Top 10 Actors Who Won Oscars Playing Villains

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Top 10 Actors Who Won Oscars Playing Villains

VOICE OVER: Ryan Wild WRITTEN BY: Nick Spake
In the end, the actors behind these iconic movie villains had the last laugh. For this list, we'll be looking at performers who took home the Academy Award for bringing cinema's best villains to life. Our countdown includes J. K. Simmons, Christoph Waltz, Charlize Theron, and more!
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Top 10 Actors Who Won Oscars Playing Villains


Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Actors Who Won Oscars Playing Villains.

For this list, we’ll be looking at performers who took home the Academy Award for bringing cinema’s most iconic villains to life. We’re excluding Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro for their performances as Don Vito Corleone, as we don’t really see them as villains. We see them as family men.

What’s your favorite Oscar-winning villain performance? Let us know in the comments.

#10: J. K. Simmons

“Whiplash” (2014)
We’ve seen J. K. Simmons play nurturing mentors and hotheaded antagonists. When we first meet Terence Fletcher, the audience isn’t sure what they’re going to get. Fletcher reveals his true colors upon throwing a chair at one of his students, giving us a small taste of the brutality on the horizon. If you heard the pitch, “‘Full Metal Jacket’ with a band instructor,” you may expect something satirical. Simmons easily could’ve gone too over-the-top here, but it’s the intense realism he brings to Fletcher that makes this Best Supporting Actor-winning performance so terrifying. As manipulative and cruel as his methods are, Fletcher doesn’t view himself as a villain. In his mind, if he pushes his students to meet his demanding standards, he’s done his job.

#9: Denzel Washington

“Training Day” (2001)
The experience of watching “Training Day” is like falling down a manhole into an urban Wonderland. Ethan Hawke’s Jake Hoyt is Alice and Denzel Washington’s Alonzo Harris is every mad character rolled into one sadist. Alonzo uses his position as an L.A. detective to terrorize others for giggles, get away with murder, and make a sizable profit along the way. As far as Alonzo is concerned, it’s his world and we’re all either living or dying in it. Washington is so commanding in the role that the audience is led to believe that he may very well be invincible. Alonzo’s King Kong-sized ego might be his downfall, but Washington emerged victorious at the Oscars as the second African-American Best Actor winner.

#8: Javier Bardem

“No Country for Old Men” (2007)
It doesn’t take more than one look into Anton Chigurh’s eyes to know that he’s evil incarnate. Unlike some other villains, you don’t get the impression that Chigurh enjoys partaking in such atrocities. He has zero remorse, but he’s not in it for any kind of sick pleasure or even money. Chigurh views himself as an instrument of fate. Whether you owe a debt, wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time, or simply lose a coin flip, Chigurh is an unstoppable force who won’t budge from his twisted morals. With his Best Supporting Actor-winning performance, Javier Bardem went beyond molding Chigurh into a monster. He turned him into one of cinema’s most complex souls - that is to say if Chigurh had one.


#7: Christoph Waltz

“Inglourious Basterds” (2009)
For most western viewers, “Inglourious Basterds” marked their introduction to Christoph Waltz. Our unfamiliarity with Waltz added another layer of horror to Hans Landa. From his first scene, we knew this SS officer was the worst that humanity had to offer. We also knew that Waltz was totally going to win an Oscar for his captivating performance. Yet, we could never figure out what Landa would do next. A conversation over milk could result in the death of a family. An intense lunch could end with Landa turning a blind eye. Constantly keeping us guessing, all we know about Landa is that he’s one step ahead of everyone else. However, even a meticulous master of strategy like Landa can’t predict a Basterd’s impulsive actions.


#6: Kathy Bates

“Misery” (1990)
In this Stephen King classic, reclusive reader Annie Wilkes holds her idol hostage and forces him to rewrite a story’s ending. Back in 1990, this setup might have sounded far-fetched. Today, we wouldn’t put it past some diehard fans. Kathy Bates was ahead of the curve with her Best Actress-winning performance. Bates is several different kinds of scary as Annie. Even when she’s introduced as a kindly woman who saves Paul Sheldon from a car accident, we can sense something menacing underneath. When Annie loses her temper, we see just how warped her “cockadoodie” mind is. Annie is in her own little world and if something isn’t exactly as she envisions it, she’ll take a sledgehammer and rearrange things to her liking.


#5: Charlize Theron

“Monster” (2003)
When portraying a real-life monster like Aileen Wuornos, there are so many variables that could go wrong. Charlize Theron and director Patty Jenkins risked depicting Wuornos as too sympathetic, but they also could’ve made her out to be too one-dimensional. They get to the root of who Wuornos was, though, and what drove her to become a serial killer. Even with the knowledge of Wuornos’ tragic past, her actions are never justified. “Monster” simply presents Wuornos’ life for what it was: a sad existence full of pain, desperation, and senseless violence. In her Best Actress-winning performance, the unrecognizable Theron is heartbreaking while still leaving the audience with little empathy for Wuornos. The film inspires mixed emotions, but the praise for Theron is universal.


#4: Daniel Day-Lewis

“There Will Be Blood” (2007)
Even after spending more than two-and-a-half hours with Daniel Plainview, he remains something of an enigma. The ending, in particular, will leave you asking whether Plainview is a profoundly evil mastermind who sees the world for what it truly is, an unhinged madman spouting utter nonsense, or something in between. There are three things we know for sure, however. First, Plainview is the embodiment of greed, exploring how it destroys our minds and corrupts our souls. Second, Plainview possesses all of the traits we look for in a great villain: cunning and ruthless, yet so charismatic that we might be persuaded to do business with the devil himself. Third, Daniel Day-Lewis ranks among the most deserved Best Actor winners of all time.

#3: Louise Fletcher

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975)
Some villains we love to hate. Others we hate to love. We straight-up hate Nurse Mildred Ratched with every fiber of our being, which is precisely why we love Louise Fletcher’s Best Actress-winning performance. Unlike some other villains, Nurse Ratched doesn’t have much power outside of the mental institution she oversees. Within these bleak walls, though, Ratched is the judge, jury, and executioner. She breaks every spirit with a passive-aggressive demeanor, turning her patients into submissive shells. Ratched understands that the most effective weapon is fear itself, even making a towering patient like Chief feel powerless against her and the unjust system. Then when her usual tyrannical methods don’t work, she’ll resort to extreme measures that’ll remove the rebel within.

#2: Anthony Hopkins

“The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)
Although Anthony Hopkins won Best Actor for his iconic performance as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, he’s only on screen for 24 minutes. That’s just over 20% of the runtime. And yet, Lecter looms over the entire film like a shadow, making the audience feel his presence even when he’s not present. When Lecter first meets Clarice Starling, he’s just standing in the middle of his cell, as if he’s expecting company. This sets a tone for Hopkins’ performance. He’s always thinking ahead and can read someone before they even enter the room. Lecter can be locked up in a maximum-security prison and we still wouldn’t feel safe. Then when Lecter inevitably breaks free, nobody is prepared for the mayhem about to be unleashed.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

Kevin Kline, “A Fish Called Wanda” (1988)
Hands Down, One of the Funniest Oscar-Winning Performances of All Time

Faye Dunaway, “Network” (1976)
Her Best Actress-Winning Performance Exposes the Devil Working Behind the Scenes

Michael Douglas, “Wall Street” (1987)
Greed Is Good, This Best Actor-Winning Performance Is Better

Mo’Nique, “Precious” (2009)
A Stone Cold Best Supporting Actress-Winning Performance

Joe Pesci, “Goodfellas” (1990)
A Best Supporting Actor-Winning Performance That’s Both Unnerving & Funny

#1: Heath Ledger

“The Dark Knight” (2008)
Between Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix, two actors have won Oscars for portraying the Joker. While both bring out the anarchy that the Clown Prince of Crime represents, comparing the two is apples and oranges. Since this list is about Oscar-winning villain roles, though, we have to give an edge to Ledger. Where Arthur Fleck can be seen as a victim of society, we don’t know what drove Ledger’s Joker to become a merchant of chaos. It could’ve been a cruel father, a tragic romance, or merely the desire to watch the world burn. Few things are more terrifying than what we can’t understand, and therefore can’t reason with. Ledger took a villain we thought we knew and transcended him to another frontier of evil.
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