MY List of the 25 Greatest Movie Characters Ever (So Far)

This one is purely subjective. If you agree with some of my choices, lovely! If not, that’s cool too. I have to say that I generally don’t approach movies in a progressive or affirming ways – I think that sometimes, what makes a great character isn’t necessarily something that’s progressive or affirming. I think that people should respond to characters on a variety of levels – for example, “300,” to me, was both very entertaining and extremely disturbing, much like a lot of Cold War-themed American movies are.

I don’t think that the disturbing factor should necessarily preclude enjoyment, but rather deepen your experience as a viewer (of course, this doesn’t apply to every situation, I’d be a fool if I insisted that it did. This is why I hate people who go – “You can’t watch ‘Munich’? For*snort* psychological issues? What the HELL is wrong with you?” – and wouldn’t do that to anyone else).

Having said that, I like comic roles most of all. Probably because they’re darker in more creative ways, sometimes. And also because laughter is way underrated, even vicious laughter.

And as Rachel pointed out, why were so little women included in the revised Yahoo list? Tsk.

Anyway, here we go:

25. Ruby Rhod (The Fifth Element)
24. Inigo Montoya (The Princess Bride)
23. Elizabeth I (Elizabeth)
22. River Tam (Serenity)
21. Albert Goldman (The Birdcage)
20. Bulcsú (Kontroll)
19. Stalker (Stalker)
18. Mani (The Brotherhood of the Wolf)
17. The Terminator (T2: Judgment Day)
16. Tina Lombardi (A Very Long Engagement)
15. Norma Desmond (Sunset Boulevard)
14. Data (Star Trek: First Contact)
13. Captain Renault (Casablanca)
12. Celie Johnson (The Color Purple)
11. Xu Jiazhen (Huozhe)
10. Tatiana (Interdevochka)
9. The Operative (Serenity)
8. Kip (Napoleon Dynamite)
7. Gandalf (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy)
6. Zhenia Komel’kova (The Dawns Here Are Quiet)
5. Jen Yu (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
4. Jay (Men In Black)
3. Sarah Connor (T2: Judgment Day)
2. Professor Snape (The Harry Potter Films)
1. Ellen Ripley (Alien Quadrology)

Albert (Nathan Lane) on the left, Armand (Robin Williams) on the right. Picture from the Independent.
Albert (Nathan Lane) on the left, Armand (Robin Williams) on the right. Picture from the Independent.

Albert Goldman is a controversial character, despite the fact that GLAAD welcomed the portrayal of a gay drag queen named “Starina” when the movie “The Birdcage” (a re-make of a 70’s French film) first came out. A lot of people I’ve talked to don’t like how over-the-top Albert is. They think he’s a harmful cliché, good for bemused straight folks to laugh at. Personally, I think that with Albert, one can go either way.

There’s a scene early on in the film, when Albert comes into his sleeping son’s room – and a friend of mine, let’s call him Adam, told me to watch out for the look on Albert’s face. He said that for him, it was one of the most genuine portrayals of a loving parent in cinema, and that Nathan Lane slew him in that tiny episode, especially when he considered how Albert’s status as a parent is threatened because he’s not “traditional” enough. Ten years after the movie was released, in 2004, with millions of people still going “ZOMG TEH GAYZ!!! Evil pedophile chupacabra blood-sucking GAYYYYYYZ! Keep them away from children!!!” that moment remained with Adam, as an expression of something true and beautiful about family, in spite, or maybe because of the fact that his own family cut him off (for – you guessed it – being openly gay).

Adam made me think about how during first time I watched the movie, I was with my parents. My mother reacted to that very same moment like Adam did. She went through a period, while pregnant with me, when she was not considered “an appropriate choice” to be my father’s wife. This was in the Soviet Union, and my dad’s then-bosses could make those sorts of pronouncements. My father ended up getting fired, because he refused to abandon my mom.

My parents therefore saw the Nathan Lane character in a way that’s unexpected for a religious heterosexual couple from a very patriarchal society. What they saw was a parent and partner who is being told, by the outside world, that he has no right to be a parent or to be in love. It made me think how anyone who’s ever been told that his or her feelings have no right to exist, much less be expressed, can find resonance with the character of Albert Goldman, but not in an immediately obvious, pound-your-head-with-a-rhetorical-hammer sort of way.

I think that the fact that it’s an overblown role allows the actual awfulness of being denied full-human status to be presented without melodrama. The horror is still there, underneath. You can feel the affront of it as you focus on that one moment, when you watch Albert’s face as he enters his son’s room. It’s just like Adam said – it slays you, but it slays you in a way that allows you some room to hope.

This is why I think that comedy is sometimes a more effective means of challenging society’s cruelties than drama. Of course, comedy has to be very precise in order to achieve the effect of making you both laugh and think. Some would say that Albert is not exactly successful in this regard, and I can see why this argument can be made.

I have a lot to say about the other characters on this list, but I’ll just leave you with this one. For now.

19 thoughts on “MY List of the 25 Greatest Movie Characters Ever (So Far)

  1. I think Albert also works because he’s so over-the-top–if people can find themselves sympathizing with him, they break down a lot of barriers.

    I’m going to have to do my own list when I have a minute, now.

  2. Not bad…I love the fact that you included Captain Renault (as Claude Rains may be the most overlooked character actor ever)…

    And…love Joss Whedon’s stuff too (though your nods to Serenity were somewhat surprising)…his small screen characters were infinitely better than anything he’ll ever do on film!

    Just curious as to what a non biased look at the best movie characters ever would be 😉

  3. I’d include Roy Cohn (Pacino in Angels in America), but that’s a small quibble. Anyway, just having a moment of intense nostalgia.

    I miss you.

  4. Mmmmm. I don’t think there is such a thing as an unbiased list. Obviously, if you’re putting one together as a group, for a publication, you’re going to try to figure in as many public favourites as possible. But even then you are most likely to be targeting a very specific audience (Yahoo had a point when they said that Empire magazine was only looking at the younger men).

  5. Yeah, if we were including small screen Whedon, I’d definitely nominate Spike and/or Willow for my top 25. Seems unfair, though, not just because of an arbitrary size differential, but because a long-running TV series has a lot more time to develop a character than a two hour movie.

  6. Great, now I have to go think up my own list. I like yours but I haven’t seen all those movies and I think that Verbal Kint belongs on there somewhere.

  7. I don’t get River Tam, but if I were to make one of these Malcolm Reynolds would be on there somewhere(I just started paying attention to Whedon like last year.)

    Personally I’m not one of those people that can’t enjoy things if they have political subtext they don’t like, but I still enjoy analyzing that stuff to death so people always think I’m uptight about it, it sucks. People still think I don’t like 300 for political reasons, as opposed to just not getting why everyone thinks it’s so great. I can count on one hand the number of movies I’ve genuinely found disturbing though, so I’m probably desensitized.

    I agree with you though with the wacky comic roles though, main characters have a tendency to be on the bland side.

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