Monday, November 24, 2008

MM’s Unsympathetic Protag Survey

Hey guys,

My next article for
Script, which is due mid-December for the March/April issue, is all about unsympathetic protagonists.

And I’d like to ask my brilliant readers out there to share with me their favorite unsympathetic protags. I’m already planning to write about Scrooge (A Christmas Carol), Salieri (Amadeus), Phil Connors (Groundhog Day), Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (The Lives of Others), Michael Corleone (maybe from The Godfather), Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood), and one of my favs, the
Diabolical Don G.

I tried to highlight the biggies that everyone would recognize.

But how many other unsympathetic protags can you think of?



Matt said...

Michael Corleone is an interesting choice. I wonder if most people view him as "unsympathetic" because I feel the exact opposite. He's a guy who, yes, does a lot of bad things... but for the right reasons. Part II Corleone I understand - he does some pretty coldblooded things for no particular reason at all - but Part I? I don't know.

You got Plainview, who's one of the best unsympathetic protagonists to come along in quite some time. I personally have a weak spot for Seth Gecko from FROM DUSK TILL DAWN; here's a guy who destroys a lot of lives and has very little remorse about it. And even the little remorse he has never makes him change course or re-evaluate his ways. But the whole film works because of him, and because the film never attempts to redeem him, or have him turn around and be a nice guy at the end.

Billy Bob in BAD SANTA is also a possibility, though I'm not the bigest fan of that film and can't really speak to the specifics.

When you think about it, The Dude is a fairly unsympathetic person. Fun to watch in a movie, yes, but I wouldn't want to know him (and I wouldn't want to be his landlord either).

I'm excited to hear about another Script article... but sad to hear that I'll have to wait till March to read it.

James Hull said...

I'm with Mark about interesting choices, but my disagreement would be with Hptmn. Weisler. I felt sympathy for him from the moment he came on screen and therefore don't feel he fits into the same category with the likes of Scrooge or Salieri. I never felt that he was an unlikable main character.

Still, I look forward to reading your article. (Sry, I just love The Lives of Others so much I couldn't stand idly by while one of its characters had their "character" called into question! :))

Kat said...

How about the Firefly family from The Devil's Rejects?

Elver said...

Would protags whose views you simply don't agree with qualify?

Like, say, the protag in Oliver Stone's "W."?

DougJ said...

Patrick Bateman (American Psycho)

Kit Carruthers (Badlands)

Just about anyone in Pulp Fiction

Kevin said...

My choices, to add to yours, would be:

Dede Truitt (Christina Ricci) -- The Opposite of Sex.

Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) -- Thank You for Smoking.

Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) -- Election.

A huge one, I think is:

Julianne Potter (Julia Roberts) -- My Best Friend's Wedding.

... and ... uhm ...

John Hancock (Will Smith) -- Hancock.

terraling said...

I think some unsympathetic characters work because they are studies of fascinating if unlikeable people (De Niro in Scorcese films such as Taxi Driver or Raging Bull come to mind) who maybe have in common that they are their own worst enemy, the seeds of their downfall is internal.

Also, films where what the characters do is so outside of our own experience, so killers - and specifically cold-blooded killers who do so without remorse - also work well. There must be lots in that category, from Hollywood fare such as Tom Cruise in Collateral to, I dunno, Man Bites Dog, say.

Something like Monster is a good contrast in that the film works hard to establish sympathy before the killing starts.

It may be cheating but Bruno Gantz's portrayal of Hitler in the brilliant Downfall.

James said...

I'd toss in McMurphy from ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST.

He's a coward. Ditches service and a sentence by pretending to be insane. No respect for authority or the rules of society.

And yet, by the end of the film you end up liking him. You see what he ends up doing for the patients. You actually see him as a heroic character -- that his actions aren't based out of cowardice.

He's a very nicely rounded character.


Similarly, Lucas Jackson from COOL HAND LUKE.

Why do we care so much for him? He's on this path to self destruction, but we want him to succeed.

terraling said...

I'm decorating and just emptied the video cupboard - add Clockwork Orange and Leaving Las Vegas to the list?

I'd like to see you define terms well, vis-a-vis unsympathetic vs. unlikeable etc. A key difference is whether we understand - or are made to understand - the motivations etc that make a character behave unsympathetically. Michael Corleone, we have a pretty good handle on how he becomes the man he is and behaves the way he does, for example. The difference between sympathy and empathy.

Lisa said...

Briony from Atonement? Tough one. I didn't like her because of what she did. But at the same time, when I saw that she felt horrible about it - tried to make it right - then I felt sorry for her. Plus I felt maybe she just didn't realize at all the kind of consequences that would come from her accusation. So...maybe this one doesn't work at all...=)

Racicot said...

I'd like to second De Niro's 'Raging Bull,' and add Michael Douglas' 'Falling Down' protag.

I'd also be supremely interested in unsympathetic Comedy protag's.

Awesome subject though MM. I'm asking for a Script subscription for X-Mas.

Racicot said...

I guess a distinction can be drawn between those Unsympathetic Protag's (UP's) we love and those we don't. I would include Phil Connors, and Michael Corleone along with 'Falling Down's' protag in the former, but the others on your list as being truly unlikable.

Are there any contemporary UP's we're missing?

And why don't we have more UP's in today's cinema? Too many in our Comedies?

Anonymous said...

Matt Damon in any of the following:

The Good Shepherd

The Departed

The Talented Mr. Ripley

Joshua James said...

Jon Voight in RUNAWAY TRAIN, based on the Kurasawa script . . . a classic example (and Voight was nominated, too).

Anonymous said...

Melvin Udall in "As Good As It Gets".

Sol Nazerman in "The Pawnbroker".

Christina said...

I think Tracy Flick in Election is actually an antagonist, not the protagonist. Matthew Broderick is the protagonist and he's sympathetic.

But I've got a good example of a unsympathetic protagonist in a comedy -

Miles from Sideways

Sideways is one of my favorite movies. I've found that some people don't like the movie and when I press them for the reasons why, they're like, "Well those guys were such losers..." It's when Miles steals money from his mother that he goes from simple dysfunctional underachiever to unsympathetic, but he holds our interest.

Michael Dorsey from Tootsie isn't exactly a great guy. Upon repeated viewings (I've watched it like 30 times over the last 5 years), you realize he's actually an asshole. But when you see him dressed as a woman, it's funny, like the asshole is getting his due, so I don't think the audience realizes - man, this guy is a total male chauvinist, self-serving, woman-using asshole. The movie is about an asshole who becomes not an asshole by being a woman. In that regard, he's like Phil Connors from Groundhog Day.

Emily Blake said...

Carolyn Fry from Pitch Black.

Because I think Pitch Black is the answer to every question.

And Sweeny Todd starts out sympathetic but loses that as soon as he starts killing.

terraling said...

While painting my mind keeps wandering back to this... Clint Eastwood in his Sergio Leone pictures and as Dirty Harry. Very much the good guy, but not exactly sympathetic.

How about Robert Altman's ensemble films? Multiple unsympathetic protags.

R said...

How about Ruth Stoops from CITIZEN RUTH.
Brilliant and hilarious performance from Laura Dern ("Sorry... soooooooorry."), but not a sympathetic character.

David Alan said...

Really, Daniel Plainview is boring. On top of that, the movie sucked. Nobody cares about your milkshake! Drink it and shut the fuck-up already. Christ!


I still harbor unwarranted animosity against that movie for some stupid reason. Anyway, I dig the Groundhog Day pick. Seems like it’d be fun to write on as opposed to the others...and with that in’s some picks off the top of my head --


-- Overboard

Joanna (Goldie Hawn) and Dean (Kurt Russell)

-- Crimson Tide

Ramsey (Gene Hackman) and Hunter (Denzel Washington)

Both are right and wrong. You come to understand both sides.

Light Versions:

-- Dirty Dancing

Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze)

-- Romancing the Stone

Jack T. Colton (Michael Douglas)

Both start out as asshole and are later redeemed.

Hard Version:

-- Indecent Proposal

John Gage (Robert Redford) and Diana Murphy (Demi Moore)

Both are totally unredeemable.

Surprise Picks:

-- Heart Condition

Jack Moony (Bob Hoskins)

The last one...and I think your really going to like a little animated feature called --

Beauty and the Beast

Now all of these picks are subjective. Plus there are different degrees and variations of UP’s. So just make sure to bring the fun. Or just send in that legendary sermon.

-- David Alan

Craig said...

How about the lead trifecta from L.A. Confidential: Bud White, Edmund Exley, and Jack Vincennes, all of whom have shifting virtues and vices that keep you constantly questioning your own responses to them. Magnificent bastards all, as Curtis Hanson said.

j_kagan said...

Hannibal Lecter, Gordon Gekko, Tommy DeVito, Tony Montana, The Man With No Name(Clint)

David Muhlfelder said...

I can't believe nobody mentioned Henry Hill in "Goodfellas."

j_kagan said...

sorry Gekko, and DeVito were antagonists, so was Lecter, I guess James Cagney in Public Enemies, and Citizen Kane would be good as protagonists

Barbara said...

What about Edward Norton's character in Fight Club?
I agree with whoever said anyone in Pulp Fiction.

marnie said...

One of my fav movies is "High Fidelity". John Cusack's character "Rob Gordon" is such a self centered asshole. His girlfriend leaves him and moves in with another guy. He wants her back so bad and when she tells him they haven't slept together yet he celebrates by going out and sleeping with someone himself. Then the next day he's trying to get her back again. And Jack Black is hysterical. I gotta go watch it now. :)

Trevor said...

Hamlet. How did no one say that yet? Also, Tom Cruise in Rain Man.

But, I have an issue with the term "unsympathetic". It suggests that we don't sympathize with the characters when we usually either follow them on an arc towards sympathy (like in Rain Man, or A Christmas Carol), or on an arc towards destruction (Hamlet, Godfather, There Will be Blood). And even in the 2nd instance I'd say we sympathize with their flaws, because we all have the same ones or those like them, though usually (hopefully) in lesser extremes.

Mystery Man said...

I'm completely overwhelmed!

Every suggestion has been duly noted!


Joshua James said...

One more - William HOlden in THE WILD BUNCH

crossword said...

What a great subject! Let's see...

Ben Shockley (Clint Eastwood) - The Gauntlet (1977)

Noodles (Robert De Niro) – Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Nikita (Anne Parillaud) – La Femme Nikita (1990)

Lt. Thomas Hart (Colin Farrell) - Hart’s War (2002)

Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr) – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

Bob (Christian Slater) – He was a Quiet Man (2007)

Boy... some great examples already given by others. I'd forgotten about Michael Dorsey (Tootsie).

Anonymousy said...

--the pedophile/ex-con Kevin Bacon played in "The Woodsman"

--the serial murderer Charlize Theron played in "Monster"

--Billy Bob Thorton's character in "Bad Santa"

crossword said...

God, I've been thinking about this all day. lol

What about Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) - A Fish Called Wanda (1988)...?

She's a scheming so-and-so but even though she's SUPPOSED to be unsympathetic, we forget her flaws because this is all delicious farce.

crossword said...

Oh yeah... we mustn't forget old Barbara (Kathleen Turner) in "The War of the Roses" (1989).


I remember really disliking her (and the film) when it first came out. Some stories though grow on you over time. :)

Mystery Man said...

Love it! I frickin' love it!

Is this all the characters you people can come up with?

Bwaaah ha ha ha ha!

I'm in heaven.


GabbaGoo said...

Just seen this topic...Hows about Michael Douglas in "The Game"...

Speaking of going to need to see that one again..

Mystery Man said...

Really? It's been a while since I last watched that film.


Trevor said...

Another Shakespeare protagonist: Macbeth. Also, Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting for Godot. They're pathetic but not sympathetic.

Is it a problem that I seem to mostly be thinking of plays?

Mystery Man said...

Hehehe... Not at all. Thanks for that.


crossword said...

It has been a while since I saw this, but what about Fast Eddie (Paul Newman) in "The Hustler" (1961) ?

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