Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Cruella coming to theaters and Disney+, we’re looking at some of our favorite extravagant and over-the-top villains from film history.
Joaquin Phoenix has been one of our finest actors for so long now that it can be hard to remember how he started out: very much in the shadow of his beloved older brother. River Phoenix was supposed to be the one who’d win Oscars and play iconic roles; Spielberg had cast him as the young Indiana Jones, and his work in films ranging from Stand By Me to My Own Private Idaho had pretty much cornered the market on adolescent sensitivity. Joaquin—billed as Leaf Phoenix when he was a child—quit the business altogether around 1989, reportedly in frustration that he wasn’t being offered the same quality of roles. When he re-emerged in 1995, two years after River’s death from a drug overdose (which Joaquin witnessed, horribly), it was with both a new name and a new, considerably darker image. A teen murderer for hire in To Die For. A belligerent small-town asshole in U Turn. A sleazy conduit to the world of snuff films in 8mm. River’s characters had always come across as likeable and fundamentally decent; rather than make a likely futile attempt to compete with that painful memory, Joaquin opted to push hard in the opposite direction.
The gambit paid off handsomely with Gladiator, which nabbed him his first Oscar nomination. The role itself—Commodus, son of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius—is pure evil, and only loosely based on history. Commodus murders his father (Richard Harris) to gain power, orders the death of war hero Maximus (Russell Crowe) in order to circumvent any possible challenge to his rule, puts the moves on his own sister (Connie Nielsen), and plots to disband the Roman Senate so as to enjoy life as a despot. Phoenix’s innovation was to make this monster so deeply pathetic that it’s often hard to decide between hissing at him or laughing at him. If Maximus is the ultimate badass, Commodus is the quintessential wuss. Listing his virtues to his father, he includes courage, then sheepishly concedes, “Perhaps not on the battlefield, but there are many kinds of courage.” The subsequent murder sees Commodus—after complaining that daddy never hugged him—squeeze the life out of his father while sobbing into his shoulder, combining brutality with vulnerability in a uniquely discomfiting way.
That moment sets the tone for a gloriously mannered performance that raises angry sniveling to an art form. “Over the top” generally suggests acting that’s brash or loud or otherwise aggressive; Phoenix, by contrast, yells only once in Gladiator’s two-and-a-half hours, bellowing “Am I not merciful?!?” at his sister after he declines to immediately kill her despite having learned that she’s been scheming with Maximus behind his back. His petulant snit fits, however, make Gladiator a lot more fun than the stolid mid-century sword-and-sandal epics to which it was a throwback (while nicely counterbalancing Crowe’s conventional charisma). Anybody can crank up the decibels and pop a vein or two; wringing comedic pathos from a line like “He shouldn’t be alive. It vexes me. I’m terribly vexed” while maintaining the film’s dramatic integrity is a trickier proposition. Phoenix’s most indelible impotence follows a Colosseum exhibition at which Commodus orders the death of a defeated gladiator (at the crowd’s urging), turning his thumb down, only to be defied by Maximus, who spares the man’s life. “And now they love Maximus for his mercy,” he whines to an advisor afterward. “So I can’t just kill him or it makes me even more unmerciful.” It’s almost impossible to imagine River Phoenix, gifted though he was, playing someone so simultaneously malevolent and incompetent. The same is true of virtually every role Joaquin Phoenix has taken on since. He’s forged his own path.