Oafs, Cheaters And Jerks: Film's Worst Boyfriends

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High Fidelity i

John Cusack, left, played arguably bad boyfriend Rob Gordon in High Fidelity, chatting here with coworker Dick, played by Todd Louiso. Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Getty Images
High Fidelity

John Cusack, left, played arguably bad boyfriend Rob Gordon in High Fidelity, chatting here with coworker Dick, played by Todd Louiso.

Getty Images

Hollywood is full of films that tell wonderful stories about true love. But on this edition of the Summer Movie Festival, we're charting the depths of the miserable, incompetent, emotionally stunted or just plain murderous boyfriends on film.

Talk of the Nation movie buff Murray Horwitz defines several categories of bad boyfriend. "The insincere rake," Horwitz tells NPR's Neal Conan, "is the guy who leads good girls astray." Horwitz offers Reggie from the Archie comics as a benign example of this sort of cad.

Then, there's "the other man, who serves the dramatic purpose of making the hero look good in comparison to him." Horwitz found a lot of those bad boyfriends in films from the 1980s.

Finally, says Horwitz, there are the real creeps, the guys who "stalk or even try to murder."

Tell us: Who's the bad boyfriend you love to hate?

NEAL CONAN, host:

It's summer movie time again, and true love fills the octoplex. Earlier, we saw Zac Efron as the perfect boyfriend in "Charlie St. Cloud," and now Michael Cera's Scott Pilgrim must protect his girlfriend from her seven, lousy, no-good, murderous ex-boyfriends, which triggered a search for the absolute worst boyfriend on film - maybe Mike Damone with his five rules for dating.

(Soundbite of movie, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High")

Mr. ROBERT ROMANUS (Actor): (as Mike Damone) You never let on how much you like a girl. Two, you always call the shots. Kiss me. You won't regret it. Now three, act like wherever you are, that's the place to be. Isn't this great? Four, when ordering food, you find out what she wants then order for the both of you. It's a classy move. And five, now this is the most important, Rat. When it comes down to making out, whenever possible, put on side one of "Led Zeppelin IV."

(Soundbite of song, "Kashmir")

CONAN: So who is your favorite miserable, incompetent, emotionally stunted or just plain murderous bad boyfriend on film? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Murray Horwitz, of course, was actually in Mike Damone's class at Ridgemont High...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: ...and knows that music was not from side one of "Led Zeppelin IV."

MURRAY HORWITZ: Of course, I knew that. And this is a hard one to research, Neal. I was afraid I was going to find myself on screen in...

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: ...one of these movies.

CONAN: You didn't?

HORWITZ: No, no, no. Unhappily, no.

CONAN: So how do we define boyfriend here? This is a pretty wide-ranging category.

HORWITZ: Well, first of all, it's boyfriend, no husbands, okay?

CONAN: Right.

HORWITZ: So no Ike Turner, no here's Johnny, no - not Jack Nicholson in...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HORWITZ: ..."The Shining," and, as always, no TV shows. But there are several categories of bad boyfriend.

CONAN: Which are?

HORWITZ: Well, probably the classic. And there are a lot of archetypes in dramatic literature, in fiction. The insincere rake, you know, the man of bad character like Mike Damone.

CONAN: The cad.

HORWITZ: The cad. There you...

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: Before it meant computer-assisted design, it actually meant a bad guy. And this is a guy who leads good girls astray. Very often a rich guy, sort of a benign version would be like Reggie in the "Archie" comics, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Oh, he's an archetype, sure.

HORWITZ: But, you know, you're sitting there in the audience saying, what does she see in him?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HORWITZ: You know? And there are a lot of those. I mean, Jane Austen has a million of those...

CONAN: Any number of those, yes.

HORWITZ: ...especially Mr. Wickham...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HORWITZ: ...in "Pride and Prejudice" and the many film versions of that. There's a strange sort of cinematic version is the other man who serves the dramatic purpose of making the hero look good in comparison to him.

CONAN: Right.

HORWITZ: And when you get into the teen movies, you know, in the '80s, you know, there's a lot of them there. And then there are creeps who stalk or even try to murder, you know? But there are even more. We'll get into them. But this is - don't forget the melodramas and comedies of the silent era, you know? I mean, I guess you could call the evil landlord with designs on the heroine and ties her to the railroad tracks, you know, a bad boyfriend, so those are the guys who are the boyfriends...

CONAN: Well...

HORWITZ: ...in their own head.

CONAN: There's also the category - somebody who qualified for last week's classic best meals on - in the movies, and that is, you know, Bela Lugosi, the...

HORWITZ: Right.

CONAN: If you want to date a vampire, you got a problem.

HORWITZ: Yeah. That's not what we'd call a relationship...

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: ...you know what I'm saying? It's a - it's sort of a one-way thing. But, you know, the - in the silent - and, you know, I always bring up those first, you know, the first third of the movies when we didn't have sound. And, you know, in a lot of Mack Sennett comedies, Fatty Arbuckle always was the sweetheart of Mabel Normand, and there was always a jilted suitor like Al St. John who always caused trouble. And it's very funny.

CONAN: And he - well, he had his problems in real life, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: Well, this is true.

CONAN: So, anyway, we want to get your nominees for worst best boyfriend. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's start with Diane(ph), Diane, with us on the line from Charleston.

DIANE (Caller): Hey. How are you?

CONAN: Very good, thanks.

DIANE: Great. Well, I would like to nominate Christian Slater's character from "Heathers."

CONAN: Christian Slater. This is in the 1989 film. He played J.D., and he neglected to tell Winona Ryder's Veronica that those were not blanks in those guns.

(Soundbite of movie, "Heathers")

Mr. CHRISTIAN SLATER (Actor): (as J.D.) Look, you believed it because you wanted to believe it. Your true feelings were too gross and icky for you to face.

Ms. WYNONA RYDER (Actor): (as Veronica Sawyer) I did not want them dead.

Mr. SLATER: (as J.D.) Did, too.

Ms. RYDER: (as Veronica) I did not.

Mr. SLATER: (as J.D.) Did, too.

Ms. RYDER: (as Veronica) I did not.

Mr. SLATER: (as J.D.) Too.

Ms. RYDER: (as Veronica) Did not. Did not, did not.

Mr. SLATER: (as J.D.) Did, too. The girl who died...

Ms. RYDER: (as Veronica) Oh, I didn't know what the...

Mr. SLATER: (as J.D.) Oh, come on. You did.

Ms. RYDER: (as Veronica) (singing) Mary had a little lamb, little lamb...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: La, la, la, la, la, la.

HORWITZ: Diane's got a strong case going for her there, I have to tell you.

CONAN: I have to tell you - Diane, Christian Slater, well, he kind of made a career out of that part.

DIANE: Oh, he really did. He was just absolutely devious and manipulative and terrible, and it was brilliant.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the nomination, "Heathers," and Christian Slater. Thanks very much, Diane.

DIANE: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Toby, Toby with us from Chapel Hill.

TOBY (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Toby.

TOBY: Hey, I'd like to nominate Cary Grant opposite Priscilla Lane as the - her fiance in "Arsenic and Old Lace."

CONAN: "Arsenic and Old"...

TOBY: Hello?

CONAN: Yes, of course, the old - well, it was a Broadway staple for many years.

HORWITZ: Right. It's true.

TOBY: Right. And though he was well-intentioned and well-meaning, he still brought, along with his baggage, two murderous, spinster aunts.

CONAN: Yes, indeed.

HORWITZ: And there are those - Toby brings up a good point, because there are those bad boyfriends who kind of can't help themselves. There are few of those. I mean, you know, Clark Kent and Superman are not the best boyfriends. But it's because of who they are and the baggage that they bring that they can't help themselves.

CONAN: They have to leave...

HORWITZ: That's right.

CONAN: ...at a drop of a hat, or the fall of an asteroid. Toby, thanks very much for the call.

TOBY: Thank you.

CONAN: There is - in addition to, well, the types that you talked about, there's the utterly incompetent boyfriend, and nowhere more epitomized than by Tom Hanks in "Big."

HORWITZ: Right.

(Soundbite of movie, "Big")

Ms. ELIZABETH PERKINS (Actor): (as Susan) I'm not sure we should do this yet.

Mr. TOM HANKS (Actor): (as Josh Baskin) Do what?

Ms. PERKINS: (as Susan) Well, I mean, I like you, and I want to spend the night with you.

Mr. HANKS: (as Josh Baskin) Do you mean sleep over?

Ms. PERKINS: (as Susan) Well, yeah.

Mr. HANKS: (as Josh Baskin) Okay. But I get to be on top.

HORWITZ: It's a...

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: Again, for circumstances beyond his control, he can't really deliver what the girlfriend needs.

CONAN: Emotionally stunted because he's not of age yet.

HORWITZ: Right, yes. He's...

CONAN: But there are certainly any number of emotionally stunted characters.

HORWITZ: Right. But, you know - I mean, another one, and we may have an example of this, Neal, is, you know, Bruce Wayne as Batman.

CONAN: We played that already, yes.

HORWITZ: And he keeps, you know, bugging out of it. There's goes the bat signal, and there goes your boyfriend, you know?

CONAN: And there is another type, as well, and this is the - that can, well, never really quite commit - the boy who just breaks your heart, lets you down over and over because he's an emotional idiot, a man-boy who can't see how good it is until it's too late. John Cusack's Rob Gordon...

HORWITZ: Yes.

CONAN: ...in this scene from "High Fidelity," here played with Laura, Iben Hjejle, if I'm not pronouncing that too horribly badly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of movie, "High Fidelity")

Ms. IBEN HJEJLE (Actor): (as Laura) What brought all this on?

Mr. JOHN CUSACK (Actor): (as Rob Gordon) I'm just sick of thinking about all the time.

Ms. HJEJLE: (as Laura) About what?

Mr. CUSACK: (as Rob Gordon) This stuff, love, and settling down and marriage, you know. I want to think about something else.

Ms. HJEJLE: (as Laura) I've changed my mind. That's the most romantic thing I've ever heard. I do. I will.

Mr. CUSACK: (as Rob Gordon) Just shut up, please. I'm just trying to explain, okay?

CONAN: Just trying to explain.

HORWITZ: Right. Iben - was it Hjejle? I don't know.

CONAN: I...

HORWITZ: But anyway - and that's really one of my favorite bad movie boyfriends. I mean - because, again, he can't help himself. And the movie, in a way, is about his being a bad boyfriend.

CONAN: A bad boyfriend, indeed. Yeah. Here's a tweet, this is from ZGK. Best worst boyfriend, Jimmy Mattingly from "That Thing You Do" -speaking of Tom Hanks.

HORWITZ: Yeah.

CONAN: And Mary Birdwell(ph): Zach Braff's character in "The Last Kiss," who was really punchable, as described here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And this, an email from Scott Brewer in High Point, North Carolina. Best bad boyfriend, and - Dwight Yoakam in "Sling Blade."

HORWITZ: Oh, that's a good one.

CONAN: We didn't think about that.

HORWITZ: We did not think about that. That's a great one, too.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get another caller on the line.

HORWITZ: I did it for the boy.

CONAN: I did it for...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yana's(ph) on the line, calling from Grand Rapids.

YANA (Caller): Hey. I was - I'm going to nominate David - or Peter Sarsgaard's character from "An Education."

CONAN: Oh, that's a - the film just out, what, six months ago.

HORWITZ: Yeah. Yeah.

YANA: Last year, yeah, with Carey Mulligan.

CONAN: And seduced a young high school...

YANA: Yes, had, you know, a wife and a baby and trotted all over of the country.

CONAN: And - but her parents were, sort of, complicit in all this.

HORWITZ: Yeah. He even wooed the parents.

YANA: Yeah. Her parents certainly went for it.

HORWITZ: Right.

YANA: So.

HORWITZ: Yana, that's...

YANA: (unintelligible)

HORWITZ: Yeah, it's perfect. He was a - there are these guys who are real, like, sociopaths, you know, and he was one of them. And that amazing scene where she discovers that he's married and got kids.

YANA: Yeah.

CONAN: All right, Yana. Thanks very much.

YANA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. There is also - we're talking about best bad boyfriends. There's also something known as the bad boy, the prototypical was Buzz Gunderson, James Dean's...

HORWITZ: Yes.

CONAN: ...nemesis from "Rebel without a Cause."

(Soundbite of movie, "Rebel without a Cause")

Mr. JAMES DEAN (Actor): (as Jim Stark) You read too many comic books.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COREY ALLEN (Actor): (as Buzz Gunderson) Well, he's real abstract. He's different, too.

Mr. DEAN: (as Jim Stark) That's right. That's right. I'm cute, too.

(Soundbite of chicken clucking)

Mr. DEAN: (as Jim Stark) Is that meaning me? Is that meaning me?

Mr. ALLEN: (as Buzz Gunderson) What?

Mr. DEAN: (as Jim Stark) A chicken.

Mr. ALLEN: (as Buzz Gunderson) Yes.

CONAN: Yes.

HORWITZ: Yeah.

CONAN: Ooh.

HORWITZ: And that was Buzz, played by Corey Allen, who actually just died this summer. And he - but what's interesting about him is he's just a rival, you know? I mean, he does not - he's a lousy guy and he's really mean to James. But he never treats Natalie Wood badly, you know.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go to - this is Ryan, Ryan with us from Oshkosh.

RYAN (Caller): Hi. The late Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth in one of my favorite movies, "Blue Velvet."

CONAN: One of the most frightening bad boyfriends in history, Dennis Hopper. Here he catches Isabella Rossellini's Dorothy Vallens talking with Jeffrey, played by Kyle MccLanahan(ph).

(Soundbite of movie, "Blue Velvet")

Mr. DENNIS HOPPER (Actor): (as Frank Booth) Oh, you're from the neighborhood, new neighbor. Well, what's your name, new neighbor?

Mr. KYLE MacLACHLAN (Actor): (as Jeffrey Beaumont) Jeffrey.

Mr. HOPPER: (as Frank) Hey, you want to go for a ride?

Mr. MacLACHLAN: (as Jeffrey) No thanks.

Mr. HOPPER: (as Frank) No thanks? What does that mean?

Mr. MacLACHLAN: (as Jeffrey) I don't want to go.

Mr. HOPPER: (as Frank) Go where?

Mr. MacLACHLAN: (as Jeffrey) For a ride.

Mr. HOPPER: (as Frank) A ride. Hell, that's a good idea. Okay. Let's go.

CONAN: Well, Hopper's character, Ryan, not exactly a boyfriend. He was holding people hostage.

HORWITZ: That's right. He's got your...

RYAN: Tough love.

HORWITZ: I'm sorry?

RYAN: Tough love.

HORWITZ: Yeah, tough. Well, in a way, you know, it's strange, you know? He's a little bit like those old meller-dramer(ph), you know, give-me-the-deed-to-the-ranch guys. You know, I mean, he's got you by some sort of means, you know, blackmail, and he's your boyfriend in his own head, maybe, but not in yours.

RYAN: That Pabst Blue Ribbon.

HORWITZ: Right. He's so much for PBR.

CONAN: Yes, indeed. Thanks very much for the call, Ryan.

RYAN: Thanks.

CONAN: We're winding up our Summer Movie Festival series with Murray Horwitz here in Studio 3A. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And here's an email, this from Gregory in Stores, Connecticut. My nominee for best bad boyfriend ever is, hands down, King Kong, in original and both remakes. No matter how many New York landmarks he's climbed, it's just never going to work.

HORWITZ: Oh, no, no, no. Listen - listeners to this program know of my love for "King Kong."

CONAN: The original.

HORWITZ: The original. I mean, I know a lot of ape-like boyfriends, but no boyfriend-like apes. I mean I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: ...it's a stretch. But here again, if we grant that he's a boyfriend...

CONAN: Well, you can't accuse him of undying affection.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: But he's - here's another one who can't help himself, you know what I mean? He just - he's what he is.

CONAN: He's what he is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: Let's go to Nick, and Nick's calling from Savannah.

NICK (Caller): Yeah, hi. My nomination is for the drunk guy in "A Streetcar Named Desire." I forgot his name, but...

HORWITZ: Oh, yeah, he's pawing her, isn't he? He's...

CONAN: Yes.

HORWITZ: ...all over her.

CONAN: Yes, he's all over her. I can't remember the name. I apologize. We will get on our (unintelligible)...

HORWITZ: (unintelligible). But it's true.

CONAN: ...on that. But Nick, I think you've got a good nominee there.

HORWITZ: Right.

NICK: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much.

Let's go next to - this is Kara, Kara from Warner Robins in Georgia.

KARA (Caller): Yes, hi.

CONAN: Hi, Kara. Go ahead, please.

KARA: Well, I first wanted to say Michael - not Michael, but Mark Wahlberg from "Fear," but they told me that it had already been said. So my next choice was Michael Douglas from "Fatal Attraction."

CONAN: Ooh.

HORWITZ: Yeah.

CONAN: Well, he is married, but not to her.

HORWITZ: Right.

CONAN: And - well, she's a pretty bad girlfriend, too.

KARA: Well, yes, but I think they're both kind of predisposed to psychosis, and that he brought it out of her as much as she made him hide his from his wife. So I think he's really bad, because without him behaving the way he did, she wouldn't have put the bunny in the pot. So...

CONAN: All right. All right. Okay, Kara, we'll accept that as a nomination. Thanks very much.

KARA: Good-bye.

CONAN: Email from Paul Ritter(ph). I would like to nominate Biff Tannen from "Back to the Future," a major boyfriend - in his own mind - for Marty's mom.

HORWITZ: Right. That's exactly right. And there are - again, there are -I don't know why in the '80s - it may be that in the '80s, we saw that a lot of these old, archetypal hearts and flowers romances were just not what they were cracked up to be. And so a lot of these characters pop up in that decade.

CONAN: "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" is the first movie to feature a cattle cart full of lousy ex-boyfriends. But in this scene from the 1975 movie, "The Blue Dahlia" - it's not 1975.

HORWITZ: No.

CONAN: It's considerably older than that.

HORWITZ: 1945, I believe.

CONAN: Yes, I would think so - oh, maybe '49. Alan Ladd is Lieutenant Commander Johnny Morrison. He's sent home early from World War II and surprises his wife, Helen, Doris Dowling, as she's saying good-bye to her man on the side, Eddie Haywood(ph) - or Harwood, rather, played by Howard Da Silva.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Blue Dahlia")

Mr. ALAN LADD (Actor): (as Johnny Morrison) You've got the wrong lipstick on, mister.

Ms. DORIS DOWLING (Actor): (as Helen Morrison) Stop it.

Mr. LADD: (as Johnny) You're entirely right.

Ms. DOWLING: (as Helen) Ladies and gentlemen, I think you'd better leave. My husband would like to be alone with me. He probably wants to beat me up.

Mr. LADD: (as Johnny) Perhaps you want me to apologize?

Ms. DOWLING: (as Helen) Apologize, darling? But you don't have to. You're a hero. A hero can get away with anything.

Mr. LADD: (as Johnny) Seems I lost my manners. Why would anyone here know the difference?

CONAN: Alan Ladd, standing on a box in that scene.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: Right. That's right. Or either she was in a trench. That's the way they shot it, there. It's a 1946 film by George Marshall, with the great Howard Da Silva as a sinister other guy.

CONAN: And you'll - can't wait to see how Johnny is framed and how he gets out of it.

HORWITZ: That's true.

CONAN: And...

HORWITZ: But you mentioned - and somebody called up...

CONAN: About "Streetcar."

HORWITZ: ...about "A Streetcar Named Desire," and you and I just realized and smote our brows with the palms of our hands. It's Stanley Kowalski.

CONAN: Stanley - Marlon Brando.

HORWITZ: Not a good boyfriend.

CONAN: In any context.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, you have to find out, who get's the Murray?

HORWITZ: Well, the Murray award - you know, we've talked about: What does she see in him? And I think the best movie boyfriends - we talked a little bit about John Cusack in "High Fidelity" - are the ones where you kind of do see what she sees in him. And there is, in the stunning screen debut - if it's not the debut, it's effectively the debut - of Al Pacino as Bobby in a film that's very tough to watch called "Panic in Needle Park."

And he's - with a sort of amazing performance by an actress that we don't hear much from, and I'm - Kitty Winn...

CONAN: Kitty Winn.

HORWITZ: ...as his girlfriend. And knock-down, drag-out fights, nastiness, but you really kind of do see what she sees in him, and it's kind of sweet.

(Soundbite of movie, "Panic in Needle Park")

Ms. KITTY WINN (Actor): (as Helen) Please don't go.

Mr. AL PACINO (Actor): (as Bobby) Baby, what do you want me to do? Crawl in here and die with you? For Christ's sake, the past three days, all you're doing is lying here. You don't get up. You don't get dressed. I want you to shape up and get some clothes on. (unintelligible) Go outside and do it.

CONAN: Crazy stuff.

HORWITZ: He's a junky. He's a thief. He's everything bad, and she loves him.

CONAN: Thanks, Murray. This is our final edition - oh, I'm sorry to say, see it go - of our Summer Movie Festival...

HORWITZ: For this year.

CONAN: For this year. Murray Horwitz is our favorite film buff, always with us here in Studio 3A, except when he's in Columbus - anyway -Cincinnati. Murray, you have some people you'd like to thank?

HORWITZ: Yes, the team this year, really, people were helpful all the way through, were my son, filmmaker Alex Horwitz, and also Maria Insuanolan(ph) and Gage Uhlman(ph) in Los Angeles. They really helped.

CONAN: Murray, thanks. We'll do it again soon. This is, of course, another Tony, "West Side Story"...

(Soundbite of shouting)

HORWITZ: You just want to be with him.

CONAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with a look at whether independent scientists are being shut out of studying the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm ducking a shiv. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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