I Don’t Like Him, I Don’t Like Her, I Don’t Care

This year marks the 50th anniversary of a great kitchen sink drama, directed by Irvin Kershner, and starring Robert Shaw and Mary Ure, real life husband and wife as husband and wife.   The movie is The Luck of Ginger Coffey and the lead character of Ginger Coffey is maddening.  He goes against every good instinct, is a pompous you know what, and throws away a once in a lifetime chance due to his own foolish and stupid pride.  Honestly, I don’t like him at all.  If I met a guy like him in the real world, I’d make some pleasant small talk and hope never to cross his path again.  But his story is compelling and he, as a character, is compelling.  And Ginger Coffey and a few hundred (thousand?) other characters I can think of  disprove the notion that you have to like the character up there on the screen.  Where this complaint came from I don’t know (“I just couldn’t get into a movie with such an unlikable lead”) and I don’t care.  In fact, I don’t like the lead character in quite a few of my favorite movies, and maybe that’s why they’re my favorites.


Now, of course, we’re supposed to hate the bad guys, everyone knows that.  Rooting for a villain isn’t the same as having a lead character in a movie that truly isn’t likable.   In other words, we’re not “rooting” for Michael Corleone, at least I hope we’re not.  Well, we are, kind of, in the first Godfather.  In that one, when Michael goes to the hospital to protect his father from a hit job, we do root for him.  By The Godfather, Part II, all I can think is, “Burn in hell, pal!”  None of that means the movie or the character are uncompelling, which should be what we’re looking for in a great movie anyway, compelling characters.

In one genre, in particular, the crime movie, unlikable and unpleasant characters are the flavor du jour of practically all crime movies.  James Cagney made a career out of playing some pretty damned unpleasant characters, from Public Enemy to White Heat, and I can tell you right now, I hate both of those characters.  That doesn’t mean I can’t feel a little sorry for them, too, but not like I’m going to feel sorry for a Norman Bates who, though he is a killer, has some serious psychological issues that makes you at least understand him, even as you root for his murdering ways to end.   So, yes, when Tom Powers shows up dead at the end of Public Enemy, I’m not exactly crying though I do feel for the horrible mistakes he made in his life.  And those conflicting feelings come from the character being compelling, not likable.

Movies have lovable characters all the time.  A movie like The Thin Man has lead characters, Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy, respectively), so likable, so lovable, that anything bad happening to them would hit me square in the gut.  But I don’t want that every time and, luckily, I don’t always get it.  In fact, odd as it may sound, I have several favorite unlikable characters that I really like, but not actually.  That is, I like the way the character pulls me into the story without ever really liking the character, if that makes any sense.  My favorites cut across genres and decades, as well as acting styles.

A big personal favorite is Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in The Searchers.  I don’t like him.  I don’t like that guy one bit.  Yeah, yeah, he brings Debbie back home but only after wanting to kill her for years and being repeatedly shamed by his nephew.  I think he’s a pretty awful guy, personally, but if Ethan Edwards were a nice guy, what kind of movie would we have?  Of course, he is sort of a nice guy.  I mean, he does, after all, agree to go look for Debbie but as much to return her safely as to avoid her becoming contaminated with Indian blood because, well, he has no love for Indians, which doesn’t make him very likable.

Another favorite is Jake La Motta in Raging Bull.  There really is almost nothing likable about this wife-beating, brother-bashing, enraged, hate-filled man.   But I do feel a tinge, just a tinge, of sympathy for him at the very end when he seems to be recognizing, against all possible odds, how awful he is.  Still, he’s a great character even if he is a rotten human being.


And speaking of Martin Scorsese movies, is there anyone likable in Goodfellas?  Anyone?  In my opinion, that’s still one of the best crime movies I have ever seen but I have to tell you, I don’t like a single character in that movie.  If they all spontaneously combusted halfway through, I’d be annoyed that the plot didn’t resolve itself but wouldn’t be bothered by the characters’ demise at all.  “Good riddance” is what I’d probably utter.  Case in point: When Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito gets it with a shot to the temple, I remember saying, in the theater, to myself, “About time.”  There wasn’t even a moment of “oh no, they killed Tommy.”  Matter of fact, after he shot Spider, I really felt like his death was too easy.

Leaving the crime genre for a moment, let’s travel over to the witty banter of All About Eve.  Now Margo (Bette Davis), I like.  She’s mature, realistic about her age, career and talent and sincere despite all the phonies around her.  Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) is also easy to like in a “oh, he’s so bad” kind of a way.  But Eve?  I don’t like a damn thing about her.  Really, nothing.   She doesn’t have the humanity of Margo, at all.  That’s kind of the point and that’s why she’s so interesting, because she’s as determined and driven as they come.  And yes, by the end, I kind of like her a little better thanks to Addison becoming such a controlling jerk but still, not that much.  And why, oh why, did they never make a sequel with Phoebe?!  She seems unlikable from the start!

Or how about one of the all-time classic screen characters, Scarlett O’Hara?  Is she likable?  Well, that’s hard to say.  She does come through for people, oddly enough, and helps out during the worst of the war.  So, yes, there she’s likable. But before, and most importantly, after, when she should have learned and grown from her war experiences, she’s still as selfish and childish as ever.  But she has spirit and drive and that does, of course, make her likable even though she does so many unlikable things.  She’s also portrayed by Vivien Leigh which makes it nearly impossible to truly dislike her.  And yet, as a character, I don’t think, “Hey, I’d really like to befriend this gal.”  But I do want to watch her story.

So let’s stop complaining that you cant’ like a movie because you don’t like the characters.  Sometimes you’re not supposed to like them!  Sometimes the journey is about finding out where their selfishness and arrogance will take them.  And that’s as valid in storytelling as watching a good character win the day.  Maybe more so, at least as far as good drama is concerned, because of the extra layer of conflict built up between character and viewer.  Sometimes I like a character and want the best for them and sometimes, I don’t like them and I don’t care.  As long as the story is good.  It’s only when it’s bad that an unlikable character becomes a problem.  And then I truly don’t care.  Bad movies do that to me.  Unlikable characters almost never do.


24 Responses I Don’t Like Him, I Don’t Like Her, I Don’t Care
Posted By missrhea : March 19, 2014 2:19 pm

Do you find that having seen a particular actor/actress in a role that you hate colors the way you view that person in other roles?

The person I have in mind is Gladys Cooper who, imho, became type-cast in witchy old woman roles. Unfortunately, I hated her so much in NOW, VOYAGER and THE BISHOP’S WIFE that I find it hard to accept her as Higgins’ mother in MY FAIR LADY.

Posted By gregferrara : March 19, 2014 3:20 pm

Yes, I do, and speaking of My Fair Lady that was the first movie I ever saw with Rex Harrison and no matter what role he plays in any other movie, I always see the pompous ass Henry Higgins instead.

Posted By LD : March 19, 2014 3:32 pm

Most of the dames of noir turn unlikeable into an art form.

Posted By gregferrara : March 19, 2014 4:40 pm

Jane Greer in Out of the Past being among the best.

Ann: “She can’t be all bad. No one is.”

Jeff: “Well, she comes the closest.”

Posted By pat garrett : March 19, 2014 6:07 pm

Another great example is Jack Lemmon in “Save the Tiger”, for which he won a Best Actor Oscar … You can’t help but rooting for him throughout — even as you watch him betray his own belief system and make indefensible decisions due to expediency etc.

And his performance in “Prisoner of Second Avenue”, a couple of years later, would also fill the bill here … In fact when he habitually steals the neighbors’ milk & newspaper delivery each dawn, it actually offends me MORE than when he orders a factory torched for the insurance money in “Save the Tiger” — simply because the relatively minor transgression seems so absurd and unnecessary! Yet in both films, you never stop rooting for Jack!

Posted By kingrat : March 19, 2014 6:20 pm

Greg, this is a great topic. By the way, I’d like to see THE LUCK OF GINGER COFFEY, with the underrated director Irvin Kershner.

The problem for me comes when the filmmakers evidently want me to like a character, and I don’t. One example which comes to mind is Steve McQueen as JUNIOR BONNER. McQueen is cool by definition–right?–and we’re supposed to be touched when he gives his prize money to his father. However, his father doesn’t love him and never will, and I leave the movie thinking, “What a dope.” Whereas the awful brother, played by Joe Don Baker, so you know you’re supposed to sneer at him, accepts that his father will never love him, has a wife and family, and his desire to develop Arizona real estate sounds way better in 2014 than it did in the early 70s. Who’s the real hero here?

Interesting you should mention Scorsese, a director I tend to admire rather than love. Watching RAGING BULL, I feel like one of Jane Goodall’s research assistants observing primate behavior in its native habitat.

We don’t have to like characters, but we do have to find them interesting.

Posted By Doug : March 19, 2014 6:28 pm

I can’t imagine any character more disliked than the Wicked Witch
in “The Wizard of Oz”. I’ve heard that Margaret Hamilton was actually quite a nice person, but we all cheer when the Witch is melting.
Ray Liotta in the second picture-I HATED his character in “Something Wild”.
Waldo Lydecker in “Laura” I have always strongly disliked-haven’t ever cared all that much for Clifton Webb.

Posted By Jenni : March 19, 2014 8:28 pm

Maybe a bit of a monkey wrench in this theme, but Gaslight, both versions, Brit with Anton Walbrook, and American, with Charles Boyer-these baddies are so utterly charming, and their accents are so appealing to me, that I am under their spell completely, yet glad when they get their punishments at the end. Orson Welles is despicable as Harry Lime in The Third Man, yet I will watch this movie over and over as it’s a great film, great plot.

Posted By AL : March 19, 2014 8:40 pm

You Nailed it again, Gregg. This one of your best! AL

Posted By robbushblog : March 19, 2014 9:01 pm

Chuck Tatum, as played by Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole. He is despicable, yet you can’t stop watching him.

And actually the first thing that came to my mind, despite it being a TV show, is Breaking Bad. I lost sympathy for Walter White long before most people did, but I could not stop watching it.

Posted By AL : March 19, 2014 9:17 pm

This is slightly off topic, but here goes:
Jack Nicholson
James Stewart
Russell Crowe
Shia Lebouf
Kevin Spacey

I’ll be back!

Posted By Kathy Shaidle : March 19, 2014 10:38 pm

The one movie character with no redeeming qualities? Edward G. Robinson’s gangster “Ricko.”

Most movie villains at least have some humor or style (which I realize is unrealistic and perhaps even unhealthy.) But he’s just a rude, crude, unfunny, vicious, stupid mess.

Posted By Marjorie Birch : March 19, 2014 11:02 pm

Mark Lewis in “Peeping Tom” as played by Karl Boehm — a thoroughly creepy and despicable character and I should have disliked him (in fact, most of the movie critics in England did, at the time) but he was oddly appealing — especially when he was awkwardly trying to have a normal relationship with an appealing girl (Anna Massey) — I kept thinking “damn his evil father, this man wasn’t meant to become a psychopath.”

Posted By David Bird : March 20, 2014 12:23 am

Interesting post, Greg.
While there are some actors whose work I don’t care for, for me its when an actor is poorly chosen for a role and as a result disconnects from any inclination I have in following that character’s journey. An example of this is Ryan O’Neal in BARRY LYNDON. A beautifully constructed film is, in my opinion, significantly let down by O’Neal’s performance. He was simply wrong for the role. He just didn’t have the acting ability required to make a convincing portrayal. I had no sympathy for the character whatsoever. The role really needed a ‘lovable rogue’ or someone with enough charm to convince an audience that it was worth almost 3 hours of their time to travel along with this man’s story.

Posted By pdb : March 20, 2014 4:04 am

How about Orson Welles as the repulsive, unethical, and immoral Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil.

Posted By Muriel : March 20, 2014 7:58 am

James Dean. To be fair, he died young, so didn’t have a chance to move beyond the one trick pony roles of neurotic navel gazing anguish that he was portraying at the time. He might have become a fine character actor.
Ryan O’Neal in BARRY LYNDON. Totally agree! Also O’Neal in “A Bridge Too Far”. He was miscast in order to cash in on his popularity.
However, Barry Lyndon in the original book was a self absorbed, self pitying cad. He was no lovable rogue.
O’Neal is actually a fine actor, unfortunately I remember his miscast roles more than his good work.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : March 20, 2014 8:08 am

i think the king of them all has to be George Sanders…even when playing a hero like he did in The Lodger,there was still something smarmy and condescending about him

Posted By James : March 20, 2014 11:11 am

David -

This is just my interpretation of Barry Lyndon, but I don’t think Ryan O’Neal is supposed to be a likeable rogue in the least. He’s a man of no fixed identity who reinvents himself by pursuing class status and wealth, but holding no inner life or values of his own. Only near the end of the film, after the death of his son and the loss of his wife, does Lyndon experience an emotional break-through and realize how empty this pursuit of status and wealth has been. O’ Neal plays the part perfectly. I have total empathy for him when he realizes what he’s lost, particularly when he reluctantly duels his stepson over values he doesn’t really hold any longer.

Lyndon is a quintessential Kubrick character – Kier Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tom Cruise in Eye Wide Shut go through similar story arcs (showing little emotion or personal insight before breaking down emotionally and experiencing an epiphany near the ends of those films).

Posted By Christine Hoard-Barre : March 20, 2014 10:04 pm

Amen to Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole. He’s a terrible person but,true, you just can’t take your eyes off him.

Posted By Richard Brandt : March 21, 2014 6:54 am

You know, film GONE WITH THE WIND 10 years later, after taking the same basic plot and updating it to “contemporary” times…Scarlett would make a pretty decent femme fatale in a post-WWII noir.

Posted By CitizenKing : March 21, 2014 4:54 pm

Is it just me, or does Ace in the Hole always translate in your mind as Acehole? Anyway it fits the character.

How about Paul Newman in Hud? Very unlikeable and yet the nephew (Brandon De Wilde) is just dull, even though I repect him for finally casting Hud away. Paul does it again in Hustler. He may not be the worst guy in the movie, but I can’t call Fast Eddie a likeable guy.

Posted By kingrat : March 21, 2014 5:35 pm

A curious recent example is SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. Sold as a romantic comedy, well-made, and financially successful, but is either main character likable? Would you want to know these people? The people who like the movie most seem to take it as a straightforward romantic comedy, and it’s too offbeat for some (such as my other half). I thought the film was well-made, but would certainly go out of my way to avoid these people in real life.

Posted By robbushblog : March 21, 2014 5:58 pm

Spot on, kingrat. I would only be interested in Jennifer Lawrence’s character for one reason, which I won’t mention here because this is a family show.

Posted By Christine Hoard-Barre : March 21, 2014 7:36 pm

Heh CitizenKing – funny what you said about “Acehole” and I never thought about it that way before but you’re right. Also right about Paul Newman in Hud, but remember his mama loved him but she died, to paraphrase Hud from the movie.

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