When Jack Nicholson emerged from the shadows wearing a rictus grin in 1989's Batman, he didn't just lend a smirk to another superhero film. He brought beaming smiles to Best Actor Oscar winners everywhere. After wrangling a GDP-sized $60 million haul, Nicholson made it lucrative for them to pursue summer-blockbuster paychecks without worry of dinging their prestige. So what if mainstream audiences didn't love them in such a role? Cash is a comforting consolation in lieu of cachet.
In this week's The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Jamie Foxx is the latest Best Actor winner to go sinister for summer. With gapped teeth and gnarly combover, meek Max Dillon resembles one of Foxx's In Living Color characters. That's before an accident renders him a walking plasma ball that controls electricity. If only his slight resemblance to Mr. Freeze were all that reminded us of Joel Schumacher-era Batman. We're not talking Robert De Niro in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. But Foxx lacks the finesse of other Oscar-winning actors who danced with the devil (and the dollars) by the pale moonlight.
Best Actor: Reversal of Fortune (1990)
Summer Villain: Simon Gruber, Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)
A bleached-blond German who dresses like a mid-1990s A&R man, chugs aspirin to quell migraines and stutters when provoked doesn't seem formidable. But tell that to John McClane, on whom Irons' icy mercenary pounds in retaliation for throwing his brother off a roof. Simon is a menace even as a disembodied voice on the phone, and he doesn't just torment McClane. His punitive game of Simon Says shakes up New York City's status quo; the toxic dust clouds after his bombings are realistically unnerving. His most nefarious crime? That goddamn water puzzle, in which McClane and ersatz sidekick Zeus disarm a bomb using five- and three-gallon jugs to pour exactly four gallons—a stress trigger for the mathematically challenged.
Best Actor: Scent of a Woman (1992)
Summer Villain: Willy Bank, Ocean's Thirteen (2007)
Pacino was Oscar-less when he played "Big Boy" Caprice in Dick Tracy. Bank is equally grotesque—a sharp-toothed Vegas reptile with a stratospheric ego. When Bank swindles an Ocean associate, the crew sets out to sink his new casino. Rarely so repugnant or reserved, Pacino looks every long day of his 67 years, augmented by ludicrous highlights and droopy jowls. His thinly veiled Trump takedown mostly takes a backseat to fun flimflammery. Still, Bank rears his ridiculously coiffed head at the right moments, making even innocuous queries to guests about their day feel deliciously disingenuous.
Best Actor: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
Summer Villain: The Joker, Batman (1989)
It's tempting to write off Nicholson's goofy gibberish ("Never rub another man's rhubarb"), Palance impersonations and dorky dancing to Prince as Jack being Jack. These bits only seem inane, though, if you discount the psychological complexities inherent to Tim Burton's take—the Joker as unchecked id to Batman's blinding super-ego. All those teal cravats and floppy berets only enhance the flamboyance with which the Joker preys on vanity and greed. Is it still scenery-chewing? Sure. But at least Nicholson counts his calories.
Best Actor: Coming Home (1978)
Summer Villain: Jim Phelps, Mission: Impossible (1996)
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Best Actor: Capote (2005)
Summer Villain: Owen Davian, Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Amid physical prowess and globetrotting intrigue, these Mission: Impossible movies boast villains specializing in emotional and state-sponsored terrorism. As traitorous team leader Phelps, Voight revels in sotto voce sins from the start. He nonchalantly offers his wife as a sexual flytrap on missions (later smugly touting her prowess "having tasted the goods") and psychologically exploits hero Ethan Hunt's paternal respect. Before he's crushed under a helicopter, Phelps lands a few blows on Ethan—strutting off like a surly old cuss. Ethan's suspicions give him an upper hand on Phelps, but he holds no advantage over arms dealer Davian, even when dangling him from an airplane. That only emboldens Davian's resolve to deliver death by 1,000 cuts to Ethan and his fiancée: "I will hurt her. Make her bleed and cry and call out your name. And you're not going to be able to do shit." Hoffman eschews his hair-trigger eruptions for dry, deadly decrees, which we suspect is Davian's well-honed strategy against unmentioned past bullies. Such depth is a reminder that Hoffman approached no part perfunctorily.
Best Actor: American Beauty (1999)
Summer Villain: Lex Luthor, Superman Returns (2006)
Picking up on Gene Hackman's lead, Spacey hams it up as the recently released ex-con, trilling the R in Kryptonite with vaudevillian relish and bouncing like Bojangles while plotting the death of billions. Just when Spacey's soft-shoe preening becomes insufferable, he slips on steel-toed boots to kick Luthor's punitive plan into effect. On the outside, he remains a debonair dandy. Inside, he's a little bit Söze—prison having whittled his winsome ways into a shiv as spiky as the one with which he shanks a weakened Superman. Time will tell what Jesse Eisenberg, Zack Snyder's Oscar-nominated Luthor, will do in the role.
Best Actor: Shine (1996)
Summer Villain: Casanova Frankenstein, Mystery Men (1999)
Generally, an Oscar helps you avoid films in which you're farted on. Not so here, as Rush's villain is momentarily felled by a flatulent superhero wannabe. Casanova is a disco-loving pothead scientist with knife-sharp nails and a Teutonic tongue that sounds like Mel Brooks doing Werner Herzog. Rush rolls with the weirdness, hoping to char the city with enough time to "get stoned and boogie." Yet with a cast of comedians to placate, this scattershot movie picks their mugging over his mayhem—leaving Rush comparatively silent but deadly.
Photo by Niko Tavernise