There are a handful of character actors who are always a pleasant surprise when they pop up in something. People who seem ubiquitous, even if you don’t remember their names. Christopher Walken, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Danny Trejo, Jeff Goldblum, Samuel L. Jackson, Francis McDormand, John Goodman, Stanley Tucci — the list goes on. Whether in a starring role, a supporting part, or even a light bulb commercial, these tireless actors manage to elevate anything they appear in.
Which is great, because sometimes? Sometimes they are in some really terrible crap. Or if not “crap” then at least movies that shouldn’t work as well as they do, except for the inclusion of, oh I don’t know, let’s say Gary Oldman. Or Willem Dafoe.
Take for example the upcoming Netflix movie adaptation of Death Note, based on the popular Japanese manga and anime series of the same name. The first trailer recently debuted, giving audiences a glimpse at this new Americanized version that sets the story in Seattle and casts up-and-comers Nat Wolff (Paper Towns) and my imaginary BF Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta, future Pajiba 10 winner, I mean c’mon guys you voted right?!) as the central cat-and-mouse duo of Light and L. Most reactions so far fall either into the “Boo! Whitewashing!” camp or the “Huh? What’s a Death Note?” camp, with the exception of one element: the gruff voice of Willem Dafoe as Ryuk, the Shinigami (Japanese death god) that kicks the main plot into action.
Now, we don’t know yet whether Death Note will surprise, disappoint, or leave no mark whatsoever on our pop cultural landscape. We don’t even know for sure that Ryuk will continue to be a Japanese entity in this version. But why does Willem Dafoe’s involvement seem to somehow sidestep the whitewashing concerns to become the one saving grace of the whole enterprise before anyone has even seen it?
Because he’s Willem Fucking Dafoe, and this isn’t the first time he’s stepped in to redeem a movie.
So let’s play a game. Let’s select some choice performances from Mr. Dafoe’s lengthy career and line them up against those of his contemporary, Gary Oldman. Though hailing from different sides of the pond, both men are nearly the same age and have had acting careers spanning over three decades. Then we/me will declare a winner based on some arbitrary yet thoroughly scientific rules I’ll be making up as I go. Ready? Ok!
1) Best Bloodsucker: Dafoe as Max Schreck in Shadow of a Vampire (2000) vs. Oldman as Dracula in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Perhaps this isn’t a fair comparison, as arguably Oldman had a lead role and Dafoe had a supporting role in their respective films. However, the fact that both men interpreted the most famous vampires in pop culture is too good a coincidence to pass up, as is the fact that both men went on to win Saturn awards for their performances! While Oldman starred as the titular bloodsucker in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of the classic novel, Dafoe’s role was perhaps less familiar on the surface. In 1921 F.W. Murnau filmed an unauthorized adaptation of Stoker’s Dracula entitled Nosferatu, starring Max Schreck as the vampiric Count Orlock. Shadow of a Vampire reimagines the filming of that movie classic horror film, with one minor change: what if Max Schreck wasn’t just an actor, but an actual vampire?
Winner: Oldman. Who could say no to this face?
2) Best Agent: Dafoe as Paul Smecker in The Boondock Saints (1999) vs. Oldman as George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Dafoe played an FBI agent and Oldman played a British intelligence officer, and that is about as close as I can position the two roles. Really, Dafoe played a genius (and occasionally cross-dressing) detective who sides with a pair of violent vigilantes, while Oldman stepped into a role that was straight out of the classic John le Carré espionage stories. Both men were predictably amazing. So who wins?
Winner: Dafoe. Because of those dance moves.
3) Battle of the Franchises: Dafoe as Norman Osborn in the Raimi Spider-Man films vs. Oldman as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films
Ok, look, I know I could have made this a straightforward comic book category, and subbed in Oldman’s turn as Jim Gordon in the Nolan Batman films, but… well, I happen to think those movies are a bit overrated and as good as Oldman always is, he isn’t standout good in them. And besides, there is something complimentary between Sirius Black, the innocent criminal revealed to be a hero, and Norman Osborn, the man of industry revealed to be a super-villain. Both become father figures to the heroes of their respective stories, even if only for a little while, and manage to reappear long after their demise. Both are appropriately intense showcases for the actors, captivating and insane and still moving. So here we are.
Winner: Tie. I refuse to choose. Sue me.
4) Best Factual Character: Dafoe as Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) vs. Oldman as Sid Vicious in Sid And Nancy (1986)
Winner: Plenty of people have played Jesus through the years, and though Oldman claims he isn’t impressed by his performance as Vicious, I’m gonna give it to him anyway.
Some villains are over-the-top monsters, which Oldman perfected as Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg in The Fifth Element and Dr. Zachary Smith in Lost in Space (seriously, that movie was trash but Oldman’s performance makes it worth a watch). Other villains are the creepy, understated type, which Dafoe exemplifies as Bobby Peru in Wild At Heart and Barillo in Once Upon A Time In Mexico (and is it just me, or do those two characters kinda look alike? Probably the facial hair…). And while we may enjoy seeing these men play the good guys every once and awhile, I know I always look forward to them tearing shit up as a baddie.
Winner: All of us. We’re all winners. We just can’t lose with these two.
Thank you for playing along at home! Your prize? A few additional, incredible performances to enjoy!
Here is Willem Dafoe as “Hateful Guard” in the 1990 John Waters movie Cry-Baby:
And here is Gary Oldman as Drexl in True Romance: