December 09, 2008

100 Greatest Movie Characters?

Right now, Empire Magazine Online has a list up of the "100 Greatest Movie Characters." Since I'm somebody who loves a good list, I took a gander at it yesterday.

And what I saw surprised even cynical me.

Of the 100 characters listed, 12 are female. The first of these female characters, Aliens' Ripley, appears at number 9. Then we don't see another woman until Mary Poppins (really? Mary Poppins?) shows up at number 41. Mary is followed by:

  • annoying stalker Amelie at 45;

  • poor pregnant Juno at 56;

  • Natalie Portman's child killer Mathilda from Leon (The Professional) at 62;

  • Tarantino and Uma Thurman's Kill Bill creation The Bride at 66;

  • Marge Gunderson from Fargo at 75;

  • animated Jessica Rabbit at 88;

  • Princess Leia at 89;

  • The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz at 90;

  • Scarlett O'Hara at 91;

  • and Jodie Foster's Silence of the Lambs Clarice at 97.

Not only could they only come up with 12 women, 10 of whom were in the last half of the list, but those 12 women are all white (well, except the witch, who is green) and all young (again, with that witch exception, and maybe Marge). Did nobody notice this when compiling this list?

The situation for non-white men (or at least non-white men portrayed by non-white actors) is even worse. The list boasts a grand total of six:

  • Samuel L. Jackson's Jules, from Pulp Fiction at 19;

  • Red, from The Shawshank Redemption, played by Morgan Freeman, at 22;

  • Tequila, played by Chow Yun-Fat in Hard Boiled, at 33;

  • Anton, Javier Bardem's character in No Country For Old Men, at 46;

  • Wesley Snipes' Blade at 47;

  • Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop, at 78.

Six characters, and two of them are murderers?

So what does the list offer by way of comparison? Well, just about every major character from Star Wars seems to be included, and all of them are listed higher than Leia (Darth Vader at #2, Han Solo at #4, Yoda at #25, Luke Skywalker at #54, and Boba Fett at #79). Lord of the Rings is also a favorite, with Gollum at #13, Gandalf at #28, and Aragorn at #31. Both Michael and Vito Corelone from The Godfather movies are included, as are Agent Smith and Neo from The Matrix. There are weird outliers as well, some of which make sense to me and some of which do not. I couldn't fathom seeing Jigsaw from the Saw films at #30 or Tony Stark from Iron Man at #48, but I was thrilled to see nods given to Johnny Depp's Edward Scissorhands (#37) and Hugo Weaving's amazing V from V for Vendetta (#72).

The overwhelming white maleness of this list leads me to one central question: is the issue that there aren't sufficiently great characters available to women and non-white people, or is the problem that those characters aren't recognized by lists like this one? Most of the films whose characters featured heavily, like those mentioned above, don't have a lot of female or non-white characters in them. On the other hand, there are some. Why was Keanu Reeves' Neo included from The Matrix instead of Laurence Fishburne's more impressive Morpheus? Why is Dr. Hannibal Lecter #5 on the list while Clarice is #97?

This list is just one more example of female characters and characters of color being both underwritten and overlooked for acknowledgment when they are portrayed. It doesn't seem like a coincidence to me that Ripley, the highest featuring woman on the list, was intended to be a male character.

Who would you have included?


you know, when i glanced down your list, not paying close attention to the expository paragraph, i assumed you were compiling a list of interesting "where are they now" stories about female characters at advancing age.

you know, would Juno regret her decision at 56? would The Bride still be an assassin at age 66? Clarice at 97 - would she be telling tall tales of her FBI exploits, as she sat in a rocker on her front porch and told neighborhood hoodlums to take a hike, they didn't scare her any?

but then i re-read closely, and i'm pretty disgusted.

Oh good grief.

The ranking issues aside, there were some horrific exclusions from the list.

Sarah Connor (Terminator 2). I know she wasn't much beyond a screamer in the first movie, but our post-modern virgin mary icon deserves more credit than jessica-frickin-rabbit.

Vasquez (Aliens). I know Ripley got a nod, but I can't think of any woman in the history of film more capable of KICKING YOUR ASS than Vasquez.

Selene (28 Days later). Um, can I just bask in the awe of her ability to survive the zombie apocalypse without being oversexed/superhuman/unrealistic?

Haley (Hard Candy). The actress who played Juno blew me away in that film about turning the tables on child predators. Note: only has 4 people in the movie and STILL manages to pass the Bechdel test.

Charlie Kate (Charms for the Easy Life).

Dottie (A League of Their Own).

Granted I can also think of a couple actresses who have done so much amazing work you wonder how they didn't get on there for SOMETHING.

Michelle Yeoh, Tyne Daly, Angelica Huston, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates...

Oh wow, my list is still almost exclusively white.....

I can't get over how they put Boba Fett higher than Leia. That's just wrong.

I second Sarah Connor and Vasquez. What about Erin Brockovitch? Trinity, since they've got Agent Smith as well as Neo?

Elizabeth Swann should have been awesome in the Pirates movies. They (whichever "they" it is that always ruins things in Hollywood) made some bad decisions too, but she definitely deserves to be in the list.

While I'm on mistakes in the Pirates franchise, I think the paucity of characters of colour on the list is largely down to not being given the roles. Did you hear they're making a live-action of Avatar: The Last Airbender and white-washing it?

Ooh, you called Amelie an annoying stalker! I'm so glad to see somebody didn't buy the "heart-warming" propaganda. It's long enough since I saw it that I don't remember it all, but the stunt with the phone presets could have gone SO wrong. I was expecting something to go horribly awry, like you know it would if a real person did any of that. She only got away with it because she's cute and the writer (=god) is on her side. (Sorry, wandered off topic a bit there.)

I commented on the portrayal of women in Star Wars in a blog posting about a year back called, "Leia in the lurch: Lucas' lightsaberless ladies." I had been doing research for my M.A. thesis, and came across a great quote. Here's a link to what I wrote:

I think it will be up your readership's alley.

I agree fully with your premise. I'm not going to start listing other characters (both female and male) that should have taken the place of others less worthy, because that could run on for a while.

On a technical not, I'm pretty sure that 3 of the 12, not 2, are in the top half of the list. Not that this fact dilutes your point in any way, but still...

Sarah Connor (Terminator 2). I know she wasn't much beyond a screamer in the first movie, but our post-modern virgin mary icon deserves more credit than jessica-frickin-rabbit.

She's as much John the Baptist as Virgin Mary (the voice in the wilderness proclaiming the coming truth/messiah, and the one who baptises him into the world he'll have to face).

Michelle Yeoh ... Kathy Bates

Shu Lien and Dolores Claiborne...

Luke before Leia? There is no justice in the world.

Well, since this was a list compiled by reader's votes (as opposed to actual film buffs), it's not surprising that there aren't more women or minority actors represented. I also noted that most of the characters selected were from movies that have been made from 1970 to the present. Plenty of overlooked characters from Hollywood's golden age that deserved to be on that list a hell of lot more than Axel Foley, Ron Burgundy, or Ace freakin' Ventura.

Here are some overlooked female roles that I came up with of the top of my head:

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson)- Sunset Boulevard

Carrie (Sissy Spacek)- Carrie

Anna (Deborah Kerr) - The King and I (1956)

Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep)- Out of Africa

Margo Channing (Bette Davis)- All About Eve

Nora Charles (can't remember the actress) - The Thin Man

Scout Finch (Mary Badham) - To Kill a Mockingbird

Grace Kelly' character (whose name I can't remember)- Rear Window

Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn)- Breakfast at Tiffany's

Annie Hall (Diane Keaton)- Annie Hall

Jane (Bette Davis) - Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Maude (Ruth . . .something. I can't remember) - Harold and Maude

Rachel (Kelly McGinnis)- Witness

Nurse Ratchet (God, why can't I remember these actresses names?) - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft)- The Miracle Worker

Thelma (Geena Davis) and/or Louise (Susan Sarandon) - Thelma and Louise

Rose (Katherine Hepburn) - African Queen

Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft)- The Graduate

Eve Harrington ?
Rita Hayworth's Gilda?
Fanny Brice?
Annie Hall?
Holy Golightly!?
Marilyn Monroe as the girl inthe Seven year itch!!!!!!!?
Nobody from Terms of Endearment?
Nurse Hatchet???
WHAT THE F!!!!! I wanna burn Empire magazine! This is even more stupi d than they're 500 best films of all time without including Persona and Wild Strawberries, but including Transformers and Indiana Jones 4!

Totally seconding (or thirding) the earlier suggestions, particularly Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), Nora Charles (Myrna Loy), and Sarah Connor (why would you leave out Sarah freaking Connor?).

And this list is totally skewed to newer movies. Here are some more suggestions:

Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) from The Maltese Falcon

Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) from Psycho

Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) from King Kong

Judy Barton, or Madeleine (Kim Novak) from Vertigo

Susan Walker (Natalie Wood), the little girl from Miracle on 34th Street

Nikita (Anne Parillaud) - spiritual predecessor to Sydney Bristow!

Yeah, a lot of these roles are problematic, but they're all more iconic than Amelie or Juno.

I have spent entirely too long thinking about this list! :p So I thought I would get my thoughts down once and for all. At first I was p’d like everyone else – We all had our “really?” moments. For me it was not 1 but 2 characters from Anchorman?!? Um…yeah. And then I became really upset because the category was way too vague. Greatest how? Most iconic? Most interesting? Best acted? Most consisitent character? Most popular? Because I could think of all kinds of things depending on the criteria. Then I thought well if you signify no criteria, then really the criteria is up to you. They might as well have put favorite there, and that would have made more sense. Because what someone likes is very random and very personal, and something that resonates with you deeply will more than likely become your favorite – or become great.

So on the one hand, this list gave me a mind’s eye look inside what a predominently european-origined, male, mostly middle aged and younger group likes in movies – I guess I should throw in computer savvy as well since it was an online poll? But I guess what it did was make me less critical of the list and more critical of society in general. I thought about my characters, and I didn’t put limits on it like trying to look for female characters. But I noticed that if I restricted it to action fare, I would have lots of women and very few men. And I thought what it would be like if a guy was upset with that and would want me to add men to my list (say a James Bond – because NO incarnation of him would be on any of my lists). So for me to have my emotional picks I have to allow them theris right? You almost have to go deeper than just showing different movies, because they are seeing things differently when looking at the same movie! What does one do about that?

I tried really hard to look for some kind of pattern (other than white and male). There were some buzz words that showed up more that others: cool (a pretty big one), and hope showed up a lot. Just by using that alone, Leia was neither cool (Hans & Boba) or hopeful (Luke & the jedis), so she was last. I also noticed that a good portion of these people were villains or villainous. In fact quite a few got in just because they were so repugnant, but somehow the actor made them seem not so repugnant. Women & ethnicities generally don’t get to play criminal masterminds – usually girlfriends and henchmen, so they don’t have the opportunity to really stand out in a villain role. I also noticed- and this addresses Grace’s question partially – almost no predominently female/minority cast films. Most times when these groups do get to shine, it is in stuff where they are the dominent group. So if you don’t see those films, you don’t see those performances. Oh and funny too, and very often women in funny films still play the straight person.

I also had an interesting convo with a guy friend about the list. He was talking about how characters that were seen as great tended to have some kind of payoff. So to me a great character moment is one where the character trait(s) are front and center. So in It’s a Wonderful Life I thought the suicide moment or even the moment that Bailey convinced the stockholders to not sell the company were powerful because they were well adcted, and his character was prominent in the scene. I thought the end was weak because that was where everyone else seemed front and center. He said those scenes were terrible because there was no payoff – just defeat. But the end showed his powerful influence on the whole town. And I think he’s right in that that could be what they were thinking, since they also chose the end as the signature role.

With that same logic, I could see Sarah Connor not being on there – she didn’t actively kill the terminator, since like Nick said, she does seem more the horror heroine who almost stumbles upon the victory. And in the second film she doesn’t save the day, the old terminator does. And everyone remembers how both villainous and heroic the terminator was in the series, so he’s on there.
thx, d

Hi Again,
Just a few more things, but I wanted to break it up a bit. I was looking at the list, and did you notice how many mothers there were? Sigourney Weaver is like the ideal kick-butt mom. It’s funny because when I first saw the film I NEVER really noticed that, but once I started reading why people liked her so much, it’s like that all a lot of people seem to talk about. Then at 41 is Mary, which they say is the like the perfect mom. In fact, when you add Juno, Marge, and the Bride, that makes the list slightly less than 50% mothery.

It’s funny because I think Clarice being so low is a travesty, but I also think it is a testament to how awesome that character was, how well it was written, and how well it was acted. Starling is the most human and normal character of the bunch, which in this list seems to be a detriment. I actually think this is the reason why Sarah Connor isn’t on the list – she’s like the anti-mother. Sure he actually had a kid, the savior of the human race. But I still remember that EW list that called Sarah a man (as opposed to Ripley). I don’t think it’s because she bulked up. Seems more people, and mainly guys I would say, are disturbed by Sarah’s distant, cool relationship with her son. She was doing it for his own good, and maybe had her own connection issues, but I still think didn’t sit too well with some. She was basically the distant father, and were there any bad fathers on the list? Even when there were fathers, did it really impact the storyline? Atticus Finch and John McClane come to mind, and I am sure there are more, but I wonder if it would be even close to 50%. I can’t remember and do not want to wade back into that list again. Still, I won’t forget when she 1-arms that gun and keeps shooting until she is out of bullits – that is one of the most powerful scenes ever for me.
When thinking of my own list, I thought of people who many would agree on, as well as some who would make the majority scratch their heads! And much like draconismoi my list does skew very european (though my gender content is more or less even), though I am sure I can come up with more than 6!

And I would have a lot more characters from the Matrix (especially if I am doing 100 characters). If I sue the little payoff system my friend spoke of, Neo gets to save the day, but increasing not in the brash way we like our action figures to be, so he’s on there and high, but that’s because the first Matrix was just a phenomenon. Mr. Smith was up there because he was a tough villain throughout. In fact, reading their blurb assures me that they didn’t get the character and they didn’t get the next two installments, so while I love that Mr. Smith is up there (he would be in my top 10) their reasoning to me is full of crap. And being wise just didn’t seem to be all that valuable on this list. Gandalf was wise, but they seemed to like him more when he was wise and could fight. So I agree that Morpheus was dripping with uber cool. But it was cool, mixed with nuance, and extensive wisdom. Larry also acted the heck out of that thing, but since he had to be rescued, not listed. Since Trinity didn’t technically save anyone either, not listed. They would have all been there for me, along with The Oracle, The Merovingian, and a few others.

Oh, and you know what I thought was interesting? Will Smith is the biggest box-office draw and he wasn’t on the list at all was he? Kind of confirms to me that he appeals almost more to women than men, maybe? Because it wasn’t just women that were missing from this list, but also actors who women may like more than men (Hugh Gtant comes to mind).
thx again! d

Wow, thanks for that insight, d. I think you make a good point about characters with payoff. I hadn't thought of it that way.

Other HC readers, look for some guest posts by d next month!

Even if we're making exception for grown boys being the target audience, Jamie Lee Curtis from Halloween and Anne Bancroft from The Graduate should be on the list. Or, Grace Jones from the second Conan? *tsk tsk*

This is really problematic, but not surprising since so many films (especially well known blockbusters) have few female characters and many of those they do have are colorless love interest characters.

That's an interesting point about Ripley having originally been imagined as a male character. Similarly, one of the eight non-whites, Red, was white in the book that the movie is based off of.


Adding my vote for Margo Channing, Vasquez, Sarah Connor and Nikita. Not to mention Thelma and Louise. A list of the 100 greatest movie characters without Susan Sarandon's Louise? Not on.

More suggestions:
Ofelia in Pan's Labyrinth.
Sadako/Samara in Ringu/The Ring.
Lady Asaji in Kurosawa's Throne of Blood.
As long as they're allowing animated characters, Lilo and Nani from Lilo & Stitch. One of Disney's most girl-positive movies.




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