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Bond, Dracula, Batman & More: Who Played These 10 Iconic Characters Best?

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist January 21, 2014 at 3:10PM

This past weekend saw the release of "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," the latest film to feature Tom Clancy's CIA analyst. It's probably fair to say that the film didn't live up to Paramount's expectations as a franchise re-starter, opening in fourth at the box office with a disappointing $15 million, and is heading to a rather ignominious future as a film that you watch ten minutes of on cable before realizing that you've already watched it.
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Dracula A.D.

Dracula

The Contenders: Sherlock Holmes might be the most popular human character on screen (according to the Guinness Book Of World Records), but even he couldn't defeat Bram Stoker's vampiric creation Dracula, who has appeared on screen over 250 times. Aside from a possible 1920 Soviet silent, the first official adaptation was 1931's Universal version, starring Bela Lugosi, who introduced many of the characteristics that still define the character to this day. Lon Chaney Jr. and John Carradine were among those who took up the mantle after that, while Christopher Lee starred in six successful Hammer films between 1958's "Dracula" and 1973's "The Satanic Rites Of Dracula." The same year as the latter saw Jack Palance star in the Richard Matheson-scripted "Bram Stoker's Dracula," while Udo Kier donned the fangs for the Andy Warhol-produced "Blood For Dracula" the following year. Frank Langella took the part from stage to screen in 1979's "Dracula" from Universal, while the same year also saw George Hamilton star in comedy "Love At First Bite" and Klaus Kinski play the role in Werner Herzog's remake of "Nosferatu" (it should be noted that, in an ultimately ineffective way to get around copyright, F.W. Murnau's 1922 original, the first real adaptation of the story, renamed him Count Orlok, and so we've disqualified that from this list, while Herzog's character kept Stoker's name). More recently, there's been Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 epic "Bram Stoker's Dracula," Gerard Butler in terrible reboot "Dracula 2000," Guy Maddin's ballet "Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary," Richard Roxburgh in the villain in 2004's "Van Helsing," Thomas Kretschmann in Dario Argento's "Dracula 3D," Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in awful TV series “Dracula” and, coming soon, Luke Evans in this year's "Dracula Untold."

The Argument: For all of the adaptations that exist, most are pale imitations or semi-parodies of Lugosi's heavily accented, dinner-jacket wearing Count—even the likes of Palance (who brings new texture, but is ultimately somewhat miscast) and Langella (who's a decidedly sexier take), struggle to stand out from the crowd. There's been a disappointing trend of late, including Butler and Dominic Purcell in "Blade:Trinity," to reduce the character to a bland villain too. But that said, there's still a number of iconic portrayals that do something different, with Lee, Kinski and Gary Oldman all being particularly impressive.

The Winner And Why: Christopher Lee. Yes, Lugosi's the most iconic, and Tod Browning's film still holds up, but it's a little hard to separate the performance from the parodies it spawned (and from Martin Landau's great portrayal of the actor in "Ed Wood"). Oldman arguably gets the most to play with, going from romantic to monster, but can't resist getting his teeth into the (beautifully-designed) scenery sometimes. It's almost impossible, then, to choose between the others, but given that Kinski's performance, while soulful and monstrous, is so indebted to Max Schreck in the silent take, we'd just give the edge to Lee. The 1958 "Dracula" is Lee's only great film in the role, but he's more debonair, more alluring, and much more frightening than Lugosi, or those who came after.

The One You Might Not Have Seen: It's hardly the most traditional film on the list, but Guy Maddin's ballet film "Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary" is a stunning piece of work, with its black-and-white photography giving an especially Gothic air to proceedings and dancer Zhang Wei-Qiang is wonderful in the part, especially given his lack of dialogue.

Elizabeth & essex

Queen Elizabeth I

The Contenders: Are you ready for this? It’s a character that has been essayed so many times that we can actually see patterns forming within the canon. There are the Actors Who Have Played Her Twice: Flora Robson in “Fire Over England” (1937) and “The Sea Hawk” (1940), the latter of which was directed by Michael Curtiz, as was the previous year’s “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex" (1939) which was the first of two films to star Bette Davis in the role, the second being ”The Virgin Queen” (1955). Cate Blanchett was Oscar-nominated twice in the role for “Elizabeth” (1998) and the inferior sequel “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (2007); Glenda Jackson was in the so-definitive-it-was-shown-in-schools 1971 BBC miniseries “Elizabeth R” (1971) and the same year’s big-screen “Mary, Queen of Scots” (1971) opposite Vanessa Redgrave. Redgrave herself took on the role in Roland Emmerich’s soapy and unconvincing “Anonymous” (2011), with her daughter Joely Richardson playing the younger version, which brings us to the section we’ll call Young, Hot Elizabeths. Blanchett’s first appearance certainly counts, but even back to Jean Simmons in “Young Bess” (1953) and arguably to now-unavailable silent film “The Virgin Queen” (1923), which starred actual Royal Lady Diana Manners in the role, there has been an urge to show the sexier side of Elizabeth’s formidable reputation. (Speaking of silents, even Sarah Bernhardt played the character in a 1912 short “Queen Elizabeth” which, when you think about it, is all it needed to be called as at that point, as there had only been one.)

In addition to the Jackson miniseries, Helen Mirren, who of course played Elizabeth II in “The Queen,” played the lead in the 2005 Tom Hooper-directed HBO two-parter “Elizabeth I,”  while Anne-Marie Duff inhabited the role from youth to old age in the BBC’s “The Virgin Queen” (2006) miniseries. There are too many Cameo Lizzes to mention, especially as she pops us in TV shows about twice a week as a background character (there’ve been two in the modern era of “Doctor Who” alone), but of course we have to mention Judi Dench’s Oscar-winning 8 minutes in “Shakespeare in Love.” Liz As A Child has been played several times over, notably by Laoise Murray in TV show “The Tudors” and Maisie Smith in “The Other Boleyn Girl” (2008), and then there are the Lizzes Played For Laughs: Miranda Richardson takes the, er, crown for Queenie in the second season of “Blackadder,” but Pythons Graham Chapman and John Cleese have also both poked fun at her in an episode of “Flying Circus” (which parodies Jackson’s “Elizabeth R”) and a 1975 short called “Decisions Decisions,” respectively. And the latter two are of course examples of the subcategory of Men Who Have Played Elizabeth I, the finest version of which has to be Quentin Crisp in Sally Potter’s “Orlando” opposite Tilda Swinton, who has the dubious honor of being the Actor You’re Most Likely To Remember Playing Elizabeth I But Who Actually Hasn’t. Yet.

The Argument: With an Elizabeth for every mood and taste, it’s a tricky job to narrow the field, let alone pick a winner. Bearing in mind the slightly unfair advantage that an actor who has had eight hours of screen time in the role has over one who has a few minutes, and because it’s what we’re best equipped to judge, we’re biased toward a feature performance, purely because to be able to capture the contradictions and complexities of this incredible character in two hours is a major feat. What we’re really looking for is a performance that, at every moment, both chimes with the traditional idea of what and who Elizabeth was, while also humanizing her away from the stiff, unyielding, domineering figure that we learnt about in history books. For absolute accuracy to the historical facts, we’d plump for any of the miniseries over any of the films, but that’s not what we’re judging here either.

The Winner And Why: Bette Davis. Bette Davis. Sacrilege! Now, before you imprison us in the Tower for treachery or feed us to the swans, watch “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex”: Davis is extraordinary. Still young herself at 30, Davis fearlessly aged (and uglied) up to play the monarch in her later years, famously shaving her hair back and her eyebrows off altogether, and even demanding, over studio objections to the expense, that her costumes be modeled on existing Holbein portraits of the Queen. She famously had hoped for Laurence Olivier in the role of Essex, her lover and foil, and was disappointed with Errol Flynn until years later when she revised her opinion of his performance. And indeed he’s very good, but only because he seems to be rising to somewhere near her level: quite aside from the physical resemblance she achieves, her Elizabeth is brilliant and insecure, loyal and spiteful, noble and vain all in every breath, and if the frou-frou technicolor trappings of the film occasionally make it seem insubstantial, every second she’s on screen it falls into secure orbit around her. Which is kind of what the country, and the known world, did around Elizabeth herself.

The One You Might Not Have Seen: He’s not in it very much, which is probably another reason it’s so effective, but Quentin Crisp’s turn in Sally Potter’s wonderful and weird take on Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” is a real treat. It’s a sly wink of a performance that is good enough to stand on its own, but also nods to everything from the Elizabethan practice of having men play women’s roles on stage, to the film’s own gender-switching themes, to the persistent rumor/conspiracy theory that Elizabeth I, due to her childlessness and also to her strategic cleverness and political savoir faire, was in fact a man in drag. I mean, it’s the only possible explanation...

The Last Temptation of Christ

Jesus Christ

The Contenders: As if it was final proof that good triumphs over evil, big J.C. has appeared on screen even more times than Dracula—there's nearly 400 listings for him as a character on IMDb, from silents to the upcoming "Son Of God" by way of "South Park" and "Robot Chicken." Ruling out the performances that don't go much further than cameos ("Ben Hur," "The Robe," "Life Of Brian" et al.), we're left with a brace of serious possibilities: H.B. Warner in Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 silent "The King Of Kings"; Jeffrey Hunter in Nicholas Ray's 1961 "King of Kings"; Enrique Irazoqui in Pasolini's 1964 "The Gospel According To Matthew"; Max Von Sydow in 1965's "The Greatest Story Ever Told"; Victor Garber and Ted Neely in 1973 musicals "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar"; Robert Powell in Zeffirelli's 1977 made-for-TV epic "Jesus Of Nazareth"; Willem Dafoe in Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation Of Christ"; and Jim Caviezel in Mel Gibson's 2004 "The Passion Of The Christ."

The Argument: Christ might be the trickiest part to pull off on this list: play him as "Christlike," as it were, and you risk being dull, but put too much humanity in the part and you bring down the moral majority on your head. We'd argue that Warner and Hunter fall in that category, while Garber and Neely are too much slaves to the musical numbers to really make a lasting impression. Enrique Iraqoqui (a Spanish economics student who'd never acted before) is a rather remarkable presence in Pasolini's film, though there are rough edges on the performance, while Jim Caviezel does a fair but unexceptional job in Mel Gibson's otherwise unpleasant retelling, especially given that his dialogue in Aramaic. But ultimately, we come down to Robert Powell's unearthly, yet human take in the Zefferelli miniseries, and Dafoe's flawed, angst-ridden Jesus H in Scorsese's film.

The Winner And Why: Willem Dafoe. Controversial to this day (it's still banned in Singapore and the Philippines), the film makes a case for being one of Scorsese's best, or at least his most soulful, films, and so much of that is down to Dafoe. He never plays Christ as the son of God, but as a man, and fully rises to challenges inherent in that. If the mob who firebombed the French cinema showing the film, or any of the other kneejerk religious critics actually sat down to watch the thing, they'd find in Dafoe someone who makes Jesus' plight and sacrifice more moving than any other version.

The One You Haven't Seen: For a (very) alternative take, check out Hal Hartley's 60-minute 1998 curio "The Book of Life," a digitally-shot, present-day tale of Millennial apocalypse that sees Hartley regular Martin Donovan take on Christ (with no less than P.J. Harvey as Mary Magdalene). Along similar lines, Christopher Eccleston is rather good in TV two-parter "The Second Coming," from "Doctor Who" rebooter Russell T. Davies.

The Dark Knight Rises, Batman

Batman

The Contenders: Arguably the movies' most popular superhero (he's been consistently more successful than Superman, and gone through more incarnations than Spider-Man or Iron Man), billionaire-orphan-turned-crime-fighter Bruce Wayne, better known as Batman, first came to the screen in a 1943 serial for Columbia, played by Lewis Wilson, with a follow-up, "Batman And Robin," in 1949 with Robert Lowery donning the cowl. But the first to truly become famous was Adam West, in the TV series that ran from 1966 to 1968 (as well as the movie spin-off that was filmed after the first season). Twenty years later, Michael Keaton got the keys to the Batmobile for Tim Burton's megabudget 1989 "Batman," and reprised the role in 1992 sequel "Batman Returns" before Val Kilmer, and then George Clooney, took over for 1995's "Batman Forever" and 1998's "Batman and Robin," respectively. The latter put paid to the franchise for a while, but it was rebooted to huge success by Christopher Nolan with 2005's "Batman Begins," in which Christian Bale played the role. Nolan and Bale reunited for the second and third parts of the trilogy, 2008's "The Dark Knight" and 2012's "The Dark Knight Rises." Ben Affleck will play the role in "Batman Vs. Superman," but you'll have to wait until 2016 to see that happen, now that the film's been delayed.

The Argument: Let's assume for a minute we can disregard Wilson and Lowery from the serials, who from what we've seen, are fairly deservedly brushed over in the history of the character. West is gloriously silly (it says something about the endurance of his performance that people still make references to his catchphrase), though it's obviously lightweight stuff—though some would argue, perhaps correctly, that it's the appropriate tone for something based on the funny papers. George Clooney's one film in the Batsuit is almost as campy, which is a shame—he's the Timothy Dalton of the franchise, a decent bit of casting wasted on disappointing material. That said, we'd probably take him over Val Kilmer, who looks miserable for every second that he's on screen in "Batman Forever." As for the greatest ever, it probably depends on your age as to whether you go for Keaton, whose casting proved unlikely, or Bale, the grittier 21st Bat-avatar, as the seminal pick.

The Winner And Why: Christian Bale. Keaton is great in the role, with a wry humor that none of the other Batmen matched, and his two films are pretty solid. But ultimately, he has a tendency to fade into the background a bit, with Burton much more interested in the villain. "Batman Begins" might be the weakest of Nolan's trilogy, but it's the only Batman movie to actually be about Batman, rather than his adversaries, and even in Nolan's sequels, there's much more depth to the character than you find elsewhere. And Bale, while a bit dour, is superb, delivering multiple performances in one—there's wounded orphan boy Bruce Wayne, there's the public persona of Bruce Wayne, drunken playboy, and there's the monstrous and intimidating alter ego (and yeah, the gravelly voice can become silly in places, but it was an inspired choice to begin with). The actor takes the odd concept of a man who dresses up as a flying rodent to fight crime and sells it as something you can empathize with, and that's a hell of an achievement.

The One You Might Not Have Seen: We were tempted to unseat Bale for Will Arnett's vocal turn in "The Lego Movie" based on the trailer alone, but we should probably wait for the film to actually come out before we do that. But we should shine a light on another great animated performance, that of Kevin Conroy. The voiceover specialist first voiced Bruce Wayne for the seminal "Batman: The Animated Series" in 1992, and twenty years on, continues to crop up in straight-to-DVD animations and video games. In many ways, his performances are just as iconic and influential as Keaton and Bale's have been.

This article is related to: Features, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Feature, James Bond, Batman, Superman


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