The film asshole is a particular type that comes in many breeds. They are most often antagonists, but not all film villains are assholes. For example, Heath Ledger’s Joker and Darth Vader are classic and iconic villains, yet no one would look at either character and say, “Man, what an asshole!” The asshole is that type of villain where even if the the evil deeds vanish, one still looks at the character and says, “Man, what an asshole!” Evil deeds can be washed away, and dreadful villains can find heroic redemption, but assholes and their assholery remain forever. The film asshole is also a surprisingly diverse order of animal, coming in a multitude of shapes and sizes. Below I have listed my five favorite film assholes, in no particular order. I have also included each assholes’s particular type or species. Without further ado, my five favorite film assholes.
Asshole: Paul Blackthorne’s Captain Andrew Russell in Lagaan (2001).
Species: Racist/Colonialist Asshole.
I wrote about Blackthorne’s wonderful performance in a prior post, but I simply could not leave him off of this list. He maintains a smarmy and smug attitude that is accompanied by a British accent tuned to pitch perfect asshole. Hell, even his mustache radiates asshole. There have been many racist and vile colonialist characters in cinema history, but the combination of smugnesss, arrogance, and colonial racism make Blackthorne’s character an asshole of the highest order. He is truly one of cinema’s most underrated villains of all-time, along with one of it greatest assholes.
Asshole: Paul Reiser’s Carter Burke in Aliens (1986).
Species: Military Industrial Complex Asshole.
There does not exist another moving image of Paul Reiser that I find memorable or likeable. Yet his turn as Burke in Aliens is great. With his puny physique and unathleticism, he is perfectly cast as the military industrial complex asshole. This species of asshole is in no way associated with active military or veterans. Rather the military industrial complex asshole is most often a capitalistic bureaucrat who works against the interests of soldiers and veterans, which of course makes him/her a complete asshole. The military industrial complex asshole can often be found compensating for his lack (which I use in the Freudian sense) through a deep attachment to and love of weapons and weapons systems.
The further removed that the military industrial complex asshole is from the realities and lives of actual military members, the greater the asshole factor. In Aliens, Burke was willing to sacrifice soldiers, women, and children to develop his prized biological weapon all the while trying to come off as a nice guy. But he was not nice; he was an asshole.
Asshole: Stephen Lang’s Colonel Miles Quaritch in Avatar (2009).
Species: Macho Asshole.
To the untrained eye, the macho asshole can often be be confused with other asshole species. Lang’s Quaritch often exhibits characteristics of the racist/colonialist asshole and the military industrial complex asshole. And to be fair, there is some cross breeding that goes on amongst assholes. However, the macho asshole, of which Quaritch is a magnificent example, can always be spotted by how concerned he is over the size of his biceps and pectoral muscles. (I should also note that the macho asshole is almost always male.) Even if Quaritch were a peace loving member of the Southern Poverty Law Center, he would still be an asshole; he would show up to work in a tank top and want to discuss his various weightlifting activities. If he were to try to pick up women, he would flex his arms and say, “I’ve got a couple of tickets to the gun show. What do you say?” Quaritch’s assholery is so powerful that we want him to die not because he wants to viciously eradicate an indigenous population but because he is a giant macho asshole.
Asshole: Robert Walker’s Bruno Antony in Strangers on a Train (1951).
Species: Creepy guy who appears nice a first until you find out that he is a really, really creepy asshole.
Walker had been an emerging cinema star until his death one year after the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Walker made only one more film prior to his passing. It is quite sad that we never saw him in what would have been the prime of his film career. What we do have is this wonderful performance as a creepy asshole who terrorizes the unlucky tennis pro Guy Haines (Farley Granger). What makes Walker’s Antony a great asshole is not his villainy but how easily he convinces Guy and us that he might be a sympathetic character. This is the essential characteristic of the creepy guy asshole; he is capable of cloaking himself so that we do not initially recognize him as an asshole.
Asshole: Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate (1962).
Species: Domineering and abusive parent asshole
When I first saw The Manchurian Candidate, it was a revelation. My only previous reference point for Angela Lansbury was Murder, She Wrote, in which she was anything but an asshole. She might have been a bit overbearing and grating, but nothing like Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin. Lansbury’s maniacal mother is everything that would make us refer to any parent as a real asshole: cold, calculating, controlling, and infuriating. Her son is not a child to be loved, but only a means to an end. The domineering and abusive parent asshole most readily appears in films as a sports father pushing his (most likely) son to achieve the father’s selfish dreams. And while those characters are assholes, they are not as wonderfully calibrated or despised as Lansbury’s mother.
Finally, I could not write an article on assholes without including this. Enjoy.