I asked a bunch of people over the weekend about their favorite movie villainesses, and discovered something amusing: When you say "movie villainess," most people automatically think "Disney." Disney animated films seem to have set the standard for evil, conniving women in Hollywood. Other people bring up the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, another unquestionable, unwavering villainess, although I always found the flying monkeys scarier than Margaret Hamilton, myself.
Our best villainesses in film are sometimes scary, sometimes a little campy, sometimes seemingly inhuman. Disney's witches are fine if you want uncomplicated opposition, and fun to watch, but I also like the women who seem to have everyone's best interest at heart while they spread nastiness throughout a movie. We have so many memorable, wonderful, terrifyingly evil women in film that I can't simply make a list of five or six, so I've instead compiled a list of categories into which many of our most villainous female characters fall.
The Disney Animated Villainesses
I might have grouped all of these evildoers into a category of general witches, but most people seem to find the most villainous Disney female to be one who had no magical powers whatsoever: Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians. After all, the woman wanted to slay a hundred innocent, adorable puppies just so she could have a new fur coat. Disney villainesses are usually stylish, powerful, and get all the best lines in the film. Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty is the scariest of the lot, no matter how old you are. But my personal favorite is Ursula the Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid, who gets to sing "Poor, Unfortunate Souls" so delightfully that I can't understand why she'd want to steal wimpy little Ariel's voice.
As I mentioned, the gold standard for witches in film is The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. It's hard to top Margaret Hamilton. But we've had other evil witches and enchantresses in films since then. I love Anjelica Huston as The Grand High Witch in The Witches -- Huston has become a go-to actress for all kinds of evil women in film, and this adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel gives her one of her best.
I especially love the women who spread evil and nastiness throughout the land in the name of virtue, family values, and other high-minded reasons. They often cause the most damage. Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest just wanted her patients to get well, right? And Miss Togar in Rock 'n Roll High School genuinely believed that rock music would destroy her students and perhaps society itself, which was why she had to keep punishing poor Riff Randell for her love of The Ramones. More recently, I'm sure that the sweetly horrible Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix had only the students' best interests at heart in her attempts to maintain order and convince everyone that the news about Voldemort's returns was nothing but lies.
The mischief-makers have no real ulterior motive for their evil -- not ambition, or the preservation of values, or greed. They want to cause trouble. A prime example is Glenn Close as the Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons. She plots all kinds of ways to mess with people's relationships, for no real reason other than to break up the boredom of her daily routine. Annette Bening plays the same role in Valmont, but with little sense of malice. Close is another actress who consistently delivers top-notch villainesses -- her Cruella de Vil was the best part of the live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians; and whether you see her character in Fatal Attraction as a misunderstood victim driven to extremes, or a total psychotic, that bunny-stew move was pure villainy. Ms. Duke and Ms. Chandler in Heathers also fall into this category: "Why do you have to be such a mega-bitch?" "Because I can be."
Mothers who turn to the dark side are often fascinating characters in film. One of the most memorable evil moms in film is Eleanor Iselin, as portrayed by Angela Lansbury, in The Manchurian Candidate. (Meryl Streep was too over-the-top in the remake for my liking.) Mrs. Iselin wants her husband and her political aspirations to succeed at any cost, and is heartbroken that the cost turns out to include her son. Another mother who was chilling and horrible in a much more direct way was Ruth Chandler in the 2007 horror film Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door. Based on a true story, Mrs. Chandler loved her boys but had no patience with the orphan nieces who were sent to stay with her, and took out her anger on the girls in ways that I found very difficult to watch (my review here).
You'd think you could depend on servants and assistants to be helpful and kind and not stab you in the back. If you think that, you need to watch more movies. The classic evil housekeeper is Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, who loved the title character so much that she'll go to great lengths to ensure that her successor will be a failure. Judith Anderson is wonderfully creepy and chilling in the role. Assistants with too much ambition will also do anything to get what they want, like Eve Harrington in All About Eve.
I'm missing a ton of great villainesses in these categories: Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, Lady Kaede in Ran and lots of exploitation-flick bad girls, led by Dyanne Thorne as Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. Use the comments to tell us about your favorite malicious women in movies.