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The Power of Competition in Relationships: 15 of the Greatest Cinematic Rivalries Ever Depicted

Updated on November 18, 2019
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Heather has a Bachelor's Degree in English from Moravian College and has been freelance writing for more than 13 years.

According to the dictionary, a rivalry is designed as two competing forces both eager to make the same goal at the same time. This form of competition often brought the worst out in people as they tried to win a prize on a game show or simply trying to get a job promotion. Everyone can be ruthless if they have to be and with the right prompting. No one was immune from the need to be number one against another person.

What makes for a good rivalry in a movie? Competition? Jealousy? Could there be a secret motive hidden underneath this contemptuous relationship that neither party is aware of? When it comes to a good rivalry in Hollywood, all of that was true and more; regardless if it was on-screen or in real life. Human behavior made people often do the strangest things and occasionally commit some of the most heinous acts ever just to cover up some hidden desire.

Here are fifteen film rivalries between film characters that either led to a somewhat satisfying ending or a rather deadly conclusion. These films are divided into six different categories depending on the nature of the on-screen rivalry. It could be based on a relationship with complication or simply the old good versus evil battle. Read on to see if any of your favorite films made the cut. There's a chance that one could be on the list.

It's Complicated

Players: Kathy Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) and Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden)

Film: Crime of Passion (1957):

When it comes to marriage, people expect a partnership among equals. What happens when one spouse is more driven than the other? What do they do with the unused drive when they have no other place to put it? At the start of the movie, Kathy was a driven newspaper woman who loved her career above all else. That al changed when she gave up her career to marry homicide detective named Bill. He was a mild mannered man who loved his job, but he had no desire to rise above his given station.

His lack of ambition drove his new wife crazy as she struggled to adjust to the quietly dull life of a suburban housewife. She spent her days cooking, cleaning and obsessing over Bill's career. Kathy was determined to get him a promotion, which forced her to betray her husband by getting involved with his superior Tony Pope (Raymond Burr). This betrayal pushed Kathy to commit a crime so heinous and unexpected that it could give Bill a promotion as well as destroy their marriage. Bill's sense of duty and his love for Kathy made it a challenge to see if he chose his career over her. It's not really a rivalry per se, but it was a strong conflict between love and career to determine which one came first.

Players: Jack Grimaldi (Gary Oldman) and Mona Demarkov (Lena Olin)

Film: Romeo is Bleeding (1993):

In matters of the heart, it's hard to determine if a relationship is truly right for you or just a perfect storm of disaster meant to happen. Two strong opposing forces meant to come together for better or worse. In the case of this film, it's the latter option. Jack was a man who had his hand in many different tills. He was a cop, but he was a corrupt one who also worked for the mafia as well. Jack was married to one woman, while carrying on an affair with another. His mafia boss wanted him to kill a Russian assassin named Mona Demarkov who supposed killed someone she shouldn't have. She now had to pay the price for her actions. At the same time, the FBI wanted Jack to protect Mona. He was conflicted by his dueling obligations, but his biggest conflict came when he crossed paths with Mona for the first time.

Jack's first encounter with Mona proved that she could be lethal and seductive at the same time. One minute she was seducing you into a compromising position while looking for an opportunity to kill you. There was an attraction that neither could ignore, but their opposing goals made their future together brief and bleak. Jack wanted to stay alive, while Mona wanted to kill him; especially if he got in her way. Who will prevail in this battle of seductively lethal wits? Will neither one survive? Who is to say when both are armed to the teeth? This rivalry was memorable based on the chemistry between the leads and some memorable stunts that made it hard to forget.

Rivalry Disguised as More

Players: Zack Thomas (Frank Sinatra) and Joe Jarrett (Dean Martin)

Film: 4 For Texas (1963):

Two hustlers were eager to make their mark by opening a casino. First, they just needed the money to get there. Joe managed to steal the money out from under Zack, which made them instant enemies. Zack was eager to destroy Joe's riverboat casino because it was originally his idea before Joe took his money. While both men were business rivals. They had a lot more in common than either of them expected. Both men loved money, wanted to open the same business and were involved with ruthless blonde women. It took a little while, but they realized that it was better to be on the same side rather than against each other.

The movie mainly succeeded on the off-screen impact of Sinatra and Martin's real life friendship. The off-camera rapport was evident; even as they hurled off insults at each other. Both actors brought a playfulness out in each other that they also showcased whenever they shared a stage together. Despite the film's competitiveness, the story simply showcased that two heads were often better than one.

Players: John Gustafson (Jack Lemmon) and Max Goldman (Walter Matthau)

Film: Grumpy Old Men (1993):

For decades, there was a long simmering feud that brewed between John and Max that started for reasons only known to them. It's uncertain if they even remember them by now anyways. They fought over everything, especially the arrival of an attractive female neighbor named Ariel (Ann-Margret). Both men took an interest in her and decided to pull out all of the stops to get her. Sadly, Ariel was only interested in one of them. It took a major health crisis for one of them to put things into perspective and decide that the feud needed to be resolved for the better.

In terms of rivalries, this film's version was based on a lot of misconception and seemingly misperceived slights. Both men could've been friends if they just realized what was in front of them sooner. Even their grown children were falling in love with each other. Would the peace last? Doubtful.

Players: Max Goldman (Walter Matthau) and Maria Ragetti (Sophia Loren)

Film: Grumpier Old Men (1995):

Ultimately, this rivalry was a clear case of when opposites attract. Max was a lifelong resident of his hometown and wanted nothing to change. Maria was newcomer eager to make a new start for himself. In the process, she was going to turn his beloved bait shop into an Italian restaurant, which he did not want. Max was eager to stop Maria at all cost, but he didn't expect to fall in love with her. He was also surprised that she was just as interested in him as well. When the name calling stopped and the flirting began, one ran away in fright due to some past experiences. Will they be able to forget the past and move on to the future together?

Since it's Hollywood, the answer was already obvious, especially if many saw the first movie. The endings of both films were also rather similar. What made this film work was the rapport between Matthau and Loren as they teased their way into a believable on-screen rapport. Not every rivalry ended on such a sweet note.

Good Vs. Evil

Players: Tod Shaw (Sterling Hayden) and John Baron (Frank Sinatra)

Film: Suddenly (1954):

Shaw was a mild mannered lawman who did his job in a small town that never got much excitement; until the day the President's train was going to stop in his little home town of Suddenly. That's when he crossed paths with deadly assassin John Baron who enjoyed killing people, especially when he got paid a lot of money. Baron had a plan to kill the President, but Shaw ended up in his way. The two men battled wits with each other as the time grew closer to when the President's train would arrive. Hayden and Sinatra matched physical and verbal wits as they both fought for supremacy, even though the outcome was evident fairly early on. Sinatra played such an unrepentant killer that audience members were eager for him to get what was coming to him. They would be satisfied when he does get what he deserved in spades.

Players: Gator McKlusky (Burt Reynolds) and Sheriff J.C. Connors (Ned Beatty)

Film: White Lightning (1973):

Which one was the criminal and which was the hero? In the case of this 70s flick, Reynolds played a relatively moralistic ex-con who lived by his own code when it came to family. Sure, he was a criminal but no one was allowed to mess with his family. Beatty's corrupt Sheriff killed his younger brother because he didn't share his views about protesting the war. Reynolds' Gator became a government informant to try to catch Connors in the act of a crime to catch him. When that didn't work, he reverted back to his old ways and managed to get some true justice for his deceased brother his way.

Players: Jack Dobson (James Belushi) and Steve Frayn (Tony Goldwyn)

Film: Traces of Red (1992):

To many viewers, this movie could simply be considered a subpar Basic Instinct, which was an accurate assumption. There's still more to the story though. Belushi's Jack was a laid back cop who solved countless cases with his married partner Steve. He also had enough time to play the field with countless women. Unfortunately, there was an unknown serial killer that was targeting women he was once involved with. The clues were rather scant and everyone was a suspect; even his own partner. Steve's motive might be one of envy as he grew close to one of the women Jack was involved with. Ultimately, this film had some implausible twists and a flawed premise that would have worked if the casting was a little more convincing. Belushi and Goldwyn had a strong rapport, even when their characters were at odds.

Players: Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and Walter Finch (Robin Williams)

Film: Insomnia (2002):

The classic tale of lawman versus killer with a twist. Both of these characters were not exactly innocent. Pacino's Will killed his partner to cover up the fact that he was going to turn him in for corruption. Will killed his partner out of an impulsive convenience. He was also suffering from insomnia and came across Williams' disturbing killer who witnessed the murder. The two men spend the course of the film taunting each other as it drew to the big finish where neither one of them were destined to make it out alive. Neither character were actually considered the hero in this tale. That belonged to Hilary Swank as the inexperienced cop who managed to piece everything together. A nice twist was to make Pacino and Williams accidental equals as they were both killers in their own rights, which made the plot not so cut and dry as most stories are. A blessing in disguise.

Overcoming Odds

Players: Ren (Kevin Bacon) and Rev. Shaw Moore (John Lithgow)

Film: Footloose (1984):

One was a teenager who just moved to a small town after living in a big city. He had trouble fitting in at his new school. Ren loved one thing only and that was to dance to loud music. Unfortunately, he just moved to a town that banned dancing due to a tragedy that killed the Reverend's son. He led the charge for the dancing ban, which inspired Ren to fight hard to restore the town through an innocent love of dancing. He decided to do this by starting a school dance, which went against everything the Reverend fought for. He was also initially against Ren dating his daughter as well, but he unfortunately had to learn to accept both options. This rivalry was based on two conflicting values: innocent pleasure and grief. One had to win out over the other.

Players: Maverick (Tom Cruise) and Iceman (Val Kilmer)

Film: Top Gun (1986):

Both characters had two things in common: a love of flying and being the best. Unfortunately for them, only one could be considered the best at a United States Navy's elite fighter weapons school. Kilmer's Iceman was a cool customer when it came to flying, while Cruise's Maverick loved to take chances. Their conflicting personalities made them destined to clash, until a victor was revealed by the end of the movie. The results were rather predictable but still satisfying nonetheless.

Screwball Comedy Relationships Gone Awry

Players: Lucy (Irene Dunne) and Jerry Warriner (Cary Grant)

Film: The Awful Truth (1937):

What happens when a series of marital misunderstandings led a once happy couple to file for divorce? A comedy of errors that made this warring couple see the error of their ways with hysterical results. Dunne and Grant demonstrated their characters still loved each other despite their misconceived notions of what happened. They plotted to embarrass and sabotage their new romances because they never got over each other. Once they realized that, the real work on their marriage could begin. Most relationships can be saved if honesty was part of the process. Never let a misunderstand wreck a good thing.

Walter Burns (Cary Grant) and Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell)

Film: His Girl Friday (1940):

Walter was a newspaper editor who loved the thrill of chasing a story and getting it to print. He also loved that his best reporter Hildy was able to make it happen, even though she happened to be his ex-wife. It remained unclear as to why they divorced in the first place, but it was certain that they were destined to be together. They both loved the thrill of chasing a story together. If only they could get out of their own way, they would have been able to see it sooner. Walter only realized when she was destined to marry another man and leave her beloved profession. He pulled every trick in the book to get her to stay. Their competitiveness might have sunk the marriage the first time around, but now they know the truth they can work to avoid the same mistakes as before. What made this rivalry work was the comedy of errors as Russell and Grant plotted against each other with hilarious results each time.

Family Dysfunction

Players: Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) and Richard (Anthony Hopkins)

Film: The Lion in Winter (1968):

When it comes to complicated family dynamics, this royal family was the prime example. Eleanor and her estranged husband, Henry II (Peter O'Toole), were constantly plotting against each other. Henry went so far as to put his wife into an exile type of punishment that way she had no control. Over a holiday celebration, Eleanor plotted to get Henry to choose a successor to the throne. She preferred her oldest son, Richard, who was her favorite. They had an intense bond that also mimicked a form of control as she tried to steer him into her point of view. It was a form of tender manipulation that allowed her to have her own spear of influence if Henry chose Richard as his successor.

In conclusion, no one really won during the holiday, except Henry and Eleanor who got to spar at the expense of everyone else. This tainted on-screen relationship wasn't borne out of love. Eleanor and Henry didn't known how to work as a couple except to plot for power. There was no way that they would treat any of their sons as nothing more than chess pieces they could move around. That's a shame but most powerful figures often don't understand difference between love and duty.

Players: Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) and Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury)

Film: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)-

This film was basically the epitome of a twisted mother/son dynamic more than the last one. Lansbury's Eleanor was eager for power so bad that she allowed her son Raymond to become brainwashed into being the perfect assassin to be used for anyone's purpose. Harvey's Raymond was a tortured soul who was manipulated by everyone, especially those closest to him. His mother was supposed to protect him from harm and instead sacrificed him to the wolves. It's hard to fight an enemy when your will to fight was taken away by your own mother indirectly. Lansbury's chilling performance as a quietly ruthless woman made her all the more frightening as she went in for the kill so to speak.

When it comes to on-screen chemistry in Hollywood, appearances can be deceiving to say the least. Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster appeared in numerous films together that depicted their on-screen relationships as friendly for the most part. Off-camera, they demonstrated a kind of friendly rapport with the press that made it look like the best of friends when they were anything but. The true nature of that relationship was that Lancaster and Douglas were real life rivals trying to gain enough capital in Hollywood where one could surpass the other. Now, that's good acting by selling a friendship that didn't even exist.

Another case of life imitation art was 1962's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? where costars Joan Crawford and Bette Davis truly had an off-screen rivalry that helped sell the movie into the box office success that it was. The studio capitalized on their animosity to the point where they raked in millions. Were Crawford and Davis ever able to bury the hatchet? If they did, it would've been in their backs unfortunately.

In the end, rivalries can easily be avoided for the most part if people decided to be truthful and admit what they were feeling. Warring potential couples admitted their true feelings and decided whether to be together or move on. As for family relationships, time healed most wounds. For the ones that didn't easily heal, therapy fixed the rest. In the case of good and evil, one always did manage to win out. That's the nature of the beast. War was tough, but there was always a victor at the end of the journey.

Footloose Movie Poster
Footloose Movie Poster | Source
Grumpy Old Men Movie Poster
Grumpy Old Men Movie Poster | Source
Romeo Is Bleeding Movie Poster
Romeo Is Bleeding Movie Poster | Source
Top Gun Movie Poster
Top Gun Movie Poster | Source
White Lightning Movie Poster
White Lightning Movie Poster | Source

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