24 May 2014

No More Mr. Nice Guy

I love movies. Always have and always will. Timewise and expensewise, I probably love them too much--but I console myself with the knowledge that I receive more from movies than mere entertainment. I often learn from them as well. The writer part of me tries to figure out why certain things in a story work and why certain things don't, and I consider that information helpful when I sit down to write my own fiction.

One of the things I enjoy most about films is that now and then they deliver something totally unexpected. A plot reversal, a fascinating location, a twist ending, a quirky theme, an outrageous character. I once heard someone say that anytime we watch a movie--or read a short story or novel--we make a silent deal with the creator of the piece: we agree to give him our attention and he agrees to give us surprise.

Risky business

A guaranteed eye-opener happens when the producer/director/whoever chooses to cast someone who's usually a protagonist in the role of an antagonist. This kind of thing--angels playing devils--happens more often than you might suspect, presumably because many actors fear being stereotyped, but I figure it's always a bit tense and chancy for both the actors and the filmmakers. Sometimes straying from the norm pays off, and sometimes it doesn't.

I recently found an interview on YouTube in which the late Henry Fonda, who was always cast as the hero, talked about his one-and-only role as a bad guy. Italian director Sergio Leone had approached him about playing a villain in one of Leone's spaghetti Westerns, and after being advised by old friend Eli Wallach to accept the role, Fonda traveled to Rome to meet Leone for the first time. Before their meeting--and wanting to look more sinister and less recognizable--Fonda said he let his beard grow a bit and put in brown contact lenses to hide his famous blue eyes. But when Leone saw him, the director said, "No, no!"--he wanted those baby blues, and did not want any disguises. Fonda was later told that in the scene that introduced his villain to the audience, when he's about to murder a child in cold blood, and the camera swings slowly around to reveal his face for the first time, Leone wanted viewers to gasp and drop their popcorn and say, "Jesus Christ!--that's Henry Fonda!!"

Good guys who have played bad guys
My favorite examples:
Chuck Connors -- The Big Country Denzel Washington -- Training Day Michael Douglas -- Wall Street Steve Martin -- The Spanish Prisoner Glenn Close -- Fatal Attraction James Cromwell -- L.A. Confidential Russell Crowe -- 3:10 to Yuma (2007) Tommy Lee Jones -- Under Siege Henry Fonda -- Once Upon a Time in the West Danny Glover -- Witness Arnold Schwarzenegger -- The Terminator Gene Hackman -- Unforgiven
Other memorable examples (good guys in villain roles that worked):
Robin Williams -- Insomnia
Fred MacMurray -- Double Indemnity Leonardo DiCaprio -- Django Unchained Matt Damon -- The Talented Mr. Ripley
Laurence Olivier -- Marathon Man
Glenn Ford -- 3:10 to Yuma (1957)
Stephen Boyd -- Ben-Hur Orson Welles -- The Third Man Humphrey Bogart -- The Petrified Forest Raymond Burr -- Rear Window Marlon Brando -- Apocalypse Now Joseph Cotten -- Shadow of a Doubt
Heath Ledger -- The Dark Knight
Morgan Freeman -- Lucky Number Slevin
Spencer Tracy -- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Kiefer Sutherland -- Stand By Me
Daniel Day-Lewis -- Gangs of New York Alec Baldwin -- The Cooler Angela Lansbury -- The Manchurian Candidate (1962) Meryl Streep -- The Manchurian Candidate (2004) Burt Lancaster -- Sweet Smell of Success
Forgettable examples (not great but not terrible):
Bruce Willis -- The Jackal Timothy Dalton -- The Rocketeer Kirk Douglas -- There Was a Crooked Man Walter Matthau -- Charade Anthony Quinn -- Last Train From Gun Hill
Richard Gere -- Arbitrage
Walter Brennan -- How the West Was Won
Tom Cruise -- Collateral Gary Sinise -- Ransom
Ronald Reagan -- The Killers
Robert Duvall -- True Grit (1969)
Wilford Brimley -- The Firm Ed Harris -- The Rock Albert Brooks -- Drive John Goodman -- In the Electric Mist Christopher Reeve -- Deathtrap Greg Kinnear -- The Gift
Tony Curtis -- The Boston Strangler Richard Crenna -- Wait Until Dark
Regrettable examples (good guys in villain roles that didn't work):
Gregory Peck -- The Boys From Brazil Andy Griffith -- Savages
Sean Connery -- The Avengers
John Travolta -- Broken Arrow Harrison Ford -- What Lies Beneath Julia Roberts -- Mirror, Mirror
Elijah Wood -- Pawn Shop Chronicles Kevin Costner -- Mr. Brooks Sylvester Stallone -- Death Race 2000
Daryl Hannah -- Kill Bill
John Lithgow -- Cliffhanger Robert Redford -- Indecent Proposal George Clooney -- From Dusk Till Dawn Jamie Lee Curtis -- Mother's Boys James Earl Jones -- Conan the Barbarian
Nicole Kidman -- To Die For
NOTE: All these lists include only those performances that I've actually seen with my own peepers. I had to therefore leave out Kate Winslet in Divergent, Sidney Poitier in The Long Ships, Frank Sinatra in Suddenly, etc. (Don't worry, they're in my Netflix queue . . .)
Comedic goodie-plays-baddie examples (these don't really count):
Jack Lemmon -- The Great Race
Danny De Vito -- Romancing the Stone Sigourney Weaver -- Ghostbusters Tom Hanks -- The Ladykillers Jon Voight -- Holes Max Von Sydow -- Flash Gordon
Matt Dillon -- There's Something About Mary Jennifer Anniston -- Horrible Bosses Slim Pickens -- Blazing Saddles Dick Van Dyke -- Dick Tracy
Patrick McGoohan -- Silver Streak Ned Beatty -- Superman
Dabney Coleman -- Nine to Five
Ted Knight -- Caddyshack Michael Caine -- Dirty Rotten Scoundrels Dustin Hoffman -- Hook
Others that don't count, in my opinion, are movies about prisoners, gangsters, outlaws, anti-heroes, etc., where most of the main characters are already less-than-model citizens: Goodfellas, The Usual Suspects, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Godfather, A History of Violence, Bonnie and Clyde, Get Shorty, Papillon, The Shawshank Redemption, Cool Hand Luke, Blood Simple, The Road to Perdition, In Bruges, Miller's Crossing, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Getaway, Jackie Brown, Escape From Alcatraz, Out of Sight, Pulp Fiction, The Sting, Reservoir Dogs, and many more.

There are also many more roles in all the above categories that I've not mentioned. Help me out, here, if you can think of them.

Forever respectable
Not everyone, of course, is corruptible. To my knowledge, the following male actors have never played true villains: Tom Selleck, James Garner, John Wayne, Cary Grant, Paul Newman, Gary Cooper, Jackie Chan, Steve McQueen, Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, Charlton Heston, and Clint Eastwood. (I started to put James Stewart in this squeaky-clean list until I remembered After the Thin Man. And here's my disclaimer: Wayne was pseudo-villainlike in the roles of Genghis Khan and the Ringo Kid, and Eastwood came close in both Tightrope and Beguiled.)
Even more fun than watching good guys go bad is watching conventional villains occasionally play decent, law-abiding folks: Jack Palance in Monte Walsh, Bruce Dern in Nebraska, Gary Busey in Silver Bullet, Michael Ironside in Top Gun, Robert J. Wilke in Stripes, Dennis Hopper in True Romance, Lee Van Cleef in For a Few Dollars More, L.Q. Jones in The Edge, Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen, Christopher Lee in The Devil Rides Out, Peter Cushing in The Horror of Dracula, Alan Rickman in Galaxy Quest, Steve Buscemi in The Abyss, Gary Oldman in Immortal Beloved, Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone, Donald Pleasance in The Great Escape, etc.
Okay, enough of this. That's my analysis and these are my opinions. By now you have probably diagnosed me as a certified, raving, dreamworld-addicted maniac. If so, you are incorrect. I am perfectly normal and sane.
In fact, I am Spartacus.


  1. Wait Until Dark does have a generally good-guy actor making a truly memorable villainous turn. It's not Richard Crenna, though, but Alan Arkin. Harry Roat walks that perfect line between realistically evil and creature of pure nightmare.

    Love this post.

  2. Oh, one other thing. Paul Newman has gone the comedic bad-guy route in The Hudsucker Proxy, which I loved.

  3. Yep, Crenna and Arkin were both baddies in that one. I saw it while in college, and it scared the hell out of me.

    I agree, Ben, Hudsucker was good all the way around.

  4. Oh yeah, I hope I didn't sound dismissive of Crenna. His character was more criminal than evil.

  5. Several good guys in bad guy roles include:
    Tyrone Power Witness For the Prosecution
    Ray Milland Dial M For Murder
    Claude Rains Notorious
    Charles Boyer Gaslight

    How about those who have played good guys and bad guys in the same movie.

    Edward G Robinson did it in a movie whose title I can't remember
    Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou
    And I'm certain Peter Sellers must have done so

    John, I always love your movie blogs. Keep them coming

  6. John, thanks for including a few (very few) ladies in these lists.

  7. A very interesting list, John.

    Raymond Burr and Chuck Connors, who made the list as good guys playing bad guys, usually played good guys on television and bad guys in the movies. This was especially true of Burr, and it's analogous to pre-television days, when an actor like Basil Rathbone or George Sanders was often villainous in A movies but allowed to be heroic in B pictures.

    At least once, John Wayne played a good character who goes bad. This was in Reap the Wild Wind. And he walked the line of villainy in Wake of the Red Witch. (Spoiler Follows.) In both films he has run-ins with giant octopuses, a notable achievement for an actor who spent much of his time on a horse.

  8. Actually, Charlton Heston DID play the bad guy - he played Cardinal Richelieu in "The Three Musketeers" and the sequel "The Four Musketeers" with Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, etc. And you could tell he was having a GREAT time chewing scenery.

    I loved Henry Fonda in his one and only bad role; and I found Robin Williams perfectly sinister in his one and only baddie (some of that was the writing - I have heard equivalents of that last monologue in "Insomnia").

  9. Jeez, John, you really do watch a lot of movies. The post and comments are also a tribute to the inherent memorability of movies. I first saw (or at least noticed) Christopher Walken in the heartwarming TV movie Sarah, Plain and Tall with Glenn Close as a mail-order bride, and I'm probably the only moviegoer in the world who's never been able to think of him as a bad guy, even in Seven Psychopaths. And is Alan Rickman really usually a bad guy? What about Sense and Sensibility?

  10. James Stewart played Jeanette McDonald's psycho killer little brother in Rose Marie. He didn't have to chew the scenery quite as hard as he did in After the Thin Man, but the last we saw of him he was being led away by Nelson Eddy to be hanged for killing a Mountie.

  11. Herschel, thanks for reminding me of some old classics that I love but forgot to mention. It also reminds me to watch Gaslight again--I've seen the others fairly recently. I'm especially fond of Dial M. (To this day, I confuse Ray Milland with Ralph Bellamy, which makes no sense at all.)

    I try to watch Cat Ballou again every couple of years--didn't Lee Marvin win an Oscar for that double role?

    Fran, I couldn't think of an awful lot of good-lady plays bad-lady examples. But the ones who came to mind were fun to watch.

  12. Terence, you are correct about John Wayne--thanks for pointing out those movies. I watched an interview the other night where he was talking with somebody about Wake of the Red Witch. I get the impression actors love those roles where they get to play villains or almost-villains.

    The funny thing about the TV vs. movie oddity you mentioned (good guy on TV, bad guy in the movies) is that Richard Boone made a wonderful movie villain (think Hombre and The Tall T), and also a great TV hero (Have Gun Will Travel).

  13. Eve, that Henry Fonda role might be my favorite example ever--I still remember my reaction when I (like all the viewers director Leone was targeting) saw Fonda's face just before he killed that kid at the ranch.

    I recall another Robin Williams bad-guy appearance too, in a movie called One-Hour Photo. I once heard someone say that comedians and country-music singers somehow make wonderful actors. Go figure.

  14. Liz, I watch TOO MANY movies. Good point, by the way, about Sense and Sensibility. I liked Rickman in that--and yes, I've seen him in several good-guy roles. (Didn't he play a good cop in The January Man?) But memories of his characters in Die Hard, Quigley Down Under, etc., will always place him on the Dark Side, for me. He makes a perfect Snake (I mean Snape) in the Harry Potter movies.

    Whoa--Kate, I didn't even KNOW about Stewart's villain role in Rose Marie. Thanks! All I remember about that movie is Eddy singing "Indian Love Call." (I am calling you-oo-oo-oo, oo-oo-oo.)

  15. Terrific piece.

    Spoiler alert: Jim Garner does play against type in TWILIGHT.

    An actress I'd mention is Marie Windsor, who almost always played the B-movie bitch, but reverses expectations in NARROW MARGIN (which also has Charles McGraw as the good guy, for a change).

    John and I both watch way too many movies, LOL.

  16. David, I wonder if there's a good rehab program out there for cinema addicts?

    You're right!--Garner did have an unusual (for him) role in Twilight, which I remember also had an interesting scene featuring a young Reese Witherspoon (if I'm remembering correctly). I liked that Twilight a lot better than the more recent, and more famous, one.

    I loved Narrow Margin of course, and the gravel-voiced Charles McGraw, who certainly played a lot more villains than good guys.

    Memory lane. Ain't this stuff fun . . . ?

  17. Alan Rickman played Dr. Blalock, a good guy, in Something the Lord Made. He was one of the inventors of the Blalock-Taussig shunt for "blue babies". His black surgical technician did not get credit for his contributions, which was typical of the time ... the 50s or 60s I think.

  18. Liz, I haven't seen that one--it's now on my to-watch list. There's no doubt Rickman can play any role and be competent in it, but there's just something about his look (maybe the smile, or the eyes) that makes him an excellent villain.

    I've often heard it said that the person who most drives any plot is the villain, not the protagonist, and that to be successful, writers must spend at least as much time on their bad guy as on their good guy. I believe that. After seeing a movie like Die Hard, I always seem to remember the villain as much as I remember the hero.

  19. John, another good guy, (for the most part), that plays an evil character is Burt Lancaster in Island of Dr. Moreau. I suppose Elmer Gantry is sort of a bad guy, and of course the Birdman of Alcatraz. But he outdoes them all in this role.
    Following up on Terence's comment, Telly Savales played bad guys almost exclusively in the movies, but a good guy on TV.

  20. I love Alan Rickman, because I think he has one of the sexiest voices in the universe. Another good-guy role for him was in "Truly, Madly, Deeply", where he plays the boyfriend of Juliet Stevenson whose death leaves her absolutely heartbroken - until he reappears from the dead. It's a wonderful movie. Roger Ebert called it "'Ghost' for grownups."

  21. Herschel, I wish I'd been the one to think of Dr. Moreau. It's always a little odd to see Burt Lancaster as a bad guy, anyplace. And you're right: Telly Savalas, like Richard Boone, was villainous in almost all his movies and a hero on TV. In The Dirty Dozen, a WWII movie, Savalas's character (he was one OF the dozen, for cryin' out loud) was far more evil than the Germans were.

    Interesting, some of these casting decisions. I've personally always been a little fascinated by people like Charles Bronson, Robert DeNiro, Ernest Borgnine, Kevin Spacey, George Kennedy, Richard Widmark, Donald Sutherland, George C. Scott, Charles McGraw, Kathy Bates, Sharon Stone, Andy Garcia, Faye Dunaway, Al Pacino, William Hurt, Jack Nicholson, Ray Liotta, and countless others, who could consistently play good guys OR bad guys, and make them believable.

  22. Eve, there's something about those British actors. They can play anyone and do anything and make it work.

  23. Cool post, thanks. Al Pacino’s good guy and bad guy roles are always great. I think I’d buy a ticket to watch Pacino read the phone book. Just imagine how he might do it.

  24. Thanks, Peter.

    I've always been a big Pacino/DeNiro fan. I think they, along with Duvall, Streep, Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones, and a few others, are among the best actors of all time. And even though it's easy for everyone to say good things about the recently departed, we lost a fantastic talent in Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who could play good and evil equally well. His villain in a little-known film called Before the Devil Knows You're Dead was one I'll never forget.

  25. Alan Alda has pulled off bad guy roles in a couple of movies (maybe t.v. movies!) I draw a blank on which ones. Let's give Tom Cruise a cheer for his bad guy turn in "Interview With The Vampire." And John, you have my sympathies for sitting through "Kill Bill."

  26. Jeff, I think Alan Alda was a bad guy in The Aviator--a corrupt politician, if I remember right. As for Kill Bill, I sat through KB1 and KB2 also. Quentin Tarantino is one of my guilty pleasures . . .

  27. John, that second Elizabeth wasn't me, but that's okay. :) I confess I have trouble believing in Jack Nicholson in a good-guy role. For me, there's something inherently malevolent in his persona. Some day I might go back and see again what I think must have been his first important role, before he got famous and I developed this bias, as the liberal lawyer who hooks up with the two protagonists in Easy Rider.

  28. Sorry, Liz. As for Nicholson, I don't think yours is an unusual bias. My wife says the reason JN always comes across as villainous (and, often, arrogant) is those eyes, and eyebrows. Whatever it is, he certainly makes an impression.

    Thanks, everybody, for all the comments!

  29. Hey John, Mel Gibson played the bad guy in a movie full of bad guys called Payback. He's also not very nice in the Road Warrior pictures - I think he tends to walk the line with his characters.

    I also liked Kevin Costner playing the bad guy in A Perfect World.

  30. You're right, Sandra--I saw Payback only a few months ago, and the Mel man was definitely a bad guy there, although probably the least bad of all the folks in the movie. Same goes for the Road Warrior/Mad Max series and other anti-hero films like Eastwood's Italian Westerns.

    And, on second thought, Costner has indeed played several nasty guys over the years (3000 Miles to Graceland, Waterworld, etc.), and was even revealed during the final seconds of No Way Out to be (gasp!) a Russian spy.

    Are there no heroes left in the world . . . ?

  31. lol You missed one of Kirk Douglas' most fun movies that had him going the comedic bad-guy route. Some of the stunts showed off Kirk's gymnastic abilities. (Remember the different ways he mounted his horse in War Wagon and some of his other movies?) It's cheesy and fun and exactly what you would expect when you look at the entire cast. Kirk Douglas as Cactus Jack. Ann-Margret as Charming Jones. Arnold Schwarzenegger as Handsome Stranger. Paul Lynde as Nervous Elk. Foster Brooks as Bank Clerk. Ruth Buzzi as Damsel in Distress. Jack Elam as Avery Simpson. Strother Martin as Parody Jones.

  32. I remember that one! The movie was THE VILLAIN, back in the late 70s, I think. There was one scene in that, with Mel Tillis as the telegraph agent, that I can't watch without laughing my head off. Thanks for reminding me of this one.

  33. Has anyone ever heard of Kevin Bacon. He plays very bad bad guys and very good good guys

  34. You're right, Unknown. He's got one of those faces . . .

    Thanks for stopping in, here!


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