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Top 10 Movie Portrayals of Real Life Bad Guys

VO: Rebecca Brayton
You can’t invent villains like this: Hollywood sometimes has to dip into history to find bad guys to make their movies shine. Sometimes, these real life bad guys are depicted in a sympathetic light, sometimes they’re spoofed mercilessly, and sometimes they’re shown as flat-out crazy. Whichever the case, it’s always sure to be an interesting movie. In this video, counts down our picks for the top 10 movie portrayals of real life bad guys. For this list, we’ve chosen and ranked the films based on the performances of the actors involved, and not the villains they portray.

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Top 10 Movie Portrayals of Real Life Bad Guys

You can’t invent villains like this. Welcome to, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 movie portrayals of real-life bad guys.

#10: Ray Liotta as Henry Hill
“GoodFellas” (1990)

Even next to a dazzling Joe Pesci performance, Liotta shines in the role of real-life gangster Henry Hill. Though Martin Scorsese prevented Liotta from meeting Hill until filming was complete, the actor studied recordings of the gangster, helping him nail his character. Narrating his story for us, Liotta as the Irish-Italian gangster helps us understand the mob world, and what a man like Hill will do to survive.

#9: Matt Stone as Saddam Hussein
“South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” (1999)

He was once “the most dangerous man in the world,” but you wouldn’t know it based on this depiction. Cartoons can get away with more, and “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker use this to their advantage when lampooning Saddam and his lover, Satan. Though it’s definitely not the most realistic, this portrayal of the Iraqi dictator is as memorable as they come.

#8: Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald
“JFK” (1991)

Chances are if you weren’t alive when President Kennedy was assassinated, the picture you have in your mind of Lee Harvey Oswald is actually of Gary Oldman. Though the two look remarkably similar, there’s more to this portrayal than simply appearance: Oldman acted as a detective for his research into the role, which helped him embody in an almost eerie manner the man accused of killing the president.

#7: Johnny Depp as John Dillinger
“Public Enemies” (2009)

While many movie gangsters are simply impersonations of other movie gangsters, this Depp performance is a cut above. Portraying the infamous Depression-era bank robber, he slaps on his best sardonic smile and acts with meticulousness, restraint and boldness in the face of the police and the FBI. Cool as ice and not afraid to get his hands dirty, Depp’s Dillinger is cold, calculating and real.

#6: Brad Pitt as Jesse James
“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)

While critics agreed this film missed the mark, they were practically unanimous in their praise of Brad Pitt and his Oscar-nominated co-star Casey Affleck. While the relationship between the two Wild West figures is what moves the plot along, Pitt deftly personifies the legend that is the outlaw Jesse James: it’s perfect casting, as he’s able to shift from murderer to loving father to crazy sonofabitch seamlessly.

#5: Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas
“American Gangster” (2007)

This is one performance that proves gangsters can be cruel and callous as well as suave and smooth. New York drug lord and crime boss Frank Lucas is known for his style and flair, and his confidence shines through in every scene thanks to Washington’s stellar portrayal. Though the actor tries his hardest not to glamorize the seedy drug world, it’s hard not to fall for Lucas’ charms.

#4: Eric Bana as Mark “Chopper” Read
“Chopper” (2000)

Before becoming an improbable star thanks to a run of semi-autobiographical novels, legendary Australian criminal Chopper Read was one of the baddest guys from Down Unda. By studying the criminal up-close-and-personal and undergoing an intense physical transformation, comedian Eric Bana is able to use his breakout performance to channel Chopper’s instability and fierceness – meaning we see some mean fits of rage interspersed with some sad disappointments.

#3: Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos
“Monster” (2003)

Sent to death row for seven murders, Wuornos is as far as you get from the svelte Charlize Theron. Theron transformed physically with extra weight, makeup and false teeth; but it’s the psychological transformation that’s most striking. Theron’s mastery over body language and even eye movements convey more about the character than words. And, underneath the veneer of a mentally-disturbed, damaged woman, Theron plays Wuornos with empathy and emotion.

#2: Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin
“The Last King of Scotland” (2006)

Winning the Oscar for his work, Whitaker truly became the feared and reviled Ugandan dictator. Charismatic and crazy, Amin possessed characteristics typical of a beloved leader – but his jovial nature quickly transitioned into violent, paranoid behavior, and Whitaker perfectly presents these traits. Tracing Amin’s descent into madness during his murderous and repressive reign over Uganda, the film and Whitaker himself remind us how scary the truth can be.

#1: Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler
“Downfall [Der Untergang]” (2004)

Set in the bunker where Hitler died, this German film humanizes the Nazi leader in a way few thought possible – or necessary. Delusional and demanding as ever, the Fuhrer is brought back to life uncannily by Bruno Ganz. But, instead of portraying him as unquestionably evil like so many before him, Ganz gives the character dimension mixed with his fanaticism – making for an unsettling film but a stellar performance.

Do you agree with our list? Which portrayal of a real-life bad guy impressed you the most? For more top 10s about your favorite films, be sure to subscribe to

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