Ten Characters

Perhaps this is one of those online trends/memes that's sweeping the blogosphere (at least the strata that orients most of their content around personal opinion and taste than big breaking Hollywood news), but I've been tagged by The Film Doctor (whose own list makes me jealous) to come up with ten movie characters that I love. My heart always races when I begin to think of these things, as I do think about them often (favorite femme fatales, villains, anti-heroes, movie superheroes, animal-characters, etc.) but never definitively. Most of the time I spring a short playlist of related films tied together by a common variable that's only three or four films long before I stop, or give up. Ten, that's a whole new ball game. It's also a great question for the frequent moviegoer because, really, how often does a character really stand out - so much that they dwarf every other aspect, and character, of the film? Unless you're just a people person and love everyone, not often.

[Note: I tried to exclude characters adapted from other works, but I failed. At least I succeded in keeping real life people -biopics, duh - off the list. I also found it too difficult to refrain from taking performance into account. It's like discussing an author's style without discussing exemplary passages!]
Not in any particular order...

Mary Poppins in "Mary Poppins" (1964)
Two women from the movies shaped my view of the rest of the female population from childhood to now, and this is one of them (the other is next on the list). Julie Andrews has a spot reserved in my heart forever between her work in this and The Sound of Music. But this is her more memorable performance, and the character herself is indelible, easily magical. When she's singing to her reflection and it actually sang back, I thought: how wonderful would it have been for our bleak world if Mary Poppins existed, and as a pair! They'd heal the world! There's an innate sadness to this film that I always found beautiful. When the kids separate and prove themselves to their father at the bank in front of his superiors, it's the birdies leaving the nest. When I moved away from home and said "Bye, Mom" for the nth time but it being the first time that it meant something different than it had always meant before, it reminded me of Mary Poppins. [Quote: "As I expected. 'Mary Poppins, practically perfectly in every way.'"]

Ellen Ripley in "Alien" (1979), "Aliens" (1986), and sequels (1992, 1997).
When I was younger, my favorite scenes from the first two films were the very last ones in the films - when she's waiting to fling the alien from the pod while nursing herself to keep sane in the suit, and when she's inside of the cargo carrier yelling at the Queen to get away from Newt ("...you bitch!") They're more visceral and satisfying and fun. But upon watching the films again with my girlfriend, I found I was magnetized to her being a book-abiding officer (debating with the captain to let the crew back in with the specimen in Alien; arguing with Ash in Alien) and being an upfront, troubled but sympathetic mother-figure with both Jonesy the cat and Newt. An ideal woman: multi-faceted and kickass. [Quote: "Micro changes in air density, my ass."]

Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho" (2000)
This is a character that is excessive and disturbing, and masterfully restrained as a performance. It's self-aware but not indulgent. Bateman can be viewed very obviously as a cautionary tale about materialism and social responsibility, which then makes the character laughable and absurd, but when viewed against the context of AIDS, hypermasculinity, bigotry and idealism, the film is sinister and downright scary. The scene where Bateman washes his hands after being beckoned to by a closeted gay friend is at first funny, but then consider how many anti-gay mini-narratives there are on FML.com. This stuff can be real. [Quote: "You're a fucking ugly bitch. I want to stab you to death, and then play around with your blood."]

Maxine Lund in "Being John Malkovich" (1999)
As much as I love Kate Winslet's turn as an eccentric, forward but addictive Clementine in Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I think I love Catherine Keener as Maxine Lund more in this Kaufman story. She's blasphemous, manipulative, enigmatic, and very irresistable. Kaufman's knack for strange asides and unexplained flourishes in the dialogue work for Maxine incredibly well, and her lines are so full of double-entendres and innuendo that I wonder how it might actually be like to work with her. [Quote: "You're right, my darling, it's so much more. It's playing with people!"]

Harry Fabian in "Night and the City" (1950)
I love a good scoundrel when the actor is invested in playing him all the way through. Harry Fabian is a man who has a million and one plans to fame and glory and riches - of course riches - but his plans always fail. Not because his investment in the plans wanes, no, he sticks it through all the way, but because he plays himself so high and so hard that he can't win without sticking it to the very people he's borrowing from, himself included. I'm certainly not that type, I travel in always-cautious waters, so I can admire him while also dreading the plank he's drawing out for himself. A plan off the deep end and a bridge over troubled waters: all the same for him.

Mrs. Eleanor Iselin in "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962)
This is one of those rare times where I can say that I've little recollection of a Meryl Streep performance (there was a half-as-good remake of this if you can recall yourself), but that's the case here, though I've little guilt since this is Angela Lansbury we're talking about and this is a performance and character that, I think, should've given Nurse Ratched a run for her money on the AFI list of villains (Ratched being the next-highest female villain after the Wicked Witch). She's sly, she's endlessly persuasive, she's a closeted Communist (at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, too!), and she was only two years older than Raymond Shaw. [This is based on a novel by Richard Condon, but I can't resist a strong female villain.][Quote: "But now, we have come almost to the end. One last step. And then when I take power, they will be pulled down and ground into dirt for what they did to you. And what they did in so contemptuously underestimating me."]

Jake Gittes in "Chinatown" (1974)
Like I said: I like a good scoundrel. Jack Nicholson plays 'em the best. This one's good on his own, too, you know. His joke about the "Chinamen"? I still don't get it, but I know it's offensive and I still laugh when I'm with friends who've never seen the film and they turn and glance about before opening their mouths. Testing to see if it should be obvious. I also can't tell if Gittes is supposed to be a pretty good private eye, he's so often putting himself and his cohorts (the gorgeous Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray, for instance) into danger that he shouldn't even be hirable. It's Drunken Monkey as Detective. [Quote: "Let me explain something to you, Walsh. This business requires a certain amount of finesse."]

Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver" (1976)
My generation seems to be all about pitting Al Pacino against Robert De Niro as if they're the only living actors over the age of 55. And most of my generation seems to be all about Scarface and his little friend (or any variation thereof) but I found the peformance gratuitous and harsh. Bickle, on the other hand, is unsettling and utterly fascinating in a way not unlike Manchurian Candidate's Mrs. Iselin. It's a descent story, too, like Scarface, but isn't locked into that political/social arena - this is about personal stakes and masculinity in an emasculating world. Trivia: this is the film that got Daniel Day-Lewis to come to America as a serious screen actor. [Quote: "June twenty-ninth. I gotta get in shape. Too much sitting has ruined my body. Too much abuse has gone on for too long. From now on there will be 50 pushups each morning, 50 pullups. There will be no more pills, no more bad food, no more destroyers of my body. From now on will be total organization. Every muscle must be tight."]

Selma Jezkova in "Dancer in the Dark" (2000)
A character that's even more tragic because you know, deep down and without saying it aloud, that it's partly her own fault. She's Lars von Trier's attack on America's law system, but where he might've intended it as a blitz against our society's bloodlust and requirement of a scapegoat in incidences of crime, I think Selma ended up being the manifestation of a lament of the necessity of social institutions and the reciprocity between the collective and the individual in order for those institutions to work. Notice that no one ever says we should change the law to prevent these things from happening. [Quote: "Because you just know when it goes really big... and the camera goes like out of the roof... and you just know it's going to end. I hate that. I would leave just after the next to last song... and the film would just go on forever. "]

Jim Graham in "Empire of the Sun" (1987)
The face of undying hope. This is in many ways Steven Spielberg's most unique film. He's never made a film like this again and he probably never will. His treatment and framing of youths here works so tremendously well because it's set in harrowing circumstances but colored so vividly and strangely, almost fleeting, as to be childlike yet wise and lived-in. Jim's spunk, his voracious appetite for collectibles and aviation-related tidbits and toys, and his gait are all put on full display so that we never forget he's a child. He never actually grows up. The film never makes wartimes look fun, or even manageable. But Jim endures. It's strange when we see him quiet and removed, aloof, as his parents search for him amongst the myriad of lost kiddies. You think they don't deserve a young man of his heart and spirit. [Quote: "Help me, I'm British."]

Some honorable mentions:
-- Clementine Kruczynski in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004)
-- Linda Partridge in "Magnolia" (1999)
-- John Rooney in "Road to Perdition" (2002)
-- Lady Helen Port-Huntley in "The Saddest Music in the World" (2003)
-- Bai Ling in "2046"

And, perhaps later this year, I can induct into the list...
-- Carol, the Wild Thing in "Where the Wild Things Are" [the link is a new poster, via Awards Daily, that is actually more aesthetically pleasing than the first one]

As for who I tag to do this next... I tag Karen at Reel Artsy, and YOU since I don't really know who else I possibly could tag that contributes to a blog that would even somehow find this to refer back to. Leave them in the comments!

Who are your favorite characters?


  1. I so need to do this list! I've been procrastinating.


  2. I'll tag you at the bottom of the post to get you to do it. Careful, though, it took me a little time to come up with a list that I was adequately happy with enough to post.