“Everything I learned I learned from the movies.” –
About a year & a half ago…prompted by a longtime citizen of The Manoverse…we examined my 100 Memorable TV Characters. I knew back then that we’d eventually get around to talking about characters in feature films, but it was an idea that needed to percolate for awhile, and now it’s time to pull the trigger.
Television characters are rather easy to ponder. They come into our living rooms on a weekly basis for 5-10 years (give or take, and then we may watch reruns for decades). We get to know them. Their personalities…quirks, idiosyncrasies, & relationships…grow & evolve. They interact with a number of people in a variety of situations. Over the years they become something akin to imaginary friends, or in the case of villains & anti-heroes people we love to hate. In time such characters make an impact on our lives and become…within their fictional sphere of influence…somewhat legendary.
Conversely, movie characters don’t have the same opportunity to make an impression. Oh sure, we may get to know some over the course of a trilogy or series comprised of multiple films, which undeniably provides such characters with an advantage in rankings like this, but most get one shot to make us remember them. It certainly helps if the movie itself is good and/or popular and becomes the kind of film that people watch over & over again years after its theatrical run, but even then movie characters have much less of a chance to crawl under our skin & make a lasting impression. For example, Harry Potter led eight films encompassing about 20 hours of screen time, while JR Ewing of Dallas was on television for about 357 hours over 14 years. Now I grant you, movie characters have a much bigger canvas. ..$100 million budgets, special effects, & more freedom to do really cool stuff or go to awesome locations television shows just cannot afford. But let’s face it…dozens of expensive films come & go from our local cineplex every year and disappear into the ether, rarely to be seen or spoken of again by the masses. So I submit to you that it takes a lot more than bucket loads of cash or cutting edge technology to make a movie character stand the test of time.
What exactly makes a character memorable?? Well, if I knew the correct answer I’d be pretty wealthy, but I suppose I do have a few opinions.
*It’s all about the writing. A well written character with snappy dialogue is a good jumping off point.
*Let’s not overlook the role of a casting director. I have no idea about the ins & outs of their daily grind, but matching what they read in a script to a performer who can bring those words to life seems like an important piece of the puzzle. Should the part be played by an unknown actor looking for their big break, or is there a beloved big screen icon who’d be perfect for the role?? I am always intrigued by stories written years later about various actors who turned down this or that movie, because it’s really interesting to imagine a different performer playing a character made famous by someone else.
*We cannot look past the costume designer. There is no shortage of fondly remembered movie characters well-known for their signature look, whether it is an accessory they always wear, a uniform they are rarely seen out of, a unique vehicle they drive, or some other visual that becomes an identifier. If kids are dressing up like a movie character at Halloween then someone somewhwere did something right.
*The value of a character’s name cannot be overstated. An Oscar winning actor might give the performance of a lifetime in a movie that makes a bazillion dollars, but if the character is named John Smith or Jennifer Jones they’re behind the proverbial 8-Ball when it comes to being remembered.
*Professional wrestlers play one of two roles…their character is either a babyface (good guy) or a heel (bad guy). Wrestlers want one thing when they perform in front of a crowd…a reaction. Whether a face is getting cheered or a heel is getting booed, as long as the crowd reacts one way or the other it’s all good. The concept is similar with film characters…whether we love them or hate them, cheer for them to overcome the odds or relish in their demise, the key is that moviegoers have some kind of reaction. Indifference is undesirable.
As was the case with TV characters, the fact is that my taste in movies is unique & as limited as anyone else’s, therefore universal agreement on this list is unlikely. There are allegedly great movies that I’ve never seen or didn’t particularly enjoy. You will not see Indiana Jones here because I have never watched one minute of any of those films. Y’all should know by now what kinds of movies I prefer, so don’t expect to see many action heroes or psycho killers from slasher flicks. Another thing you won’t see are characters from Christmas films because Santa Claus & George Bailey received love from me a few years ago.
A couple of things surprised me while working on this project. First of all, I’ve always heard actresses complain about lack of great roles for women, and I’ve got to admit that they may have a point. There are just over a dozen ladies on the list, and a few of those are part of a couple. It is likely that, as a guy, my attention leans in the direction of male roles, but I think there’s more to it than that. Secondly, as big of a sports fan as I am I couldn’t help but notice that only a few characters from treasured sports movies felt worthy of inclusion, which I never would’ve guessed at the outset.
I’ve decided to dive in by giving you just a small sample of what is to come, so we will begin with the first ten names to make the cut.
100 James Bond (various films)
Full disclosure: I have never actually watched any of the two dozen Bond films produced in the past sixty years. However, I feel like I have enough of a grasp of the character’s essence, and that he is a such a significant part of the pop culture zeitgeist that I cannot in good conscience leave him off the list. A British secret agent is a rather epic launchpad, and it doesn’t hurt when guys like Sean Connery, Roger Moore, & Pierce Brosnan bring him to life. Author Ian Fleming was an avid birdwatcher and borrowed the character’s name from a real life ornithologist who was an expert on birds of the Caribbean.
“A martini…shaken, not stirred”
99 Shooter McGavin (Happy Gilmore)
Golf villains aren’t really a thing, right?? I suppose Caddyshack and some other movies have portrayed country club types as uptight snobs, but that’s usually as far as it goes. Shooter McGavin takes things to a whole new level, albeit in a comedic way. He’s the top pro on the PGA Tour and has zero respect for oddball newcomer Happy Gilmore. A rivalry quickly develops, with Shooter buying the repossessed house of Happy’s grandmother at an auction & hiring a deranged fan to run over Happy with a car.
“I eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast!”
98 Catherine Tramell (Basic Instinct)
With a single crossing of her leg Sharon Stone became an overnight sensation. History would prove the actress to be little more than a flash in the pan (pun unavoidable), but coldblooded sexpot Catherine is unforgettable. There was a sequel produced fourteen years later, but it was a box office bomb.
“Killing isn’t like smoking. You can quit.”
“I’d have to be pretty stupid to write a book about killing and then kill somebody the way I described it in my book. I’d be announcing myself as the killer. I’m not stupid.”
“I finished my book. Didn’t you hear me? Your character’s dead. Goodbye. What do you want…flowers? I’ll send you an autographed copy.”
97 Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore (Apocalypse Now)
The cast of Apocalypse Now is incomparable. Marlon Brando. Martin Sheen. Dennis Hopper. Harrison Ford. Lawrence Fishburne. GD Spradlin. But in my humble opinion it is Robert Duval’s Kilgore that pops off of the screen.
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like . . . victory. Someday this war’s gonna end.”
96 Joan Crawford (Mommie Dearest)
Joan Crawford was a real life actress in mid-20th century Hollywood, but I think it is a fair assessment that nowadays she is probably best remembered for the memoir written by her adopted daughter Christina that painted Crawford as an alcoholic & an abusive mother. The book was adapted into a film in 1981, with Faye Dunaway in the lead role. I cannot pass judgment on the veracity of what Christina Crawford wrote, but if Joan Crawford was even half as crazy as what is portrayed in the movie it is difficult to imagine growing up in that household. Dunaway won a Golden Raspberry for Worst Actress and made entire generations of people unable to look at wire hangers the same way ever again.
“NO… WIRE… HANGERS! What’s wire hangers doing in this closet when I told you NO WIRE HANGERS, EVER?! I work and work ’til I’m half-dead, and I hear people say, ‘She’s getting old.’ And what do I get? A daughter… who cares as much about the beautiful dresses I give her as she cares about me! WHAT’S WIRE HANGERS DOING IN THIS CLOSET?! ANSWER ME! I buy you beautiful dresses, and you treat them like they were some dishrag! You do! $300 dress on a wire hanger?”
95 Alex Forrest (Fatal Attraction)
Well, there may not be enough great roles for women in Hollywood, but as long as the “crazy chick” trope is alive & well they’ll have a few solid opportunities. Alex is the nutjob that Michael Douglas has sex with in an elevator, who then becomes obsessed with him & stalks his family. Ever hear the term “bunny cooker”?? It originated with Fatal Attraction & Alex Forrest.
“We were attracted to each other at the party…that was obvious. You’re on your own for the night…that’s also obvious. We’re two adults.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do? You won’t answer my calls, you change your number. I mean, I’m not gonna be ignored, Dan!”
94 Napoleon Dynamite (Napoleon Dynamite)
Perhaps I’m too old, or maybe just obtuse, but I don’t really get this movie. Having said that, the titular character as portrayed by Jon Heder is so…unique…that he does make me chuckle, and he has a few quotable scenes that have withstood the relentless march of time.
“Sorry I’m late. I just got done taming a wild honeymoon stallion for you guys.”
” I caught you a delicious bass.”
“Pedro offers you his protection.”
93 The Hanson Brothers (Slapshot)
Paul Newman may be the star of Slapshot, but three dimwitted hockey goons steal the show. The plot centers around a minor league team on the verge of folding, so an idea is hatched to put all that winning & losing stuff aside and focus on entertaining the crowd with violence. Enter the fierce trio with shoulder length hair & horn-rimmed glasses. Their “look” contrasted with the aggression they display on the ice and their childish demeanor off the ice is an amusing blend, and I think it helps that the young men portraying the characters were real hockey players, and more importantly not professional actors.
“Hey ya think they show Speed Racer here?”
92 Max Goldman & John Gustafson (Grumpy/Grumpier Old Men)
Walter Matthau & Jack Lemmon famously brought Neil Simon’s Odd Couple duo of Oscar Madison & Felix Unger to the big screen in 1968, but a quarter century later they reunited as two old codgers in the frozen tundra of Minnesota who have been frienemies since childhood. Max & John insult each other, play ultimately benign pranks, & have similar taste in women. It’s delightful family fun, and one can’t help but like these guys.
“Hypothermia’s a bitch. It ain’t quick like a stroke.” (Max)
“Morning, dickhead.” (Max) “Hello, moron.” (John)
“If my dog was as ugly as you, I’d shave his ass and teach him to walk backwards.” (Max)
“I am the gangster of love” (Max) “Gangster, huh? So tell me, was it more of a hold up than a stick up?” (John)
91 Peter Gibbons & Bill Lumbergh (Office Space)
A shoutout to my former colleague Brad, who introduced me to Office Space a year or two after its fairly uneventful & mostly unprofitable theatrical release. The movie is populated with colorful characters, but two stand out. Anyone who has ever had a mundane, soul sucking, white collar job can identify with Peter, a guy who is drowning in misery until a session with a hypnotist goes awry, leaving him with the newly tranquil philosophy “it’s not that I’m lazy…it’s that I just don’t care”. Lumbergh is how many people perceive their boss…mostly oblivious, slightly dense, & completely unappreciative, focused solely on forcing underpaid employees to sacrifice their lives for the company. Obviously the movie is satire…most employees aren’t quite as despondent as Peter, and most supervisors aren’t a total dufus like Lumbergh. However, I believe that a big reason that Office Space found new life on home video and became a “cult classic” is that there are strains of truth running thru the film, and we see a bit of our own professional lives reflected in such a way that we get a good laugh out of it.
“Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements!” (Peter)
“Ah, ah, I almost forgot… I’m also going to need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday, too. We, uhhh, lost some people this week and we sorta need to play catch-up. Mmmmmkay? Thaaaaaanks.” (Lumbergh)
“I did absolutely nothing and it was everything I thought it could be.” (Peter)
“If you could do that, that would be great.” (Lumbergh)
“I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that’s on the worst day of my life.” (Peter)
“I’d say in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual, work.” (Peter)
“Oooo…yeahhhh, ummm…I’m gonna have to go ahead and sort of disagree with you there. Yeah, uh, he’s been real flaky lately, and I’m just not sure that he’s the caliber person that we would want for upper management. He’s also been having some problems with his TPS reports.” (Lumbergh)
“That’s my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.” (Peter)
That’s all you get for now!! We’ll be back soon with the next installment of our countdown.