Tag Archives: Joseph Conrad

My Favorite Film & TV Villains

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In the past, villains were bad guys, without any redeeming features, and heroes were good guys, with no bad qualities, except maybe a bad wardrobe or hairdo. Then came the era of anti-heroes: heroes who had some less than stellar qualities or who’d made some seriously bad decisions or life choices that prevented them from being perfect, like Lord Jim in Joseph Conrad’s novel of the same name (played to great effect by the late Peter O’Toole in the film, which is what made me read the novel in the first place, trying to understand Jim’s motivation).

Over the last couple decades, however, the villains have become sort of anti-villains, as books, movies, and television series show the villains as real human beings. No matter how bad, evil, or wicked the best villains are, they have some redeeming or interesting characteristics, whether it’s caring about women and children (limiting their violence to men, for example) or great senses of humor, or simply being absolutely faithful to their own moral codes, even if they’re criminal ones.

Here are my favorite film and television series villains, in no particular order. And it’s understood that, without the specific actors playing them in these roles, these fascinating and charismatic villains would simply not have been the same.

Hannibal Lecter
Silence of the Lambs

Boy, did Sir Anthony Hopkins deserve the Oscar he won for his chilling performance of serial killer Hannibal Lecter in the first film version featuring the character, Silence of the Lambs, from the Thomas Harris novels. Beginning with Lecter’s look — hairstyle and tightly fitted prison garb, which were Anthony Hopkins’ idea — to his voice, his facial expressions, and his threatening demeanor even when standing perfectly still, Hopkins’ Hannibal sent insomniac movie viewers into therapy because, though they were terrified by him, they were also fascinated. Ain’t that what makes a great villain these days? His very first scene, in the underground FBI prison cell, when Hannibal “The Cannibal” meets rookie agent Clarisse Starling (played by Jodi Foster) shows just a hint of how scary and charming Hopkins’ serial killer can be.

Warning: Language

Boyd Crowder
Justified

Walton Goggins, previously known for his role in “The Shield,” plays bad guy Boyd Crowder, the foil to and bane of US Marshal Raylan Givens’ (Timothy Olyphant) life. But the two grew up together, and their shared past, with divergent careers which are mutually exclusive, combined with the actors’ improvised lines in many of their scenes together, make Boyd a criminal whom audiences root for. In fact, Boyd was supposed to be killed at the end of the pilot for the show, but the initial screening audience chastised the studio so much for “killing” Boyd, that the pilot was rewritten. Despite “guest star” criminals each season, none has the fascinating personality or the chemistry with Olyphant’s Raylan Givens that Goggins’ Boyd Crowder has. This sequence shows his initial “Fire in the Hole” activity from the pilot (characters based on an initial story by that name and characters in subsequent stories by the late, great Elmore Leonard, who was an executive producer of the show till his death this year) as well as some other clips (interspersed by music that does not, unfortunately, come from the show, i.e., it’s not as good as the music in Justified). Still, the montage shows you some good examples of Boyd’s violent interactions as well as his humor and intelligence. Though nominated several times for an Emmy for this role, Goggins has never won: I hope they remedy that in 2015’s final season of the series.

Detective Norman Stansfield
The Professional

My first introduction to Gary Oldman’s formidable acting was in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where Oldman played the title character. But when I began to seek out his other films, I found this one, which is one of Oldman’s best. His corrupt Detective Norman Stansfield “directs” Beethoven before confronting a drug-dealer who has stolen from him. Stansfield displays a wicked sense of humor, both in what he says and does. “We said noon” is a great introduction to Oldman’s villainous Stansfield in a gripping film that also stars Natalie Portman, in her film debut, as the abused daughter of the man who stole from Detective Stansfield and whom Stansfield is seeking, and French actor Jean Reno as the professional hitman, Léon, “hired” by Portman’s Mathilda to protect her from Stansfield while teaching her to defend herself from him as well.

Warning: Violence

The Archangel Gabriel
The Prophecy
(Trilogy)

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I think Christopher Walken is one of the greatest actors ever. Comedy, Drama, Films, Theatre, Singing, Dancing, Hero, Villain — the man can do it all, and he does it all with consummate skill and amazing range. One of my favorite roles (and Walken’s, as he’s stated in interviews) is as the villainous yet deadpan-funny Archangel Gabriel in The Prophecy (Trilogy), where, in the Second Angel War, Gabriel is trying to steal the blackest human soul ever — which angel Simon has taken from the corpse and hidden in someone else’s body — to use that evil human soul in Gabriel’s fight to keep humans out of heaven.  Gabriel uses some of the human characters, whom he calls “talking monkeys,”  to  get things he can’t obtain himself or to travel (he can’t drive). He uses humans who were either suicides or criticially ill & dying patients, “reviving them” (or as Walken’s Gabriel describes it to Adam Goldberg’s character in the first film, “letting them die slower”). This montage, showing clips from the first two films in the trilogy, show his menace and his deadpan-humor. His scenes with Adam Goldberg (not included here), Amanda Plummer, and the late Brittany Murphy are among some of the best moments in the films. Walken’s Gabriel combines his fearsome portrayal of villains with his comedic talent, to great effect.

Tony Soprano
The Sopranos

Though marred by some uneven writing in a few of its seasons, the ground-breaking HBO series The Sopranos introduced us to New Jersey mob-boss Tony Soprano, played by the late James Gandolfini. And, boy, did Gandolfini play him to perfection. Totally loyal to his own criminal code, Tony Soprano was nevertheless a lying, philandering (unfaithful to both wife and mistresses), murderous criminal. The very premise of the show — a mob boss entering therapy because he’s having panic attacks — was part of its charm. Tony Soprano’s crush on his therapist, played by Lorraine Bracco, as well as his anger at her refusal to be anything but his psychologist and her insistence that he examine his “feelings” were among the show’s highlights. Gandolfini’s Emmy win(s) as Tony Soprano were well deserved for his consummate acting in this role. This “If you lie” scene, when Tony is attempting to uncover the identity of an FBI informant, show’s Gandolfini’s Soprano as his most fierce and most vulnerable.

Warning: Language

Sheriff Little Bill Daggett
Unforgiven

Sheriff Little Bill doesn’t like guns or violence in his town of Big Whiskey, despite or because of his own past as a gunslinger and killer. Played to Oscar-winning perfection by Gene Hackman, Little Bill is cruel and ruthless, but is building his own house (though he ain’t no carpenter) — Hackman’s idea — and a born storyteller, especially if he’s discrediting an old arch-enemy like English Bob (one of Richard Harris’ best roles) in front of his biographer W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek). Repeatedly calling English Bob’s biography, titled The Duke of Death, the “Duck” of Death, and referring to English Bob as “The Duck”  — another of Hackman’s improvizations, which, according to director and co-star Clint Eastwood, caused the entire cast and crew to break out in uncontrollable laughter when Hackman first said it — Hackman’s Little Bill is wickedly funny without ever cracking a smile. At the same time, he’s deadly serious about the fact that he will be the only one doing any killing in his town. After he’s viciously beaten and kicked English Bob for carrying firearms within the town limits, then lying about it, Little Bill dares the biographer Beauchamp to try to shoot the sheriff (but not no deputy), then offers the gun to the imprisoned English Bob. The “First, You Got to Cock It” scene reveals Hackman’s Little Bill at his fiercest, bravest, psychologically cruelest, and most complex, and, ultimately, honest.

Al Swearengen
Deadwood

If you’ve never seen HBO’s Deadwood — with its multi-star cast, superb writing, outstanding storytelling, fascinating characters, and historical accuracy — then you don’t, as they say, know what you’re missing. Ian McShane’s portrayal of Al Swearengen, owner of the Gem Saloon/Brothel and one of the “founding fathers” of Deadwood SD while it was still a territory illegally on Native American land, makes him the classic villain for all time. Foul-mouthed, violent, sarcastic, murderous, and otherwise cruel to the point of sadism, McShane’s Swearengen is nevertheless also empathetic,  a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and abandonment, and frequently hurt by those whom he believes he can trust (though he usually reacts in anger to betrayal). Creator David Milch apparently created the role with Ian McShane in mind, and McShane’s performance as the vicious yet vulnerable Al make him one of the most memorable and oft-quoted villains in history. For the 10th anniversary marathon weekend showing of Deadwood, which is also playing serially weeknights on HBO Signature, numerous blogs imitated Al Swearengen’s voice — not that of any other character. No one scene could possibly show you McShane’s range as Al. Ian’s subtle facial expressions, voice intonations, and glances alone demonstrate more ability and talent in this role than some actors display in their entire careers. The fan-made montage “Al Talks the Talk & Walks the Walk” displays just some of Al’s villainy and McShane’s talent (one of the “murders” shown is actually a mercy-killing of a severely afflicted and dying character, which Al had to be persuaded to assist in, since no one else — not even the camp’s doctor — was willing to help end the character’s intense, progressive, and incurable suffering).

Über-Warning: Language
(Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn You)

If you’ve missed any of these brilliant actor’s performances as one of these top villains, you can rent them (or, even better, often view them for free, on HBO GO or with Amazon Prime), you’ll want to catch them when you’re in the mood for some fine acting, fantastic characters, and even some occasional dark, villainous humor.

And if your comments aren’t too villainous themselves, you can nominate your own top villains. If I’m not familiar with them, I’ll put them on my “To Be Watched” list.

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My Dinner with Patrick (Stewart)

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The meeting of two personalities is like
the contact of two chemical substances:
if there is any reaction,
both are transformed.
Carl Jung, Swiss psychologist (1875 – 1961)

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“Patrick Stewart called,” said my Hollywood agent one day after I got home from University. “He wants to know if you can swing by Los Angeles on your book tour so that he can have dinner with you.”

I was flabbergasted. Though Patrick and his production company, Flying Freehold, had held the option on my first novel — The Kommandant’s Mistress — for a few years, and though we had often spoken for long periods on the phone — about all sorts of topics, including my novel — I never dreamed that I would meet him, let alone have dinner with him.

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I was also stressed. Not being a famous author, my New York publishers had always asked me to pay for my book tours: I had saved a long time on my English Professor’s salary to do the tour for my second novel; all the flights, hotels, and bookstores had already been set up.

How could I add another city at the last minute?

The expense would be tremendous.

After I explained the situation frankly to my Hollywood agent, Lisa, requesting that she not ask Patrick for the money, she called my New York agent, who called my publisher, who called the publicist. Three hours later, Lisa informed me that the publisher would pay for the Los Angeles part of the tour — flight, driver, and hotel — if I would be sure to promote both books — The Kommandant’s Mistress as well as Only with the Heart — while I was in Los Angeles.

H cover web 2012

Especially at the reading that Patrick and his (then) wife Wendy would be attending.
“Patrick’s coming to the reading?”
“How else is he going to meet you?”
“At dinner.”
“He’ll take you to dinner after the reading. But he said he’ll meet you at the bookstore cafe beforehand.”
“Before the reading?”
“It’s in his neighborhood,” said Lisa. “So, I’ll be there, too.”

I was more nervous than I’d been at my very first public reading several years before, in New York. You see, I don’t just “read”: I perform. Like an actor. Except that I’m a writer.

Patrick Stewart is the actor. A fine actor. Now he was going to be at my reading? How could I possibly perform in front of him? I already couldn’t eat anything before a performance (neither can he, as I discovered). How would I be able to eat anything afterward? I had no idea.

Somehow, I got through the reading/performance, with Patrick sitting right in front of me, so close that our knees touched, with the all-female audience visibly swooning each time anyone looked at him or he asked me a question in that magnificent voice of his. While I signed books afterward, Patrick and Wendy went to the restaurant to get a table. My agent Lisa waited at the back of the bookstore to take me over to dinner.

The driver who’d been assigned to me was very annoyed. She wanted to know what she was supposed to do. Her job was to take me to the bookstore readings and back to the hotel afterward. Was she supposed to just sit in the car the entire time I had dinner, or was she also invited to dinner? I signed books, chatted with my fans, and anxiously sought any sign of Lisa, who had disappeared. 45 minutes later, I’d signed the last book, thanked the bookstore owners and employees for sponsoring the reading, and discovered that the driver was gone.

“She said to tell you she’ll pick you up at the hotel tomorrow morning at 10 to take you to your four readings,” said my agent Lisa, who had returned. “Patrick will take you back to the hotel after dinner.”
“Patrick?” I said. “Not you?”
“No, I have to leave dinner early. I’m going to New Orleans tomorrow and I haven’t packed yet. Don’t worry. Patrick knows where the Holiday Inn is. He drove instead of walking in case you needed a ride back afterward.”

My nerves, already jangled, were now stretched even tauter. As we walked across the street to the restaurant, I asked Lisa if Patrick and his wife had been pleased with the reading. She told me she hadn’t been paying attention to them, but, rather, to me, and that she had been very impressed. Instead of being reassured, my feeling of foreboding increased.

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At the crowded restaurant, Friday night diners packed the lobby and bar. We struggled through the group until someone grabbed my shoulder from behind: Patrick. Before my glass of wine had even arrived, the maitre d’ sidled up to Patrick to quietly inquire if his entire party had now arrived. He informed him that it had. Before all the others, we were taken to a table which had been reserved — empty — for at least the last hour since no one had known how long my reading would last and thus had not known what time to make the reservation. My cheeks turned redder than my hair as people openly stared while we were seated at the table in the center of the over-full restaurant.

The table was unbelievably small. It reminded me of those tiny, outdoor tables in Paris at the sidewalk cafes. When I wasn’t bumping my knees against Patrick, on my left, I was banging them into his wife Wendy, on my right. I suddenly wished I’d ordered something stronger than a glass of wine. Before I had another sip, however, Patrick began his “performance.” Charming and gracious, he began telling me a story.

Clearly, he meant to entertain me.
It wasn’t just dinner: it was a dinner party.
For the first time that evening, I was relieved and began to relax: I do “dinner party” well.

“Did you know,” said Patrick as he speared a forkful of Caesar salad, “that when Joseph Conrad was dying, he spoke aloud to his characters as if they were in the room?”
“Really?” I said. “In what language?”

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Everyone at the table except me froze.
Patrick’s fork was mid-air, dangling salad.
My agent’s eyes were wider than an owl’s.
Wendy’s mouth was hanging open, literally.
My first faux pas.

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“What language?” said Patrick, who is extremely well read, and not just in Shakespeare.
“Polish or English?” I said, though my agent was shaking her head at me for some reason. “Did he speak any others?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” said Patrick, his fork still poised between his plate and his mouth.
“So, in which language did he speak to his characters?” I said, eating some of my own salad and taking a sip of my wine while awaiting his answer.

Patrick’s wife Wendy began to laugh.
He put down his fork.
My agent closed her eyes momentarily.
I bashed my knees against both Patrick’s and Wendy’s, apologizing repeatedly.
Patrick gazed at me.
I returned his look.
He leaned slightly toward me.

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“You know, in all the years I’ve told that story,” he said, “no one’s ever asked me that question.”
“You’ve told that story a lot?”
“Only about a hundred-million times,” said Wendy, “and that’s just in the ten years we’ve been together.”
“You’ve told that story a hundred-million times and no one’s ever asked you what language Conrad spoke in?” I said, completely forgetting my manners and whom I was addressing.
“Not a hundred-million times,” said Patrick.
“Close enough,” said his wife.
“And no one’s ever asked you that question?”
“Not once.”
“It’s probably not important,” said my agent, Lisa, smiling pointedly at me.
“It’s not the most important question, no,” I said. “I was just curious.”
“It’s not the most important question?” said Patrick.
“Not to me,” I said.
“What is?”
“First I have to know what language he spoke in.”
“What language do you think he spoke in?” said Patrick, moving closer.
“Polish.”
“Why?”
“Because he was dying.”

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Patrick looked around the table.
His wife and my agent both busied themselves with their food and drinks.

“Studies have shown that people have the accent of the area in which they lived when they’re 5-7 years old,” I said. “Other studies have shown that no matter how many languages they become fluent in, people always count in their native language. Unless they grow up bi-lingual. Nobody knows why. They just know that they do. So, if Conrad was dying, he’d be speaking in his native language. Not in English.”

“Now, what’s the important question?” said Patrick.
“If he was speaking in Polish, and we know none of his characters spoke Polish, even the ones who were bi-lingual,” I said, not even noticing my agent’s deliberate coughing, “was it like God speaking to His creations, who were unable to understand Him?”

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Patrick swallowed and put down his fork. Everyone at the table stared at me. I blundered on, wanting to know the opinion of an artist I respected so much.

“Even if his characters could hear him, did they realize who he was? Did they know he’d created them, given them the lives they’d led, forced those difficult moral dilemmas on them, let them suffer, killed them? Did they try to answer him, like humans praying to God, not understanding anything He said back to them? Did he feel abandoned? Betrayed? Did they feel the same way?”

Patrick immediately turned to my agent, saying, “Lisa, what do you think?”
“I think I would have to be really drunk,” she said, pouring more wine into her glass, “to even begin to understand what she just said.”
Patrick looked across the table at his wife.
“Wendy, darling, what about you?”
“I think there’s not enough alcohol in the world for me to participate in this conversation,” she said, waving her hand at us. “Why don’t you two talk about the things you like, while Lisa and I discuss the things we like?”

Wendy and Lisa began talking about Patrick and Wendy’s wedding (three months previous) and the honeymoon (on Fiji). Wendy had brought photographs. I looked at Patrick. He looked at me. He raised his eyebrows and waited.

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“Sometimes,” I said, horrified to hear my voice begin to crack and to feel tears in my eyes, “I feel monstrously guilty.”
“About what?” said Patrick.
“Because the only life I gave Rachel [in The Kommandant’s Mistress] was as an inmate in a Nazi concentration camp, being raped by Max [the Kommandant], just so I could try to answer the moral and ethical question, ‘What would you do to survive an inescapable situation?’ ”

Patrick was silent for a moment.
“What was the answer to that question?”
“That you never know what you’re capable of until you do it.”
Suddenly Patrick gripped my hand, squeezing it hard, his voice and eyes intense.
“Rachel’s forgiven you,” he said. “Trust me. I know she has.”
When he released my hand, I realized that Wendy and Lisa were staring at us.
So was almost everyone else in the restaurant, including the waiter standing slightly behind Patrick with another bottle of wine.

“Is she always like this?” Wendy said to Lisa.
“You read the book,” said Lisa, shrugging. “What do you think?”

Patrick moved his chair closer, obviously happy with me. I felt a strange sense of peace.
Did Patrick grant me Rachel’s absolution or his own? I don’t know.

I do know that we spent almost 5 delightful, intellectually stimulating hours over that dinner, discussing everything from Moby-Dick to Shakespeare’s plays (both of us prefer the tragedies), from my accent to his homeland (whose dialect/accent he hides), from acting to writing, from novels to films. Patrick was gracious, intuitive, charming, intelligent, incredibly well-read (unlike some actors, who only read scripts, screenplays, or “treatments” and never the actual books they’re based on), insightful, and funny. I knew that he would make a wonderful Max, just as he had made a marvelous Ahab.

Unfortunately, though the film was funded, it was never made (Hollywood politics). Patrick released the option, and we haven’t spoken in over seven years. That’s simply how it works in Hollywood: if you don’t have a project together, you don’t have contact with each other. And in Hollywood, authors are not very well respected unless they’re bestsellers. Most authors who have books optioned never talk to or meet the actors/directors who acquire the rights to make their books into films; most books that are optioned never even make it to the first day of “principal photography,” as it’s called, when the author gets paid.

I got to talk to Patrick the first time on the phone because he wanted to talk to me about my novel. I got to talk to him after that because he’d just finished filming Moby-Dick and I’ve read the novel at least a dozen times, even writing a poem called “Ahab’s Wife”: he wanted to know my take on his Ahab. I got to talk to him many times afterward because I’m a Shakespeare scholar: we could discuss some of the works closest to his heart.

I got to meet him and have dinner with him in Los Angeles simply because he wanted to meet me and discuss what he wanted to do with The Kommandant’s Mistress, the film. My life partner Tom and I then got to spend the weekend with Patrick and his wife when he was doing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because it was being staged only an hour’s flight from where we then lived, because Patrick liked me, and so he invited us up as his guests.

My situation with Patrick Stewart was not customary. Patrick’s desire to have contact with authors whose books he optioned is not the norm in Hollywood. Most of the actors I’ve met since then are gracious, kind, intelligent, charming, talented, and clever, but understandably wary around strangers, even if they’ve optioned their books.

Of course, I was disappointed that Patrick didn’t get to make my novel into a film, and I still believe he would have been a wonderful Max. The fact that Hollywood politics prevented its being made, however, can never take away my first dinner with Patrick. Nor can anything take away our first face-to-face conversation about Joseph Conrad, authors, their characters, moral and ethical choices in unbearable situations, as well as the existence of God, forgiveness, and hope in art.

Me & Patrick
(No, I don’t look anything like this now since I lost over 278 pounds and the dorky haircut — I look like this:
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but I swear, that is me with Patrick Stewart, and, yes, he has his arm around me. Though we discussed many things over the years that Patrick held the option to my first novel, we never discussed Star Trek: TNG or his role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard: sorry.)

 

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