, J.D.'s son) and quarterback of the football team. He leads fraternity and team against the comedy's multi-minority nerd heroes. McGinley has more than a lot in common with William Zabka, with hair the color of Swiss cheese, the villain in "The Karate Kid."
McGinley says he's "the all-American boy straight from the beach." And Zabka says he has been the boy-next-door in 20 commercials. "I have a, you know, real innocent California look." Zabka plays the leader of a pack of upper-class toughs, preppie Hell's Angels by day, country club members by night. They're all blonds, right down to Chad McQueen's peroxided roots. (Chad McQueen, ironically, is antihero Steve McQueen's son.)
Avildsen wanted a contrast with "Karate Kid" hero Ralph Macchio's dark visage. "We bleached his hair just to continue the look." Avildsen's characterizations, in fact, show how dramatically champions have changed. In Avildsen's "Rocky," the Italian Stallion took on the black champ Apollo Creed. And now, about a decade later, a heroic Italian boy fights off a WASP opponent in what Avildsen has called "The Ka-rocky Kid."
By the end of the 1970s, Hollywood was hunting for new heroes -- and on came Pacino, De Niro, Travolta, Hoffman and Stallone. Eventually, the dusky Jennifer Beals did what even Travolta couldn't -- turned her aspirations into a tour with the Pittsburgh Ballet Company. And who did she out-flash? A haughty chorus of WASP ballerinas.
The blond, meanwhile, was earning his villainy. Indeed, by the middle 1970s, there were already signs of decay, hints that the torch would pass. In "Animal House," the heroes were bad fraternity boys and the villains were blond fraternity boys. By last summer, the poison of privilege oozed all over the screen in such sex farces as "Class," "Private Tutor" and "Private School." Even Tom Cruise, in "Risky Business," couldn't get into Princeton until he pimped for an Ivy League recruiter. Early this summer, "Up the Creek" chronicled the debauchery of the tow-headed Ivy University's raft team versus the brunets from Lepetomane College.
And the brunets always seem to get the girl, usually a blond. Frequently this same beauty is the cause of the contest between the WASPs and the un-WASPs. McGinley sees red when nerd Anthony Edwards makes eyes at his cheerleader, and Zabka beats up the Karate Kid after his cheerleader makes eyes at Macchio. "Bachelor Party" villain Robert Prescott seems ready to do anything to get his girl back from hero Tom Hanks, a bus driver.
The motif persists in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Outsiders," a story of haves and have-nots set in Tulsa, Okla. Writer S.E. Hinton called them socs (soshs) and greasers, and says, "The names change from year to year, from group to group, but it is always the privileged class that make others feel like outsiders." The privileged, she adds, are "aimless, riding around and looking for something besides comfort."
In "Karate Kid," that's precisely the case. Zabka describes his character as "very rich, has a really nice cycle. He comes from a very chichi family in the Hills. They the gang aren't sleazy types, but they're really screwed up." He recalls how he and the other young actors got motivated by talking over their make-believe parents' neuroses, alcoholism and drug abuse.
Mean streets no longer make mean kids -- brick colonials do. And it takes a street-wise hero to redeem a well-heeled bad boy. In "Karate Kid," Zabka sees the light thanks to a Japanese-American, an Italian-American and a wise young woman. Likewise in "Trading Places," Dan Aykroyd, as a rich WASP broker, is redeemed by poverty, humiliation and his friendships with hooker Jamie Lee Curtis and hustler Eddie Murphy. The trio join forces against Mainline Philadelphians played by Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy, an older subcategory of preppie barbarian.
Harvard Business School graduate Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association, thinks there ought to be an Ivy Anti-Defamation League. "Gangsters have Italian names. Blacks won't do. Nor Asians . . . Aleutians, even Eskimos are organized. Pickets make life difficult. You find some group in America that is politically inefficient and unorganized -- the WASPs and the businessmen -- and lay it on strong.
"To me, it is one of the most oblique aspects of stories, novels, TV or movies, to see a businessman always portrayed as a duplicitous character. It is neither sound, nor reasonable. If the Chamber of Commerce or Harvard Business School got organized and raised hell, it would be a tragedy for storytelling. It would be a barren plain indeed, if the last bastion of villainy got organized."
It would also be harder to tell a story without easily recognized symbols of good and evil, Valenti adds. Multi-ethnic camaraderie has been extolled at times of social crisis: during World War II, the Great Depression and now as America undergoes demographic upheaval. It's like the '40s now, says Valenti, citing the reemergence of the "war picture syndrome -- a black, a wise-cracking New Yorker, a Pole, an Italian kid -- a U.N. in a foxhole. Except there's probably a homosexual and a lesbian in there, too. And they're organized, for God's sake."
In the 1980s, it's out of the foxhole and into centrist films like "Police Academy" and "Tank." Or "D.C. Cab," created by former Washingtonian Topper Carew, who sees the multi-ethnic phenomenon as part of the profit motive. "People of color in movies today is good business," he says. "Jesse's onto something." In other words, there's a melting pot of gold at the end of the rainbow coalition. Blacks and women joined by Asians, Latins and poor southern whites and/or disaffected Vietnam veterans have found in film what eluded Jackson in the primaries.
"D.C. Cab" showed, Carew says, "how a multi-ethnic, ragtag group could be successful if they had a common goal. People have difficulty accepting that America is extremely multi-ethnic, so movies must accept that reality . . . tap the talents of and speak to those ethnic groups ."
Paul Mazursky's "Moscow on the Hudson," with Robin Williams as a Russian immigrant, is a star-spangled celebration of heterogeneity -- Clevant Derricks as a black security guard, Alejandro Rey as a Cuban immigration lawyer, and Maria Chochita Alonso as an Italian cosmetic salesgirl. Mazursky's films tend to be sociological mirrors -- like "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" (1969) on the sexual revolution and "An Unmarried Woman" (1978) on women's liberation. In its celebration of the immigrant-hero, "Moscow on the Hudson" and its ilk are new-wave Horatio Alger fables and more.
It's probably equally significant that ethnic films glorify the new demographics instead of denouncing the old. About 10 percent of the population celebrates Simo'n Boli'var Day. Planes skywrite "Bienvenidos al Tiempo Miller" above California beaches. Things change. We get films like Robert Duvall's pseudo-documentary on gypsies, "Angelo, My Love," and "Chan Is Missing," a low-budget Chinese-American docu-mystery. We even get a remake of "Scarface," with a Cuban lead, and "El Norte," an American-made film in Spanish and English. "El Norte" director Gregory Nava, a Chicano, predicts, "The U.S. is not going to be recognizable in 20 years. The Americas are changing . . . becoming one system. Immigration from the south is reaching the levels of the eastern migration."
"El Norte," a story of L.A.'s barrio of illegal aliens, is the nitty-gritty "Moscow on the Hudson." It bares the tragedy in the promise of America, and it parcels out blame. Says Nava, "It does not scapegoat whites, but it does present them as thoughtless as they really are. If you have a white American who's very racist, it does two things: It presents the situation a bit falsely, because the vast majority of Americans are not like that. And you present the belief that all you have to do is overcome those people and all's well."
So where do we go for our villains now? There may be a faint trace of good news for the traditional American elite.
"Oxford Blues," a new release, pits Oxford against Harvard in a two-man scull race. It's a grudge match that's been building for 25 years -- sort of a "Rocky" for the well-to-do -- and the Ivy Leaguers are the underdogs.
There may also be a small change in audience reaction.
Recently, a dad took his 13-year-old daughter to a "Nerds" matinee. They were wearing matching khakis and Lacoste shirts. On the way home, she was reported to have said this: "Daddy, I like the boys from Alpha Beta House non-Nerds better."
Are we about to hear someone murmur, "Some of my best friends are preppies?"