The 6 Most Underrated Movie Villains
Whenever there is a list of movie villains, it always has the familiar standbys: Darth Vader. Hannibal Lecter. Hal-9000. The Wicked Witch of the West. They're certainly not bad choices, but it gets rather dull, reading the virtues (well, as virtuous as an antagonist can get) of the same characters over and over. Frankly, I’m starting to find them tiresome and overrated. Darth Vader, thanks to the wretched Star Wars prequels, now comes off as boring and toothless (curse you, George Lucas and Hayden Christensen!). Hannibal Lecter? He can’t even pronounce “chianti”. Hal-9000? Evil, yes... until you remember he’s just a computer, and can be disassembled, or smashed with a hammer, or given an “Iloveyou” virus. The Wicked Witch? A harpy after a pair of shoes. Hell, I see women like her at the mall all the time.
But those are just my own little opinions on characters I find overrated, but what about underrated villains? The ones that almost never find their way on any top-whatever number list? I decided, since I like listing things as much as the next person, to compile my own of unsung baddies. Why top 6? Because 10 is overused, I’m lazy, and it’s my blog, darn it!
#6: Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, A Face in the Crowd (1957)
A Face in the Crowd was always a respected film, but only in the last twenty years or so has it gotten the recognition and acclaim it truly deserves. It is most likely due to its chilling prescience to the era of reality TV and undeserved fame that untalented, obnoxious losers seem to get easier than static cling. One can only imagine how director Elia Kazan would have reacted to the likes of, say, Jersey Shore, or the umpteenth Real Housewives of Someplace or Other. Everything that is wrong with the media, easy, overnight stardom and hollow charisma is embodied by mangy ex-convict Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, played by Andy Griffith.
No, you did not misread that. Before he starred in one of the most oppressively wholesome TV shows of all time, Griffith was an honest-to-God actor who played one the most repugnant characters to ever appear on celluloid. Lonesome is brought to fame by idealistic radio producer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), and despite his shady past and penchant for drunken bar fights, Lonesome’s good ol’ boy personality, folk songs, and cornball homilies make him a hit with audiences. So persuasive is he, an offhand comment he makes about the mayor opening his pool to the public actually happens. He gets TV spots, and eventually his own TV show, where he rules the airwaves. But behind his ready smile and brashly easygoing charm, Lonesome’s already shaky morals wither away to nothing, as he uses and abuses everyone around him. Whether it’s ungratefully dumping Marcia for a teenage girl, gleefully shilling worthless sugar pills even though he once refused to do a mattress commercial (the hypocrite), and acting as an unofficial political advisor to a presidential candidate who is clearly unfit for the job, it doesn’t take us long to realize what a worthless shell of a human being Lonesome is. He dismisses the small town audience that helped make him famous, browbeats the staff that wait on him hand and foot, and Marcia, who is foolish enough to still love him, lives with the miserable knowledge that she helped create this monster. Lonesome grows more and more powerful, and you know the old saying about what absolute power does, which Lonesome illustrates in one of the most chilling movie speeches ever:
Lonesome: This whole country's just like my flock of sheep!
Lonesome: Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers - everybody that's got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. They don't know it yet, but they're all gonna be 'Fighters for Fuller'. They're mine! I own 'em! They think like I do. Only they're even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for 'em. Marcia, you just wait and see. I'm gonna be the power behind the president - and you'll be the power behind me!
I confess, as much as I love this movie, I don’t really get Lonesome’s appeal. I find him too loud, abrasive and phony (even before he’s revealed as such). Most people I know who have seen A Face in the Crowd feel the same way, but isn't that just how it works?. You and the people you know and love might not like a certain celebrity, but the masses do, and that’s what's so disturbing. The masses are powerful, the media is powerful, and the consequences can be pretty dire if the wrong person becomes famous, which makes A Face in the Crowd so effective, even more than 55 years after its release. Some critics feel Lonesome’s comeuppance at the end is a tad contrived, but it works just fine for me. For one, it was 1957, not 2014, of course he was able to be defeated the way he was. Secondly, in a world where the Kardashians rule the entertainment landscape with well-manicured iron fists, isn’t it nice to think that people clearly unworthy of their fame can be brought down so easily?
#5: Eve Harrington, All About Eve (1950)
Why on earth isn’t Eve on more villains’ lists? She has all the ingredients of the perfect bad guy: ruthless, cunning, almost violently ambitious, and the ultimate Bitch in Sheep’s Clothing (I do love that trope name). A dewy-eyed aspiring actress and Margo Channing (Bette Davis)’s biggest fan, Eve worms her way into Margo’s life and inner circle with earnest fawning and endearing, rather creepy niceness. A former farm girl with a sob story to rival Russian literary heroine (“everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end,” snarks Thelma Ritter’s Birdie), one by one our main cast of characters see Eve for the soulless viper she really is, as she seduces, manipulates, betrays, and blackmails her way to the top, all with her shining eyes and tender smile intact. “The mark of a true killer,” theatre critic and soulmate Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) observes.
My theory is that Eve is controversial because of the divisive opinions on Anne Baxter’s portrayal. People either love or hate Baxter’s performance, the latter saying that her Eve is not strong enough, lacks presence, and never seems like real competition to established actress Margo. I actually love her performance for just those reasons. Of course Eve isn’t strong, not really. Oh, she knows what she wants and how to get it, but she takes the path of least resistance and is eventually brought down by her own hubris. Of course she can’t truly compete with Margo, who got where she is by old-fashioned hard work and natural talent. Eve mostly wins people over with her charm, youth, and beauty, but it’s open for debate on how truly good an actress she is, at least on the stage (for the record, we never actually see it onscreen). In life, though? Love her or hate her, she’s one of the best.
#4: Tetti-Tatti, The Whale who Wanted to Sing at the Met (1946)
As much as I love Disney full-length films, I was never a fan of their post-war short films (I much prefer the Silly Symphony series from the 1930s). I found they were an uneasy mix of Disney saccharine overload and Tex Avery-style slapstick that failed to entertain me. However, I discovered the lovely, heartbreaking exception in 1946’s The Whale who Wanted Sing at the Met, from the full-length compilation film Make Mine Music. It tells the story of a whale named Willy, who can sing grand opera, which captures the world’s attention, but our narrow-minded antagonist, Tetti-Tatti, an impresario, is convinced Willy devoured a bunch of opera singers and their voices are crying from within to be released.
WARNING! HERE BE SPOILERS!!
Tetti-Tatti sails to sea, determined to kill Willy and “free” the allegedly eaten opera singers. Willy, thinking Tetti-Tatti’s scouting for talent, sings a medley of operatic numbers (more about those later), but just when Willy’s fantasy reaches its climax... Tetti-Tatti harpoons him, and we are treated to the sight of Willy’s lifeless body sinking into the ocean.
Take time to absorb that, folks: the antagonist in a Disney film (a short, mind you, but nonetheless) sets out to kill our protagonist, and succeeds in doing just that. A Disney film. Where the bad guy wins. He wins. No, he isn’t destroyed by his minions, or defeated at the last second by a plucky little mermaid and her boyfriend, no consequences that we see. He wins, plain and simple. We even see Willy singing in Heaven, and our solemn narrator advises us to forgive Tetti-Tatti for “not understanding”.
“Wow” falls short, doesn’t it?
Tiresome Trivia of the Day: Who played Tetti-Tatti, Willy, and our narrator? Why, none other than Nelson Eddy, who, in fact, plays every single character in the film, even the women. Classic film fans know Eddy, a classically trained baritone, from the 1930s musicals he made with soprano Jeanette MacDonald. The films, now regarded as camp classics, are both beloved and scorned, considering they had numbers such the oft-lampooned “Indian Love Call” from Rose Marie, in which Canadian Mountie Eddy serenades MacDonald. Never accused of being even a good actor, poor Eddy was a punchline even at the height of his popularity. Still, he did his best work in the The Whale who Wanted to Sing at the Met, belting out not only opera, but popular tunes such as “Shortenin’ Bread”.
#3: Cleopatra, Freaks (1932)
It’s all well and good to teach the value of respecting people who are different from you... but what if, instead of a stern lecture, you horrifically, creatively punish someone who went too far in their malicious treatment of someone different? After Tod Browning achieved box office success with 1931’s Dracula, he was given free reign to direct any movie he wanted. Oh, how he must have rubbed his hands together in impish delight when he decided to make Freaks, based on the short story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins, and how the stuffed shirts at MGM must have squirmed when they had to release it. Myrna Loy was allegedly offered the part of the evil Cleopatra, but turned it down, so repulsed was she by the script. Freaks tells the simple story of a group of sideshow people (including “pinheads”, conjoined twins, and Johnny Eck, a man with only the upper half of a body) who exact revenge on the heartless trapeze artist Cleopatra, who has seduced one of their own, a dwarf named Hans (Harry Earles) and is slowly poisoning him to inherit his fortune.
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOOOOOWWW!
Our plucky band of sideshow people (the PC side of me balks at calling them "freaks") proceed to chase Cleopatra down, mutilate her, and turn her into this hideous human/chicken hybrid. How did they do it? How did she survive the process? And how did an able-bodied, statuesque woman fail to outrun a bunch of dwarves and people with missing limbs? Who cares? Freaks has a glorious logic all its own, and Cleopatra's comeuppance is a piping hot dish of schadenfreude.
Russian-born actress Olga Baclanova brings the lovely but monstrous Cleopatra to memorable life. Though her English is a bit shaky and her theatrical mannerisms make it clear she cut her teeth in silent films, it actually works in an unsettling, surreal, atmospheric film like this. Cleopatra is a creature without a shred of real humanity, not once is her conscience tugged by what she’s doing. She cares nothing about luring Hans away from his loving fiancée, making a fool of him by carrying on a dalliance with the equally awful strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), and plotting to marry and murder Hans for his money. In the legendary wedding party scene, when she drunkenly calls Hans and his friends “filthy, slimy FREAKS!”, it’s only the cherry on top of an unappetizing sundae.
It would be easy to criticize Cleopatra for being written as too one dimensional and simplistic, but, again, I think it works in a movie like Freaks. Browning, who himself was once a circus performer, has great tenderness and empathy for the sideshow people, who never asked to look the way they do, and they certainly don’t deserve the jeers and abuse society dumps on them. Maybe Cleopatra isn’t as complex as she could be, but, quite frankly, I’m tired of screenwriters asking me to like and root for total scumbags. I’m weary of how “complex” now means “awesome, badass, and above reproach, you unimaginative bunch of mouth breathers!”. Breaking Bad just barely got away with this, but now everyone is doing it. You know how some people wish that heroes could just be heroes? I’m inclined to agree, and I want villains to just be villains. There’s something satisfying in hating a character like Cleopatra so wholeheartedly, and waiting with bated breath for her downfall.
Tiresome Trivia of the Day: Hans’s fiancée, fellow dwarf Frida, is played by Daisy Earles, Harry Earles’s real life... sister. Didn’t I tell you this movie was weird?!
#2: Lady Tremaine, Cinderella (1950)
Though I’m looking forward to this year’s Maleficent, a live-action movie about the evil sorceress from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, I never thought much of her as a villain. What’s her beef? She wasn’t invited to a baby shower? Boo-hoo, lady! Throw a party and don’t invite them! Problem solved! Instead, she throws a hissy fit, curses a baby, and is too slow-witted to realize her henchmen have been farting around for 16 years looking for a baby instead a now teenaged girl. Um, after year two or three, wouldn’t you at least start to suspect that your staff isn’t cutting it, and that it’s time to look for fresh talent? I’m just sayin'.
Besides, as you’ve noticed, supernatural villains don’t interest me that much. It’s one thing to use magical powers to screw with some poor dope, it’s another to abuse someone with only your God-given wits and natural cruelty. For me, the truly great 1950s Disney villainess is Lady Tremaine from Cinderella. Yes, the Cinderella story is done to death, and has been told backwards and forwards, but Lady Tremaine is the quintessential Wicked Stepmother in my book. Maleficent may have cursed Aurora, but you know what? Aurora spent her first 16 years in safety and happiness with three good fairies who loved her. Cinderella, on the other hand, has lived nearly all her life with a stepmother who openly hates and resents her, has reduced her to a servant, and whose sole pleasure in life is making her as miserable as humanly possible. Seriously, watch the movie again: the only time Lady Tremaine’s ever really happy is when she’s tormenting Cinderella, whether it’s punishing her for imagined slights, dashing her hopes of going to the ball by goading her stepdaughters to tear Cinderella’s dress to shreds, or locking her away while the fateful glass slipper is being fitted. Aside from insuring her own daughters' fortunes, Lady Tremaine has little or no motivation, but that’s what makes her so chilling: she’s a sociopath. And considering that there are way too many people in the world who abuse others just for their own enjoyment, it makes her all the more terrifying.
Tiresome Trivia of the Day: Lady Tremaine and Maleficent were voiced by the same actress, Eleanor Audley. She was also Eunice Douglas on Green Acres. Heckuva resume, don't you agree?
#1: Chris Hargensen, Carrie (1976)
Everyone knows the iconic scene, even if they’ve never actually seen the movie: put-upon outcast Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is newly crowned Prom Queen, only to be doused in pig’s blood as part of an elaborate prank. Pushed to her breaking point, Carrie unleashes her newly discovered telekinetic powers to create an inferno which only she escapes alive.
You either sympathize with or hate Carrie for what she did, but we’re so quick to forget who instigated the plot to begin with: that would be Chris Hargensen, played to bitchy perfection by Nancy Allen. Chris is a trampy, foul-mouthed queen bee with hair of gold, a heart of granite, and who makes Regina George from Mean Girls look like Laura Bush. After humiliating Carrie in the girls’ locker room (or, as I like to call it, that other nightmarish scene in Carrie), Chris is banned from the prom by Carrie’s only champion, Miss Collins (Betty Buckley). In typical, irrational teen mentality, Chris blames Carrie for her misfortune, so she plots with her redneck boyfriend Billy (John Travolta, still in Sweat Hog mode) and her simpering toady Norma (PJ Soles) to rig the prom votes so Carrie will be crowned queen and... well, that’s where we came in.
The reason I ranked Chris number one is that she is the real reason hundreds of people are dead. Yes, Carrie snapped and set the school ablaze, but if Chris had had anything resembling a conscience, it never would have happened in the first place. And why is Carrie burdened with the fact that she’s a killer? Why are hundreds of people dead? Because Chris was banned from the prom, even though her punishment is her fault. Chris is every mean girl cliché cranked up to eleven: spoiled, selfish, entitled, nasty, antagonistic, and cruel. Some like to think that Chris redeems herself near the end of the film by attempting to run over Carrie after witnessing what happened at the prom, but I call bull on that. I think she was just angry Carrie didn’t die as well. In any case, her comeuppance is brief but well-deserved.
Tiresome Observation of the Day: Yup, I went to YouTube to see if anyone had thought to make a Carrie tribute video to “Let it Go”, and I was not disappointed, though it’s mostly to the 2013 remake (ugh). I will never watch the remake. Sorry, not interested. Chloe Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, you're both great, but since your names aren't Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, no thanks.