Here at 25YLSite, we handle a lot of heavy lifting. Analysis, interpretation, deep discussion, introspective interviews… you name it, we’ve got it. “Favorites” takes a lighter approach to the material we normally cover. Each week, we will take you through a list of favorites – whether it’s moments, scenes, episodes, characters, lines of dialogue, whatever! – in bite-sized articles perfect for your lunch break, a dull commute, or anywhere you need to take a Moment of Zen. So, sit back and enjoy this week’s offering: The 25YL staff’s favorite Leading Characters in TV/Film
Choosing favorite leading characters from the whole history of everything feels a bit daunting! I’m sure I will miss someone, and regret it. That being said, I often find that the lead is not my favorite character on any given show, so I am going to try and approach this through that lens. These aren’t necessarily my most favorite performances by a lead actor ever, but they are all instances where I think the work meaningfully depends on the performance of the lead.
Daniel Holden (Aden Young), Rectify
Rectify is the best show I continue to feel like no one has seen. I guess people just aren’t into existential character dramas as much as they are shows that are fast-paced, plot-driven, and full of twists. Rectify has none of that; it is character-driven and meditative. And at its center is Daniel Holden, a man who was convicted or murder in the 90s, only to be let out of prison 19 years later when the evidence that led to his conviction falls through. What happened that night when he was a teenager remains a background mystery of the show, but that’s not the point. It’s about Holden’s attempts to readjust to the world, and his ontological displacement after all of those years on death row. And Young’s performance anchors the whole thing.
Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Rebecca Bunch is clearly struggling with mental illness, but, you know, it’s more nuanced than that. This show would be unimaginable without Bloom’s performance. Its force lies in the extent to which it makes us empathize with Rebecca, and root for her. And the musical numbers.
Sam Rockwell (Sam Bell), Moon
Best actor? How about only actor! Well, that’s not entirely true – there are other characters in this movie, like the computer – but it’s really all about Sam interacting with Sam.
Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars), Veronica Mars
This show made me want to be a PI, and I can’t imagine another lead. Veronica is perfect as a teenage sleuth, who is rational, resourceful. and an all-around badass.
Laura Dern (Nikki Grace/Susan Blue), Inland Empire
Inland Empire is perhaps David Lynch’s hardest film; it is also my favorite. It seems to me a film directed entirely from the unconscious mind – but is this even really a man’s Unconscious? Logic flails in trying to make sense of the film; as does psychoanalysis. I think an application of Deleuze & Guattari’s schizoanalysis might be fruitful, but that’s hard stuff in itself (as much as I love it). But, Laura Dern carries the film. It doesn’t have to “make sense” – she carries you through. This is a story about a woman in trouble.
I have a love/hate relationship with lists. With that in mind, I played a game of nostalgia bingo to find the characters that left an imprint in my life. They represent everything from indelible influences to those hard to forget details that stay somewhere near the heart.
Ellen Ripley (Alien,Aliens,Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection)
Ripley is timeless. She bravely stood up to our worst nightmares while shattering the very real villainy of prevalent glass ceilings. Today, she’s still inspiring girls to be powerful voices in creating their own films, series, and just about any other content you can imagine.
Jack Torrance (The Shining)
Anyone who claims to be writer can sympathize with the pain of writer’s block. Jack’s case of writer’s block is one for the ages. Both charming and frightening, he embodies the fight we all have against our greatest enemy, ourselves.
Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
It’s hard not to love Indiana. In a world of anti-heroes and dark backstories, there’s something to be said for his style of unencumbered heroics. A character that prizes intelligence and fairness over ignorance and cruelty. Dr. Jones made it cool to be the good guy.
Emma Peel (The Avengers)
There’s no one cooler than Emma Peel. At a time when many women were portrayed as one dimensional homemakers, she was her own woman. Viewers never saw her husband and it was perfect that way. Peel redefined style and sophistication with every well placed karate kick.
The DeLorean (Back to the Future)
Few cars are as iconic as Back to the Future’s DeLorean. It may not be a person, but it’s as much of a lead character as Doc and Marty. Without this stainless steel wonder, there would be no movie. It’s the car of a future that never quite came and a pretty good reminder that uniqueness is always welcome.
This is harder than it looks. Picking five leading characters is definitely not a task for the faint of heart, especially for a TV/film lover like me. Here’s my best effort to pick a Top 5 for this week’s Favorites:
Don Draper (Mad Men)
I can’t say enough about Don Draper (Jon Hamm). He’s not a particularly likable guy all the time, but he’s not a true antihero like Tony Soprano or Walter White is; he occupies an interesting middle ground, the kind of guy who schemes and seems to have a skewed moral center, but we understand his motivations all the same. And he does exhibit some true character growth over the course of the show’s seven seasons. Where he once showed little to no regard for the feelings of others — stomping on throats to get to the top, only to be humbled by his own hubris (and his alcoholism) by the end of the show he seemed to have faced a reckoning and come out okay, mending his relationship with his daughter in time to see the Sixties revolution come to a close. Love him or hate him, that’s got to count for something.
C.K. Dexter Haven/Macaulay “Mike” Connor (The Philadelphia Story – tie)
How do you choose a favourite when you’re pitting Cary Grant and James Stewart against one another? The short answer is: you can’t. Especially if you’re looking at The Philadelphia Story, which is just a beautiful film and if you disagree with me, we can’t be friends. Cary Grant plays CK Dexter Haven, the playboy ex-husband of Katharine Hepburn’s Tracy Lord, and Jimmy Stewart is earnest writer/gossip rag journalist Macaulay Connor, in a romping comedy about Tracy’s posh wedding. Stewart is always brilliant as the bumbling, stuttering leading man, and Grant is, well…he cuts a suave figure no matter where he is. But there’s something so effective about pairing these two together, with the imitable Katharine Hepburn as the third point in the triangle, that makes this film one of my favourites and earns these two a spot on my list.
Holly Golightly (Breakfast at Tiffany’s)
I love Holly Golightly. She’s probably one of my favourite female characters ever. Whether in her original iteration within Truman Capote’s novella or in the 1961 film directed by Blake Edwards, there is something very appealing about Holly (and add to that the charm of Audrey Hepburn and you can see why the film is one of my faves, in spite of the liberties it took with the novella.) She’s naive but street-smart. She has this ineffable spirit that is almost uniquely American, very New York, but also quietly dignified, a remnant of her country past. She’s trying so hard to be a grown up and yet can’t seem to shake the fact that her childhood was stolen from her. She’s tragic and beautiful and would probably be fun to actually have breakfast with, but really I just want to be her best friend.
Atticus and Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird – tie)
Once again, a movie and a book combine to claim a spot on my list. For me, my love of Atticus Finch goes back to tenth grade English class when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird but it was strengthened by Gregory Peck’s portrayal in the 1962 film. It’s not just because I find Gregory Peck to be all kinds of handsome; I think Atticus represents the best in us. Yes, he’s part of a system that codified its racism and sexism in abhorrent ways, but in spite of that, he sees the humanity inherent in Tom Robinson when very few others did. He’s listed as one of the greatest folk heroes and fictional characters of all time; but, arguably, his daughter Scout is the main character of the book and film. It’s through her eyes that we see the goings-on in the town of Maycomb, including the trial her father is working on. Scout is a fantastic portrayal of innocent childhood, fantastic for her sensitivity and curiosity. There’s something quietly poignant about the dramatic irony in having a small child navigate a world we know is unfair and ugly with kindness and compassion for her fellow citizens. And she learned that from her father.
Lucille Bluth (Arrested Development)
This is one of those things that looks like I’m trying to capitalize on current events but really, I love Lucille Bluth. Or maybe it’s Jessica Walter I love? Either way, her portrayal of the Bluth family matriarch is all kinds of amazing! She’s savage (“You want your belt to buckle, not your chair”) and biting (“You’re my third least favourite child”) and spectacularly out of touch with the rest of the world (“I mean, it’s one banana, Michael. What could it cost? 10 dollars?”) She gets off on being withholding. And she winks like no one I’ve ever seen — she’s a literal winky face emoji! What is not to love?
Coming off the tail of a lengthy set of essays on The Sopranos, I’m going to omit Tony Soprano from my list. I’ll start with some honorable mentions.
TV: Archie Bunker from All in the Family, Eric Cartman from South Park, Lucy Ricardo from I Love Lucy, Danny Tanner from Full House, Shane Vendrell from The Shield, Lafayette Reynolds from True Blood, Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad.
Truth be told I could write an essay on every one of these characters individually. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Really? You could write two-thousand words on Danny Tanner from Full House?” I have two words for you:
Movies: O-Dog From Menace II Society, Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, Buffalo Bill from Silence of The Lambs, Hermione Grainger from Harry Potter, Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, Jules Winfield from Pulp Fiction, Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski, Coffy from Coffy.
I could go on. Alas, there just isn’t enough time in the century. So here is my top five leading characters in TV or film:
Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street)
I credit Freddy with being my introduction to the surreal. The dream sequences of A Nightmare on Elm Street messed with my head in ways from which I’ll never recover. That’s because I saw Nightmare when I was six years old. Since that time I’ve been actively seeking out movies which make me feel strange.
Defining Quote: “This… is God.”
Otis Driftwood (The Devil’s Rejects)
Otis is awful, an abhorrent character. He never does a single decent thing in the entirety of The Devil’s Rejects. That said, Bill Mosley portrays Otis in a way I might call profound. If you watch interviews with Bill Moseley, you’ll notice that he’s a very mild-mannered person, at least seemingly. He seems to completely submerge himself in the role of Otis B. Driftwood. For my money, movies don’t get much better than when Otis is delivering his monologue in the desert, as he prepares to lay waste to Banjo and Sullivan.
Defining quote: “You wanna see what happens to heroes, boy?”
Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm)
Larry David might be my spirit animal. I too know the pain of being perceived as a pedantic dick, even though I’m just trying to make a point I perceive to be important. Larry David is someone I relate to on a level I’ll probably never be able to completely articulate, in truth.
Defining Quote: “I’ll have a vanilla… one of the vanilla bullshit things. You know, whatever you want, some vanilla bullshit latte, cappa thing. Whatever you got – I don’t care.”
Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood)
Possibly the single greatest role in film history. I mean, it’s Daniel Plainview. This is on every film nerd’s list. He’s isolated, sociopathic, has a mean streak, but even worse is his competitive streak. He alienates, exiles, or murders everyone who tries to love him. Pure cinematic evil, and yet oddly relatable.
Defining Quote: “Did you think your song and dance and your superstition would help you, Eli? I am the Third Revelation! I am who the Lord has chosen! I AM THE THIRD REVELATION!”
Marge Gunderson (Fargo)
Simply put, she’s my favorite character in movie history. Frances McDormand, who is in the running for single greatest living actor, I think, portrays this North Dakota cop so perfectly. She’s funny, relatable, even sweet. Yet she harbors zero plans of allowing anyone to take advantage of her. Marge exemplifies a mantra I’ve tried hard to employ all my life: “Do no harm, but take no shit.” She flexes her authority when she needs to, but only then. It’s a treat to watch her pleasantness on screen for much of the run time, while also seeing glimpses of a badass ready and willing to take control of any situation. That side is sitting just beneath her surface. What’s most impressive about this character is Marge’s ability to separate her job from her personal life. There’s very little cynicism in Officer Gunderson, yet she’s also not naive. She simply doesn’t take any of this personally. There’s an ugly world out there and she acknowledges as much, but leaves it where it is, going home at night to her husband, slipping back into the role of equal partner in her relationship; it’s organic. Heck if Marge Gunderson is gonna let the world put her in a bad mood. She’s a special because her type is rare to find, let alone rare to write, and nearly impossible to portray.
Defining Quote: “I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand.”
Joshua Lyman (The West Wing)
I almost avoided putting any West Wing character on this list, because it’s truly an ensemble cast, and almost any of them could make up the whole list (see: Claudia-Jean, Toby, Sam, Donna, Charlie). While President Bartlet is given the largest venue to develop as a character, and he does so admirably, Josh will always be closest to my heart for his goofy sense of humour, fierce belief in what is right, and the ability to wear a backpack to work as a man in his thirties (which I may or may not also do). He’s also a dynamic, complicated person in his own right, and he achieves this level of dynamism without much of the family drama that punctuates the internal conflicts of his boss, President Bartlet.
Jen Yu (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
This character never starts out as my favourite when I’m watching the movie – it’s the amazing work of Ang Lee and Zhang Ziyi that brings me around. Like my #3 choice, Jen Yu is a headstrong woman in a man’s world, but one that slowly progresses through the movie into a true heroine. Zhang Ziyi’s performance makes her the character I’m always willing to re-explore as more and more elements are added to her story, and the strings of her intertwining relations with all the other characters are pulled by Ang Lee to full effect. Starting off as a secondary figure, she grows and grows until the story spins about her axis, right to the end, and I’m always captivated every step along the way.
Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice)
Whether it’s Keira Knightley or Jennifer Ehle (or any of the other actresses who have graced the role), the passion, sense of humour, and devotion to her family that Elizabeth Bennet possesses always comes across, and always endears. Faultlessly committed to love – like many other Austen heroines – Elizabeth is also strong-willed and brave in the face of 19th century moral expectations, even as she operates within them. Of all the women who Austen gave a voice to when they famously had no voices of their own, Elizabeth Bennet stands out for me as the paragon of true virtue in an age that always seemed to be lacking any virtue whatsoever.
Captain Picard (Star Trek: The Next Generation)
Unlike my #1 pick, I didn’t connect with Captain Picard at all as a child. When I watched ST:TNG as a kid, my favourite characters were Worf (a certified badass, despite only winning maybe one fight in the whole series), Data (a hilarious android with the heartbreaking goal of becoming human), or Riker (the consummate ladies man). But as I’ve grown up, Picard has grown into the most interesting character of the crew, and I’m finally able to appreciate the way he struck the always difficult balance of caring about each of his crew members, and the professionalism needed to run a ship. He’s the best leader in I’ve ever seen in television (even more than President Bartlet), and those leadership qualities, when pressed up against the more flawed, human side we see in certain episodes, creates for a truly memorable character.
Shinji Ikari (Neon Genesis Evangelion)
Remember being fifteen, convinced the world and everyone in it can’t possibly understand you, while the weight of responsibilities seemed overwhelming and impossible? Even if most of us didn’t experience that every day, we likely all had moments of angst and extreme loneliness at one point in our adolescence. Shinji is simply the ultimate expression of that loneliness, as the weight of the world he can never really connect with is literally pressed onto his shoulders, and the question of his character and the series is less “can he overcome his challenges?” and more “does he want to overcome them?” As a teenager who had my share of social isolation, Shinji will always have a special place in my heart – forever cemented by the fact that I found him at just that moment in my life when I could connect with him the most.