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.
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.
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
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.
The Archangel Gabriel
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.
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.
Sheriff Little Bill Daggett
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.
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).
(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.