by Travis Vogt
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was a terrible monster. At least, that’s what my liberal pals and I thought whenever he popped up in the news feed. During oral arguments and in his writings and dissents, he would make brutal, sneering pronouncements about, well, virtually everything that liberals hold dear. He was brutal on gay rights. Brutal on race relations. Brutal on corporate hegemony. He was the deciding vote in cases that had genuinely negative consequences for the country and millions of individuals. He was the massive dark star of judicial thought. You couldn’t avoid him and he brought nothing but doom.
That’s why I was surprised to find myself quite sad when I heard of his recent death of heart failure at the age of 79. After all, he was the one guy we lefties all wanted off the bench the most. The thing is, deep down inside he was hard to fully dislike. He just had such an enormous and fascinating personality, and as we all well know, personality goes a long way. One of my favorite reads of all time is an interview with Scalia that Jennifer Senior conduced for New York Magazine. A little after Scalia jovially tells Senior that she’s going to hell, we see this wonderful little passage:
[Leans in, stage-whispers.] I even believe in the Devil.
I didn’t agree with Nino on gay rights, money in politics, certainly not Bush v. Gore, but you gotta love that stage whisper. [Oh, and let’s not forget this: “I loved Seinfeld. In fact, I got some CDs of Seinfeld. Oh, boy. The Nazi soup kitchen? No soup for you!”] Despite all of the damage he did—which was considerable—he was always consistent, he was a great writer, he was often hilarious and he was just plain fun.
He reminded me of the movie villains that we love despite the fact that they are plainly malevolent. And so, as my way of healing, I present to you the following list of some of my favorite Scalia-like movie villains—the ones you root for over the hero, because they’re just so damn charming.
Hans Gruber/Sheriff of Nottingham
Obviously I left Snape off the list because he was only pretending to be bad (oh right, SPOILER ALERT). Alan Rickman might not have invented the charming villain, but he definitely perfected it. His Hans Gruber is a hilariously snobbish and sophisticated cold-blooded murderer. He seems to revel in being the bad guy. Plus, he buys his suits at the same place as Yasser Arafat, and that’s got to count for something. Fortunately for Die Hard (1988), Bruce Willis’ performance as John McClane is equally iconic. The two crafty, wise-cracking adversaries playing off one another is the primary strength of a truly great action film (that and bloody feet).
Rickman does not meet his match, however, in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). Kevin Costner’s legendarily bad performance barely registers as an actual human being, leaving the resolutely evil, polyamorous Sheriff to carry nearly the entire picture. It’s weird when a movie constantly encourages you to root against the most engaging character on screen, by far. Rickman consistently gets laughs when saying horrible things (“Because it’s DULL, you twit. It’ll hurt more!”), which is a lot like reading one of Scalia’s scathing diatribes (“Jiggery-pokery,” “pure applesauce”) against something you hold dear.
Bill the Butcher
A man of deep moral conviction, whose moral convictions just so happen to revolve around murdering people who get in his way and cutting out his own eyeball and mailing it to the guy who beat him in a fight. Daniel Day Lewis’ colossal performance in Gangs of New York (2002) comes this close to making you respect a man who believes in the supremacy of violence (as well as his own race and religion) above all things. In the middle of the film, while wrapped in an American flag for warmth (and symbolism), he makes a speech laying out his general life philosophy:
“You know how I stayed alive this long? All these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike, raise it high up so all on the streets can see. That’s what preserves the order of things. Fear.”
This speech damn near brings me to tears every time I see it. Day-Lewis’ lived-in performance forces you to view a terrifying man who has killed dozens of people as the inevitable product of his collective experiences. He’s only doing what he believes is right, and sometimes that means bashing in your skull with a club—if he thinks you’re honorable enough to deserve a good death. Bill the Butcher is a powerful representation of the kind of person you might find fearsome or evil: he makes sense. He comes from an undeniable, if terrifying, aspect of the human experience. We all have our reasons for doing the things that we do, even mustachioed, knife-wielding maniacs.
The relentless force of gravity around which Sexy Beast (2000) revolves, Don Logan would never be described as “charming.” But there is still something alluring about the steamroller-like caliber of his presence. He is a human manifestation of pure, indomitable will. It’s a giddy thrill to watch the diminutive Ben Kingsley effortlessly bully and terrify a group of ex-gangsters—most of whom are much more physically imposing than he is—like a yapping pug dominating a pack of Siberian wolves. Antonin Scalia would never have been described as small, but he was undeniably domineering. There was a reason he will long be considered one of the most influential and imposing SCOTUS Justices of all time, and it wasn’t his use of quaint colloquialisms. He was an element of nature, and even his liberal fellow Justices had to concede to the power of his presence.
The Great Owl
What are we to make of The Great Owl in The Secret of NIMH (1982)? He is the wisest creature in a forrest that’s full of hyper-intelligent rats. He is a figure of absolute terror, powerful and massive, dwelling in a lair strewn with bones and spiderwebs, and yet the good guys are only able to persevere with his help. He operates at a godlike remove from our hero, Mrs. Brisby—the plucky little shawl-wearing mouse mother trying to save her son. The Owl could just as easily help or eat her, as he’s eaten so many of her kind before without a second thought. Is he a bad guy or a good guy? It’s an impressively nuanced character to put in a children’s film, and the truth is that there are more people like The Great Owl in the world than there are easily identifiable “good guys” and “bad guys.”
Scalia, for all of his horrible stances on social issues, did some legitimately great things for freedom of speech, privacy and a whole host of other important issues. He wasn’t just one thing; he was a brilliant man with a very particular perspective on the Constitution and the American experiment. He expressed this perspective without attempting to make it palatable to those who disagreed with him. And as much as I find The Great Owl to be terrifying and intimidating, there are millions of owls out there who would see him as a plainly wonderful guy.
Travis Vogt is the editor of the Scarecrow Wire. Follow him @travisvogt.