Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Boo, hiss, brava! The villainesses we love...

HALLIE EPHRON: I've just been in New York and had the pleasure of seeing the knock-out musical based on Roald Dahl's subversive children's book, MATILDA. Though the little girl and her teacher Miss Honey are lovely, and of course we root for them, the character that wormed her way into my affections was the arch villain, headmistress Agatha Trunchbull. Years ago, when I read Matilda to my daughters, we revelled in La Trunchbull, too.

On Broadway, the part is played with great relish by Bertie Carvell (the NY Times reviewer said compares his Trunchbull to a fascist on the verge of a nervous breakdown.) She is awesomely awful, truly terrifying and hilariously funny at the same time. Her motto is “Bambinatum est maggitum” (“Children are maggots.”)

All of this got me thinking about the memorable villainesses. Here are my picks for villainous infamy:

The Wicked Witch of the West (The Wizard of Oz)
Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)
Dolores Umbridge (Harry Potter)
Alex Forrest (Fatal Attraction)
Annie Wilkes (Misery)
Mrs. Rachel Lynde (Anne of Green Gables)
Elle Driver (Kill Bill)
Cruella De Ville (101 Dalmations)

So what makes a female character wonderfully bad, and who would you add to the list?

ROSEMARY HARRIS: My favorite villainess may be Matty Walker (real name Mary Anne Simpson.) She was the dizzyingly amoral character in the movie Body Heat. "Matty was the kind of person who could do what had to be done."  And she did. Yikes."

"Ooooh, I remember Kathleen Turner burning up the screen in that, her film debut. Great movie, too.

RO: Also memorable - although I can't say I liked her - was Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. Thanks a lot for the tip on the dress, Danny. O'Brien in Downton Abbey owes a bit to her.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Ro, you are so right about the provenance of O'Brien!

Well, the wicked queen in Snow White--the one with the apple, right? Or is that Sleeping Beauty? I have her photo (!) on my bulletin board at work.  Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada--okay, she's not a villain-villain, but she's terrific.  And how about Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker? She was pretty great. And I don't want to do a spoiler, but did anyone see Witness for the Prosecution? (kind of.) And as I was packing to come home for Malice, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane was on. I couldn't watch it!

RHYS BOWEN: Hank, you stole my top choice--Miranda Priestly from the Devil Wears Prada. So frighteningly understated. Also I'd choose Cruella Deville. Lady Macbeth. Others that stand out... Miss Hannigan in Annie, the headmistress in The Little Princess. I guess it's particularly evil to pick on children and animals.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Villainess I love: Maleficent, from Disney's Sleeping Beauty. The rest of the women in the story give birth, dance around with birds, and do domestic chores (badly.) Not Maleficent. She keeps herself looking good (probably has a complete gym up there in her magic cave.) Instead of getting depressed when she's not invited to the big do at the castle, she crashes the party (and throws in a few curse while she's at it.)

She doesn't sit around passively hoping her goals will somehow come to pass - when the King burns all the spinning wheels, Maleficent takes her spindle to the secret room in the castle and Gets It Done herself. She doesn't let any man, even a hunky Prince, get in the way of what she wants. When Maleficent gets hot flashes, its because she's turned herself into a dragon and is breathing fire. What woman wouldn't want that?

LUCY BURDETTE: Miranda Priestly was truly amazing. She gets my vote. And that's why I want Meryl Streep to play Hayley's mother when the food critic mysteries are made into movies. She can play anything, from evil to sweet.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: All great choices, but I think dear Dolores Umbridge takes the cake for me. Bellatrix is certainly a villainess, but she's crazy AND tortured. Umbridge is just really, really evil, and SO enjoys it.  Now I'm going to have Hello Kitty nightmares....

HALLIE: So today we're celebrating the bad bad women from fiction. Who would you add to our list?

***Sandi, you are the TOPPED CHEF winner from the drawing yesterday. Will you kindly email LucyBurdette at gmail dot com with your address?***


  1. I think you’ve gotten most of the truly despicable villainesses already listed. “Matilda” was our youngest daughter’s favorite book when she was younger; Miss Trunchbull definitely deserves her place on your list as does the Wicked Witch of the West [“I’m melting!” has to be one of the greatest movie lines!] . . . .

    I think I’d have to add Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford in “Mommie Dearest” and Ursala, the Sea Witch in “The Little Mermaid” . . . .

  2. Oh, I have to go with Dolores Umbridge. I have visions of those kitties on the wall living stuck on the little plates in her reality-denying pink office. My shrink buddies and I made up a song, Stinky Pinky Umbridge Bumbridge, to put an anti-curse on all bullies who try to conceal their mean-uglies with sweetness, especially kitties.

  3. I'm another Maleficent fan. Her outfits were more fun, too.

  4. Definitely Mommie Dearest belongs in this constellation.

    Stinky Pinky Umbridge Bumbridge - love that, Reine. And it's SO satisfying when she unravels and gets carried off.

  5. Innit? In our little ditty she gets carried and zapped off to prison by the innocents she'd hurt and had under her control. Even the kitties morphed magic wands from their claws for the occasion. All sung to the tune of "Nowhere to Run" by Martha and the Vandellas.

  6. Ooooh, Martha - saw her and the V's many times when I was in college. She sure could move.

  7. Ooooooh, Ohhhhhh.... I am terribly, terribly jealous. She was amazing. I loved them.

  8. Dolores Umbridge, yes, the Queen of Evil, because she was not insane, she just enjoyed cruelty.

    Eve from All About Eve is my #2.

  9. How about Annie Wilkes in "Misery?"

    and The Queen of Hearts in "Alice in Wonderland?"

    one more - Cora in "The Postman Always Rings Twice"

  10. Nurse Rached was a real shocker for me at the time. A clean, attractive, well-spoken woman delivering cruelty with the bread and water? Scary. What if my mom was like that?

  11. Wait a minute-- Mrs. Rachel Lynde?? No no no. Not a villain, not even remotely. Outspoken, yes, but no villain.


  12. Yeah, Dolores Umbridge for sure. Those kittens just made her all the more scary.

    The Aunts in The Handmaid's Tale. Brrrr...

  13. How about Serleena (played with tentacles (see Monday's discussion) by Lara Flynn Boyle) in Men in Black II.

    Which reminds me, can I count the **ALIEN** in the movie Alien? Why do I think it was a she?

    And there were some wonderful villains in the Oz books - anyone but me remember Princess Langwidere with her closet full of interchangeable heads?

  14. Oh Deb, yes. Donores Umbridge. How could I forget her. Definitely the most evil and sadistic with her pink suit and little cat pins.

    I'm off to the UK today.

  15. Cool topic!

    Another horrific gal was Medea. Euripides really outdid himself creating her - she drips vengefulness.

    I just learned from our friends at Wikipedia that Maria Callas played Medea in a flim version made in 1969. It was her only film role, and she did not sing a note. I have not seen this flick but it sounds worthy of a rainy Saturday screening.

    Martha and the Vandellas! Hallie, you saw them many times? I am so envious.

    "Nowhere to run to baaaaby, no where to hide . . ."

  16. You've already hit on my faves...Racking my brain here...

    OH! Has anyone mentioned Miss Havisham? Or what about the woman from Dangerous Liaisons (forget the character's name)?

  17. Yes, YS Lisa, of course. How could we forget the Marquise de Merteuil, the viper played by Glenn Close in the movie. Glenn Close, who boiled the rabbit earlier in life. Ooooh is the Marquise evil. I wonder what Reine's shrink buddies would have had to say about her.

  18. On Mrs. Rachel Lynde - she eventually comes around, yes, but in the meantime she makes Anne's life miserable. Which reminds me of Lavinia in The Little Princess. And the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

  19. I'm another fan of Miss Trunchbull and Maleficent.

    And a huge congratulations to Red Hank on being nominated for the Anthony Award for Best Book!!


  20. Put me down as another person that thinks Rachel Lynde doesn't count as a villain. She's one of my all time favorite characters, exasperating yes, but I think very lovable and just very human at heart.

    She can be a bossy, small-minded busybody, but her main problem is that she doesn't understand Anne's imagination and free spirit. She's a duck who has never met a swan. She does come to appreciate (if never fully understand) Anne's uniqueness and becomes fiercely proud and protective of her in time.

    Of course, as the reader our sympathies are with Anne, but if Rachel Lynde is a villain, than most of the adults in Anne's world are villains. Aside from Matthew, they are a pretty hardnosed and cold bunch of people.

    I don't know if I have a favorite villianess. Maleficent is pretty entertaining and she's my mom's sentimental favorite. :-)

  21. Hallie, I know why you are sure the alien was female. In the second movie, Ripley, all rigged out in that fabulous walking forklift, says "Don't touch her, you BITCH!"

    And I'm not on board with Rachel Lynde as a villainess. She was just hard nosed and self-righteous, not intentionally evil. And she did come to value Anne.

    I think Mrs Danvers was one of the worst. So many evil women to choose from!

  22. Oooooooh. Yes, the Marquise de Merteuil... in many ways, though, easier to see coming. She prays on adults who think with something other than their brains. She's not all pink and fluffy while torturing children and kittens. All the same, I sense a great ditty brewing. Maybe the Saugus branch of my North Shore gang would like to take this one on. They recently did a foodiesque analysis with ditty presentation of Julie & Julia.

  23. Oh, I'm so glad Maleficent made the cut! She's a villain you can kind of respect. Dolores Umbridge, though, just creeps me the hell out. She's far too real. Self-righteous militarism always makes my skin crawl.

  24. I'm late coming to this great topic. But how come no one has mentioned the most elegant, creepy female villain ever--Bette Davis. Whether she was playing a vamp or a crazy lady, she was the greatest.

  25. Oh... right, Hallie. I forgot about the rabbit.

  26. Hope it's kosher to add something latelatelate -

    A new book title to share, about 26 women with rotten reputations.
    Two top drawer children's writers, Jane Yolen & her daughter Heidi E.Y. Stemple, created it with graphic novel illustrator Rebecca Guay

    Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves & Other Female Villains [Hardcover]

    Maybe some inspiration here for a character...