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!!"
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
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.
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.