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Good Guys and Bum Guys

The AFI has nominated 400 characters as the greatest villains and heroes in film history, and 29 of them hail from the stage. logo

Hero or villain?
Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski
in A Streetcar Named Desire
Passing by our movie critic's desk at the Star-Ledger, I noticed a spiral-bound booklet sent to him by the American Film Institute. It said, "AFI compiled a ballot of 400 screen characters to aid jurors in the selection of the 50 greatest heroes and the 50 greatest villains of the screen. There are two steps inherent in casting a vote. First, jurors must determine if the character is heroic or villainous and then decide to place their (sic) name among the 'greatest' in that category. AFI recognizes that many characters in American film are neither purely heroic or purely villainous, but complex and often ambiguous. In an effort to catalyze this national discussion, however, jurors may not vote for a character to be both."

Heroes were described as "sometimes mythic figures, sometimes ordinary people who prevail in extreme circumstances. Heroes dramatize a sense of morality, courage, and purpose often lacking in our everyday world. Villains are characters that moviegoers love to hate -- and hate to love. Villains are characters whose wickedness of mind, selfishness of character, and will to power are sometimes masked by beauty and nobility."

Well, I went searching to see how many characters on the ballot came from the theater. Alas, only 29 names made the list. In alphabetical order, they are: Crystal Allen (The Women); Gregory Anton (Gaslight); Rick Blaine (Casablanca, but the character was first written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison for a play called Everybody Comes to Rick's that went unproduced); Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis's role in The Letter); Captain Davenport (Howard E. Rollins, Jr.'s role in A Soldier's Story, the film version of A Soldier's Play); Dr. Einstein and Jonathan Brewster (Arsenic and Old Lace); Regina Giddens (The Little Foxes); Susy Hendrix (Wait Until Dark); Captain Hook (Peter Pan); Jack Jefferson (The Great White Hope); Colonel Nathan R. Jessup (Jack Nicholson's role in A Few Good Men); Joan of Arc (in the adaptation of Maxwell Anderson's Joan of Arc); Stanley Kowalski (A Streetcar Named Desire); Anna Leonowens (The King and I); Duke Mantee (The Petrified Forest); Julie Marsden (Bette Davis's role in Jezebel); The Marquise de Merteuil (Dangerous Liaisons, the film version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses); Phillip Morgan and Brandon Shaw (Farley Granger and John Dall's roles in Rope, the film version of Rope's End); Annie Oakley (Annie Get Your Gun); Peter Pan (Peter Pan); Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson's role in Key Largo); Antonio Salieri (Amadeus); Sergeant J. J. Sefton (William Holden's role in Stalag 17); Major Heinrich Strasser (Casablanca, see above); Annie Sullivan (The Miracle Worker); Maria Von Trapp (The Sound of Music); and Tony Wendice (Dial "M" for Murder).

There are a few others that could count as theatrically based, depending on how you look at it. Count Dracula first appeared in Bram Stoker's novel but it was that Balderstone and Dean play that was bought for the movies and put Bela Lugosi on the screen. Agatha Christie first wrote Witness for the Prosecution as a short story but her stage adaptation is what got the movie sale and therefore put Christine Helm Vole (the Marlene Dietrich role) on the list. I'll let it be your call as to whether or not to inluce Randle Patrick McMurphy and Nurse Ratched

Deborah Kerr teaches Yul Brynner to dance
in the film version of The King and I
from One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, but the film does give credit to Dale Wasserman's 1963 stage adaptation -- though not until the end credits. (If I were writing this piece six weeks ago -- when I did a story about stage adaptations found in the Zagat Survey Movie Guide -- I would have added Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg of The Caine Mutiny to the list, as I did there. But a shrewd reader since has since pointed out to me that the film version of that property actually predated the play.)

I find some of the omissions interesting. Stanley from Streetcar but not Blanche? Captain Davenport from A Soldier's Story but not Sgt. Waters? Anna Leonowens from The King and I but not the king himself? I mean, this is a man who thinks with his heart, his heart is not always wise; this is a man who stumbles and falls, but this is a man who tries. Doesn't all of that count for something? Also: Annie Sullivan from The Miracle Worker but not Helen Keller? Being deaf and blind are two major handicaps, and while my hat's off to the teacher who reached her, I'd say Keller was pretty heroic, too. And isn't it fascinating that Dr. Einstein and Jonathan Brewster from Arsenic and Old Lace are included while Mortimer Brewster, the ostensible hero of the delicious comedy, isn't? (Mortimer is a drama critic by profession, so I can understand why the AFI people wouldn't therefore consider him a hero -- but I don't know why they wouldn't regard him as a villain.)

The AFI obviously forgot a number of other worthy candidates that originated in the theater. Admitted, some very colorful characters weren't eligible because they appeared in British films, but how can such American heroes-slash-villains as Joe Keller, Rhoda Penmark, or Mister Roberts have been omitted? How about the two guys from Deathtrap? George and Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Deborah Kerr's character in Tea and Sympathy? Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross? The ballot came out too soon for Renée Zellweger's Roxie Hart, but Ginger Rogers' Roxie Hart could have been on there. The AFI also should have remembered I Remember Mama's Mama. And, good Lord, where's Anne Frank?

From musicals, I'd consider Annie, King Arthur, Carmen Jones, Billy Bigelow, Julie Jordan Bigelow, Joe Hardy, Lola, Mr. Applegate, Evita, Tevye, Rose, Dolly Levi, J. Pierrepont Finch, Hajj, Audrey II, Mame, Harold Hill, Eliza Doolittle, Henry Higgins, Jud Fry, Fagin, Littlechap, The Student Prince and Kathy, Pal Joey, Porgy, Pseudolus, and the Unsinkable Molly Brown. And let's not overlook one character that's easy to forget: Steve Barker from Show Boat. Here's a man who discovers that his wife, Julie LeVerne, is not white as she's been pretending, but black. With laws against miscegenation, Steve purposely cuts Julie's finger to suck out a bit of her blood -- for the law says that anyone even with a drop of black blood must be considered black. He gives up a great deal to be with her, and that's heroic.

Ted Neeley in Jesus Christ Superstar
I'll tell you who I'd definitely put on the list: John Adams, Edward Rutledge, Stephen Hopkins, Benjamin Franklin, James Wilson, John Hancock, Caesar Rodney, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Lewis Morris, Rev. John Witherspoon, Col. Thomas McKean, Dr. Lyman Hall, Samuel Chase, Dr. Josiah Bartlett, Joseph Hewes, Roger Sherman, and, yes, John Dickinson, all of them from 1776. Then I started thinking that maybe the list didn't include people who actually lived, just fictional characters. But another look through the book proved that theory wrong, for there were Emile Zola, Malcolm X, and Douglas MacArthur.

Hmmm. Under those circumstances, shouldn't the central figure of Jesus Christ Superstar appear on the list -- if not for that movie, then for some other?


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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