Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Special Place In Hell: The 10 Best Movie Scumbags

Before we get to the nitty-gritty of this list, I want to preface by mentioning that we've made the decision to exclude anyone who crosses the line from being an asshole/prick/scumbag to being actually evil. Sometimes it's a fine line - you won't find Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest on here - but we've considered true scumbags to be the loathsome sorts whom the audience wishes to have their eventual, spectacular comeuppance.

#10. The Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel) in Bad Lieutenant

"Hey, listen to me. I'm the boss, not Aunt Wendy. When it's your time to use the bathroom, you tell Aunt Wendy to get the fuck out of the bathroom! What are you, men or mice? She's hoggin' the bathroom - call me! Call me, and I'll throw her the fuck out!"

Harvey Keitel's bad lieutenant is the prototypical scumbag with a heart of gold. I mean, he's an absolute piece of shit, a drug-addled booze hound who's waist deep in debt, alienated from himself, his family, and any true sense of purpose. A man so corrupt in his heart that he cannot even recognize the possibility for forgiveness in himself anymore. Keitel really amps up the lieutenant's douche-baggery, his character is just dripping sleaze, but not in a goofy, over-the-top way, but in that wrenchingly real and heart-breaking way wherein it is possible to accept that he may just find the redemption he feels he doesn't deserve. And it is easy to argue that he doesn't deserve it.


#9 Caledon Hockley (Billy Zane) in Titanic

"My fian... my fiancée! Yes, you are, and my wife. My wife in practice if not yet by law, so you will honor me. You will honor me the way a wife is required to honor a husband. Because I will not be made a fool, Rose. Is this in any way unclear?"

You can't really fault Caledon for reacting the way he does in the early goings of the movie, Titanic. He's got his head so far up his own ass that he doesn't realize that Rose (Kate Winslet) actually despises the ground he walks on. He reacts the way someone with common sense would react when he discovers that Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) has been fooling around with his fiance, but it is during the climactic sinking of The Unsinkable where Hockley shows his true self.

In true douchebag form, Hockley escapes the doomed ship by pretending to take care of a young child and confirms every assumption about his character. He's a self-absorbed coward that will stop at nothing to preserve his own hide.

I recall people in the theater actually clapping when Rose mentions that Hockley fell into financial ruin in the Stock Market Crash of '29 and commits suicide as a result.

In order to keep Hockley's more loathsome personality traits ambiguous until the end of the movie and reveal them in a more gradual progression, James Cameron wisely decided to omit a scene in which Hockley orders his bodyguard to murder Jack and Rose in exchange for the Heart of the Ocean when he realizes that not only has Jack slept with Rose, Jack has also claimed Rose's virginity.

Kudos to James Cameron for not playing his hand before it was time.

- J.T.

#8. Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) in Memento

"You sad, sad freak. I can say whatever the fuck I want, and you won't remember. We'll still be best friends. Or maybe even lovers."

Carrie-Anne Moss was the definition of working actress before The Matrix came along. Taking bit parts in TV movies and syndicated shows for 10 years prior, when The Matrix hit it appeared that her ticket to stardom had finally been punched.

What followed were well-acted turns in interesting movies that should have pushed her into serious consideration for any female role requiring an actress in her age range. Perhaps the best of these roles was the character of Natalie in Memento.

Memento is a difficult movie to try to explain in a paragraph, so I will just say that it involves a man , Leonard Shelby (played by Guy Pearce in an award-worthy turn), suffering from extreme short-term memory loss, who uses tattoos, notes, and Polaroids to find the man that killed his wife. Keep in mind that it would take several pages to actually give the story justice. This is the movie that will keep director Christopher Nolan steady work for the next couple of decades, moreso than The Dark Knight in my opinion.

Into this story comes Natalie. Involved in the local drug trade, Natalie discovers the perfect way to get rid of some competition by pointing Leonard in the right direction, knowing that should he be caught either by the cops or by her rivals, he wouldn't remember her anyway.

If Moss had played this role with even a hint of sympathy, it wouldn't have worked. It would be easy for anyone watching to say, "Well, given the same circumstances, who's to say I wouldn't do the same?" But by playing the character of Natalie as one of the meanest, nastiest villains of the past decade, she is more than worthy of being remembered on this list.

- Isaac

#7. TIE - Pat Healy (Matt Dillon) in There's Something About Mary

"Those goofy bastards are about the best thing I've got going."

There are a lot of slimeballs out there in filmdom. So why Pat Healy? OK, so he does quite a few remarkably sleazy things in order to get to Mary: he lies, he cheats, shit, he even drugs an innocent dog. But, after years of watching movie scumbags, those actions just don't cut it.

But there is one thing.

It's when Healy caps all of his teeth. If you remember, he's been listening in to Mary and her friends, and while discussing Magda's dog Mary emphatically states how much she loves big teeth. Healy thinks she's talking about a person, and so he gets all of his teeth capped.

Jesus, maybe that isn't the scummiest thing I've ever seen, but it certainly is one of the most pathetic. And being pathetic, well, that's one of the big parts of a being a scumbag. Healy essentially mutilates his face, at no small expense to himself, for the incredibly slim chance that this will make him somewhat more attract to a woman. It's sad, it's manipulative, and it's really creepy. It's also one of the biggest laughs of the film.

Oh, and he also pretends to work with and care for mentally challenged individuals. That's pretty rough.

- Brad

Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray) in Kingpin

"Hi... not you... hi."

I am convinced that bowling is the sport you take up if you have very good hand to eye coordination but are too lazy to run the length of a basketball court.

Enter Ernie McCracken. A self-styled bowling god that shamelessly promotes himself and honestly believes that he is God's gift to women despite physical evidence to the contrary. A complete jackass that constantly shows that the only thing more misaligned than his hairpiece is his moral compass.

The thing about Big Ern is that he walks the talk and delivers when the pressure is on. When other scumbags fail at the moment of truth, McCracken backs up his own press with an amazing display of clutch.

Like him or not, McCracken plays to win, and does...

Good does not always triumph, folks. Thus endeth the lesson.

- J.T

#6 Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) in Back to the Future

"What are you looking at butthead?"

Sometimes you want your antagonist to be a many-layered, finely shaded individual who you discover to have childhood trauma that explains his prickish behavior, eventually leading to them earning your sympathies. And other times you just want to see an asshole get his, and Biff is one spectacular asshole. While being perfectly happy to simply be a dickhead for most of film, it's his attempted rape of Marty McFly's mother in the climax that makes him a full-fledged scumbag. The sequels play this up even more, particularly the second film where we see a grown Biff in an alternate future who has turned out particularly sleazy.

Thankfully, being such a great scumbag makes his eventual (and repeated) comeuppance all the more sweet. While repetitive, nothing quite gives me the pleasure of seeing Thomas F. Wilson covered in manure.

- Doug

#5 Walter Peck/Prof. Jerry Hathaway/Richard Thornburg/Dr. Noah Faulkner (William Atherton) in Ghostbusters/Real Genius/Die Hard/Bio-Dome

"Everything was fine with our system until the power grid was shut off by dickless here."
"They caused an explosion!"
"Is this true?"
"Yes it's true. This man has no dick."

William Atherton has a commitment to dickishness that you can't help but applaud, and he put it to great use in a series of scene-stealing roles in the 1980s. His style combines a commanding sense of superiority with an absolute commitment to being 100% correct, no matter the evidence to the contrary. In Ghostbusters his character of Walter Peck singlehandedly releases a wave of ghosts on the city of New York (after opening the ghost containment unit), and still tries to place the blame on the Ghostbusters in one of that film's most memorable scenes. Atherton has an unusually deep voice and cadence of speech that demands attention, and he makes great use of this voice in several other roles showing off his ability to be loathsome - from the immoral douchebag Dr. Hathaway in Real Genius (one of his largest roles) to the slimy reporter Richard Thornburg in Die Hard (and Die Hard II).

Making a career out of being despicable might not be everyone's cup of tea, and I imagine Atherton is sick of people calling him "dickless" a this point, but there's no denying the mans ability to create a series of truly unforgettable scumbags.

- Doug

#4. Douglas C. Neidermeyer (Mark Metcalf) in Animal House

"You're all worthless and weak! Now drop and give me twenty!"

If there is a distinct "villain" in National Lampoon's Animal House, it is Doug Niedermeyer.

Not only is he the epitome of the archetype of 1960's privileged entitlement, he is a ruthless bully that constantly abuses his station. The arrogant son of a bitch even tries to get away with attempted murder by carrying live ammo for his ROTC carbine in his uniform pocket and then trying to shoot Flounder (Stephen Furst) during the Delta-sabotaged Founder's Day parade.

I remember feeling a wave of euphoric catharsis when I saw the caption, "Killed in Vietnam by his own troops," at the end of the movie. That is how much I hated the character of Doug Niedermeyer.

Niedermeyer's venom lived long after Animal House, as Metcalf single handedly put Twisted Sister on the musical map by bringing back the character in the form of an oppressive father figure who repeatedly and comically gets his comeuppance through several of the band's videos.

- J.T.

#3. Pig Vomit (Paul Giamatti) in Private Parts

"I call him Pig Vomit because he looks like a pig and he makes me want to vomit."

Paul Giamatti is such a total dickweed in Private Parts that I still think of him, to this day, as Pig Vomit. I mean, at one point, Stern says "He looks like a pig and makes me want to vomit," and that about sums it up (sorry, Paul). And that's saying something. Honestly, there's nothing remarkable about the character; he's just a snide, disgusting little man, the type that populate films the world over. He's a fucking archetype. But Giamatti--who later become renowned as a serious actor for such films as American Splendor and Sideways --shows off his acting chops in a big way. In the hands of a lesser actor, Pig Vomit would have been a forgettable antagonist for Stern's charismatic shock jock; with Giamatti, he's one of the top ten scumbags of all time.

- Brad

#2. Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) in Aliens

"Okay. What if that ship didn't even exist, huh didn't you ever think about that? I didn't know. I went in and made a major security issue out of it, and everybody steps in, and the Administraor steps in., and I made a decision and it was a bad call, Ripley, it was a bad call."

The corporate scumbag ranks up there with the prostitute with a heart of gold in the "most often used movie stereotyped staple" category.

I have yet to run into a corporate scumbag in a movie I despise more than Carter Burke. He is a ferret-faced son of a bitch and the poster child for the evils of capitalism. Karl Marx would be proud.

He's also perfectly willing to sacrifice the lives of innocent humans (including a child) in pursuit of the perfect bio-weapon. How arrogant and dumb do you have to be to believe that you could actually control the Aliens? They have two mouths, are super strong, can walk on ceilings, and bleed acid for crying out loud! Acid!!!!

Burke is so heinous and timeless of a company douche that Giovanni Ribisi seems to bank on the fact that you have already seen Aliens and clearly tries to channel Burke in his role as Parker Selfridge. You cannot convince me otherwise. It is almost as if Ribisi is counting on your loathing of Carter Burke to transcend films and cause you to despise the character of Parker Selfridge more than you would normally.

Ribisi's gamble does indeed pay off... The hate does indeed cross over...

It is said in Dante's Inferno that the lowest circle of Hell is reserved for traitors. There, my friends, you will find the soul of Carter Burke frozen in the lake alongside Brutus and Cassius.

- J.T.

#1 Bill Paxton
(Movie Feast Lifetime Achievement Award for Most Memorable Strides In Film Scumbaggery)

"She's like all these babes, you get their pilot lit, they could suck start a leafblower. And she's got the most incredible body too and a pair of titties that make you wanna stand up and beg for buttermilk. Ass like a ten year old boy!"

I love Bill Paxton. The dude has amazing range.

Consequently, I feel badly for the guy that two of his most memorable role are two of filmdom's greatest scumbags. There are people in the world that would probably like to stab him in the neck with a fork so that he might pay for the sins committed by his various villainous roles.

That, folks, is the hallmark of a great actor.

Invariably, older siblings are usually portrayed as complete assholes in the movies, but Chet Donnelly from Weird Science raised the bar significantly. The things that Chet put his younger brother, Wyatt (IIan Mitchell-Smith), through were so heinous that if you told me that they were codified and collected under the title "The Guantanamo Bay Guide to Interrogation," I would not be surprised.

And then there is Simon from True Lies. It is bad enough that Simon is a car salesman; a profession that doesn't exactly inspire your faith in someone's sense of fair play. What is even worse is that Simon is very good at what he does. He is such a good salesman that he could sell salt water to sharks at a profit and can convince nearly anyone of anything.

Don't' believe me? Watch and learn from a master as he worms his way into the hearts and beds of several women by getting them to believe that he works for the CIA! Say what you like about Simon, but the guy is smart. It is a wise predator that knows how to trap his prey.

- J.T.


J.T. said...

I watched Memento yesterday and focused on Natalie rather than the twisting plotline for once and yeah, she is quite an asshole.

I like Memento a lot but it's hard to get a handle on the character development because of story.

Sometimes getting a handle on one aspect of the movie means sacrificing analysis of another aspect. It was an either-or thing for me.

Good for this list to give me cause to revisit the movie.

Ash said...

The labels for this post are amazing.

Good list, everyone.

Nate said...

I'd also like to nominate Paxton's performance in "The Last Supper" for someone's quick review. He's quite the hodunky-podunky wackjob in that one. Actually, I know people who are very much like his character there ...

Anonymous said...

I have seen all of these movies and I gotta say that Big Ern takes the cake hands down. He is despicable in every way. Womanizer, poor loser, poor winner, self absorbed, showboat, greedy, conniving, brash,ignorant of standards of conduct in both the legal context and societal context and has a complete lack of consciousness. However, what pushes him over the top isn't his willingness to offend or step on anyone he needs to in order to get what he wants, but the fact that he purposely goes out of his way to purposely degrade/offend/hurt/ruin someones life when there is little or no benefit to Big Ern. And the ability at which he does it is astounding. He is so dedicated to displeasing others that he doesn't even take time to take evil pleasure in the results of his work. In short he is so despicable that there is no pleasure or award for Big Ern in even the sickest and strictest sense yet he still goes about his scumbaggish ways. To illustrate my point, some quotes:

1. Big Ern - "Tanqueray and tab and keep'em coming. I got a long drive ahead of me. Oh, and do me a favor will you? Would you mind washing off that perfume before you come back to our table? I am trying to enjoy a drink."

2. Reporter- "Which opponent poses the biggest threat to you?" Big Ern - "Me. If I get drunk and fall down and hurt myself I might lose." Teenage Female Fan - "Mr. McCracken, can I have your autograph?" Big Ern - "Sure babe. What's your name?" Fan - "Darlene." Big Ern to fan - "I'm in 1103." Reporter - "Excuse me, what's the story behind this pending paternity suit against you?" Big Ern - "Aw that's not a case at all. The woman is a stonefaced liar. Lets not even talk about that one. I pulled out of her really early on that one."

3. Big Ern - "This guy is what you call a born loser. A reaal munson."

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