Frank's Faves: Leading men and women as villains

Frank's Faves: Leading men and women as villains

"Actors endow the villain in fiction with a warmth and quality that makes them memorable. I think we like fictional villains because they're the Mr. Hyde of our own dreams. I've met a few real villains in my time, and they weren't the least bit sympathetic." — John Rhys-Davies

I was ready for a break by last Sunday night, so I did what I often do — and what I heartily recommend to others in similar circumstances: I curled up on the couch and got cozy comfy with a favorite movie.

In this case, it was not unlike curling up in front of the fireplace, if I had one, since the movie I was watching was director Ron Howard's salute to Chicago firefighters, "Backdraft," easily my favorite movie about fire.

Afterward, my wife helpfully suggested firefighting movies as an inspiration for this week's Faves, but honestly, I was hard-pressed to think of a heaping handful of faves to fit that description. There's John Wayne's "Hellfighters" (1968) and "Ladder 49" (2004) with Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta, neither of which I've seen yet, and disaster films like "Towering Inferno" (1974) and "Tower" (2012), both of which I have, unfortunately, but with a catastrophic fire engulfing Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris literally as I write this, a list of my favorite fire movies somehow doesn't seem like such a good idea at the moment.

Fortunately for this column's purposes, that's not why "Backdraft" appealed to me so much in this repeat viewing anyway. It was the wickedly twisted performance of Donald Sutherland as imprisoned pyromaniac Ronald Bartel, who is visibly aroused at the thought that the fire marshall's investigator interviewing him saw his late dad "dance with the animal," and wants to know most of all, "Did it look at you? Did the fire look at you? It did. Whoa."

The scarily enthusiastic way the famously laid-back actor embodies such a creepy psycho got me thinking about how I've often heard well-known leading actors say in interviews that they far prefer to play villains, as it allows them the chance to break their usual mold and let their personal demons run wild. I find that pretty fascinating myself, especially when the actor or actress in question is much better known for playing likeable, romantic or even larger-than-life heroes.

So, this is neither a list of my favorite firefighting movies nor my favorite movie villains — I'll save both for another time. Thanks to Donald Sutherland and other artistically brave souls like him, this is a dual list devoted to my favorite actors and actresses who defied the marquee molds that Hollywood had created for them and went bad — really bad — if only for a single performance on the big screen (and yes, I'm well aware that most of my favorite villainous actresses are playing fairytale or comic-book roles; so give us better ones, Hollywood!). Join me, if you will, in a doff of your own private black hat to:


— Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991, right). Hopkins reprised his Oscar-winning role as the brilliant psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter in two other films after this one (the sequel "Hannibal" in 2001 and prequel "Red Dragon" in 2002), but he was never more chilling than when facing off against Jodie Foster's Agent Starling from within the uneasy security of his glass cell — and improvising his sibilant recollection of what he did with the liver of "a census taker (who) once tried to test me."

— Henry Fonda as Frank in "Once Upon a Time in the West" (1968). "Keep your lovin' brother happy," he says after shoving a harmonica into the mouth of a bound little boy forced to bear the weight of his brother suspended by a noose overhead. Despite the wealth of nice guys Fonda played over his career, this steely-eyed lowlife deserved to have the kid grow up to be Charles Bronson so he could one day shove that harmonica back in his mouth.

— Laurence Olivier as Christian Szell in "Marathon Man" (1976). The legendary Shakespearean actor-director won a supporting actor Oscar nomination in the role of an ice-cold Nazi war criminal hunting for a cache of stolen diamonds who unforgettably tortures poor Dustin Hoffman with only a dentist's drill and the repeated question, "Is it safe?"

— Gregory Peck as Dr. Josef Mengele in "The Boys From Brazil" (1978). Atticus Finch as a Nazi death camp doctor? Yes, it's a major reversal of personalities, which is in large part what makes Peck's performance so unsettling.

— Donald Sutherland as Ronald Bartel in "Backdraft" (1991). While this performance was the one that inspired the list, it also deserves its spot here (even more than Marlon Brando's famously overpaid role as Col. Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now'), because of the way Sutherland played it. He doesn't chew up the scenery or threaten anyone directly. He never even raises his voice. He just let his eyes and his smile do the chilling. And man, does it work.


— Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil in "101 Dalmatians" (1996, right) and "102 Dalmatians" (2000). The perennial Oscar nominee may have been scarier in "Fatal Attraction," but she wasn't nearly as bad to the bone as she is as the would-be puppy-killing criminal mastermind in Disney's live-action remake of its animated classic. Or fun, for that matter.

— Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in "Monster" (2003). I was all set to pick this gorgeous actress for her convincing turn as the wicked stepmother in "Snow White and the Huntsman" (2012) and "Huntsman: Winter's War" (2016). But considering Theron won her Oscar masking her looks as a real-life serial killer in this biographical crime drama, I have to go with this prime example of where truth is far scarier than fiction.

— Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes in "Misery" (1990). Bates might not qualify as the typical movie leading lady, but her Academy Award was well-earned for her iconic performance as a deranged fan nursing injured novelist James Caan back to health, assuming he writes her favorite character back to life, that is.

— Angelina Jolie as Maleficent in "Maleficent" (2014). I didn't expect to like this live-action remake of yet another animated Disney classic, but I did — largely because of Jolie's performance as the misunderstood villainness behind the "Sleeping Beauty" curse.

— Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle in "Batman Returns" (1992). Definitely not a frightening baddie, Pfeiffer makes her Catwoman memorable by combining style, sex appeal and smarts with mad whip skills. "Meow," indeed.

Topics (2):Film, Television