December 16, 2008

Random Musing: The 'Greatest' Characters on Film

*originally posted December 3, 2008*

All that can be said on this topic has been said accurately by Jonathan Crow for Yahoo! Movies: "Any time anyone compiles a 'Best of' list they are practically begging for an argument." How right he is. Upon looking at the list compiled by Britain's Empire Magazine, I was horrified to see that Brad Pitt on "Fight Club" was their idea of the best character ever. Granted, the top 25 does compile a good deal of the most memorable characters on film, but Tyler Durden from "Fight Club"?!? Hardly memorable in the face of #2, Darth Vader. Crow also wrote, "Is Tyler Durden really better than Indiana Jones, James Bond, or Charles Foster Kane?" Point taken. I bet you did not even know that Brad Pitt's name in "Fight Club" was Tyler Durden - I had to look it up! Characters like Indiana Jones and James Bond are instantly recognizable in the memories of people, theme songs and all. So how could Empire compile a list such as this one? I am usually fascinated with lists such as these, but not when it is so horribly subjective. Granted, all "best of" lists are subjective - you win. However, is there a way of making a subjective list objective? For the most part, I think so.

An important UPDATE after the jump!

Crow went on to contribute to a revision of Empire's list with names such as these:

15. Jake La Motta (Raging Bull)
14. Annie Hall (Annie Hall)
13. Will Kane (High Noon)
12. Norma Desmond (Sunset Blvd.)
11. Harry Lime (The Third Man)
10. Gordon Gekko (Wall Street)
9. Yojimbo (Yojimbo, Sanjuro)
8. Tracy Flick (Election)
7. T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)
6. Colonel Kurtz (Apocalypse Now)
5. Shaft (Shaft)
4. Jake Gittes (Chinatown)
3. Holly Golightly (Breakfast at Tiffany's)
2. Mr. Miyagi (The Karate Kid series)
1. The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin's films)
I completely agree with almost all of those. For a magazine like Empire, it is a shame that their top 25 included bottom-of-the-barrel characters (*cough*TylerDurden*cough*) and especially characters from only incredibly recent movies. For a reputable, respectable film magazine, how in the world could they ignore the classics? What about Marilyn Monroe in "The Seven Year Itch"!? Have you not seen that iconic image of her standing over the subway grate a million times in your life? I am pleased that Crow remembered Holly Golightly from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" - the iconic image of Audrey Hepburn with her long, black dress and longstem cigarette holder graces the walls of many girls' dorm rooms here at Vanderbilt (and not just because they can afford Tiffany's).

So my point: Shame on Empire for such a weak list, especially since I saw the great list about the "100 Greatest Performances" a few years ago. Jonathan Crow is right in his disapproval of the list, but I want to offer more suggestions in addition to his offerings to the list. The list itself needs greater range in film history and it needs to be less subjective so that a character like "Tyler Durden" does not make the top of the list. He is the greatest character on film to no one (but Empire apparently).

UPDATE: OK, so apparently this specific post caused quite a stir among my friends. In fact, the stir had little to do with my thoughts on the post and more on arguing for Tyler Durden as the greatest character of all-time, but in a completely different way than the one for which I had been arguing against him. Brad, a friend of mine, argued that Durden was the most well-written character of all-time. However, did anyone notice the way in which I had been arguing against him earlier in this post? I had been saying he was not memorable. Therein lies perhaps the greatest problem of Empire's list: people understand the word "great" in different ways. While I had been reviewing their list as "memorable" characters, friends of mine, such as Brad, had been interpreting it as "well-written" characters. In that case, there are likely a million more well-written characters than Durden (such names as Ethan Edwards, George Bailey, or Charles Foster Kane spring to mind), but it hardly matters. The real change that needs to be made to Empire's list is, therefore, the distinction of the word "great."

And for Brad, I intend to watch "Fight Club" by December 31 at 11:59 p.m. CST. Fear not.

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