Saturday, December 26, 2009

Great Douchebags of American Cinema

This morning, I woke up to a blanket of snow outside, killing my plans to go to the library and run a couple errands in favor of curling up with some pretty great Saturday afternoon programming on cable. Encore, in particular, is a real MVP today, running a weekend-long marathon of 80's movies. I also stumbled across a particular favorite of mine -- Nine to Five. As I was watching Dolly, Lily, and Jane rise above their chauvinist boss, a thought occurred to me: "Whatever happened to Dabney Coleman?" In the 80's and early 90's, that guy was a real go-to player, appearing in countless classics like Tootsie, War Games, The Man With One Red Shoe, and more. He made several attempts to parlay his cinematic success into small-screen success, but people never warmed to his patented brand of unabashed asshole at home the way they did at the movie theatres. His recent work has been mostly television work, though -- supporting roles on forgotten series or made-for-tv movies -- or small roles in not paricularly successful films like Domino. He has been cast in HBO's upcoming series Boardwalk Empire, so here's hoping Dabney is able to parlay that into some more high profile work.

Pondering the course of Dabney's career, though, got me thinking about other great character actors like him, actors who seemingly made their careers playing douchebags. They are the unsung heroes of the American cinema -- providing conflict, helping make our protagonists more likeable, and giving us a rooting interest in how the movie turns out. We want to see the douchebag fail -- and hopefully fail miserably. Many of them make a handful of memorable films with memorably douchey characters only to fade away to obscurity and made-for-Lifetime films. Others outgrow the douchebag and create new phases of their careers with more sympathetic characters. And still others play the douche for the course of their entire careers, each new character more douchey than the one before.

And so today, let's recognize these great douchebags for all they've given us (and film). Here's a list of my favorite Cinematic Douchebags, members of the Dabney Coleman Hall of Fame. Please feel free to share YOUR list in the comments.

10. Ted McGinley McGinley is better known as a series killer -- appearing on numerous classic television shows once they've jumped the shark and are in their waning years. Check out his resume -- Happy Days, Love Boat, Dynasty, Married With Children. While his arrival doesn't mean surefire, instant cancellation (many of those shows survived many seasons once McGinley showed up), it surely is seen as a sign that the show's glory years are gone, long gone. While that alone may make McGinley a seeming douchebag, what earns him this spot on the list is one of his earliest roles -- that of Stan Gable in Revenge of the Nerds. Talk about a douchebag!! The guy seems to get his kicks from bullying and tormenting a group of innocent freshmen. His frat house burns down; Stan kicks the "nerds" out of the dorms. When the nerds get their own house, Stan and his cro-magnon buddies attack it. Why? What did those nerds ever do to him? Nothing! Supreme douchebag!

9. Bill Murray WHAT? How could I include Bill Murray on this list of hissworthy douchebags? Well, here's the thing -- sometimes, douchebags are likable, and Bill Murray started his career playing just such a thing. Set aside your indignation for a second and really think about those early roles -- Tripper in Meatballs, Carl Spackler in Caddyshack, John in Stripes, Frank Cross in Scrooged, even Dr. Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters. All of those guys are douchebags, and yet we like them and root for them in spite of that. And yet if you knew any of them in real life, you would walk away from an encounter with them thinking, "What a douche!" Murray has given us an opportunity to see how these slacker douchebags grow up, maintaining the smarm AND the charm in films like Rushmore, The Royal Tennenbaums, and Lost in Translation. He even has had the honor of playing a great Shakespearean douche -- Polonius in Hamlet. (Yeah, I said it. Polonious is a douche -- using his daughter to suck up to the king. VERY douchey!) The other douchebags on this list aspire to be Bill Murray -- to keep douching it up for decades and to be adored for it at the same time.

8. Jason Hervey Hervey limited his douchebaggery to the small screen and really to one role, that of Kevin's big brother Wayne on The Wonder Years. Was there a more unlikable character on television in the late 80's and early 90's than Wayne? It seemed as if Wayne existed merely to bring tears to Kevin's big ol' doe eyes. That one role may not have been enough to land Hervey on this list if not for the fact that, as an adult, he's gone on to produce two incredibly douche-worthy shows -- Scott Baio is 45 and Single and Confessions of a Teen Idol. The first involved revealing to the world that Scott Baio is, in real life, a bit of a douchebag who suddenly realizes that maybe it's time to settle down and stop being a huge manwhore. The second involved a bunch of former teen idols making another attempt at stardom and coming to terms with their own real-life douchery. Other credits in Hervey's resume include a lot of WCW work (the spiritual home of many douchebags) as well as some show called I Want to Be a Hilton. Yeah, that's enough to earn you a spot on this list, pal.

7. Mark Metcalf A classic douche. Metcalf's career is full of small film and tv roles. Go check out his page on imdb and tell me you're not a little surprised to see how active he's been and how many great tv shows he's had guest spots on. But when most of us think of Mark Metcalf, we think of the role that made him famous, playing the psychotic douchebag Doug Neidermeyer in Animal House, a douchebag so horrific that his fate is to be killed by his own troops in Vietnam. Metcalf made another memorably douchey appearance in the video for Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It." Add to that his role as the Master in the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and you've got a guy who's managed to take douche to a supernatural level.

6. Thomas F. Wilson Wilson is another one-role douchebag. He's had a wide and varied career, largely television work, but he will forever be known as wannabe rapist Bif Tannen in Back to the Future. For much of the film, Wilson's Bif is your standard, run of the mill bully -- his go-to response to punch masks his complete lack of intelligence. And then comes the moment in the car where Bif attempts to rape Lorraine while his buddies beat the shit out of Marty. There is perhaps no moment more pleasurable in the history of film than when Marty returns to the "future" and we see that Bif has been reduced to the McFly family lacky. (Although why Lorraine McFly would want the man who once tried to rape her hanging around her family is beyond me).

5. William Atherton Has poor William Atherton EVER played a likable character? He is remembered (by me, at least) for two memorable, douchebag characters -- Dr. Jerry Hathaway in Real Genius and Richard Thornburg in Die Hard. He specialized in douches who were out for number one at all costs. Hathaway used his students to further his own career -- and to build a nefarious laser that would destroy all enemies. Thornburg compromised the safety of innocent children in order to score a great scoop. Both also get fantastic comeuppance -- whether it's Hathaway having his house filled (literally FILLED) with popcorn or Thornburg getting punched out by Bonnie Bedelia. Atherton has continued to build a respectable career full of small movies and guest appearances, but I guarantee you whenever he shows up on screen, I'm rooting for someone to punch his lights out.

4. Will Arnett Unlike many on this list, Arnett's brand of douchebaggery is still going strong. He is, perhaps, the face of modern Film Douches. Arnett was slogging away in small films and guest appearances until 2003 when he was cast as douchebag magician Gob Bluth on Arrested Development. Arnett parlayed his small screen douche success to the big screen in films such as Blades of Glory, Hot Rod, The Rocker, and Semi-Pro. One of his finest douchebags is another small screen role, his recurring role as the devious Devin Banks on 30 Rock. According to, Arnett has a slew of films on the horizon -- there will surely be a great douchebag in one of them.

3. >James Spader Spader was perhaps the poster child of 80's douchebags, primarily for his role as Steff in Pretty in Pink. Steff was smarmy, smug, elitist, and vile. He sets out to insert himself between Andi and Blaine for no real reason other than Andi was from the wrong side of the tracks -- and she had rejected him. Therein lies Steff's real motivation. He's not all about maintaining the classist lines that rule his school; he's all about making sure his buddy doesn't get to hit what he wanted to hit so badly. Steff wanted to slum it with Andi, and she turned him down, so she (and Blaine) must pay the price. Spader would go on to play equally douchey characters in Baby Boom, Mannequin, and Wall Street before morphing into more of an unsettling sleazeball later in his career. His Emmy-winning turn as Alan Shore on Boston Legal found Spader finding a way to merge his douchebag roots with a more socially aware perspective. There's no denying Alan Shore was a douche but he was a douche on a mission, with a cause, and for whom we could root time and time again without feeling too guilty.

2. William ("Billy") Zabka In all fairness, Zabka didn't really make a career playing douchebags; he made a career playing dicks. Just check out his 80's resume: The Karate Kid, Back to School, Just One of the Guys, European Vacation. Not a likeable, sympathetic character in the bunch. You actively rooted against Zabka, cheered when he was defeated, and sometimes thought his punishment just wasn't harsh enough. Zabka joined the cast of The Equalizer as the son of the Equalizer -- and that was pretty much the end of Zabka's career. Oh, don't get me wrong. Zabka has been active in the 20 years since then, appearing in 25 films between 2009 and 1991. His film credits in that time period include For Parents Only, Hyper Sonic, High Voltage, Shootfighter, Shootfighter II, The Man in the Silo, and Python 1 and 2. Have you heard of any of these? Yeah, me either. I suspect poor Billy painted himself into a corner that was pretty hard to get out of. His kind of bullying douchebag works well in teen films, but it doesn't work as well when adulthood sets in. That's when Billy's brand of douchebaggery goes from being a dick to being criminal, and no one wants to see that happen.

1. Jeremy Piven Another currently active douchebag, Piven is a triple threat -- holdng the distinction of being a douche on the silver screen, the small screen, and, reportedly, in real life as well. For the first part of his career, Piven's real distinction was being the somewhat douchey second banana in a lot of John Cusack movies (Grosse Point Blank, Serendipity, Say Anything). Then, he was Spence, Ellen's slacker, borderline douche cousin/roommate on Ellen. Piven really spread his wings at the turn of the century, becoming a pioneering frat pack douche in Old School and then becoming the king of the douchebags on HBO's Entourage. In true douchebag fashion, once Piven tasted that HBO success (and the three Emmy awards it brought with it), he decided to bite the hand that had once fed him, accusing "friend" John Cusack in 2007 of being jealous of his success. (Really? Let's be honest, whose career would you rather have? Piven's or Cusack's? Cusack may not have a shelf full of awards -- a real shame, if you ask me -- but at the end of the day, I'd rather have his filmography than Piven's. Add to that the fact that Cusack seems to be much more respected, and you have a real win there.) And we haven't even touched on Sushi Gate, which involved Piven taking his douchebaggery to Broadway to appear in David Mamet's douche-centric Speed-the-Plow and then dropping out midway through the run due to mercury poisoning brought about by eating too much sushi. Just the fact that the guy got sick eating "too much sushi" is so douchetastic I can't stand it, let alone the fact that he left a show high-and-dry like that. Mr. Piven, you are, indeed, King of the Douchebags. I bow to you, sir!


Danielle Mari said...

Funny, I was thinking about actors in the Great Douchey Hall of Fame category just this morning... I was thinking about how much I love Will Arnett (in 30 Rock most recently) and then I started thinking about how he's totally handsome enough and charming enough to play a lead... and I thought of Kevin Dillon-- also cute enough.... So I started wondering, what is it about those guys that made them douchey? Not their looks... CAN they play anything else? Or were they just really good and got typecast?
And is there an equivalent category for women? And what female actors would fit in that category?

Mel said...

Hmmm . . . perhaps a sequel to the list is in order with some Lady Douches.

Danielle Mari said...

Lady Douche sounds WRONG. We need to come up with a better name!

Mel said...

Hmmmm....Douchettes? Douchresses? Douchepurses? I'm working on my list! :)