The Greatest Actor Portrayals Of The Worst People In History

List Rules
Vote up the best movie depictions of history's most notorious villains.

The actors who played history's worst villains are an incredible bunch. Some, like Joaquin Phoenix and Robert Duvall, are huge stars, others are lesser-known. Some are bankable American performers, while others are foreign actors who shined in lesser-seen films. Many of them are still living and working to this day, whereas others passed decades ago. Regardless of circumstance, what they all have in common is a willingness to put personal vanity aside in order to portray historical figures who are deeply unsympathetic and, in certain instances, actual perpetrators of genocide.

The task is daunting because of the ever-present temptation to chew the scenery or end up veering into caricature. In the best cases, these actors avoid such pitfalls. Instead, they seek to illuminate the ruthlessness, narcissism, or just plain evil that resided inside these individuals. Because of their efforts, viewers are better able to understand that which seems impossible to understand at first glance. In the process, they give indelible performances that will continue to resonate for a long time.

Which actor did the best job playing one of the worst people in history? Your votes will decide.

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  • To say Ralph Fiennes is chilling in Schindler's List would be a vast understatement. As Amon Göth, the commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp, he represents the mindset behind the atrocities that occurred during the Holocaust. The role earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

    Fiennes's accomplishment is extraordinary because he makes Göth someone without a single ounce of empathy. Every scene in which the character appears finds him with a look of disgust on his face. Göth genuinely loathes the Jewish people and takes a sense of pride in the genocide. Although that's an uncomfortable notion, it's essential to the film's efforts to convey the magnitude of the Holocaust. 

    Amon Göth is the picture's dark heart - and that heart is as dark as can be.

    437 votes
  • How good is Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler in Downfall? So good that he inspired a popular meme. The movie covers the last 10 days of Hitler's life as he hides in his bunker, refusing to acknowledge defeat. 

    Psychologists widely believe Hitler was a malignant narcissist. He exhibited all the classic traits: lack of empathy, antisocial behavior, paranoid thinking, and sadistic tendencies. Ganz masterfully shows how all those qualities combine inside this angry, unhinged man. His Hitler is a human time bomb, capable of exploding at the slightest provocation, real or imagined. The actor additionally illustrates the cognitive dissonance Hitler felt in knowing the Third Reich was about to fall, while believing in his own infallibility at the same time.

    It's a tall order, but Ganz avoids demonizing Hitler, instead focusing on the mental sickness that fueled his unforgivable actions.

    319 votes
  • Idi Amin was one of the most notorious world villains of the 1970s. The Ugandan president ruled with an iron fist and was widely feared for his abrupt changes of mood, as well as his persecution of various ethnic groups. The nickname “Butcher of Uganda” was perfectly suited to him.

    Forest Whitaker won an Academy Award for playing Amin in The Last King of Scotland. The performance is unlike any other in his body of work. Whitaker is a soft-spoken presence off-screen, and he often plays characters who share that trait. To see him so convincingly play the rageful, aggressive Amin is a shock. He makes us understand why the man was feared. At the same time, the actor also conveys the way Amin could be charismatic, which drew people to him, earning a certain amount of loyalty despite the unfathomable acts he committed.

    293 votes
  • Nineteen years before winning the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Joker, Joaquin Phoenix scored his first Oscar nomination for his supporting role in Gladiator. He portrays Commodus, the Roman emperor known for, among other things, ordering the elimination of anyone who displeased him, including prominent senators and his own chief minister. No one wanted to be on the receiving end of his "thumbs down." 

    Phoenix channels that vengeful personality in a manner that feels credible. He's truly disturbing in the role, showing how easily Commodus's disregard for human life presents itself. The emperor famously went a little insane during his reign, and Phoenix incorporates that mental instability into his performance. Benicio del Toro may have beaten him for the Oscar, but Phoenix's turn as Commodus has remained one of his most admired works.

    376 votes
  • Many people think of Dr. Loomis, the psychiatrist from Halloween, when they think of Donald Pleasence. However, the actor had a full career that found him playing a wide variety of characters. In 1976's The Eagle Has Landed, for instance, he portrays Heinrich Himmler, the notorious Reich leader of the SS, responsible for conceiving the "final solution" that claimed the lives of millions of Jews.

    Playing the man with an occasionally wicked cackle, Pleasence captures the core essence of Himmler - that he was so full of self-righteous hatred, he could actually conceive of something as heinous as eliminating an entire group of people based solely on their religion. There's a cold calculation to his performance, one that gets at the almost inhuman quality that would allow someone to come up with a plan of such unwavering cruelty.

    189 votes
  • Josef Stalin: Robert Duvall, 'Stalin'
    Photo: HBO

    Robert Duvall has given many commanding performances over the course of his career, in films as varied as The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Great Santini, and Tender Mercies. Whenever he's onscreen, you know you're going to see something special, whether he's playing a heroic or villainous role. In the latter category, his work as Josef Stalin in the 1992 HBO movie Stalin is exemplary.

    Stalin was an imposing figure, so he needs an actor of Duvall's caliber to bring him to life on the screen. The actor is more than up to the challenge, playing him over the course of many years as he goes from revolutionary to full-on dictator. Duvall makes that dramatic transition feel authentic with his nuanced work. That he so closely resembles Stalin thanks to a mustache and some prosthetics just makes his performance even more unnerving.

    149 votes