Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Jon Lovitz will kick your ass: 20-plus unexpectedly badass performances from established non-badasses

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1. Jon Lovitz, Southland Tales (2006)
Jon Lovitz came to America’s attention as a bumbling sad-sack on Saturday Night Live, best known for running gags like the “Girl Watchers” series, where he and Tom Hanks played two atonal, self-denigrating drips who dismissed every woman they saw as “waaaaay out of our league.” He went on to star on The Critic, playing an unpopular, shat-upon film critic who mostly drew jokes about his weight, his baldness, and his nerdy tendency to actually care about movies. His career has often traded on the fact that he has a pear-shaped body and a nasal voice, both of which he’s played up in roles that focus on how nebbishy, grating, and generally laughable he is. So it was a surprise to see him in Southland Tales as a rogue cop who not only murders two people in cold blood, but then turns into an implacable, almost Terminator-like stalker, looking to gun down the character who ends up with evidence of his crime. It’s immensely odd to see an actor who’s traded for years on his physical weaknesses and obvious vulnerabilities turn around and play a murderous threat, but the cognitive dissonance is one of the assorted things about the dysfunctional film that actually works.


2. Dianne Wiest, The 10th Kingdom (2000) 
Dianne Wiest has long been about the angst. Film after film in the ’80s and ’90s burdened her with ungrateful kids and family problems, and left her to pick up the pieces while trying to placate everybody, whether she was dealing with a surly teen vampire in Lost Boys, a snotty teen daughter impugning her sex life in Parenthood, or a spooky teen weirdo with bladed mitts in Edward Scissorhands. Her niche as an actor has too often been in seeming helpless and hurting but good-hearted, a born victim struggling for self-respect. But not in the 2000 TV miniseries The 10th Kingdom, in which she plays a evil sorcerer-queen, the kind of Snow White-poisoning villain who gives fairy tales their darkness. The miniseries’ tone is all over the place, from startlingly grim to cheap and goofy, but Wiest plays her role with the malicious gravitas of a good Judi Dench character, whether plotting murder, brooding on her own, or bringing her considerable magical powers to bear on conquering an entire world. Much of what works about the series comes from her imposing, imperious portrayal, which injects some stakes into the protagonists’ various meandering quests to save a magical kingdom from her.

3. Crispin Glover, Charlie’s Angels (2000)
Even though Crispin Glover decks Tom Wilson at the end of Back To The Future, the image that persists of him is still a nerdy, bespectacled weakling, the hapless geek he plays throughout the rest of the film. After that name-making role, Glover specialized in eccentric, often spastically chatty characters, like the big-talking Layne in River’s Edge, or the barely seen shut-in in Wild At Heart. Which is why it was a revelation when he turned up in Charlie’s Angels as “Thin Man,” a grimly silent, nameless baddie who takes on all three of the martial-artist heroines and lives to not tell the tale. Granted, he gets his ass a bit kicked in order to make the protagonists look good, but he gets some serious licks in first, and it’s startling to see George McFly flinging women through the air and taking on three opponents with a sword-cane.

4. Emma Thompson, Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Emma Thompson has always had a backbone as an actor; she showed confidence and capability in Fortunes Of War and Howards End, and she speaks up for herself fine in Carrington. Anomalies like Dead Again aside, she’s tended toward brisk, smart characters. But throughout the ’80s and ’90s, her primary assets were a dazzlingly sunny smile, warm charisma, and the ability to trade off naturally between archness and playfulness, which is what she largely does throughout Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 Much Ado About Nothing adaptation. Playing Beatrice to Branagh’s Benedick, she flirts and parries and teases. Then she believes her kinswoman Hero (played in the film by Kate Beckinsale) has been unjustly slandered by Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), and she turns on a dime, first cozying up to Benedick, then demanding he murder Claudio to prove his love. It’s a startling turnaround even for those who know the play; Thompson’s characters so often soften even their fiercest behavior with an implied kindness or wisdom under the surface. But in Much Ado, as a woman whose friend has been scorned, she’s suddenly all malice, ferocity, and murder.

5. Albert Brooks, Drive (2011) 
Albert Brooks was notably funny as the villain Bernie Rose in Drive. Not in the way he circumvented comedy conventions as a stand-up and in his successful films. Not in the way he took on the role of satirist for his latest book, 2030. But with the unmistakable neurotic undertones that have haunted his entire career. He plays a meticulous knife collector with a propensity for cutting his victims so they bleed out painlessly. He’s compassionate, but through the twisted lens of a man who sees the world as comically against him. Bernie is a major departure for Brooks’ oeuvre, but in hindsight, it feels natural that this unpredictable comic mind would venture into dark territory—comedy and villainy are rooted in truth, two sides of the same coin.

6. Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad (2008-present)
Where Hal gesticulated wildly on Malcolm In The Middle, wearing his heart and his humor on his sleeve, Walter White in Breaking Bad makes as few physical gestures as possible. His mind, meanwhile, is bubbling like an overworked chemistry set, with neurons firing at unpredictable intervals. Basically, Bryan Cranston channeled the outward energy that made his sitcom-y Hal so likable, turned it inward, and found the heart of the calculating Walter White, a man whose capacity for empathy has been warped by his hubris. It’s unlikely that anyone can look at Cranston and see anything but Heisenberg anymore; the transformation wasn’t just a haircut and a hat, but an entire cognitive shift.

7. Helen Mirren, Red (2010)
Helen Mirren has never been known for weak or self-effacing roles, though in her youth, she was so known for nudity that Coupling did an extended riff on her film history. (“It’s like her breasts are afraid of the dark. When a Helen Mirren film comes on a telly, that’s like a guarantee. Her name says, ‘Okay, boys, you better watch this one with a curtain shut!’”) But she’s more known for playing queens and villains than for busting out the .50 cal and mowing people down, as she does in Red. If anything, her Red role, where she plays a retired wetwork operator called back into violent, ridiculously over-the-top action, plays on her martinet reputation in earlier roles. It isn’t her attitude that’s surprisingly badass, it’s the way she channels that attitude into the use of outsized weaponry, using big guns for a change, instead of clipped, controlled dialogue.

8. Wilford Brimley, The Firm (1993)
Wilford Brimley’s acting career didn’t take off until he was in his mid-40s, when he looked 15 years older, so as far as audiences are concerned, there’s always been something grandfatherly about him. When he played one of the men who turn into a monster in John Carpenter’s The Thing, he even shaved off his signature walrus mustache, presumably in the hope that he wouldn’t look too avuncular while killing off his co-stars and threatening to bring about the extinction of the human race. John Grisham reportedly expressed reservations when Brimley, mustache firmly in place, was cast in the movie version of his bestselling novel The Firm, as a mobbed-up law firm’s “head of security”—i.e., the guy in charge of assigning the murder contracts. But Brimley’s performance is more chillingly effective because he looks and acts as if he were put on earth to star in Cocoon. When telling Tom Cruise to stay in line, or else his wife will receive some compromising photographs in the mail, Brimley has the folksy, instructional tone of someone informing a youngster what kind of diabetes medication has always worked best for him. He only betrays a hint of common-sense impatience when attempting to secure Cruise after he fails to heed Brimley’s counsel; he sounds like he’s hoping to shoot Cruise in the head and dispatch his body to the car-crushing plant before it’s time for an afternoon nap. Brimley later parodied this performance on an episode of Seinfeld.

9. Mickey Rooney, Baby Face Nelson (1957)
Mickey Rooney was a child contract player at MGM in the ’30s and ’40s and built a career as a professional ideal American boy. But by the time he was in his late 30s, he was struggling to keep working at an age where being 5-foot-2 wasn’t as cute as it used to be. In Baby Face Nelson, a gangster biopic directed by Don Siegel, Rooney plays the sociopathic bank robber who’s credited with having killed more FBI agents than anyone else, and he seems to identify alarmingly well with Nelson’s resentful, murderous rage. After gunning down the gangster who arranged for his release from prison, he goes on the lam with his moll (Carolyn Jones), teams up with John Dillinger, and at one point tests a bulletproof vest by handing it to a member of his gang and emptying a gun in the general direction of his torso. After the last shootout, Rooney winds up full of lead in a cemetery, urging Jones to put him down like the mad dog he is. Having put up with his wild-eyed, trigger-happy ass for almost an hour and a half, she finds it in herself to comply.

10. Don Rickles, Casino (1995)
The only reason Don Rickles has been able to get away with his insult-comedy act as long as he has is his skill at letting audiences know he doesn’t really mean it, that beneath the barbs beats the heart of a real sweetheart. Rickles successfully turned that off, however, for his small part as a casino manager in Martin Scorsese’s Casino, mostly by not saying anything at all. As part of the “everybody watches” security system in place at Robert De Niro’s Vegas casino, Rickles makes a habit of just showing up whenever trouble arises. When there’s a problem, he appears almost as if summoned to squelch it, his squat body and unsmiling face making sure everyone knows that in this one case, he isn’t kidding around.



11. Liam Neeson, Taken (2008)
Liam Neeson has spent the last few years playing one badass after another, so it’s almost tough to recall the surprise that greeted Taken in 2008. Part of that came simply from a star of Neeson’s prestige getting involved with a product of Luc Besson’s Eurothriller production line. Yet most of it came from Neeson himself; before Taken, he personified oversized gentleness in films like Nell. Sure, he was a big guy, but his default thoughtfulness suggested someone who’d gotten beyond violence, someone whose particular set of skills didn’t involve killing and maiming his way through Paris. Since Taken, however, it’s been hard to look at him in quite the same way.

12. Angela Lansbury, The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Given Angela Lansbury’s work for Walt Disney in Bedknobs And Broomsticks and Beauty And The Beast, and the 12 seasons she spent solving mysteries as Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote, her reputation as a charming, likeable Englishwoman is solidly grounded. But it’s hard to see the Disney-grandmother type in her after witnessing her performance as Eleanor Iselin in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate. Although married to a senator who bears a striking resemblance to Joseph McCarthy, Eleanor is a Communist agent with such a strong thirst for power that she’s willing to use her hypnotized son as an assassin to kill her husband’s political competition, coolly reeling off his instructions for the task at hand. (“Now, this is very important: I want the nominee to be dead two minutes after he begins his acceptance speech.”) Lansbury’s thorough despicability in the role earned her both a Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actress and the No. 21 spot on the American Film Institute’s list of greatest screen villains.

13. Elijah Wood, Sin City (2005)
Child stars have an unfortunate tendency to lose their way as they attempt to maintain career momentum into adulthood, but Elijah Wood has gone out of his way to keep his options open as an actor, appearing in family-friendly fare (Flipper), coming-of-age dramas (The Ice Storm), science-fiction action (Deep Impact), and horror films (The Faculty) before scoring the role of a lifetime as Frodo Baggins in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Still, none of those performances prepared filmgoers for Wood’s turn in Sin City as a cannibalistic killer. Although it sounds preposterous on paper that Wood could convincingly take on Mickey Rourke and come out on top, Wood performs some remarkably fast and furious moves that almost earn him victory until Rourke whips out a pair of cuffs. Things go less than swimmingly for Wood after that, but after it’s revealed posthumously that his character dined on prostitutes, it’s hard to begrudge Rourke’s decision to cut off Wood’s limbs and leave him to the wolves.

14. Henry Fonda, Once Upon A Time In The West (1969)
When Henry Fonda was cast in Once Upon A Time In The West, he openly wondered how, after a career playing morally upstanding men in classics like Young Mr. Lincoln and The Lady Eve, he could pull off playing the heavy in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western. As he recalls, he took himself to the optometrist to get brown contact lenses over his baby blues and grew a moustache with a divot that made him look “a little like the guy who shot Lincoln.” But when he arrived on the set, Leone responded with an emphatic “Off!” Leone wanted the audience to recognize Fonda as the straight-arrow they trusted all those years, because it made it all the more powerful when, in his introduction in the film, he affixes those baby blues on a pleading little boy and guns him down in cold blood. From there, Fonda’s gun-for-hire emerges as one of film’s most pitiless villains, the very definition of “cast against type.”


15. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Throughout his career, Philip Seymour Hoffman has specialized in playing sour, defeated, self-effacing characters on one end, and hyper-intelligent men of privilege on the other. Even when the latter roles have edged into villainy—as the eponymous spiritual guru in The Master, or the withering upper-class snob in The Talented Mr. Ripley—they’re more about cutting dialogue and subtle power plays than the moustache-twirling, master-plan type. That changed with his role as a sadistic arms dealer in Mission: Impossible III, which features him projecting extreme confidence as a way of unnerving his adversaries. Bloodied and strapped to a chair by Tom Cruise and company, Hoffman acts at all times like he has the upper hand. His threat to Cruise’s girlfriend (“I’m going to find her, and I’m going to hurt her. I’m going to make her bleed and cry and call out your name. And I’m going to kill you right in front of her.”) became the hook for the trailer, and his menace is the one compelling constant in the usual M:I overplotting.

16. Bill Murray, Mad Dog And Glory (1993)
John McNaughton’s underrated character study Mad Dog And Glory threw audiences for a loop by casting the normally dark, brooding Robert De Niro as a meek photographer, and wise-ass Bill Murray as a rage-filled gangster with doomed ambitions of becoming a stand-up comic. Murray is surprisingly unnerving in a punchily written (by Richard Price) role that makes excellent use of his height and towering frame. Though the film wasn’t a commercial success, it did pave the way for Murray’s smashing transition into dramatic roles that took advantage of the melancholy underlying his smartass facade.


17. Bob Barker, Happy Gilmore (1996)
Bob Barker spent 50 years on TV being a nice guy, mostly as the genial host of The Price Is Right, leading folks through simple games and the science of guessing grocery prices. He’s also been a huge advocate for animal rights, and he married his high-school sweetheart. The only real scandal in his life was a relationship with Price Is Right hottie Dian Parkinson, and that only happened after his wife died. So it was a terrifically funny surprise when he showed up in Happy Gilmore as Adam Sandler’s pro-am golf partner—and proceeded to kick the shit out of Sandler (for good reason). It’s a hilariously over-the-top scene, in which the gray-haired Barker mostly dominates Sandler (though Sandler does get to say “The price is wrong, bitch!”), comically crushing his younger foe.

18. Rock Hudson, Pretty Maids All In A Row (1971)
Rock Hudson became a huge movie star by playing cads redeemed by the love of good, headstrong women in light romantic comedies. His largely featherweight career took a dark turn in the moody 1966 noir-tinged science-fiction thriller Seconds, but he didn’t play a badass in that movie so much as an overmatched victim of circumstances. Hudson did play a badass in Roger Vadim’s sunny yet pitch-black 1971 dark comedy Pretty Maids All In A Row, which cast the exemplar of all-American masculinity as a football coach and guidance counselor with a guilty little secret: He has an unfortunate habit of bedding, then murdering, his sexy female students. Hudson is an unusual guidance counselor in other ways as well; when student John David Carson confesses intense sexual urges, Hudson urges him to hook up with hot-to-trot teacher Angie Dickinson. (Ah, the ’70s.) Pretty Maids has a perversely non-judgmental, even admiring take on Hudson’s charismatic lady-killer, attributable perhaps to Vadim’s status as one of the film world’s most famous libertines. The film seems to share in the town’s conception of Hudson as a great guy in spite of his unfortunately homicidal proclivities, even allowing him a clean getaway.


19. Robin Williams, One Hour Photo/Insomnia (2002)
For a brief, strange moment in 2002, Robin Williams seemed determined to escape the fast-talking-clown image he’d been building since he hit the big time with Mork & Mindy in the ’70s. He played grim villain-types in two films within six months of each other: a methodical, clever killer in Christopher Nolan’s Memento follow-up Insomnia, and a disturbed, obsessive stalker in One Hour Photo. In both cases, his simple ability to be calm and keep a grimly unsmiling straight face—or to make his smiles look disturbingly shallow and forced instead of ingratiating—comes as such a surprise that it adds a creepy, off-kilter tinge to the entire film. He’s playing off a lifetime of comedy and love-me-please-love-me behavior in both cases, and his transformation into a coldly calculating blackmailer and murderer for Insomnia and a disintegrating, knife-wielding psycho in One Hour Photo is startling as well as exciting. Alas, he was back in form by 2004’s House Of D, in which he played a bumbling mentally challenged man, the kind of meant-to-be-endearing Simple Jack character who unironically refers to nights as “sleeps.”

20-plus. Practically every guest star on Law & Order
The rule of thumb with cop shows is, the biggest-name guest star is the thief, the rapist, the killer, or some combination of all three. It makes sense: Major guest stars cost money, which means they need parts with significant screen-time, and roles that give them some scenery to chew. That often means turning friendly faces into nasty folks. Given the Law & Order franchise’s longevity, and the variety of series that casting directors needed to populate with creeps, it’s no surprise that Law & Order followed the Guest Star Crook rule frequently, and with great verve. Intentionally or not, the original show, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and especially Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, seemed to revel in subverting actors’ personas as viciously as possible. Fred Savage, John Ritter, Stephen Colbert, Cynthia Nixon, Larry Miller, Julia Roberts, Michael Showalter, Jim Gaffigan, Martin Short, and many others have appeared on the small screen to do horrible, horrible things, and while their presence spoils some of the mystery, the resultant thrill of seeing a heretofore friendly face turn evil more than makes up for it.