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The Art of Hollywood Psychology: 10 of the Most Complex Movie Characters of All Time

Updated on October 27, 2019
heather92383 profile image

Heather has a Bachelor's Degree in English from Moravian College and has been freelance writing for more than 12 years.

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Fracture Poster
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Basic Instinct Poster
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Last Tango in Paris Poster
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Body Heat Poster
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Body of Evidence Poster
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Network Poster
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Psycho Poster
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Showgirls Poster
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The Silence of the Lambs Poster
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Basic Instinct 2 Poster
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Hannibal Poster

What does it mean to be a good person? What does it take to become evil? It's a very fine line to go from a regular average citizen to a full blown villain. Look at comic books as a prime example of how major villains just need a little insanity and a major toxic spill to become a problem for Superman. Therapists have tried for years to understand what makes people tick, but they are still often surprised when they can only go so far. In the end, no one can fully understand what makes people become good and others more complex than anyone could imagine.

When it comes to Hollywood, filmmakers love to probe the human condition and watch the chaos unfold from start to finish. That's how good movie thrillers and horror films are made. Director Alfred Hitchcock created some unforgettable images in his films that involved the darkness of the human condition, such as the uncertainty of Cary Grant's innocence in Suspicion or Janet Leigh's questionable virtue in Psycho. Let's examine 10 of the most memorable, and equally complex, movie characters to see what made them tick and whether they were truly good or evil. Read on to see whether these choices were justified or if any other characters should be added. Decide for yourself whether these fictional favorites deserved to be labeled as innocent victim or a complete monster.

Intelligent Insanity

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho (1960)- When it came to playing characters losing their sanity, Perkins made a career out of it and will ultimately be remembered for portraying this iconic villain who looked to kill people that crossed him. What made Perkins' performance all the more chilling was that beneath Norman's kindly hotel owner exterior lied the heart of an unstable psychopath who killed people in the name of his mother. The image of Perkins dressed in his dead mother's clothing was just as disturbing as the end credits where his psychotic identity had an internal dialogue of how he planned to fool everyone in the end. Perkins played Bates in several less than stellar sequels, but it was the original Psycho that he'll most be remembered for. What Bates a monster or just a damaged soul who had no chance from the start?

Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)- This iconic movie role brought Hopkins his ultimate claim to fame and an Oscar for less than 30 minutes of screen time. What made Hopkins' Lecter so disturbing was that he was the quietest monster moviegoers will ever meet on the big screen. He didn't make a single noise, until his prey was too close to run away successfully. He also brought a hint of comedy as he spun tales of the root of evil to Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling. Hopkins tried to recapture Lecter in larger roles in a few disappointing sequels, but it was his minimal scenes in Lambs that made the greater impact. Hopkins has played a fair share of good guys and monsters, but it was his role as Hannibal Lecter that he'll always be remembered for. Was Dr. Lecter insane? Definitely. Was he born or made that way? Hard to say, because moviegoers will never truly know in the end.

Anthony Hopkins as Ted Crawford in Fracture (2007)- Hopkins played a very wealthy genius who loved playing games, but it was with his unfaithful wife's attempted murder that he had the ultimate chess board. He manipulated everyone, including Ryan Gosling's eager prosecutor looking for a conviction. Hopkins made Crawford a cold schemer who had completely disregarded the lives of others for his own designs. In the end, he was worse than Hannibal Lecter because his actions were never quiet and his ego was bigger than everyone's. His comeuppance was well deserved, because he never saw all the angles that committing the perfect crime could go. Crawford wasn't just evil, but he was completely clueless to his insanity which made him a menace to movie society.

Dark Addiction

Marlon Brando as Paul in Last Tango in Paris (1972)- Brando played a fair share of tortured souls who looked for some comfort in the arms of a beautiful woman. In Paris, he portrayed the grief stricken Paul who lost his wife and any hope for a future. Brando's Paul stumbled into an intense sexual relationship with a younger woman looking to escape her gilded cage of a life. In terms of memorable scenes, Brando's biggest ones came towards the end of the film when Paul tried to reach out to his lover after they ended the affair. They attempted to make a fresh start, but the reality proved to be too much for both of them. Their final confrontation was fated from the start and was meant to only have one of them standing. Was it Paul's grief or desire for something more that caused everything to happen? It's hard to say, but the ending was hard to forget long after the final credits were done.

Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct (1992)- Who could forget Stone's brazen interrogation scene where she uncrossed her legs? Not many apparently. That scene will be forever tied to her for the rest of Stone's career. That movie moment demonstrated that Stone's character walked a very fine line between being daring and being a villain. She wrote about murders that came true and got involved with questionable people, such as Michael Douglas' troubled cop, without any hesitation. Did Tramell truly kill anybody or just a victim of her own dark thoughts? No one will ever know, especially not after the dreadful sequel that left more questions than answers. Watch the original instead and prepare to be shocked.

Madonna as Rebecca Carlson in Body of Evidence (1993)- Okay, Body didn't have the best plot or the greatest acting in it. (Madonna is a singing legend, but her acting has left something to be desired.) The movie was mostly a forgettable do over of Basic Instinct minus any of it's actual charm. What earned Madonna's role a spot was her character's ability to play all sides just using her body as the ultimate chess piece. She was able to manipulate a happily married lawyer (Willem Dafoe) into sleeping with her. Rebecca got her other lovers to do her bidding and was able to convince a jury that she was a lot more innocent than she truly was. In the end, she was a tragic villain, but still a villain nonetheless, because she was never going to have it all. No money, power or freedom to make her happy. Her fate was resigned to be one that either left her dead or in jail.

Michael Fassbender as Brandon in Shame (2011)- Can a sex addict find happiness? That was the challenge for Fassbender's Brandon who turned to meaningless sex to comfort with everything. Sure, he felt good after he slept with a stranger, but the euphoria never lasted long and he was soon looking for another temporary fix. Fassbender had the challenge of making Brandon complex and worthy of love. He made Brandon a mixture of longing and heartbreak as he tried unsuccessfully to have a meaningful relationship with a co-worker. It was through his scenes with Carey Mulligan that audience saw Brandon as more than an emotionally stunted addict, but a man truly in pain. Was Brandon a bad guy for shunning any emotional connections? No, he was just someone who was completely destroyed by his painful past and couldn't recover from it. Is possible for a sex addict to live a normal life? With time and family on his side, it could be a possibility.

Deceptive Leading Ladies

Faye Dunaway as Diana Christensen in Network (1976)-Dunaway won an Oscar portraying a chillingly selfish businesswoman willing to cross any line to get successful ratings. She wormed her way into the lives of her co-worker Max (William Holden) and an irrational news anchor named Howard Beale (Peter Finch). She manipulated his insanity for higher ratings and wouldn't let up until she used Beale for everything she could. When Diana saw that Howard and Max couldn't help her career, she was forced to walk away from both in different fashions. Dunaway's Diana may have had the professional glory, but no one to share them with in the end. To some, this might be considered success, but the cost was too high to fully understand.

Kathleen Turner as Matty Walker in Body Heat (1981)- Meet Matty Walker. She's an attractive young society wife with a husband that had a large bank account and lower class lover willing to do anything for her. Can she get everything that she wants without getting caught? Maybe. Maybe not. The only thing that was for certain was that Turner's memorable portrayal of the icy blonde had more twists than a Stephen King novel. Was she evil? Most definitely, because it was her scheme that left a trail of bodies in its wake. That's something that shouldn't be overlooked, even if she looked great doing it.

Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi Malone in Showgirls (1995)- Let's start with the obvious fact that Showgirls was a horrifically bad film. The story and a lot of the acting was beyond laughable, but it was the complexity of Berkley's character that made it intriguing to watch and cringe at the same time. Berkley made Nomi a strong woman who did everything she could to succeed and would throw it all way in an instant if a friend was in danger. Was she evil? No, but she was definitely complicated because the audience never fully gets to know who she is before Nomi skipped town again for parts unknown to the viewers.

In the end, Freud was never able to fully scratch the surface in terms of understanding the inner workings of the human mind. Sure, he was able to get a decent idea of what to expect of others, but he was only going to scratch the surface with his research. People are simply too complex to fully understand, because their motives aren't always logical. Understanding the difference between good and evil will never be done, because people are the greatest mystery that no one will solve in this lifetime. If it can be done, that would be the ultimate revelation that could help explain why Hollywood still does bad sequels like Basic Instinct 2 and Hannibal when they know it's a bad idea from the start.


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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Waooo Great movie and article thanks

    • Amanda108 profile image


      7 years ago from Michigan, United States

      A very interesting movie hub!

    • bernard.sinai profile image

      Bernard Sinai 

      7 years ago from Papua New Guinea

      Fassbender also does quite a robotic impression in Prometheus.

    • Steve Orion profile image

      Steve Orion 

      7 years ago from Tampa, Florida

      I definitely agree with most of these picks, especially Hopkins. I've never seen Shame, though I really like Fassbender so it's on my list now. Thanks for the well written and interesting Hub!

    • writeyourwrongs profile image

      John Crowley 

      7 years ago from Sheffield

      Good hub. I love Anthony Hopkins :-)


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