For better or worse, the stereotype of the “Evil Brit” is certainly nothing new; Hollywood has been using classically trained actors to class up its films since the dawn of the talkies, recruiting many of its early stars from the British stage. I was surprised, however, when we began planning Magnificent Bastards week, just how many of my favorite male villains fit into the category of Charming-Yet-Menacing Aristocrat. And, while this isn’t necessarily true of my favorite female villains, most of my favorite bad guys have English accents. I can’t be the only one who feels this way: check out the list below and tell me if I’m wrong…
Now, some people might blame Disney movies for perpetuating this character type, and some folks (Eddie Izzard, for one) blame Star Wars and the Bond films for enshrining the character of the Fancy English Bastard in popular culture. Personally, I blame George Sanders. I grew up in love with old movies, and even if I hadn’t been obsessed with his appearances on Batman or as Shere Kahn in Disney’s The Jungle Book, there was no escaping Sanders’ perverse magnetism once I’d seen Rebecca and All About Eve.
Sanders is the prickly patron saint of a very specific subset of villainy: the epitome of the arch, cultured, imperious villain, whose influence can certainly be felt in the success of fan-idols-of-the-moment Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston (both of whom have managed to balance the haughty brusqueness of their best-known onscreen roles with humor and warm, fan-friendly charm off screen).
Of course, Sanders (like Hiddleston and Cumberbatch) doesn’t always appear as the villain—in fact, all of the actors listed below are all capable of portraying a dazzling range of character types and hitting all points on the old moral compass. But somehow, when good actors go rotten, we all win—so without further ado, here’s my list of actors who manage to commit all manner of felonious onscreen evil while maintaining both an aura of undeniable suavity (and a reliably impressive accent)…
Tim Curry…in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Legend, Muppet Treasure Island, FernGully: The Last Rainforest, etc.
When Curry was rehearsing for his first full-time stage role (which would eventually catapult him to stardom), he first performed Frank-N-Furter with a German, then an American accent before settling on the odd, upper-crusty accent that launched a million midnight screenings. Curry has said that his speech patterns in the film reflected a combination of Queen Elizabeth’s manner of speaking and his mother’s telephone voice. Whatever the origins, Curry has parlayed his highly recognizable, sonorous voice into a hugely successful career in movies, music, theater, and voice work, with all manner of interesting accents along the way (looking at you, Congo. Although maybe we should just agree to ignore Congo, for everyone’s sake).
While he’s played plenty of villains in his career, I’d argue that he’s at his most undeniably villainous as Darkness in Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985). As striking as the character is, visually—he looks like Satan somehow got stuck in Jeff Goldblum’s telepod with an unfortunate bull and an oversized lobster—it’s Curry’s voice that makes the character so memorable. Sure, Darkness put a hit out on some unicorns, then kidnapped Ferris Bueller’s girlfriend and gothed her out against her will…but every time he opens his mouth, rich, buttery, evil magic happens. He’s like the Barry White of hideous demonic creatures.
Tim Curry is always incredibly fun to watch, whether he’s playing a good guy or the embodiment of pure evil, a demented alien scientist, a scurvy pirate, or a jazzy, disembodied rainforest-hating spirit. He manages to make all of his villains unreasonably appealing, on some level…except , of course, for Pennywise the Clown. Proving once and for all that clowns are just plain irredeemable, and to be avoided at all costs.
Christopher Guest…in The Princess Bride.
As a kid, I loved both The Princess Bride and This Is Spinal Tap, but it took me a few years to make the connection between Count Rugen, the infamous Six-Fingered Man, and Tap’s lead guitarist/resident man-child, Nigel Tufnel. Once Guest began writing and directing his own movies in the mid-90s, his ability to completely lose himself in diverse characters became more and more apparent, but his status as a genius was already unassailable by then (at least for me). The fact that he is equally as convincing as a childlike, Gumby-loving, hilarious idiot one hand and an ice-cold, murderous arch-sadist on the other is really all you need to understand the force of his talent. Guest’s quiet, calculated turn as Rugen is brilliant: utterly twisted and sinister without ever being over the top, even when explaining the bizarre obsession with pain that is his “life’s work,” as he sucks an entire year of Westley’s life away. The performance is equal parts warped comedy and dead-eyed Sadean menace, making Count Rugen one of my favorite villains of all time.
Christopher Lee…in The Last Unicorn, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Star Wars prequels, The Wicker Man, various Hammer Horror/Dracula movies, and so on and so forth.
Here’s what you need to know: Christopher Lee is FASCINATING. Seriously, go read up on him, if you haven’t before—he’s just an incredibly interesting human being, even beyond the scope of his long, illustrious, and eventful career. Best known for playing villains, Lee has always managed to bring additional dimensions to his darker characters. While he was initially typecast as the heavy in horror films following his success at Hammer Films, he broke out of the mold and moved on to more interesting roles after playing Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970):
I’ve never been typecast since. Sure, I’ve played plenty of heavies, but as Anthony Hopkins says, “I don’t play villains, I play people.”
An extremely well-read and intelligent actor, Lee is known for the research and preparation he brings to a role, whether it be Dracula, a Bond villain, a treacherous wizard, or a sinister pagan lord. I first encountered his work in The Last Unicorn, a movie I was utterly and completely obsessed with as a child. I remember finding the doomed King Haggard rather frightening, but also deeply interesting and very sad—he was a far more complex villain than I was used to seeing in animated films (at least the ones aimed at children). His obsession and intensity resonated with me, long before I was old enough to read the book for myself. Never a one-note villain, Christopher Lee finds depths and shades into the darkness of his characters, turning villainy into high art.
Peter Cook…in Bedazzled.
Like Christopher Guest (his costar in The Princess Bride), Peter Cook only needed one role to elevate himself into my private pantheon of villainous weirdos. Cook plays the Devil, more casually known as George Spiggott, in Bedazzled, a comic revamp of the Faust legend for which Cook also wrote the screenplay. Admittedly, the movie may seem a bit dated now, more than four decades later, but Cook’s performance remains luminescent as he torments sad sack Stanley Moon (Dudley Moore) through a series of increasingly ridiculous set pieces; louche but likeable, his Satanic Majesty is a mischievous cad for the ages. His constant upstaging of Moon’s well-intentioned attempts at impressing his love interest drives the film, using Stanley’s best and worst impulses against him—here, in my favorite scene, he grants Stanley’s wish to be a rock star…only to swagger onstage and steal his thunder (and the object of Moon’s affection) as the most nihilistic, self-absorbed pop idol of all time:
Best. Devil. Ever.
Charles Dance…in The Golden Child, Last Action Hero, Game of Thrones, etc.
Even when Dance isn’t playing a villain, he’s often been cast in rather severe, humorless roles (Ali G Indahouse aside, of course). Perhaps that’s why it’s so delightful to watch him truly having fun with a role…especially when that role involves being an utter and diabolical bastard. His first line as postmodern meta-bad guy Benedict in 1993’s Last Action Hero, for example, is “If God was a villain, he would have been me.” He only gets more badass from there, gleefully shooting people and snarling zingers and having a fabulous time, and generally making us appreciate how boring movies would be without proper, gregarious, extroverted villains.
And then there’s the fact that he took the coldest and most hateable man in all of Westeros and made him fun to watch. In the books, Tywin is such a distant, epic figure that we only get close to him through his children’s eyes…and frankly, those glimpses don’t help to humanize or demystify him very much at all. On the series, Dance captures Tywin’s frigid demeanor and Machiavellian brilliance while still making him seem human, with a charm and intelligence that complicate—but don’t detract from—his coldness and cruelty. Tywin Lannister is a magnificent bastard in either medium, but Dance has made the character more intriguing than I would have thought possible.
Alan Rickman…in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and the Harry Potter series (although his villain status there is dubious, he certainly counts as a major antagonist throughout most of the series).
Was there any doubt that Rickman would make this list? I mean, there’s a reason that both Cumberbatch and Hiddleston are asked so often to bust out their Rickman impressions. From Die Hard onward, he’s carved out an iconic place for himself at the heart of pop culture using only his voice and his eyebrows—whether he’s playing a German terrorist or a romantic figure in a period drama or an irritated B-list actor with a wacky catchphrase, Rickman’s distinctive voice and ability to wield both gravity and sarcasm, as needed, with virtuoso skill make for compelling viewing.
Like most of the actors on this list, Rickman takes issue with attempts to pigeonhole him as a villain by trade, noting that the Sheriff of Nottingham in 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is the last “stock villain” he’s ever played. Even in the role of a stock villain, however, Rickman is absolutely brilliant—arguably the best thing about the movie, whether you’re a fan or not—and he won a London Film Critics’ Circle Award as well as a BAFTA for his performance as the manic, dastardly Sheriff. So perhaps it’s no wonder that Rickman’s turn as the more nuanced and ambiguous Severus Snape turned out to be one of the highlights of a series largely characterized by shrewd and fortuitous casting.
Snape is the most complex and nuanced major character in the series, and Rickman’s portrayal of a flawed, damaged, conflicted man is one of the emotional touchstones of the Harry Potter films. I honestly couldn’t care less about the Oscars…but the fact that Alan Rickman has never been nominated still sits badly with me. We should put together an award ceremony that’s actually relevant one day, and demand that every single presenter bring their best Rickman impression to the stage. At least it would be fun to watch, right?
In any case, that’s my own personal take on the Best of the Worst of a distinguished subset of Magnificent Bastard: sometimes suave and debonair, sometimes caustic and cunning, the strain lives on in newer stars like Hiddleston and Cumberbatch as well as a host of other established actors (the great Ian McShane, Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Irons, and Mark Strong are all quite adept at playing compelling villains, as is Gary Oldman, of course).
And while I do enjoy this particular type of Hollywood villain, I also like a bit of variety in my bad guys—they don’t all have to be guys, for example. And as much as I love a testy aristocratic glowering down from the screen and proclaiming his pompous superiority to the world, I also wish these sorts of glorious opportunities for strutting and stealing all the best lines were more readibly available to a greater range of actors in genre films. Everyone should have a chance to have their Bastard flag fly, after all. I look forward to catching a glimpse of George Sanders’ magnificent style of malevolence in a more and more diverse array of amoral grimaces, quips, and eyerolls as Hollywood slowly catches up to the 21st century. The luminous (and rather smirky) Ruth Negga’s recent appearance on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might be the best thing that’s happened to the show so far, to cite just one example…I hope she’ll stick around to wreak some classy, classy havoc for many episodes to come. In any case, let’s hear about your favorite villains (past, present, and possibly future) in the comments!