It’s not easy being bad. Portraying a villain in a movie is tough, and typically unrewarding. While some movie villains have famously (and deservedly) won awards for their roles, like Denzel Washington in Training Day or Kathy Bates in Misery, the movie villain is often a role overlooked by the Academy.
We aren’t about to go postulating on why that is… but likely part of it is that it is difficult to make a villain both as bad as they need to be and as human or vulnerable as they need to seem to be (even a little) sympathetic.
So here we have a list of 15 Actors Who Deserved Oscars For Their Roles As Movie Villains. Two quick notes, though: 1. We did not compare their work to the actual winner and are not saying that the actual winner that year didn’t deserve an award. 2. Some of these characters are the protagonists of the movie (or the movie is about them), but they are still villainous characters… even if they are the hero of their own story.
15. Christian Bale – American Psycho
Bale, who started acting in movies as a child (most famously as Jim in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun), is widely regarded as one of the greatest working actors today. His roles have been all over the place, and he’s portrayed characters ranging from Jesus to Batman. But those in the know see one character before all others when they see Christian Bale: Patrick Bateman.
American Psycho is a cult favorite directed by Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, The Notorious Bettie Page) and based on a book by Bret Easton Ellis (The Rules of Attraction, Less Than Zero). The movie follows Bateman, a yuppy New York banker in the ’80s, as he cuts a swath through the city to satiate his ever-increasing bloodlust and fondness for ’80s pop music. Bale, a British actor, absolutely nails the smug American accent and remains utterly convincing at all times. Narcissistic and completely disconnected from reality, Bale somehow manages to keep the character in character as the absurdity of his violence and mayhem ramps up. While we might guffaw at how ridiculous the scenarios are in this black-as-night comedy (like when he tries feeding a kitten to an ATM with a pistol), we are never left feeling that we’re watching an actor playing a madman. Christian Bale is Patrick Bateman; business card obsession and all.
14. Malcolm McDowell – A Clockwork Orange
This all-time classic movie from Stanley Kubrick is based on a novel (well, a novel minus its last chapter) by Anthony Burgess. Taking place in the future, the movie focuses on youth gang leader and hooligan Alex DeLarge, played by McDowell. Alex is a charming and bright young man that lives only for drugs (often in the form of spiked milk), sex, a bit of the ultraviolence, and classical music. Alex takes things too far one night and is apprehended; and is subsequently the subject of an experimental rehabilitation that comes with some unwelcome side effects.
Malcolm McDowell, for all his roles in the 45-plus years since then, will forever be tied to his role in A Clockwork Orange. McDowell plays Alex with a smugness that oozes all over the screen; as if he is constantly in on a joke that he knows nobody else gets. It is that charm and smugness that make his performance both pre- and post-rehab so unsettling; adding an air of authenticity to the shenanigans that Alex gets up to. When Alex’s world comes crashing down on him we begin to genuinely feel for him and his plight as he seems in genuine distress. McDowell also gets bonus points for famously ad-libbing his performance of “Singing in the Rain”.
13. Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips
It is a rare thing to describe the amateurism of an actor as being a positive in a major motion picture. In Barkhad Abdi’s case, though, it most certainly is. For the Somali refugee who relocated to Minnesota with his family in his teens, the Tom Hanks vehicle Captain Phillips was his first acting job. From how he handled himself, it is never apparent.
Based on the true story of a boat hi-jacking and ransom (and subsequent rescue operation) by Somali pirates of an American ship, Abdi was working as a chauffeur when he was cast as Muse, the pirate. The rawness of Abdi’s performance lends an air of authenticity to the film and the situation; as does his heavy accent and his gaunt frame. Captain Phillips was about as promising a start as one could hope for in film, and Abdi has parlayed it into a well-deserved career. After all, it is not everyday that an actor is nominated for an Oscar in their first film. He is currently filming the long-awaited sequel to Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049.
12. Joaquin Phoenix – Gladiator
Gladiator is a movie that hearkened back to the great epics of yesteryear when it was released in 2000 (yes, it is 16 years old and yes, that means you’re getting old). The movie is most remembered for Russell Crowe’s commanding performance as Maximus, the general-turned-gladiator, and for the spectacle of the arena battles. But what sets Gladiator apart, and earned it its Best Picture Oscar win, was the acting of the rest of the cast, primarily that of Joaquin Phoenix.
Phoenix is seen as something of an oddball in Hollywood, and his roles (and role choices) have come to reflect that perception. In Gladiator, Phoenix plays Commodus, the son of elderly Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Phoenix is masterful in his handling of Commodus; spurned and scorned and harboring a deep-seated ambition and unhealthy obsessions. Commodus would likely come off as distinctly evil in the hands of another actor; and yet Phoenix humanizes him to the point where it is disturbing that we understand where he is coming from. We come to despise Commodus, but we don’t necessarily fault him.
11. Tilda Swinton – Snowpiercer
Despite the director, Joon-ho Bong (The Host), and the inclusion of Tilda Swinton, the post-apocalyptic sci-fi film Snowpiercer seemed destined to be bad. The movie takes place on a train that houses the entirety of the human race after the world was decimated. The lower classes are forced to live in squalor at the back of the train (overcrowded, overworked, and underfed) while the elite at the front of the train live as hedonists. The movie was a very pleasant surprise hit (93% on Rotten Tomatoes!), and stands as one of the most enjoyable sci-fi films of all-time.
Much of the credit belongs to Tilda Swinton, and her portrayal of Mason. As absurd as the premise seems, Mason is even more absurd. Yet, Swinton performs with such a seeming effortlessness that the character is fully believable and is simultaneously able to anchor our understanding and belief in the world of Snowpiercer. Mason is a wormy, bureaucratic type who allows her adherence to the system and the rules to disengage her of any moral responsibility for her reprehensible actions. When she is taken hostage by a back-of-the-train rebellion, she strikes a deal out of cowardice and self-preservation that forces her to guide a group from the back to the front of the train. The movie is worth the price of admission for Swinton alone, and it is just unfortunate that a role like hers in a movie like that one would never warrant serious Academy attention.
10. Robert Carlyle – Trainspotting
Speaking of cartoonish performances, Robert Carlyle in Trainspotting is another acting tour de force. The movie, directed by Danny Boyle (28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire) follows a group of friends in Scotland that are involved in the heroin scene. Carlyle’s Begbie is a friend for some reason, despite being a psychopath and a jerk and very vocally against the drugs the rest of his friends do (though Begbie is one for the drink).
The movie features a number of fine performances, but Carlyle is the real show-stopper and scene-stealer. Completely amoral, but with a thick streak of “I told you so” and an irrational sense of loyalty (he mostly insists on receiving it rather than giving it), Begbie is a complicated character. Carlyle, as intimated before, tends to handle Begbie and his anger and violence in a cartoonish manner… and he screams and wails and bugs out his eyes at every available opportunity. The end result is someone we can see being stuck with as a friend, but someone we would also be absolutely terrified of. Carlyle is slated to reprise the role of Begbie in the forthcoming sequel, T2: Trainspotting.
9. Doug Jones – Pan’s Labyrinth
Pan’s Labyrinth is a haunting and beautiful film; a fairytale set in the fascist Spain of the 1940s. The movie, directed by Guillermo Del Toro (Pacific Rim, Hellboy) follows a little girl forced to live with her mother and new stepfather in a military outpost in the woods (her new stepfather is an officer). While there, the girl runs across a giant faun, and begins her on a journey through the horrific and fantastical.
Seldom do we celebrate the men underneath the mask of a creature in a movie. Doug Jones is one of the rare actors (along with Andy Serkis and Warwick Davis, to name a few) to have somewhat transcended anonymity to become a notable name. While Jones did not voice the character of Pan, the faun, he did provide the mystical and menacing movements of the creature… giving life and personality to what would otherwise just be a creepy costume. Additionally, Jones played the Pale Man who, if you haven’t seen the movie, is absolutely terrifying. Even when an actor doesn’t speak and is hidden by a costume and animatronics, he or she is still acting. Arguably it is an even more difficult task. It is tough to imagine the movie without the acting of Jones, and it is high time that the work he has put in is recognized.
8. Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
David Fincher’s (Fight Club, Se7en) Gone Girl is adapted from a novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn (who adapted the novel for film herself). It is a tense he-said/she-said thriller focusing on the disappearance and apparent murder of Amy (Rosamund Pike), where her husband (played by Ben Affleck) becomes the main person of interest.
Pike is brilliant as the writer, and the inspiration behind her parents’ series of books about a child, Amazing Amy. Perhaps no other villain on this list has the same kind of calculating and devious demeanor, and it really sets Pike’s portrayal apart. That much of her work was done exclusively as narration (in the form of journal entries) which belied the action taking place on-screen, was both riveting and a great way of Pike showing her versatility. Amy Dunne is a villain for the ages and, as Time Magazine writes, “In a movie of subtle tones and wild swerves, Pike expertly mixes a cocktail of hot and cold blood. She is the Amazing Amy you could fall for, till death do you part.”
7. Jack Nicholson – Batman
Cesar Romero’s performance was hammy and campy, just like the original Batman television series. Heath Ledger, who won a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal, terrified moviegoers everywhere. What often gets lost in the shuffle is acting legend Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of The Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman.
Nicholson’s trademark sarcasm is wielded like a mallet, and Jack’s Joker winds up able to toe the line between Romero’s cartoon weirdness and something truly sinister. As with many other signature Jack roles, his work in Batman is effortless. This is especially impressive due to the fact that he’s playing a homicidal maniac that dresses like a clown and squirts acid from a flower on his lapel. Unhinged is a good word to describe Jack in his villainous roles and, despite his smothering menace as Jack Torrance in The Shining (which certainly belongs right up there in this category itself), it is with Batman that Nicholson allows a modicum of restraint to do much of the grunt work.
6. Javier Bardem – Skyfall
Typically one doesn’t think of acting greatness when one thinks of a James Bond film. Of course, not all Bond films are directed by Oscar-winning directors, and not all Bond films star Oscar-winning actors. What we have in Skyfall is something of a welcome anomaly.
Javier Bardem (who won an Oscar for playing a hitman in No Country For Old Men) plays the big Bond bad in Silva. Silva is a former British agent who became a criminal with a distinctly digital bent. In the film, Bardem manages to encompass everything a Bond villain ought to be: devious, a slave to obsession, simultaneously in control and unbalanced, and unabashedly badass in the most eccentric of ways. Bardem’s Silva displays a preternatural confidence that oozes in his scenes. While Bardem deservedly won for No Country, it is truly in Skyfall (of all places) that Bardem flexes his full acting muscle. Seeing as how they don’t hand out retroactive awards, Javier Bardem will have to console himself with the idea that he will go down as an All-Time Bond villain alongside the likes of Blofeld and Odd Job.
5. Michael Keaton – Beetlejuice
We know! A second Tim Burton film. Beetlejuice, though, serves as an excellent playground for Michael Keaton to unleash the full extent of his creepy weirdness. Keaton plays Betelgeuse (the name of the movie is a play on the character’s name and, luckily, is easier to spell); a ghost who specializes in hauntings to scare the living. Very quickly, Betelgeuse goes off-script and it is revealed that the ghostly couple that procured his services got far more than they bargained for.
Keaton manages, as Betelgeuse, to be intimidating and sleazy and zany in nearly equal (and equally impressive) parts. It is tough to ever imagine a scenario in which a person could suspend our disbelief to the point where it seemed perfectly reasonable that we might be seeing a horny ghost in a black-and-white striped suit run amok in a small house in New England. Yet somehow, Keaton pulls it off. His demonically crass performance is entirely hypnotic. There are great reasons to watch the movie if you haven’t before, but the truth is that the appeal both begins and ends with Keaton.
4. Christopher Lloyd – Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a miracle of a movie; a brilliant hybrid of film noir and cartoon slapstick that blends live actors and animated characters seamlessly. That it was ever made is surprising; and that it was as good and timeless as it wound up being is even more so. The credit for its aptitude and timelessness can’t be given to just one person; as the film, more than so many others, had a number of talented hands on deck in order to make the premise and the action both entertaining and convincing.
One of the most difficult aspects of the film, though is the acting. It is tough enough to act in a period piece convincingly (especially one as rife with cliché as a film noir); but to do it with your co-star being just a cartoon character might as well be a mission impossible. Bob Hoskins deserved an Oscar for his work as protagonist Eddie Valiant, but it is Christopher Lloyd as the villainous Judge Doom who truly steals the show. Doom plays a seemingly average, if devious, person… until the final confrontation. It is then revealed that Doom himself is a toon, and acts accordingly. It is for that reason that Lloyd’s performance was as noteworthy as it was. Lloyd interacts with invisible co-stars, seems in genuine (if cartoonish) agony as Doom gets just what he deserved, and then subsequently performs as a demented cartoon character better that most could ever dream of.
3. Tom Hardy – Bronson
As brought up in the intro, sometimes the best villainous characters are the protagonists of their own story. This is the case in Nicolas Winding Refn’s (Drive, The Neon Demon) tragically overlooked 2008 film, Bronson. Brutal and bizarre though it may be, it is worth watching for Tom Hardy’s titular performance, if nothing else.
Hardy plays Michael Peterson, a.k.a. Charles Bronson; an actual British prisoner infamous for his rageful and violent behavior. Hardy portrays Bronson in all his maniacal glee and anger; barking at full volume with saliva flying everywhere or laughing disturbingly at some act of violence and mayhem. The movie is not only just violence and, in an interesting decision by Refn, features Bronson directly relating his tale to the camera in a series of bizarre theatrical monologues. Bronson is able to duck in and out of reality with great aplomb, lending a surreal edge that highlights the true artistry of Hardy’s acting.
2. Linda Blair – The Exorcist
Perhaps no movie has ever done more for church attendance than 1973’s horror masterpiece, The Exorcist. The movie follows tween girl Regan as she is possessed by a demon named Pazuzu, and the subsequent attempt to exorcise the demon from the girl by two Catholic priests.
Linda Blair played Regan when she was just 14 years old and, to this day, it remains the defining possession performance in film history. No other demonic possession movie (and there are a lot) can be made without comparing the performance to that of Blair’s. Linda Blair won a Golden Globe for the performance, and was nominated for the Oscar, but did not win after it was revealed that another actress (Mercedes McCambridge) provided the demon’s voice. The voice may have belonged to someone else, but the riveting performance of Regan was all Linda Blair. True there were many horrific things to watch in the movie, but boiled down it is really just a movie that shows a girl in a bed for a majority of its 2 hour runtime. Blair is truly shocking in this film and it is thoroughly convincing that this is a girl possessed by demons and not just an actor. This is a movie that sticks with you long after you’ve seen it and, while the writer and director can be thanked for some of it, it is Linda Blair that is most responsible for the film’s lasting effects.
1. Gary Oldman – Léon: The Professional
The original draft of this list featured a total of four entries for Gary Oldman (this movie, Hannibal, The Fifth Element, Bram Stoker’s Dracula). Since this isn’t a list of movies that should have earned Gary Oldman an Oscar, we decided to let this work as a stand-in for all his roles. In Luc Besson’s badass and heartfelt Léon, Oldman finds what is perhaps his greatest villainous role.
In the movie, Oldman plays Stansfield; a crooked and hyper-violent cop with a pill addiction. After murdering the family of Natalie Portman’s Mathilda, he invokes the wrath of Léon, a professional hitman. Oldman portrays Stansfield as something just a shade above complete psychotic murderer. It is not apparent for quite a long time that Stansfield even is a cop. When executing Mathilda’s family, Stansfield does it to an imaginary soundtrack of Beethoven, that he is conducting as he goes from room to room with a shotgun. There are no redeeming qualities to Stansfield, and that is something very scary in a portrayal of a cop. What makes this a virtuoso performance, however, is that the audience is able to believe that Stansfield is someone that really could exist in the real world… despite his lunacy and bloodlust.