Cinema Slap Fight: Christopher McDonald vs. William Atherton

In which film criticism dies a horrible, perfunctory death.

Since the beginning of the movie era, actors have been typecast as heroes or as villains. A few never strayed from their comfort zone (Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, to name two), while others were allowed greater moral ambiguity, especially as the 20th Century rolled on and real-life events gave the lie to the black-and-white pictures of those early years.

So while actors like Edward G. Robinson and Christopher Lee are renowned for playing bad guys, it's only been recently that a subset of villain has cropped up in motion pictures. As society has become more self-absorbed and insular, this particular character type has shown up with much greater frequency. I'm talking of course about the Asshole (with a capital A, no less).

Assholes in movies are often synonymous with villains. Unlike villains, however, the Asshole is easily bested and rarely has any real ability to permanently harm the hero. The Asshole is often preoccupied with keeping the hero from completing his plot-assigned task or getting his plot-assigned girl, and there are two actors in particular who've rarely if ever played anything else. This week, "Cinema Slap Fight" pits Christopher McDonald against William Atherton in a clash of the titanic assholes.

In This Corner: Perpetual '80s prick William Atherton, who for an unbroken seven-year run (1984-1991) played a succession of increasingly aggravating and smarmy characters who made life hell for the Ghostbusters, Chris Knight and John & Holly McClane, respectively. And in two of those movies, he suffered his ultimate humiliation through the use of snack food.

And In This Corner: Christopher McDonald, no less unctuous than Atherton, but with a certain lack of...polish. McDonald's shtick was more game show host than elitist (Requiem for a Dream), more braggadocio than righteous indignation (Happy Gilmore). And let's not forget, he eats pieces of shit for breakfast.

Acts Of Assholery: Atherton's crimes against decency are as numerous as the popcorn kernels lodged in Jerry Hathaway's living room. They include shutting down the Ghostbusters' containment field and allowing hundreds of evil, hot dog-eating spirits to run amok in New York City; building an assassination laser for the CIA; and twice almost causing the death of a certain NYPD cop. Later roles would never reach Walter Peck's dizzying heights of jagoff-itude, but not for lack of trying in the likes of Bio-Dome, The Pelican Brief and...*sigh*...The Crow: Salvation.

Aficionados of onscreen assholery will remember McDonald as Daryl, the decidedly unsympathetic husband of Geena Davis from Thelma & Louise. Through the years, he's been no less of a rat bastard than Hathaway, but hasn't had the benefit of appearing in as many high-profile flicks (Flubber and House Arrest among them). Notable exceptions include the aforementioned Happy Gilmore and one of my personal favorites, The Iron Giant, in which he plays sinister government agent Kent Mansley.

Quotability: The good thing about assholes is they often have the funniest lines:

Kent Mansley: "The biggest thing in this town is probably the homecoming queen."

Walter Peck: "What exactly are you a doctor *of*, Mr. Venkman?" Peter Venkman: "Well, I have PhDs in Parapsychology and Psychology." Walter Peck: "And now you catch ghosts..."

Wilson Croft: "Well, to be honest. I'm here this weekend to steal your fiancee. And make her my wife."

Professor Hathaway: "What are you looking at? You're laborers; you should be laboring. That's what you get for not having an education!"

Shooter McGavin: "You lay another finger on me, I burn the house down and piss on the ashes."

Actually, that last one was kind of mean.

Mitigating Factors:

Surely these guys have some counterweight to their otherwise ubiquitous jerkiness? Yeah, not too much. I mean, in Bio-Dome Dr. Faulkner (Atherton) was driven so insane by the antics of Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin he tried to blow the Dome up with them inside. Give him an "E" for effort. And one could make the argument that Agent Mansley was just acting in the best interest of his country...except for that whole threatening children and almost starting a nuclear war...thing. Atherton at least had a fairly impressive pre-asshole career, starring in films like The Day of the Locust and Sugarland Express. Where is your Spielberg now?

The Verdict: Unpleasant as McDonald's characters are, I simply must go with Atherton, solely for how much satisfaction we got out of their respective characters' ends. Sure, it was fun watching an elderly Richard "Jaws" Kiel chase Shooter across the golf course, and I'm pretty sure Mansley's post-Iron Giant career involved the words "ice station" and "scrubbing toilets," but few things were as cathartic as seeing Walter Peck doused in Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man guts, or watching Jerry Hathaway's house suffer death by popcorn, or as hot as Bonnie Bedelia clocking Dick Thornburgh. Atherton it is.

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