Dan asked me to submit something for him to use in this massive Spielberg-themed week, and so I have dutifully stepped up to bat (which is a baseball term if I’m not mistaken, a genre of film Spielberg is yet to take up) and provided my take on the ten best characters in all of Spielberg’s films. Which is, the films he’s actually directed, because if we went on the films he’s been producer on or some other backstage role, we’d be here all day and the internet would collapse. Paring down the multitude of characters in his films is quite a challenge, although I think I’ve done well with the below list. No doubt you’ll all inform me of my mistakes in selection down in the comments, but I’m okay with that. My brief (which I gave to myself, because Dan was busy re-watching Jaws for the hundredth time!) was to choose characters that were the most unique, the most entertaining, and the most enjoyable to watch. They may be good or bad guys, I make no preference, but they must be good characters first and foremost. Iconic, stick-in-your-mind characters that are the first thing you think of when talking about each film. With that in mind, here’s my selection of the best characters to appear in films directed by Mr Spielberg. Oh, and one last thing. If anyone’s keen to do a list of the worst characters in his films, my top choice would be Kate Capshaw’s fingernail-tearing performance as Willie in The Temple Of Doom. Just so ya’all know.
10. John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) in Jurassic Park and The Lost World: Jurassic Park
Godfather of the Jurassic Park concept, John Hammond is ostensibly a philanthropic advocate for science to benefit mankind…. through the creation of man-eating, intelligent and enormous dinosaurs. Although flawed in his vision, at least from a “benefit to mankind” way of thinking, Hammond is a likeable and morally upright character, even if he’s blinded by visions of potential billions. Richard Attenborough looks slightly enough like Santa Claus in Jurassic Park, to engender that endearing “crazy uncle in the corner” kind of warmth from the audience, and when he finally realises his folly in giving DNA-rebirth to the dinosaurs of the film, you genuinely feel sorry for him. Attenborough is a good enough actor to give Hammond the warmth and genteel benevolence of a great man trying to do a great thing, without overplaying his role.
Key Character Moment: The flea circus speech. John Williams score absolutely nailed this scene.
9. Gertie (Drew Barrymore) in ET: The Extra-terrestrial
Cute as a button, emotive and one of the best female characters Spielberg ever directed (aside from Marion Ravenwood), Drew Barrymore’s portrayal of Gertie, the sister to Henry Thomas’s Eliot, remains the most personal of all the choices in this list. As a kid, I identified more with her than with any of the other characters, although I still can’t figure out why to this day. Barrymore’s emotional conviction, especially towards the dramatic end of the film, really tugs on your heartstrings, sticks in your brain and doesn’t let go.
Key Character Moment: ET’s lipstick and eye-liner.
8. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) in Jurassic Park
Alongside John Hammond (above), Jurassic Park’s most enjoyable character is, for me, Goldblum’s stuttering Ian Malcolm, a Chaotician invited to the park to keep the InGen lawyers at bay, an impartial observer willing to give an assessment of the facility before it opens to the public. At the time of filming, Goldblum and co-star Laura Dern were a real-life couple, and their chemistry shows, even though Dern’s character is actually in a relationship with fellow cast-member Sam Neill’s. Even though this relationship is only barely hinted at during the film, Goldblum and Dern have a genuine chemistry (check out the scene in the jeep when he’s explaining Chaos Theory to her…) that, for some reason, heightens our attachment to him. Goldblum is a solid actor, and Spielberg capitalises on his unique line delivery and mannerisms by casting him as somebody always seeking to understand chaos, when he himself could be mildly chaotic. When he’s injured midway through the film, Goldblum is essentially bed-ridden in the facility’s main building, and remains a fairly passive character for the duration. But his verbal wit and snarky, pointed comments (“your scientists were so busy worrying if they could, they didn’t stop think if they should”…) make for a truly memorable character.
Key Character Moment: Upon hearing the remark from Alan Grant (Sam Neill) that he’ll soon be out of a job, Malcolm sneaks in a great line: “Don’t you mean extinct?”. Delivered perfectly, this near-throwaway line is the best one in the film.
7. John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) in Amistad
No other presidential portrayal in cinema has been as beautiful to watch as Hopkins’ iconic John Q Adams, one of America’s most celebrated forefathers, and the 6th President to govern the country. Adam’s was central to the defence of rescued black African slaves from the ship Amistad, and among the first major figures to fight against slavery in the USA. Hopkins is such a fine actor that he doesn’t overplay the role, bringing a nuanced humanity to the former President, a level-headedness surrounded by racism and bigotry in his job. Watching Hopkins deliver his lines with effortless ease is magnificent to watch, and easily outclasses the otherwise fine cast including Morgan Freeman, Matthew MacConnoughey and Nigel Hawthorne. Djimon Honsou’s breakthrough portrayal of one of the captured slaves is white-hot in it’s searing emotional power, but I tend to think Hopkins outclasses even that with his performance of Adams.
Key Character Moment: an enormous monologue in the films courtroom finale, espousing the freedom of men and the barbarity of slavery. Hopkins hasn’t nailed a scene like this since.
6. Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan) in The Temple Of Doom
In all of film history, no other sidekick has provoked as much fanboy enthusiasm as Short Round, the little Asian kid with a whip-smart mouth and attitude to burn. The lacklustre Temple Of Doom, perhaps the most derided of all the Indiana Jones films, is given a much needed dose of humour from the pint sized man-child, a boy who can drive a car, fall from a plane and eat monkey brains (okay, perhaps not) with as much aplomb and decorum as Indy himself. Unlike the female companion in the film, Willie (Kate Capshaw, who, as it turned out, remained the most despised female lead in a film before Maria Pitillo joined Matthew Broderick in 1997’s Godzilla) Short Round was the perfect audience pleaser for the franchise: he could answer back to Indy, hold his own in a fight, and connect with a younger audience in what was a fairly dark story.
Key Character Moment: Indy and Short Round playing cards in the jungle, where Indy discovers the kid’s been cheating all along.
5. Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind
It’s a toss-up which Dreyfuss character is better: Roy Neary or Jaws’ Matt Hooper, but I think Neary is more accessible to audiences. While Hooper’s ichthyologist role was more simply a plot device to give us information on the films titular shark, Roy Neary is a character we can get to know, and emotionally connect with. Neary is involved in an alien encounter, in which his vehicle is tossed about in a beam of light like a rag doll in a hurricane. It leaves him with a single image in his head: an enormous natural formation similar to a massive butte, which ends up being the Devils Tower in Wyoming. He believes he’s going mad, as he tries to figure out what the vision means and why he’s been chosen: until he makes his way to the enormous natural monument and encounters an Alien Visitation. One of Dreyfuss’ best performances (in my opinion), Neary is a character we can all identify with in one form or another: he’s middle class, family oriented and lives a fairly mundane lifestyle in suburbia, must like the majority of us. But his life is thrown into turmoil by his alien encounter, and it’s his dealing with this that makes for great viewing.
Key Character Moment: Sculpting a floor-to-ceiling scale model of the Devils Tower from dirt and clay in his living room, and having the balls to ask his wife what she finds so wrong with it.
4. Henry Jones Snr. (Sean Connery) in The Last Crusade
The stars aligned somewhat when Spielberg cast Sean Connery as Indiana Jones’s dad. Outside of James Bond, this would be regarded as one of Connery’s most iconic role, and a role I think he had the most fun doing. It’s certainly a blast to watch two old hands go at it like Ford and Connery do, arguing through the film like a real dysfunctional family. Their dysfunction not only causes humour between each other (such as Henry’s constant eye rolling and disapproval at Indy’s unique methods of despatching bad-guys) but also for their supporting cast (Sallah can’t believe Indy is named after the family dog, for example) and this wonderful development of their characters is brilliant to watch. Henry is possibly the only man Indy actually fears, or at least has some timidity around, since he allowed Indy to grow up almost entirely without parental supervision save a good education in history and life.
Key Character Moment: (after being tied up by the Nazis and a short discussion about recent fling Elsa Schneider, Henry remarks: “I’m as human as the next man”, to which Indy responds “I WAS the next man!”. The look on Connery’s face is priceless. No doubt the cinema audience at the time had a similar look.
3. Quint – (Robert Shaw) in Jaws
Almost Eastwood-esque in his delivery, Robert Shaw gave us one of cinemas most iconic monologues: the famous USS Indianapolis Speech, in which he imparts the story of a wartime US ship sinking that had much of the crew surrounded by, and eaten by, sharks. As the shark catcher Quint, Shaw was at his most garrulous, wonderfully underplaying the seriousness of the film with that manic glint in his eyes. His character also perfectly counter-pointed the more affable Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider, who go shark hunting with Quint in Jaws. Jaws was Spielberg’s first genuine blockbuster film, the success of which allowed him to become one of the industries most influential and powerful directors. While Dreyfuss and Scheider provide the “everyman” characters the audience can identify with, Shaw gave us the hard-ass sea Captain Quint, the tobacco chewing loner whose knowledge of sharks is perhaps superseded only by his respect for them. When Quint scraped his fingernails down that chalkboard to silence the terrified townspeople of Amity Island, you just know that this is the guy you want on your side when the proverbial hits the fan. He takes no crap, doesn’t mind a drink, and has a glare that could strip paint.
Key Character Moment: The look on Quints face when he sees the shark in full for the first time (when Scheider utters the immortal line: “I think you’re gonna need a bigger boat”. Either that or the Indianapolis speech. Whichever you prefer.
2. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, The Temple of Doom, The Last Crusade and Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull
One of cinema’s most enduring icons, alongside Yoda, James Bond and Woody & Buzz, Indiana Jones is the ultimate man’s man, the ultimate adventure hero, and one of Hollywood’s genuine success stories. Created by George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan, Indy appeared on our screens in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, played by Han Solo himself, Harrison Ford. Indy was an archaeologist, scouring the globe for rare antiquities to be sent to the College he works at. In Raiders, Indy was on the hunt for the Ark of The Covenant, supposedly the box housing the original Ten Commandments brought down from the mountain by Moses. In the follow-up, The Temple Of Doom, Indy and his sidekick Short Round, as well as showgirl Willie Scott, must save the children of an Indian province from the clutches of a mysterious and deadly doomsday cult, a cult which practices dark magic and voodoo. The third instalment, The Last Crusade, sees Indy and his father, Henry Jones, hunting down the Holy Grail, said to be the cup Christ used at the Last Supper. Most recently, Indy teamed up with his own son Mutt, and on-again-off-again ally Mac to determine the origin of a mysterious crystal skull, an object that appears to be able to corrupt the human mind. Harrison Ford can go to his grave safe in the knowledge that his portrayal of Indian Jones remains one of his most iconic, although you may have a fight on your hands with a Star Wars fan over that title. While Raiders and Crusade were extremely well received by audiences, Temple Of Doom and the recent Crystal Skull entries were less than satisfactory for a number of reasons. Regardless of the quality of the film, though, the character of Indiana Jones remains the new template for any and all adventure heroes since, and most others are merely a poor copy of him.
Key Character Moment: In his search for Marion after she’s captured by the Nazis, Indy finds himself confronted by a sword-wielding Egyptian. Rather than fight the man mano-e-mano, Indy simply shoots him and continues his search.
1. Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey) in Raiders Of The Lost Ark
Arguably the most memorable character of all the Indiana Jones films, and by definition the Spielberg canon as a whole, Ronald Lacey’s snivelling, slimy and utterly evil Toht, the trench-coat wearing, creepy-lipped Nazi interrogator remains one of cinemas great Bad Guys. After pursuing Indy across the globe in search of “the headpiece to the Staff of Ra”, and ending up having his hand burnt horribly during a battle in Marion Ravenwood’s Tibetan bar, Toht becomes critical to Hitler’s plan of finding the Ark of the Covenant, due to the headpiece’s instructions being imprinted into his flesh. Alternately nasty and comedic, Toht is a character that sticks in the mind more than any other, and he’s certainly a guy you can’t wait to see get his comeuppance. And does he ever, with his death scene at the end of Raiders one of cinema’s most iconic. Of all Spielberg’s villains, Toht remains the high point.
Key Character Moment: Entering a tent to further interrogate Marion, Toht shows us what looks like some kind of torture device involving a chain – as he begins to attach various bits of it, it turns out to be a simple coat-hanger. Lacey plays this wonderfully straight, and the humour is heightened because of it.
Part of Steven Spielberg Week on Top10Films