“The truth be told, a villian’s the best way to go. Playing a bad guy…it’s better lines, it’s more colorful, audiences vicariously love you because a lot of times everything they want to do in real life but they can’t do, which you can do in the movies. Contrarily, women…it’s taken them so much longer to be comfortable in playing the villains. When I look back to when I was producing [One Flew Over the] Cuckoo’s Nest, and all the actresses that turned down the part of Nurse Ratched because they didn’t want to play a villain…Louise Fletcher gets an Oscar for playing it well.”— Michael Douglas, discussing villainous roles on Alec Baldwin’s podcast, Here’s the Thing.
As I was putting together this list, I thought a lot about Hollywood’s definition of “villain,” particularly in the context of female villains. For example, Hollywood tends to like its female villains in the form of witches, evil queens and wicked stepmothers whose dastardly deeds are often motivated by vanity and jealousy. Other female villains are evil because of men — men who wrong them, who try to leave them, who cheat on them, who won’t date them. And if you are a woman who is with the man desired by a female villain, you better watch out. Sometimes, female villains — often those in horror films — are just plain batshit crazy (although a man often has something to do with this as well). Then there are the female villains who are hungry for power, money, and fame, motivations typically attributed to male villains (personally, I prefer this type of female villain).
I also found that, particularly in modern films, Hollywood seems to feel the need to make female villains more complex than male villains. If she isn’t an evil queen or a wicked stepmother, much importance is placed on the backstory of a female villain. For example, you might have a film in which a young woman seduces and kills older men, and when she’s finally caught, it is revealed that she was raped by her father as a teen and that traumatic event caused her to go crazy and murder men who reminded her of her father. I find it fascinating that there is more of a need to explain away the actions of a female villain that that of a male villain, to make the audience feel sorry for her rather than loathe her. Why do we have such a hard time accepting that a woman can be horrible for no reason other than she just is horrible?
After researching this piece, I don’t know if I necessarily agree with Mr. Douglas’s take on women playing villains — there are a lot of great female villains in film and, even though they may have been reluctant to play villains at first, all of these actresses seem pretty comfortable in their roles. I had a difficult time narrowing my list of favorites down to a manageable number because there are so many wonderful female villains. I’m sure I’ve left off some loathsome ladies you love, so let me know who they are in the comments!
Warning: some of the clips below are spoiler-y, so watch at your own risk.
Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), All About Eve (1950): Eve Harrington is my favorite kind of villain: she’s ambitious, power- and fame-hungry, and will do whatever it takes to get what she wants, no matter who she hurts in the process. She lies, she schemes, she blackmails and never once is her behavior explained away as being crazy. Anne Baxter is wonderful as the cold, calculating Eve and does a phenomenal job of holding her own against Bette Davis, one of the best villain-playing actresses in all of Hollywood.
Regina Giddens (Bette Davis), The Little Foxes (1941): When you think about Bette Davis’s villainous performances, her portrayal of Regina Giddens should be the first one that pops into your head because it is arguably her best. Regina is the ultimate cold-hearted schemer, a woman who desires wealth and independence, but because of the patriarchal society of the early 20th century, must rely on the men in her life for financial security. Not satisfied with this arrangement, she will do whatever it takes to obtain the money she needs to invest in her brothers’ planned cotton mill, including refusing to help her ailing husband as he suffers a heart attack so that she might become a wealthy widow. (Davis’s performance in that particular scene is, in my opinion, what secured her the Oscar nomination for Best Actress). Regina is victorious in the end, but also succeeds in driving her family away, leaving her alone with her riches — something I have a feeling she’s probably not bothered by in the least.
Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver), Working Girl (1988): Katharine Parker is beautiful, smart, and powerful, and she is intoxicated by her own perceived awesomeness. Having worked her way to the top of her very male dominated field, she’s learned how to be a master player of a tricky game, and has no problem using other people to ensure her success. After she gets caught stealing an idea from her secretary, Tess (Melanie Griffith), and passing it off as her own, she isn’t apologetic, but rather incredulous that anyone would dare disrespect her by accusing her of such a thing. As awful as Katharine is supposed to be, I don’t find her entirely loathsome. Yes, she’s a liar and a thief, but I’d say Tess has bent just as many rules as she has in the name of ambition, yet we forgive Tess because she’s more likeable.
Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), Fatal Attraction (1987): Alex is the ultimate woman scorned. Jilted by her married lover, Dan (Michael Douglas), she decides that she will not let him throw her out like a sack of garbage, so she stalks and torments him and his family out of rage and jealousy. While I don’t condone boiling a little girl’s bunny rabbit, I’m actually a big fan of Alex and rooted for her the entire way. They’re both garbage people, but it took making Alex completely batshit insane for Dan to be even remotely sympathetic. When this film came out, it was touted as a cinematic warning to men against being unfaithful because bitches be crazy. If you ask me, it would’ve more successful in that capacity had Alex been victorious.
Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), Misery (1990): The idea of the crazy, obsessed fan has been around for many years, but Stephen King created the ultimate one with Annie Wilkes in Misery and Bates brings her brilliantly, frighteningly to life in the film version of his novel. To me, Wilkes is far scarier than, say, Jason Voorhies or Freddy Krueger ever could be — I mean, she listens to Liberace records while torturing her victim. Bates deservedly won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance and I think this remains one of her best roles.
Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975): Being sent to a mental ward is bad enough, but just imagine if yours was run by the steely, cold-hearted Nurse Ratched? Ruling the ward with an iron fist, routinely humiliating her patients and administering questionable medical treatments, she scares her patients into submission. Even her hairstyle is scary. Rather than being sympathetic to her patients’ situation and working with them to make them well, she has no patience for them, preferring punishment over treatment. And if anyone dares cross her, well, they will quickly learn that no one crosses Nurse Ratched.
Ursula (Pat Carrol), The Little Mermaid (1989): Disney films have produced some of the most memorable female villains of all time, starting with their very first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and choosing a favorite was difficult. But when it came down to it, I had to go with Ursula. She’s like an animated John Waters character: over-the-top, vulgar and hilarious. As much as I enjoy Pat Carrol’s performance as the tentacled witch, I often imagine what Divine could’ve done with the character had he still been alive when the film was made.
The Borg Queen (Alice Krige), Star Trek: First Contact (1996): Though there have been many female villains in the television run of the Star Trek franchise, very few are featured in Star Trek films and none are quite as dark and frightening as the Borg Queen. Though the Borg drones are unfeeling footsoldiers without an ounce of individuality or self-awareness, the Borg Queen identifies herself as the collective, “the one who is many,” and is very aware of the power she wields. What makes her such a great villain is Krige’s understated performance — the Borg Queen only needs to whisper to scare the hell out of you. Another actress would go on to play the role in episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, but I think Krige is the best at being the worst.
Miss Gulch/The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), The Wizard of Oz (1939): The Wicked Witch of the West is probably the definitive wicked witch in film, but I would argue that her alter-ego, Miss Gulch, is even scarier. Yes, the Wicked Witch of the West has winged monkeys and can throw fireballs, but at least she’s funny. Miss Gulch is a humorless grouch on a bicycle who wants to kill innocent little doggies. Though she’d appeared in several films prior to The Wizard of Oz, The Wicked Witch became Margaret Hamilton’s signature role, so much so that children were frightened if they encountered her on the street (ironically, Hamilton was a former schoolteacher and was an activist for many issues relating to children). Though many films have featured Wicked Witches as villains, very few can live up to Hamilton’s — and no one looks as creepy riding a bicycle as she does.
Marquise Isabelle de Mertuil (Glenn Close; Annette Bening) Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and Valmont (1989): Though released within a year of each other, the two late ’80s adaptations of the French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses are different enough to merit both of their existences. The first, directed by Stephen Frears and starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer, is the more faithful and serious of the two. In contrast, Miloš Forman’s take, relased one year later and starring Annette Bening, Colin Firth and Meg Tilly, is more playful and takes quite a few liberties with the source text. Both are incredibly satisfying in their own rights and provide two very compelling takes on the character of the Marquise de Mertuil, a devious and manipulative woman who uses her intelligence and sexual prowess to maintain her place within the nobility, as well as to destroy anyone she feels has wronged her.
Close’s de Mertuil is understated, composed, cold, and calculating. She is very matter-of-fact in her dealings with the people she despises and is a master at disguising her emotions.
Whereas Bening’s de Mertuil is blithe and flirtatious, preferring joyful guffaws to wicked smirks. She is more open with her emotions, having no trouble expressing how delighted she is when she succeeds at humiliating her enemies.
Hedy Carlson (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Single White Female (1992): When it comes to sharing an apartment or house with one or more roommates, there is a very good chance that one of them will be messy, smelly, loud, inconsiderate or just plain crazy. But until Single White Female, I’ll bet no one was afraid that their roommate would become obsessed with them, try to be them, then try to murder them. Hedy’s particular brand of crazy comes from a tragic, traumatizing event in her past involving her twin sister, something that therapy clearly never helped her deal with. You can tell she’s a broken, damaged person in need of love and attention, but who just doesn’t know how to deal with it if she isn’t getting what she desires. So when she feels slighted or ignored in the least by her roommate, Allison (Bridget Fonda), she acts out in some pretty insane ways, including letting their puppy die and getting a make-over to look just like Allison, then impersonating her in order to have sex with, then murder, Allison’s fiance (Steven Weber). Ultimately, though, Hedy isn’t as much a scary villain as she is one to be pitied.
Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), Double Indemnity (1944): When it comes to sultry schemers, Phyllis is the best of the best. She knows exactly the power she has over men and uses it unabashedly to seduce them into doing her bidding. She convinces insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) to help her kill her husband, making it look like an accident so she can collect on a life insurance policy she has taken out on him without his knowledge. She is completely confident in her reliance on her feminine wiles, so much so that, thinking she has Neff wrapped around her little finger, she doesn’t count on his developing a conscience, leading him to turn on her. Though she was initially reluctant to take the part, believing it would have a negative affect on her career, Stanwyck eventually relented and her Phyllis became the definitive noir femme fatale.
Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), Heathers (1989): If you think about it, you could almost say that every character in Heathers is a villain of some sort. But Heather Chandler is the despicable glue that holds the garbage people together. She is the leader of the pack of Limited-clad wolves, the bitchiest girl in the room, delighting in making the lives of those around her — even her alleged friends — miserable. And after her (SPOILER ALERT that doesn’t really count because if you haven’t seen this movie, you shouldn’t be reading this post) death, she haunts everyone who knew her, especially her murderers, Veronica (Winona Ryder) and J.D. (Christian Slater), who are dumbfounded that in death, HC is celebrated as a martyr of sorts rather than reviled for being a horrible bitch. Her awful spirit even seemingly finds a new vessel with which to continue tormenting humanity, that of Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty), which riles J.D. up and makes him even more violent and causing him to do even more terrible things. So, even though she’s barely in the movie, her terrible legacy lives on, making her a powerful villain, even after she dies.
Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis), Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962): If you like your villainesses crazy, campy and over-the-top, they don’t get much crazier, campier and more over-the-top than Baby Jane Hudson. Bette Davis is no stranger to playing crazy, nor is this her first villainous role, but when she combines the two, you get someone who has gone completely off the rails and is enjoying every minute of it. And considering the professional rivalry that existed between Davis and her co-star, Joan Crawford — the two fought constantly on the set, including several physical altercations — I can only imagine how satisfying it was for her when she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination while Crawford was overlooked.
Peyton Flanders (Rebecca De Mornay), The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992): As Single White Female put fear in the hearts of people seeking roommates, so did The Hand That Rocks the Cradle put fear in the hearts of parents seeking nannies. If you’re a young mother, you obviously don’t want a nanny who might hurt your children, but you especially don’t want a nanny who wants to get rid of you so she can take your place in your family. Peyton decides to act revenge upon Claire (Annabella Sciorra) and her family because she believes that Claire was responsible for the suicide of her husband, a gynecologist whom Claire accused of molesting her, which subsequently lead to the death of her own baby and left her destitute. Peyton’s methods of terrorization are subtle and effective — she begins secretly breastfeeding Claire’s baby so that he will reject his mother’s milk; she encourages Claire’s young daughter to lie to her mother; she tries to seduce Claire’s husband; and attempts to turn Claire against those who are supicious of her, namely Claire’s friend Marlene (Julianne Moore) and the family’s mentally handicapped handyman, Solomon (Ernie Hudson). Peyton is the deliciously satisfying kind of cinema villain, the kind whose victims are so blissfully unaware of her dastardly deeds you start to almost root for her to get away with it.