Characters in movies tend to fall into one of two categories: characters you look up to and characters you relate to. Many popular characters we love usually fall into the former category: Indiana Jones, James Bond, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Spider-Man, etc. Although we may share qualities with these icons, we more often admire their idealism and courage than we feel we relate to them; this is what makes them memorable.
Unfortunately, this makes the characters we actually relate to a little bit more forgettable. This is why I’ve decided to write a list about some of those relatable characters. There might be some heroes in there, but no one iconic; you don’t need a list to tell you that Indiana Jones and Harry Potter are great film characters.
Why 9? Because I know you don’t care enough to read 10.
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW
1. Roy Neary
Film Appearance: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)
Portrayed by: Richard Dreyfuss
Originally conceived by Steven Spielberg as a middle aged man, it was Richard Dreyfuss who helped turn Roy Neary into one of the most unique characters in Spielberg’s filmography. Unlike many Spielberg protagonists, he is not a child, but he’s not quite a man either. He has a family and stable job all right, but he seems more of a kid than his own kids; they want to play mini-golf, he wants to watch Pinocchio. Dreyfuss’ performance of Neary shows us that we don’t have to abandon our childlike tendencies in order to grow up. Controversially, he does allow his curiosity in UFO’s to cause him to leave his family behind in order to get on the mothership. However, this is very much a decision aligned with the curious nature of children; his desire to explore the uncharted and unknown superseded sticking with the limited view that was present in his own life.
2. Seth Brundle
Film Appearance: The Fly (1986)
Portrayed By: Jeff Goldblum
Jeff Goldblum may be better known to the general public as the hip contrarian Ian Malcolm in the Jurassic Park franchise, but it was his performance here that initially put him on the map. Brundle is essentially a nerdier version of Malcolm; he’s initially very poor with women, reclusive and is driven by a single minded obsession that eventually shuts out everyone around him. He’s definitely a mad scientist, but at the same time he’s an anti-mad scientist. He does legitimately care about other people around him (specifically girlfriend Veronica Quaife), carries a sensitive if difficult genius, and is quite handsome. In this way, he’s a nerd’s Indiana Jones. It’s too bad he becomes the disgusting, monstrous Brundlefly; although looking at Brundle’s bug eyes should have given that away. Despite this, it is Brundle’s humanistic dealings of how to get out of the situation that invites our sympathy before it consumes him.
3. Peter Gibbons
Film Appearance: Office Space (1999)
Portrayed By: Ron Livingston
Everyone has felt like Peter Gibbons and has wanted to be Peter Gibbons at some point; you hate your job so much that you just want to stick it to your boss and leave the building; your middle fingers raised high in the air before you go on your date with Jennifer Aniston. Unfortunately, many of us cannot afford to do that. No, we can’t just start not showing up for work. Neither can we be brutally honest to our superiors about how we regularly show up to work fifteen minutes late, hoping that will land us in an upper management position. However, if there’s anything Peter shows us that we can do, it’s for us to hold up a mirror to our own lives and see what needs to be changed. If we can’t do that, at least we can learn to find happiness outside of work.
4. Sally Bowles
Film Appearance: Cabaret (1972)
Portrayed By: Liza Minnelli
Sally Bowles is the kind of character that frustrates us; we know she’s talented and we want her to be a movie star, but she screws it up (literally) at every corner. She’s easy to fall in love with, but isn’t very good at reciprocating those feelings, as boyfriend Brian Roberts (Michael York) finds out. We know that if only she settled down, she would become the things she wants to be. At the same time, we know that if Sally became that, she wouldn’t be Sally Bowles. She’s no amateur (although she was conceived as one in the original stories Cabaret is based on), but is an amateur in the world she lives in: a Germany that is slowly being taken over by the Nazi Party. It won’t be long till she finds out that life is not a cabaret.
5. Graham Dalton
Film Appearance: sex, lies and videotape (1989)
Portrayed By: James Spader
Interesting characters are usually ones who lie to themselves, and Graham Dalton is a perfect example. He criticizes old friend John Mullany (Peter Gallagher) for cheating on his wife Ann (Andie MacDowell), yet he admits he’s a pathological liar. He says he feels comparatively normal to John and Ann, but he makes videos of women talking about their sex lives. Despite these contradictions, it’s because of these quirks that either draws people (Ann and sister Cynthia) or repels them (John); his interesting nature is what makes him stick out like a sore thumb. He may not be the first outsider in movies that shows “ordinary people” a thing or two about life and its priorities, but he may be the first to reject his outsider status at the end.
6. Than Ti Oanh
Film Appearance: Casualties of War (1989)
Portrayed By: Thuy Tu Le
Although it might be easy to categorize Thuy as just playing one note in terms of emotions, there hasn’t been a more tragic performance. We don’t understand her Vietnamese language, but we read her like a book. We can never fully understand the rape, torture and murder she was put through, but her screams and face say it all. Worst of all? There’s no possible way that any of us, let alone Michael J. Fox, could’ve done anything to save her.
7. Evelyn Mulwray
Film Appearance: Chinatown (1974)
Portrayed By: Faye Dunaway
Faye Dunaway may have won the Oscar for her performance of Diana Christensen in Network, but her performance of Evelyn Mulwray is easily her best. While Diana is a single-minded, essentially one note character, Evelyn is more nuanced. She’s quite a revolutionary character as well; most women in film noirs were femme fatales; Evelyn is anything but. Although she shows a strong, stubborn streak in the beginning, her more vulnerable side begins to show as she reveals one of the more shocking surprises in modern cinema history.
8. Joe Gideon
Film Appearance: All That Jazz (1979)
Portrayed By: Roy Scheider
There’s no character that couldn’t have cared less than Joe Gideon. He’s ruining his relationship with his daughter, ruining his relationships with girls by cheating on them and damaging his body with smoking, drugs, alcohol and overwork. What does he do when he gets hospitalized and told he’s going to die if he keeps going the way he’s going? He keeps doing the same thing. The line between the shows he’s producing and the life he’s running is very blurred, and he’s running both at top speed. Little does he know that he’s not running his life; he’s running it straight towards his death, during a show of course. That couldn’t have been more appropriate.
9. Chance “Chauncey” Gardiner
Film Appearance: Being There (1979)
Portrayed By: Peter Sellers
Like Roy Neary, Chauncey Gardiner is a walking celebration of innocence. Even when he’s ejected from the mansion where he worked as a gardener, he does not become terrified at the horrors of the world. He finds a way to perfectly co-exist inside of it without changing a thing; it’s almost like he can’t differentiate from the real world and a garden. He’s a symbol for the “being yourself” mentality, showing us that if you just be yourself, you might end up being the President of the United States.