My Top 50 Favourite Movie Characters: #50-26
Aug 27, 2004 (Updated Sep 8, 2004)
The Bottom Line Just because the Bottom Line is a character doesn't mean it has character.
In its April 2004 issue, Premiere Magazine released its list of the 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time. It proved great argument fodder, mainly for the inclusion of such dubious selections as Kevin McCallister ("Home Alone"), Sandy Olsson ("Grease"), and its number one choice, a character that wasn't even the best character in its own movie.
Instead of just complaining about the problem, I tried to solve it. So here are the results of my labours, the definitive list of my Top 50 Favourite Movie Characters. Why 50, and not 100? Well, I'm only a staff of one, whereas Premiere had a staff of dozens, if not hundreds, picking its list. I think I did fairly well under the circumstances (and because I think that, I make no apologies for dividing the list in 2, and making you wait a week to see the top 25; besides, the whole thing was getting too long to read in one sitting anyway).
There is some overlap here, with the Premiere list. For that I offer this explanation: even a stopped clock will be right twice a day. And there are probably some choices that you'll think come out of left field. That's fine. These are my favourites, and I like them no matter where they've come from. These are the characters that make me smile, that force me to watch them over and over, that make me envious that I wasn't the one who wrote them up in the first place. They are all complex, intriguing, and fascinating. To me. That being said, feel free to tell me where I've gone wrong, in the comment section. What use is a list of this size if it can't spark some debate?
Anyway, herewith is my ultimate cast of characters:
50. Irwin "Fletch" Fletcher
played by Chevy Chase in Fletch (1985, dir. Michael Ritchie)
"Fletch" is triggered by a rather dastardly film-noir premise: beach bum reporter is asked by gloomy millionaire to kill him, and make it look like a suicide. Beach bum reporter agrees, if only because he smells a good story. Fletch, even if he were just a straight detective, would be much fun to follow around through this tale. Add to that the fact that he also has Chase's loopy dry wit, and he's magic.
49. Chris Knight
played by Val Kilmer in Real Genius (1985, dir. Martha Coolidge)
A rather forgettable teen comedy is made into much more than that by Mr. Knight, his sardonic sense of humour, and his authentic genius. King (and resident Fool) of an eclectic group of silly science geeks at an MIT-style campus, Knight is much more than his surfer dude drawl would lead you to believe. He's also an absurdist par excellence, a maestro of mischief, and a convincing older brother figure to the prodigy forced to room with him.
48. Tracy Fick
played by Reese Witherspoon in Election (1999, dir. Alexandre Payne)
If there were any justice in this world, "Election", and not the aggressively bland "Legally Blond", would have been the film to make Reese Witherspoon a star (I've said this before, but it bears repeating). With all the drive of a sports car on rocket fuel, Flick will do anything to win her high school's presidency, including tearing down, by any means necessary, Matthew Broderick's weary civics teacher.
47. Patricia Franchini
played by Jean Seberg in À bout de souffle (1960, dir. Jean-Luc Godard)
I love Patricia, more for the idea of her, than her actual character. The American ex-pat, living in Paris and selling the New York Times on the street, hooks up with Jean-Paul Belmondo's Bogart-retread, loves him for a while, then ruthlessly turns him in when the going gets tough. Added to the melancholy is the fact that Seberg, a happy pixie of a woman, killed herself (supposedly) 19 years later.
46. Banky Edwards
played by Jason Lee in Chasing Amy (1997, dir. Kevin Smith)
Kevin Smith usually defends the homophobia in "Chasing Amy" by saying that it's voiced by the film's goofball character, and thus shouldn't be taken seriously. Well, that's all well and good, but I've always seen Banky as the fountain of Truth in this mixed up tale of love. When Holden and Alyssa are deluding themselves into thinking that their relationship has a chance, it's Banky who steps in to say, "Not so fast." Plus, he's funny as a heart attack. Proof: watch him show a young boy the pros and cons of the various stroke books he's planning on bringing for a weekend away.
45. Suzanne Stone Maretto
played by Nicole Kidman in To Die For (1995, dir. Gus Van Sant)
Nicole Kidman can be funny. It's true. And she can be dark, and nasty, and completely and utterly plastic. And dumb. All of these features are on full display, here, as we watch Suzanne Stone (no relation) try and prove that life ain't worth living if you're not living it on TV. Oh, and, even when she's convincing young boys to kill Matt Dillon, she can be sexy too.
44. Tyler Durden
played by Brad Pitt in Fight Club (1999, dir. David Fincher)
Despite being torpedoed by the film's final-third revelation, Tyler Durden is still as good an example of the idealized id as I can think of. And really, who else could play man's idealized id but Brad Pitt? Here is one case where his good looks, and willingness to bust them up, are put to good use. They actually serve the character. Plus, even though he spits on the notion, Durden is a rather clever fellow.
43. Scarlett O'Hara
played by Vivian Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939, dir. Victor Fleming, et al)
Scarlett O'Hara defined the archetypal character arc for every strong woman, burdened by hard circumstances, to come after her. Initially just a Southern Belle (nay, the UrSouthern Belle), she gets caught up in the American Civil War, learns to work the land, and learns again (more importantly) that love is complex and harsh, even when you're this beautiful. Even without all that, O'Hara would have made the list on the strength of her blue eyes alone.
played by Steve Buscemi in Ghost World (2000, dir. Terry Zwigoff)
If Scarlett O'Hara is the UrSouthern Belle, then Seymour is the UrGeek. Forced out of his apartment by a practical joke, Seymour eventually meets the youthful Enid, whose exuberance only slightly brings out his inner humanity. Meanwhile, he yells at a fat and over-progenied family, pushing strollers slowly across the street, and tries desperately to rid himself of the jazzy detritus threatening to topple his life. Seymour is R. Crumb through the filter of Steve Buscemi
in hyper-awkward dork mode.
41. Norman Thayer Jr.
played by Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond (1981, dir. Mark Rydell)
At one point, after a bout with mortality, Katherine Hepburn (as Ethel Thayer [say that three times fast]), calls her Old Lion of a husband a "knight in shining armour". It's a neat trick, especially since we, as the audience, have only seen him as the grumpy curmudgeon. But through her eyes we get a glimpse at the man that was, and the man that she wishes him to still be. Norman Thayer is the ultimate grump, but when you see him with the people he loves (even with the people he can barely tolerate) you get a sense that he's much more than that.
played by Stockard Channing in Grease (1978, dir. Randal Kleiser)
It always struck me funny that the leader of the Pink Ladies was a short-haired brunette, more apt to be found chain smoking and getting into bar fights than preening in front of a mirror, eagerly awaiting some greaser to pick her up and take her to a sock hop. Add to that the fact that she gets knocked up (or does she?) in a film meant to satirize fifties teen romps, and you've got something ridiculously complex. Most people would point to Dustin Hoffman in "Midnight Cowboy" as their favourite cinematic Rizzo, but I'll always lean here.
39. Bob Harris
played by Bill Murray in Lost in Translation (2003, dir. Sophia Coppola)
Bill Murray, singing '(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding' and 'More Than This', intentionally off-key and drunken, is more pleasing to the ear than the entire catalogue of his fellow SNL alum, Dan Aykroyd. Who, methinks, is taking his music seriously. Bill, instead, chooses to take his acting seriously, and Bob Harris, the ultimate Sad Clown lost miles from home, is his defining achievement.
played by Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper (1992, dir. Geoffrey Wright)
I barely knew who Russell Crowe was, when I saw "Romper Stomper". That is to say, I barely knew who Russell Crowe, Movie Star, was. I think "Gladiator" was just on the verge of coming out, and I'd been enjoying "The Quick and the Dead" for years. Hando is not a complex character; he's another in a long line of skinhead youths, leading a wrongheaded rebellion against the society her perceives to be holding him down. What sets him apart is the charisma that Crowe gives him. The phrase "can't take your eyes off him" has never been better used, when describing a cinematic character. Hando burns, and Crowe lights the match.
37. Don Logan
played by Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast (2000, dir. Jonathan Glazer)
There's something to be said for a character, when, before he even steps on to the screen, his horrifying legend is built up into something slightly less than Satan. We fear Don Logan before we ever set eyes on him. And when we do set eyes on him, and realize that he's to be played by Ghandi of all people, and then realize moments later that we fear him even more, well, that's a mean feat. I still yell, "Roundtree! Roundtree!" at people when trying to intimidate them. It rarely works, but I try it anyway.
36. Dawn "Wiener Dog" Wiener
played by Heather Matarrazzo in Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995, dir. Todd Solondz)
Normally, the "Wiener Dog" character-type is in the background. We never get to know her, other than what her thick glasses, bold overbite, and dubious fashion sense tell us. We just pity her, for she is the picked-on loser, and obviously doesn't deserve it. There are two amazing things about this "Wiener Dog" character: 1) She's the film's lead, and 2) we hate her. If Solondz had replayed her introductory scene graffiti covering her locker, as she stoically retrieves her books the pathos we had felt in the beginning would turn to apathy. Or even bile.
35. Veronica Sawyer
played by Winona Ryder in Heathers (1989, dir. Michael Lehmann)
"Is your life perfect?" ask JD, near the end of his first meeting with Veronica. "I'm on my way to a party at Remington University," she says. Then, to answer his question, "No, my life's not perfect. I don't really like my friends." I didn't get the irony of this line, the first time I heard it. How could one not like their friends? But, being a preadolescent, I obviously didn't have the teen-angst experience to bring the line into focus. Now I do. Though I'd never blow up a school in order to remedy the situation, I still relate to Veronica's plight.
34. Jake LaMotta
played by Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (1980, dir. Martin Scorsese)
This is the first non-fiction character, so it's probably best that we talk about De Niro as LaMotta as a "characterization". And whoa what a characterization it is. It seems like a cliché now, but imagine the intestinal fortitude it must have taken to put on 70 pounds (as some have reported) just to play a movie role. Though the real achievement of De Niro's is not the weight gain; it's in making LaMotta both an unmitigated brute, and a completely broken person. The biggest chill is when you realize that LaMotta is such an affecting characterization, though the man himself can't feel emotion. Not happiness, and certainly not pain. Which is why, I guess, he's so fit for his chosen profession.
33. Ed Crane
played by Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn't There (2001, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)
Ed Crane may be the protagonist in his particular film, but he's something of a cipher, a non-character if you will. Which, paradoxically, is what makes him such an interesting creation. If you strapped a heart-rate monitor to him, I doubt you'd get a beep. If you pricked him, I doubt he'd bleed. But it is Ed Crane, poor soulless Ed Crane, who's caught in the middle of a typically-Coen-sized film noir. And through the sheer force of his passivity manages to get things done.
32. Samantha "Sammy" Prescott
played by Laura Linney in You Can Count on Me (2000, dir. Kenneth Lonergan)
Sammy Prescott is a button-downed mother, a loyal bank employee, and the only person left in her family who stuck it out in her bland, small town. And yet, even in the shadows of her drifter brother, she manages such a warm glow of light. Sure, they had to throw some illicit affairs in the mix, and a bit about some dead parents. But even without those plot points, Sammy would be complex. Or, rather, human. Which amounts to pretty much the same thing.
31. Tony Manero
played by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (1977, dir. John Badham)
I read somewhere once that the makers of "Saturday Night Fever" had it in their heads that they were making a smart little indie film. Because it wound up being a zeitgeist-defining blockbuster, a lot of the subtlety of the piece gets lost in the shuffle. Take its hero, for example. Tony Manero sport a ridiculous Guido accent, and polyester clothing that would make a clown ridicule him, but he's also more tortured than he has any right to be. I mean, you have to work to love the guy, because he's such a jerk. Toss in some so-silly-it's-cool dancing, and it's enough to give Disco a reprieve.
30. Travis Bickle
played by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976, dir. Martin Scorsese)
It may be clichéd, at this point, to call Travis Bickle a chilling creation. But you know what they say about clichés, don't you? They're clichés because their true. Travis Bickle is a chilling creation, at least while he maintain a sense of reality. Travis as the archetypal angry loner, blaming society for the mild injustices that he just can't get his head around, makes him a stunning psychological portrait. Though, when he becomes a mohawk-wearing assassin, I start to lose interest. When he finds himself shot, and dripping with blood, I don't really buy into it anymore. But until then, it's all a smooth ride.
29. Michael Dorsey / Dorothy Michaels
played by Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie (1982, dir. Sydney Pollack)
The thing about "Tootsie" -- the character and the movie -- is that you can't possibly imagine anyone dumb enough to fall for this shtick. I mean, Dustin Hoffman as a woman? It's just not feasible. And yet we still have this movie, which makes me laugh because it's all kinds of funny (the Larry Gelbart script helps). Hoffman, for his part, does a wonderful bit of self-parody, as the world's greatest and most annoying unknown character actor, and then gets to ham it up for a bit in drag. In both parts, he's a hoot.
28. John "Sully" Sullivan
played by Paul Newman in Nobody's Fool (1994, dir. Robert Benton)
Sully spreads bad luck to all who come in contact with him. He owes money, is often surly, and is usually one false move from landing in the pokey overnight. And yet the citizens of Bath, New York -- citizens who have little to cheer about -- are all in love with him. Which makes sense once you realize that he has Paul Newman's blue-eyed-twinkle, Paul Newman's gravelly voice, Paul Newman's charisma, and dialogue good enough to come from a Richard Russo book (which, in fact, it did).
27. Charles Foster Kane
played by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (1941, dir. Orson Welles)
Kane is essentially a William Randolph Hearst parody. In as much as Jake LaMotta (see above) was a Jake LaMotta parody. The trick with Kane is that we see him from (almost) birth till (just after) death. We see all the highs and all the lows in between. And yet, in the end, we are unsure if we really saw anything. "Citizen Kane" gets a lot of credit for being a wonderful technical achievement (which it is). But if it weren't for the intensely complex man at its story's centre, none of that would have mattered. But Kane makes "Kane" matter.
26. Trent Walker
played by Vince Vaughn in Swingers (1996, dir. Doug Liman)
Trent Walker is a device, more than a character. He's a blown-up buffoon, a Las Vegas lothario, whose purpose in the story is to act as a sharp contrast to the protagonist's over-emotive romanticism. Even so, he manages a level of entertainment and charisma that keeps me coming back to the character, over and over and over again. Fueled by Vince Vaughn's improvisational acting style, Trent manages to be the man I wish I could be, while simultaneously being the kind of man I loathe. A neat contradiction, that.