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What We Learn From the Grifters, Strivers, and Amoral Hustlers of the Past

The nefarious behavior of the protagonists in films like ‘The Favourite,’ ‘Vice,’ and Amazon’s adaptation of ‘Vanity Fair’ are useful guides in helping us process feelings about ourselves

Annapurna/Focus Features/Fox/Ringer illustration

If recent movies and TV shows are anything to go by, our current grifter season has slipped the confines of the present and, like a scammer looking for a fresh supply of marks, extended itself back into the past. Costume dramas, period pieces, and biopics are suddenly swarming with schemers. In The Favourite, released in November, Emma Stone plays an 18th-century lady’s maid who manipulates her way to the heights of power at the court of Britain’s Queen Anne, dislodging her rival, an honest but uncompromising noblewoman portrayed by Rachel Weisz. Last month, Amazon released in the United States a new adaptation of Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel, whose story follows a penniless young woman, Becky Sharp, as she lies, cheats, and seduces a path through the aristocracy of late Georgian England. This fall, Melissa McCarthy played Lee Israel, the infamous literary forger, in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, set in the early 1990s; like Stone’s, her performance generated significant Oscar talk. And in Vice, released in December, Christian Bale played Dick Cheney, the former vice president, as a shameless opportunist and amoral climber willing to accrue power by any means necessary.

Setting a story in the past—particularly the distant, candelabras-and-crinolines past of Vanity Fair and The Favourite—is often a way for filmmakers to dramatize social mores. It’s no wonder, then, that historical grifters tend to proliferate on film at moments when the relationship between the individual and society appears uncertain, when it becomes hard to say what each owes to the other or what common commitments they share. The scammer rejects social morality in order to seek individual gain, and thus serves to test the limits of conventional social constraints: Can I lie and get away with it? But the scammer is also obsessed with society because he craves its rewards of money and power and status. He values what it values; he is simply willing to break its rules to get what he wants. So the scammer’s story becomes a testing ground for the competing claims of the single person (exaggerated by the scammer’s amorality) and the group (exaggerated by the historical setting’s emphasis on manners and rigid codes). At moments when a more heroic conception of individualism seems desirable, as in the late 1930s, you get costume-drama characters like Scarlett O’Hara, whose scamming is depicted as epic and romantic and whose hold on the viewer’s identification is never meant to be in doubt. At moments when the merits of unbridled individualism seem more dubious, as in the mid-1970s, you get characters like Barry Lyndon, who goes from amusing to monstrous without ever quite winning the viewer’s sympathy.

Things are even more complicated in our current crop of films about the schemers and frauds of yore, which seem to need both sides to win simultaneously. The grifters of late 2018 are both intensely sympathetic and unforgivably destructive, and their rises tend to look weirdly like falls. In Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Becky is a conniving sociopath who ruins everything she touches. In Amazon’s, she’s mostly depicted as irrepressible and plucky, the kind of heroine Jane Austen might have written if she’d binged on Karl Marx. She’s the smartest person in every room. She sees the joke in every situation. It’s not her fault she was born without any money. Nor is it her fault that, as a woman in Napoleonic-era England, she has only so many ways to achieve security. Can you blame her, the series asks, for using guile? You half expect the word “relatable” to show up as an executive producer during the closing credits. Olivia Cooke, who plays Becky with charismatic relish, periodically breaks the fourth wall to grimace and wink at the audience, and we’re clearly meant to delight in this; her world is unfair and hypocritical, and it’s fun to feel like we’re in on the game as she turns its own weapons against it.

Or it would be, except that, as the series progresses, Becky does more or less the same amount of damage to the people around her as her literary original. And unlike in the book, where almost everyone is seen as weak or corrupt or both, the series sentimentalizes several of its characters, so the damage actually looks worse. Becky terrorizes her earnestly loving young son, betrays her earnestly loving husband, and works to impoverish her earnestly loving best friend, and when you see the son cowering from her, the husband dying in agony, and the friend weeping for approximately seven straight years of narrative time, it’s hard not to feel that you have wandered into a fatal confusion of tones. Becky is the positive face of the scammer, the individual outwitting a corrupt society, and the negative face of the scammer, the parasite destroying the good people around her, at the same time, and the series gives no real indication as to how it wants us to think about this contradiction, or whether it sees a contradiction at all.

A more sophisticated version of the same ambiguity unfolds over the course of The Favourite, in which the protagonist’s rise to power is depicted as a simultaneous descent into evil and even madness. At first, Abigail, the grifter-maid played by Emma Stone, seems like someone you want to cheer for. She’s an underdog surrounded by powdered snobs. She’s a woman threatened by powerful men—shoved into a ditch, in one queasily comic scene, by the foppish leader of the Tory Party. Her cousin, the Duchess of Marlborough, the noblewoman played by Rachel Weisz, sends her to work in the palace kitchens, where she’s forced to sleep with 20 other people in a tiny room. Of course you want her to outsmart these brutes. But her only path to doing so involves manipulating the fragile Queen Anne, brilliantly played by Olivia Colman as a vulnerable woman trapped between grief (she’s been pregnant 17 times; none of the children survived past infancy) and annihilating insecurity.

The queen may be the source of all power, but she’s also desperately in need of a protector, which is one of the many roles assumed by her confident friend and lover, the duchess. In order to supplant the duchess, Abigail lies to Anne mercilessly, seduces her, poisons her mind, and leaves her in a state of half-paranoid misery, with no one to tell her the truth. As Abigail climbs the ranks at court, the screenplay, by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, makes her progressively more sadistic. Her cruelty takes on a lazy quality: She idly crushes one of the queen’s rabbits (she has 17, one for each lost child) under her foot, just to watch it suffer. As in The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the previous films by the director, Yorgos Lanthimos, the structure of power itself appears not only corrupt but insane. Society is so malignant that victory for the scammer is almost worse than defeat because victory means living at the source of the insanity. Like the old ur-scammer himself, Shakespeare’s Richard III, Abigail loses by winning.

It comes down to sympathy, doesn’t it? Fictional grifters are easy to like, even when they do terrible things, because they’re interesting to watch, and because they expose hypocrisy through the act of taking advantage of it. Liars to the characters around them, they have the effect for the audience of cutting through lies, showing that the innocent are less pure than they seem, the pious less good, the stories we tell ourselves about aspiration and accomplishment less honest. In Vice, Dick Cheney may be the villain, but he’s also the source of all the energy in the movie. (One of the weaknesses of Adam McKay’s polemical films is that he’s always accidentally in love with the bad guys.) But the audience turns on the grifter, at least in the typical form of the story, when he rises too high, and the moral cost of his scheming grows too great. The moral order of society is challenged, the moral order of society prevails, please don’t poison anyone on your way home from the theater. So it’s telling that recent grifter narratives tend to arrive at more complex and less easily explicable resolutions: Doubleness is everywhere; victory is defeat; truth and falsehood are impossible to tease apart. Can You Ever Forgive Me? ends with a shopkeeper knowingly putting one of Lee Israel’s forged letters back in the window, as if the letter is so well written that it erases its own status as a fake.

Telling, that is, but maybe not surprising. The difference between this group of costume-drama grifters and those past is that these days, many of us are much more conscious of the ways in which we ourselves resemble grifters. In the gig economy, everyone is hustling all the time, and a social system so utterly indifferent to the well-being of its members is not one that calls for a great show of moral loyalty. If you’re lucky enough to have a corporate job, can you survive a single meeting without acting a little like Becky Sharp? And at the same time, most of us are living semi-pretend lives on social media, where presenting yourself as something other than what you are is the dominant mode of existence. (One of these movies is literally about faves, after all.) At some point in the past decade or so, a kind of half-self-loathing doubleness became one of the central features of our cultural experience. I don’t want to press this idea too far, because there are a lot of fictional scammers, and a lot of kinds of doubleness, and they’re not all doing the same thing. But right now, despite what I said earlier, I don’t think these stories are helping us process our feelings about individualism and society in general. I think they’re helping us process our feelings about ourselves.