The most memorable movie villains are often also the most outlandish. If you were to stop most strangers on the street and ask them to name screen villain, they’d probably either tell you to leave them alone and stop making them nervous, or they’d instead name one of cinema’s big hitters: heavy-breathing cloak-wearer Darth Vader, or flesh-eating aesthete Hannibal Lecter.
In reality, villains are more mundane. They seldom wear outlandish costumes, and they don’t necessarily even kill or injure people. Real-world villains can range from bullying and self-important bosses to aggressively opinionated news anchors, and from sadistic physical education teachers to heartless politicians.
So here are 10 or so screen antagonists who’ve stuck in the memory without wearing hockey masks, wielding hatchets or killing household pets…
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
As played by Louise Fletcher in Milos Forman’s 1975 drama, Nurse Mildred Ratched rules over the inmates of Oregon State Hospital with a rod of iron. Jack Nicholson’s spirited criminal Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) soon winds up as Ratched’s nemesis, and gamely tries to overturn her strict regime; as he ultimately learns, it’s a battle of wits he simply can’t win. Fletcher won an Oscar for her role here, and it’s strange to think that Nurse Ratched could have been played by any one of a number of other major actresses in contention, including Angela Lansbury.
These days, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing such a chilly character so effectively; Fletcher speaks in a calm, soothing tone, yet her eyes portray a steeliness and resolve that is impossible to argue with. Just look at the quietly effective scene above, Ratched gently overrules McMurphy’s demands to have the music turned down in the rec room. Here, she proves to be a master of subtle manipulation. “If Mr. McMurphy doesn’t want to take his medication orally, I’m sure we can arrange for him to take it some other way…”
Fun fact: the Transformer Ratchet – the Autobots’ medical officer – takes his name from Nurse Ratched.
The Third Man
A character talked about but barely seen, Harry Lime casts a long shadow over Carol Reed’s post-war classic, The Third Man. Lime’s both the story’s antagonist and MacGuffin; kind yet clueless pulp writer Holly (Joseph Cotten) arrives in Vienna to meet Lime, his old friend, only to discover that he’s apparently been killed. What follows is a noir mystery where Holly uncovers the depths of Lime’s true criminal nature, until Lime himself – played magnificently by Orson Welles – makes his grand appearance in the final reel.
Lime’s monologue about the Swiss and the cuckoo clock is one of the most famous in cinema, and reveals everything we need to know about his character. Beneath his urbane demeanor lies a chilling lack of empathy. “Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever…?”
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman
Full Metal Jacket
Few of us have actually met a sociopathic killer. Precisely none of us have met a comic book supervillain. But just about everyone’s met at least one bully in their lifetime, and Gunnery Sergeant Hartman is arguably among the most convincing screen bullies in cinema history. It’s his job to be a bully, of course; with the Vietnam War raging, Hartman’s task is to threaten, cajole and menace a group of fresh-faced recruits until they’re battle-ready soldiers. For him, the ends justify the means, but for would-be soldiers like poor Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio), the physical and mental punishment meted out by Hartman is simply too much to take.
Himself a drill instructor in the US Marine Corps, R. Lee Ermey proves to be Stanley Kubrick’s secret weapon in Full Metal Jacket‘s first half. He brings authenticity to Hartman, as you’d expect, but it’s his humor and timing that make him so unforgettably horrifying – his seemingly endless tirades (most written by Ermey) are cruel and dehumanizing, but at times brutally funny.
Swimming With Sharks
He’s every young an employee’s nightmare: a sarcastic, overbearing boss on a power trip. As played by Kevin Spacey, Buddy Ackerman is nothing less than a monster crammed into an expensive suit, a movie producer who enjoys tormenting and belittling his assistants simply because he can. Buddy ultimately meets his match in Guy (Frank Whaley), a budding writer who naively thinks that getting a job as Buddy’s underling will provide a ticket to Hollywood success – the flashpoint for a flawed yet eminently watchable drama.
There’s been some speculation that Buddy’s based on real-life producer Scott Rudin, or maybe Joel Silver. Really, though, it doesn’t matter who Buddy’s based on; he’s an archetype – a ruthless boss with a grotesque sense of entitlement. Most of us will never work for a movie producer, but we’ve all encountered the odd Buddy Ackerman at one point or another.
The Big Lebowski
Want another example of a guy who enjoys his position of power just a little too much? Then meet Kohl, the Malibu police chief (Leon Russom) who suddenly finds long-haired layabout Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) sitting on the other side of his desk.
Unimpressed by Lebowski’s tardy appearance and drugged-up ramblings (The Dude had his drink spiked by porn king Jackie Treehorn in the scene before), Kohl delivers one of the film’s finest monologues:
“We’ve got a nice quiet little beach community here, and I aim to keep it nice and quiet. So let me make something plain: I don’t like you jerking around, bothering our citizens, Lebowski. I don’t like your jerkoff name. I don’t like your jerkoff face. I don’t like your jerkoff behavior. And I don’t like you. Jerkoff.”
When The Dude makes a smart remark in response, Kohl resorts to some spectacularly abrupt physical violence. In a film where authority figures don’t exactly come off well in general, Kohl emerges as one of its most quietly nasty villains.
Before Office Space came out in 1999, I tended to think of the talk radio drama series Midnight Caller whenever I saw actor Gary Cole in anything. After Office Space, all I can think of when I see Cole is his blandly horrible corporate Bill Lumbergh. With his precise hair and carefully pressed shirt and tie, Lumbergh’s one of those people who prides himself on being a casual, laid-back boss, while all the time filling his workers’ lives with psychological torment. Usually prefacing his sentences with the words, “Mmm. Yeah…,” Lumbergh’s cool-guy self-image masks a callous heart of ice. Just look at the way he relentlessly pursues burnt-out programmer Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingstone) for “TPS reports.” Or the callous way he orders permanently bewildered office drone Milton Waddams (Stephen Root) to move his desk down to the basement.
If the devil exists at all, he probably walks around offices with a mug in his hand saying things like, “Hello Peter, what’s happening? Um, I’m gonna need you to go ahead come in tomorrow. So if you could be here around nine that would be great. Oh, and I almost forgot – I’m also gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday too, mmkay?”
As a journalist who’ll stop at nothing to get a juicy story, he’s a walking cliche, but William Atherton’s enjoyably smarmy performance makes Dick Thornburg a minor side-villain who’s genuinely fun to hate. A reporter for KFLW-TV News, Thornburg’s covering the unfolding hostage drama at the Nakatomi Plaza when we first meet him in the original Die Hard. Having barged and threatened his way into the McClane residence on live television, Thornburg unwittingly puts the life of Holly (estranged wife of hero John McClane) in danger, and receives a richly-deserved punch in the face for his trouble.
In Die Hard 2: Die Harder, Thornburg’s just as infuriating, since his report from a plane circling the terrorist-ridden Dulles Airport unwittingly causes mass panic. Fortunately, Holly’s once again on hand with a well-aimed taser gun.
Weyland-Yutani junior exec Carter Burke is the very worst kind of mundane villain: he pretends to be your best friend while leading you to what could well be your doom. In Aliens, it’s Burke who manages to convince Ripley to head back to the nightmare planet LV-426, which has been colonized since Ripley last encountered the godforsaken place in Alien. Burke promises Ripley that the mission is to rescue the colonists and destroy any aliens they find; she probably should have known better than to trust a man with such an expensive haircut. Not only did Burke inadvertently lead entire families to their deaths by not warning them about the threat hiding on LV-426 but also, determined to get a specimen back to his beloved company, hides a pair of facehuggers in Ripley and Newt’s improvised bedchamber.
A perfect villain for the ’80s age of greed and excess, it’s Burke’s ambition that makes him a villain. Or, as Ripley herself put it in Aliens‘ censored edition on ’90s British TV, “You know Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fricking each other over for a goddamn percentage…”
That butter-wouldn’t-melt, all-American smile hides more than a hint of Carter Burke’s ruthlessness. As played by Nancy Allen, Chris Hargensen is one of the most memorable screen bullies, an it-girl who maintains her role as queen bee among her contemporaries by constantly humiliating and belittling poor Carrie White (Sissy Spacek). Unfortunately for Chris and just about everyone else at the school, Carrie’s burgeoning telekinetic powers mean that all the bullying ultimately has an unforeseeable and horrific consequence.
Spiced up with paranormal powers thought it is, Brian De Palma’s classic horror adaptation provides a convincing portrait of everyday cruelty, and Nancy Allen is great as the kind of villain capable of hiding in plain sight. The template for every other spoiled manipulative bully, from Mean Girls to Heathers? Quite possibly.
Like Dick Thornburg, New York stockbroker Gordon Gekko doesn’t necessarily mean to be evil, but his selfishness and greed are what drive him down the path to the Dark Side. Gordon Gekko is, of course, famous for his “Greed is good” speech in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, a line once thought to sum up the ’80s era. But really, Gekko’s sentiments are still as relevant today as they always were, and in the hands of Michael Douglas, he remains an unforgettable creation. The greed speech may be the most famous bit of the film, but Douglas’s performance is even better in the sequence above, where Charlie Sheen’s junior trader foolishly asks Gekko, “How much is enough?”
“The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons, and what I do – stock and real estate speculation. It’s bullshit. You got 90 percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own.”
For Gekko, no amount of money is never enough, and that’s what makes this slick, preening, lizard in a suit so damn scary.
This article originally appeared in 2015 on Den of Geek UK.