Thursday, December 1, 2011

MY FAVORITE "SCROOGES"


Oh, the weather outside is frightful. And in Christmas movies, things can get pretty disagreeable too. In fact, there are any number of ‘Scrooges’ working against the holiday spirit in these Christmas-themed classics that you should revisit this season. They provide an entertaining sourness to counter all the holiday sweets and eggnog. Here are my personal faves: 

Alistair Sim as Scrooge in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1951)

There have been some pretty good Ebenezer’s over the years: Reginald Owen and Albert Finney on the big screen, George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart on the small screen, even Mr. Magoo made for a fun miser in his hour-long cartoon special. But no Scrooge is as sublime as that of Alistair Sim. Mostly known as a comic actor, his Scrooge is surprisingly dramatic. Sim doesn’t play the character as a feeble, crotchety old man but rather, as a cold and ruthless businessmen. He speaks slowly and softly, staring at his prey with his big, unblinking eyes. And Sim brings one thing to the party that no other actor has done nearly as well: the sense of Scrooge’s self-loathing based on his tragic past. He’s a lost soul, unable to embrace the holiday or any human being because he’s been burned so badly in the past. But when Scrooge finally sees the light, Sim’s performance breaks out in comic joy that will have you grinning from ear to ear, equal to his toothy grin. It’s one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema and it’s easily the best Scrooge ever.

Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in DIE HARD (1988)

People often forget that this seminal action picture from the Eighties takes place against the backdrop of an office Christmas party in LA. The ‘Scrooge’ in this one is terrorist Hans Gruber who crashes the shebang hoping to steal the millions in bearer bonds located in the company’s vault. Alan Rickman’s screen debut as Hans is an auspicious one. He created an instant classic in urbane villainy that’s a perfect foil to Bruce Willis’ blue-collar cop out to stop him. Rickman practically purrs every one of his lines. He’s the best Bond villain never to appear in a Bond film! Hearing him instruct his henchman to “Shoot. The. Glass.” to stop a barefooted Willis from a clean getaway is both chilling and hilarious. Hans is a villain who enjoys the sound of his malevolent voice, and Rickman is an actor who knows how to milk each word for maximum effect.


Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in BATMAN RETURNS (1992) 

Here’s another villain toying with Christmas, only this time it’s a kitten with a whip! Tim Burton cleverly placed his big Batman sequel against the backdrop of Gotham City Christmas festivities. The set pieces are almost as frigid as the three-coldhearted villains battling Batman (Michael Keaton) – Penguin (Danny DeVito), tycoon Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) and Catwoman. Like Sim as Scrooge, Pfeiffer’s baddie is filled with inner-hatred and despair. She’s not only clawed, she’s flawed, playing a damaged woman taking out revenge on the men who broke her. The cat disguise allows her to be as animalistic as the brutal beasts lording over her. It’s not just a comic book film, it’s a dissertation on how women are treated by a misogynistic society. Not for nothing is Bruce Wayne’s curtain line, “Peace on earth. Good will toward men…and women.”
Bill Nighy is at the top left amongst the many stars in the cast of LOVE, ACTUALLY.

Bill Nighy as Billy Mack in LOVE, ACTUALLY (2003)

Bill Nighy earns most of the big laughs in this popular Christmas comedy from writer/director Richard Curtis. He gives a knowing, droll performance as Billy Mack, a rock star in his late sixties hoping to reach the top of the pop charts again with a cynical and turgid Christmas remix of a past rock classic. But Nighy doesn’t play this holiday misanthrope as a jerk or a desperate fool, but rather as a world-weary performer who understands that exploitation and art are all part of the same fame game. He knows that Christmas is filled with crass commercialism, heck, he just wants his slice of the gingerbread. And he delivers every cynical bon mot about the season with a rocker’s residual drug haze, as if his tongue cannot quite move fast enough to get out all the snark in his brain. Of course this Scrooge has a transformation as well, but not because his song hits # 1. He comes to understand that the season is about love, actually, and that having a friend and manager like Joe (Gregor Fisher) along for the rollercoaster ride makes all the up’s and down’s worth it. 

Ralph Bellamy & Don Ameche as The Duke Brothers in TRADING PLACES (1983)

Okay, technically it’s six Scrooges what with these last two, but really Randolph & Mortimer Duke (Bellamy & Ameche, respectively) serve as one Machiavellian unit. This septuagenarian duo is so filthy rich the only way they get their kicks is by betting on things like whether or not a personality is formed by nature or nurture. Thus, they decide to force rich company man Louis Winthorpe (Dan Aykroyd) to trade places with street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) and see the fall-out. It’s a modern version of “The Prince & The Pauper” with the Duke’s malevolently pulling all the strings. These Philly stock market barons at the top of the 1% are so ruthless and cold they’d make ol’ Ebenezer blush. But what makes these villains so much delicious is in the casting. Both Bellamy and Ameche made Hollywood Golden Age careers out of playing good guys and to see them here, ripping into their bad guy roles, well that is a Christmas gift unto itself.



Well, those are my favorite holiday baddies. Who are yours? I’d love to hear your picks so please share with The Establishing Shot and let’s keep the conversation going.

5 comments:

  1. Great piece, Jeff. Agree with everything except for BATMAN because I've never been able to sit through it. Your drawing of the awful Duke Bros. is a classic.

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  2. Thanks, Ron! So glad you liked the post. And that Duke Bros. caricature. They were fun to draw.

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  3. Alistair Sim's version of Scrooge/A Christmas Carol ... Monday, December 12 - 7:00 PM CST on Turner Classic Movies

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  4. If ever there was a greedy, snake-eyed and evilly-seductive villain who earned his “Scrooge wings”, it would have to be Lionel Barrymore’s ruthless banker Potter in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). Potter almost makes a second career out of trying to swipe the Bailey Building & Loan from Jimmy Stewart’s honest hands, in order to control everything, and everyone, in town. If he can’t control it, he tries to kill it. Most people hate him, he doesn’t like them either, so that makes it all even in his beady eyes.

    The only purpose people serve in Potter’s world is to make him money. And lots of it. No matter how, even if by pure theft on his part. His disdain for human beings and obsession for the love of money is summed up in this most de-humanizing of taunts to Stewart’s George Bailey: “You're worth more DEAD than alive.”

    Villain #6 on the American Film Institute's list of the 50 Greatest Villains, for my money, deserves a place on your list too: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQoXV6oCzsQ&feature=related

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  5. Perfect choice, Fan! He's a villain for all time!

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