Want to know what’s really scary? It’s when an actor normally associated with good-guy roles decides to go bad. In fact, it adds a whole other dimension to the badness. These are some of my favorites.
DENZEL WASHINGTON IN “TRAINING DAY” (2001)
Washington’s performance as corrupt Det. Alonzo Harris is full of explosive, confident power. By turns witty and violent, it’s a role that builds to a crescendo of creepiness. It also won Washington an Oscar.
HENRY FONDA IN “ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST” (1968)
The guy who played Tom Joad, young Abe Lincoln and the old dude from “On Golden Pond” is a very bad man. He’s a revelation, actually, playing a hired killer in this Sergio Leone western. Fonda exudes the same patient intelligence here that he does to all his movies, but in the service of greed.
CHRISTIAN BALE IN “AMERICAN PSYCHO” (2000)
When Bale commits to a part, he goes all the way. In this gory tale, he’s a rich banker with a taste for blood. Remember the crazy eyes Bale brought to “The Fighter” last year? Just add a dash of sociopathic glee and you’ve got “American Psycho.”
ROBERT MITCHUM IN “NIGHT OF THE HUNTER” (1955) AND “CAPE FEAR” (1962)
One of the all-time greats, Robert Mitchum gives a surreal performance in “Night of the Hunter,” as an insane preacher who stalks a pair of children in an attempt to find some hidden cash. Equally creepy is his Max Cady in “Cape Fear,” in which an ex-con takes revenge on the lawyer who put him in jail. There’s a terrifying scene in which Mitchum sneaks aboard a houseboat where the lawyer’s wife (Polly Bergen) is hiding. Gives me the chills.
RUSSELL CROWE IN “3:10 TO YUMA” (2007)
Here’s a classic example of an actor having more fun in the villain role. Crowe plays Ben Wade, a charismatic outlaw being escorted to the train that will take him to jail. It’s a part that is full of guile, humor and perceptiveness.
PAUL NEWMAN IN “HUD” (1963)
Towering performance by Newman in one of his best movies. Hud Bannon is a selfish, flawed, petty man who never fails to hurt those around him in a small, Texas town. Yet he’s absolutely electric and able to manipulate people who ought to know better than trust him. Nobody played simmering resentment better than Newman.
MORGAN FREEMAN IN “STREET SMART” (1987)
A lot of people haven’t seen this movie, yet it’s the reason Freeman became a prominent film actor. He played a New York City pimp named Fast Black who threw a good scare into Christopher Reeve’s character, and the audience.
HARRISON FORD IN “WHAT LIES BENEATH” (2000)
It certainly seemed as if Ford relished this opportunity to be menacing rather than macho. I won’t give away any plot details, other than to say this is a “things that go bump in the night” flick, and Ford is responsible for some of the bumps.
BURT LANCASTER IN “THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS” (1957) AND “SEVEN DAYS IN MAY” (1964)
Speaking of macho, there’s the always-intense Burt Lancaster. In “Sweet Smell of Success” he’s a sadistic, powerful newspaper columnist (go figure), and in “Seven Days in May” he’s an egomaniacal general trying to overthrow the government. Either way, you don’t want to cross him.
TOM HANKS IN “ROAD TO PERDITION” (2002)
This one might need an asterisk. Yes, Hanks plays a hit man during the Depression. Yes, he does dastardly deeds. But he spends much of the movie trying to protect his young son, so you’re still kind of rooting for him.
BEN STILLER IN “DODGEBALL” (2004)
What, you thought comedies didn’t have any good guys gone bad? Think again. Stiller is a wonderful sleazebag as evil gym owner White Goodman, who tries to ruin Vince Vaughn.
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER IN “BATMAN AND ROBIN” (1997)
Pretty much everyone hated this movie, and I’m fine with that. But Arnold was masterfully campy as Mr. Freeze, like it or not. And his accent worked here, for once.
GREGORY PECK IN “THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL” (1978)
On the other hand, I am not as enamored of this performance. Why is it on the List? Because of its incredible hubris, friends. “The Boys from Brazil” asks us to belief Atticus Finch – ATTICUS FINCH – as Nazi monster Dr. Josef Mengele. That’s a tough one, Scout.
DON CHEADLE IN “OUT OF SIGHT” (1998)
This is what a good actor Cheadle is. Despite being so small of stature, he’s utterly convincing as a career criminal capable of sudden violence. He has the ability to play smart, funny and realistic all at once, while still being frightening. Terrific movie, by the way.
DICK VAN DYKE IN “NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM” (2006)
Not an extremely big role, but come on. This is Rob Petrie. This is Bert from “Mary Poppins.” And he’s just so … mean.
HEATH LEDGER IN “THE DARK KNIGHT” (2008)
Here’s our big finish and justifiably so. Ledger took an iconic character, the Joker, and transformed him into something both original and exciting. This is a great movie and Ledger is the best thing in it. You can’t take your eyes off of him, first of all. What’s more, he’s hilarious. And mysterious. And malevolent.
That’s all, folks. So who did I leave out?