The life of legendary Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh has resulted in a couple of pretty good films, including Vincente Minnelli‘s “Lust for Life” (1956) with Kirk Douglas as well as Robert Altman‘s 1990 biopic with Tim Roth as Van Gogh. Willem Dafoe takes a slightly different tack to van Gogh in painter Julian Schnabel‘s latest film “At Eternity’s Gate,” which is opening this weekend. Dafoe’s take on the artist is complex, as the film is set in the final years of van Gogh’s life in which he creates masterpieces while being hospitalized and finally winding up in an asylum. Oh, and there’s that business about an ear.
Early on in his film career, Dafoe was typed into playing a bad guy, such as his biker gang leaders in Kathryn Bigelow‘s “The Loveless” and Walter Hill‘s “Streets of Fire.” But his performance as kindly Sgt. Elias in Oliver Stone‘s “Platoon” changed all that, resulting in his first Academy Award nomination. Two more Oscar nominations followed (for 2000’s “Shadow of the Vampire” and 2017’s “The Florida Project”), as well as two Golden Globe nominations and four noms from the Screen Actors Guild.
In honor of “At Eternity’s Gate’s” opening, let’s look back in the photo gallery above at Dafoe’s 12 greatest films, ranked from worst to best.
12. MISSISSIPPI BURNING (1988)
For the first time in his career, Dafoe received above-the-title billing in Alan Parker‘s well-intentioned but critically divisive film that focuses on two fictional white FBI agents — Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Alan Ward (Dafoe) — who are sent to Mississippi to investigate the real-life murders of three civil rights workers.
11. THE LOVELESS (1981)
Dafoe made his first big splash in this biker thriller which was the first film by Oscar-winning director Bigelow. In the first of three films in which Dafoe portrays the leader of a biker gang, here he plays ex-con Vance who is leading his crew through a small Southern town to get to the Daytona Speedway when he becomes involved with the locals. Dafoe’s performance is very much a variation on Marlon Brando‘s in “The Wild One,” but Bigelow film him more as a masculine icon than as a vulnerable human being.
10. STREETS OF FIRE (1984)
When Hollywood did call Dafoe, they apparently still saw him as leader of a biker gang, but writer/director Hill perceived a little more in him for his motorcycle musical. Yes, his Raven is a gang leader, but Dafoe plays it with a slight mixture of his Vance from “The Loveless” with a little bit thrown in of Max Schreck, whom he would play 16 years later in an Oscar-nominated performance in “Shadow of the Vampire.”
9. FINDING NEMO (2003)
The third of Dafoe’s “gang leader” trilogy was this worldwide animated smash in which Dafoe is a memorable addition to the voice ensemble as Gill, the gang leader of a group of fish (called the Tank Gang) that get together to help Nemo to escape from an aquarium in a dentist’s office. It’s a nice twist on Dafoe’s usually evil gang leader persona.
8. SPIDER-MAN (2002)
Though his prior successes did extremely well, “Spider-Man” was Dafoe’s first world-wide smash, as he played billionaire scientist Norman Osborn who tries to enhance his strength by taking an as-yet-untested drug, which unfortunately turns him into the ultimate super-villain Green Goblin. Although the Green Goblin tries to do dastardly things to Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire), Dafoe makes sure that there’s a little bit of Norman’s humanity present in all of the Green Goblin’s actions.
7. AT ETERNITY’S GATE (2018)
Dafoe received some of his best reviews in years as van Gogh in this movie about the last days of the legendary artist. Dafoe, who looks eerily like what our perception of van Gogh has become, digs deep into the artist’s character. It was widely known that van Gogh was greatly troubled, and what Dafoe and Schnabel have done is to create a world where the bright colors that van Gogh sees (that are not always there) become the representation of the world to his audience.
6. THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)
By far the most controversial film in which Dafoe starred was Martin Scorsese‘s take on the famed Nikos Kazantzakis novel about the temptations, including sexual, that Jesus Christ (Dafoe) faced during his 33 years on earth. The film engendered enormous hostility upon its release among right-wing Christian groups.
5. THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996)
Dafoe played a key role in Anthony Minghella‘s wartime romance and Best Picture winner as David Caravaggio, a Canadian Intelligence Corps operator and fellow patient to whom Count László de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) reveals his remarkable story of of his experiences during World War II and what led him to be shot down during the height of the Italian Campaign.
4. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)
Dafoe puts a comical twist on his bad guy persona as a part of the huge ensemble of writer/director Wes Anderson‘s period comedy. Here Dafoe plays deadly assassin J.G. Jopling, who has been hired by Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody) to kill hotel concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) who inherited a painting that Dmitri wants badly. Very badly. And Dafoe’s Jopling will do anything to make that happen.
3. SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE (2000)
One of Dafoe’s most unusual screen credits turned out to be one of his most successful. This indie film directed by E. Elias Merhige goes behind the scenes of one of the world’s first horror films, 1922’s “Nosferatu,” a vampire thriller directed by F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) and starring German actor Max Schreck (Dafoe). s the filming progresses, however, cast and crew begin to suspect that Schreck might actually be a real vampire.
2. PLATOON (1986)
Dafoe earned his first Academy Award nomination in Stone’s Best Picture winner as Sergeant Elias, an idealistic officer in an Army unit in 1967 South Vietnam. he role of Elias proved to be an image changer for Dafoe, whose career up until then involved playing mostly heavies. Audiences responded to Elias taking Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), the newbie in the platoon, under his wing, and for the first time on film, Dafoe was able to reveal the many facets of his character’s essence.
1. THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017)
Arguably, Dafoe’s greatest on-screen performance was one of his least showy. In Sean Baker‘s “The Florida Project,” Dafoe played a regular guy, Bobby Hicks, a bit of a schlub who happens to manage the Magic Castle, a motel very much in the shadow of Walt Disney World. Most of Bobby’s tenants are families who are just one step away from homelessness.