Magazines are a rapidly dying species, but the cover of the most recent Entertainment Weekly is a reminder of why they can be worthwhile. The feature story highlights their picks for the Top 20 Heroes and the Top 20 Villains of all time, and while their list is necessarily tilted towards the obvious and the hard-to-argue, the whole concept is one of those that can be way fun to bat around. As long as no one takes it too seriously, that is.
So I’ll play. I’m going to stick to movies only. And, because my stable of heroes would be repetitively stocked with Carpenter, Landis, and Eastwood characters, I’m only going to come up with twenty villains.
Criteria? I judge villains mostly on the basis of how badly I want to punch them in the face, or worse. And except for Numbers 15 and 17 (because true heroes never hit a woman), that’s how I made this list.
So here’s my Top Twenty (I’ll post half today and half tomorrow):
JA’s Top Twenty Movie Villains Of All Time
Number 20: Lee Marvin as Vince Stone in The Big Heat.
Lee Marvin belongs way closer to number one on any list for which he qualifies, but I wanted to start this off with thunder and lightning and unruly seas – a perfect storm. A true American badass. In fact, if you look up the word “badass” in the dictionary, Lee Marvin will be there staring at you, telling you to put down the books and go live some life, you pussy. Lee started out predominately playing the heavy, and when he did, he was the heaviest. His role in The Big Heat is the one that broke him out to bigger parts. It’s the one where he throws a pot of hot coffee in Gloria Grahame’s face. Watch and be appalled (and somehow charmed):
Number 19: Morris Day as Morris Day in Purple Rain.
Morris Day is the leader of The Time, both in the real world and in Purple Rain. However, only in the latter is he the adversary of Prince, as “The Kid.” Morris taunts The Kid obnoxiously before he has to perform and when his father dies, and he has his valet Jerome throw a babe into a dumpster. I didn’t find footage of either of those things, but I did find this classic exchange:
On a related note: Morris Day & The Time continue to tour to this day. If you can see Morris Day & The Time play live, go see Morris Day & The Time play live.
Number 18: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Owen Davian in
With certain concessions, I’m in many ways a defender of this movie. You just can’t beat that first ten minutes or so. The movie kind of sags afterwards by comparison, and a big reason for that is because Phil Hoffman’s villain gets scaled back in favor of a more conventional conspiracy plot. His initial scenes in this sequel are probably too dark for a
Context is everything, in this case; the movie was released at the beginning stages of the Tom Cruise backlash, but also right after Phil Hoffman won the Oscar for Capote and raised his profile (and audience goodwill) dramatically. To come off of that and go right into a shocking opening act of cruelty of the sort that he performs at the beginning of
Number 17: Olga Baclanova as Cleopatra in Freaks.
First of all, nothing I can write will prepare you for the experience of watching this movie, about life in a 1930s circus sideshow. Go watch it, if you haven’t yet. It’s strange and touching and horrible and necessary. I rank Cleopatra as a villain because she’s vain and selfish and cruel. She takes poor Hans (Harry Earles) up on his marriage proposal, stealing him away from his beloved, heartbroken Frieda (Daisy Earles), just because he has a sizable inheritance – which she plans to steal. The movie’s pivotal scene is at the wedding ceremony, where the community of sideshow freaks welcomes Cleopatra to the family, in an admittedly creepy chant. But watch how this asshole handles it:
Film geek footnote: Angelo Rossitto, the young dwarf with the wine goblet in this scene, later in life played the role of Master in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
Number 16: William Zabka as Johnny Lawrence in The Karate Kid.
Whenever it comes up, Zabka’s name is usually, rather unfairly, used in the context of a joke. He was the go-to bad guy for teen comedies in the 1980s (most memorably The Karate Kid, Back To School, and Just One Of The Guys), and he was so good at it that he’s been unable to shake it. It’s not his fault. I reckon he is a super-nice guy in the day-to-day. He just had a truly amazing asshole face when he was working those movies.
Enjoy the single greatest Zabka tribute ever to be written by mortal man:
Number 15: Lynne Thigpen as Leonna Barrett in Lean On Me.
Another sentimental favorite from the ‘eighties? Maybe. But every time I recall this lady interjecting “Mister Clark” into a classic Morgan Freeman monologue, I’m reminded of all the too-common demagogues and spoilsports who I have encountered outside in the real world. Watch how legitimate obnoxiousness is done:
Number 14: Robert Ryan as Ben Vandergroat in The Naked Spur.
Or in Crossfire, or in Bad Day At Black Rock, or in Act Of Violence, or in The Dirty Dozen, or in The Wild Bunch… He really covered the wide range of villainy. By all accounts Robert Ryan in real life was an altruistic and honorable man. Surely he convincingly played a lot of good guys on screen throughout his career. However, he had a remarkable talent for portraying vicious and venal men. If you’re one of those people who refuses to watch “old movies,” you are missing out in a monumental way. If you don’t watch old movies, you probably haven’t even heard of Robert Ryan, one of my very favorite movie stars of all time. (Really ought to write an article on his work one of these days…)
Number 13: Julius Carry as The Shogun Of Harlem in Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon.
I can’t believe that I was intimidated by this character when I was a kid. But I was! He did the job. Particularly when The Shogun Of Harlem was on screen, I related to Bruce Leroy and I wanted to see him finally beat his fears and beat his nemesis. Now, on the rare occasions when I rewatch this movie, I can enjoy Sho’Nuff as the ridiculous cultural icon that he is. Here’s a great scene – watch how he deals with that jukebox:
Number 12: Denzel Washington as Alonzo Harris in Training Day.
There are two ways to watch this movie: the savvy way and the slightly more naïve way. I was the second brand of viewer. I was so used to nearly two decades of noble and true lead performances from Denzel, that I couldn’t help but expect that his Alonzo Harris was just testing new recruit Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke.) Even through all the horrendous illegal shit he kept pulling, I kept waiting for him to somehow drop the façade and reveal that the whole scenario was intended as a job orientation for the idealistic wannabe detective. I imagine that even if you don’t go into it trusting this dangerous character as I did, it’s still a surprising turn. More than anything, though, it’s a great movie star performance, because Denzel brings all of his considerable charisma to bear while totally subverting audience expectations.
Let me also suggest that the brilliant chameleon of an actor, Cliff Curtis, as the gang leader Smiley, would have to grab honorable mention for his much smaller role in the same movie.
Number 11: Andy Robinson as Scorpio in Dirty Harry.
This movie is so much smarter than – to this day – it receives enough credit for being. If it were a straightforward endorsement of what it depicts, than yes, it could possibly be considered despicable. But the film’s director, Don Siegel, and its star, Clint Eastwood, are much cannier operators. They’re raising a question rather than suggesting an answer. How long can our sense of propriety hold up when confronted by obvious evil? What is the proper response to unforgivable crimes? How can chaos be restrained by order? What do we really want to see our protectors do with those who would threaten us?
Calling Dirty Harry a morality tale isn’t exactly an apt description. However, the questions that it poses are moral ones, and the outrage it provokes is certainly based in less fluid definitions of morality. Of course there are always going to be people who get the wrong idea, but assuming that the entire exercise .
Dirty Harry is a case of a movie that these days is known more than it’s actually been seen. We all know that the hero, or anti-hero, of is legendary. Most of us have heard the maxim that a great hero is defined by an equally memorable villain. What not everyone remembers is that the first Dirty Harry film surely has one:
Andy Robinson, at least as the serial sniper Scorpio, is unappealing, despicable, and annoying as hell. To shoot at random, unarmed innocents is arguably the most cowardly of evil acts that a villain could perpetrate. Scorpio is also a cop-killer and a rapist, and if that weren’t bad enough, towards the end of the movie he hijacks a school bus and actually punches a little kid! Plus, he’s a whiner. It’s a pleasure to watch Dirty Harry torture Scorpio and send him to his ultimate reward – but of course, that’s kind of the point of the whole enterprise. It’s what we want to see… isn’t it?
So there’s the first half. I was mostly playing around until now. The real nasties still lie ahead. Check back tomorrow for my top ten villains in all of movie history.