My article on horrible movie bosses appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram around Thanksgiving. Here it is, reprinted, for your reading pleasure.
Horrible Movie Bosses
Thanksgiving turkey is delicious, but having a turkey for a boss is a big drag, whether you slave away for an incompetent cluck like Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) in The Caine Mutiny (1954) or a two-faced bird like Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) in Working Girl (1988).
You may want to tell your tyrannical turkey of a taskmaster to “take this job and stuff it,” but you probably need the dough. And besides, finding another job in this economy can be a “fowl” proposition.
Fortunately, most real-life supervisors aren’t turkeys, and even the nastier ones rarely ruffle the feathers like the best of the bad bosses of the silver screen. One such boss is Dave Harken, a turkey played by Kevin Spacey in the 2011 hit, Horrible Bosses. Described as a “psychopathic master manipulator,” Spacey reprises his role in Horrible Bosses 2, releasing the day before Thanksgiving.
Below is a listing of 10 more psychotic cinematic supervisors. If you like your leader, and if he or she isn’t a turkey, give thanks that you aren’t employed by one of these caustic cretins:
Jeff D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray)
The Apartment (1960)
Directed by Billy “Some Like it Hot” Wilder, The Apartment, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, casts the likable Fred MacMurray (The Absent-Minded Professor) against type as womanizer Mr. Sheldrake, an adulterer who uses his employee’s apartment for a tryst with Fran Kubelik, an elevator operator played by Shirley MacLaine.
Less outwardly evil than the other bosses on this list, Sheldrake is especially despicable as he appears nice on the surface, but in reality is a lying, manipulative cheat—working for Sheldrake is a deal with the devil.
Boss's turkey talk: “Ya know, you see a girl a couple of times a week, just for laughs, and right away they think you’re gonna divorce your wife. Now I ask you, is that fair?”
Franklin Hart Jr. (Dabney Coleman)
9 to 5 (1980)
If the titular (pun intended) theme song by Dolly Parton is the most memorable aspect of the comedy classic 9 to 5, Dabney Coleman’s portrayal of Franklin Hart Jr. is a close runner up. The beastly boss, lording it over Parton (as Doralee Rhodes), Jane Fonda (Judy Bernly) and Lily Tomlin (Violet Newstead), is the prototypical sexist pig, treating his staff as though he had never heard of the women’s lib movement of the 1970s.
Fortunately for feminist film fans, Hart Jr. receives his comeuppance as the feisty females fight back. Not only do they fantasize about getting revenge on him in a variety of clever ways, those fantasies come true (more or less).
Boss's turkey talk: “So I have a few faults; who doesn't? Is that any reason to kill me?”
Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas)
Wall Street (1987)
In Wall Street, Oliver Stone’s skewering of Reagan’s America, Michael Douglas is Gordon Gekko, a corporate raider who makes zillions of dollars by purchasing undervalued companies, dismantling them and selling them for obscene profits.
The pacing, cigarette smoking, stock market-obsessing Gekko is clearly a villain as he has everything he could possibly want—family, riches and the like—but lies and cheats to get more and more money. Ironically, Douglas, who won an Academy Award for Best Actor for the role, does such an outstanding job that he’s become a hero of our capitalistic, free market economy among certain viewers.
Boss's turkey talk: “The point is, ladies and gentlemen that greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
Blake (Alec Baldwin)
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Based on David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize winning play from 1983, Glengarry Glen Ross stars Alec Baldwin as Blake, a character created specifically for the film. Compared to the other bosses on this list, Blake’s screen time is limited, but he gives a speech for the ages, cussing, cajoling and belittling a sales force at a real estate office.
To motivate the realtors, who are played by Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin and Ed Harris, Blake holds a contest in which the winner will win a Cadillac Eldorado. Second place gets a set of steak knives, a humiliating prize to be sure. However, third place is the ultimate insult: termination. As such, the salesmen are practically forced to use underhanded methods to make sales.
Boss's turkey talk: “Nice guy? ... Go home and play with your kids. You wanna work here—close!”
Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey)
Swimming with Sharks (1994)
Years before the Horrible Boss movies, Kevin Spacey, as Buddy Ackerman, was a malevolent movie mogul in Swimming with Sharks, a film directed by George Huang (Trojan War). Ackerman hires Guy (Frank Whaley), a young, eager-to-please film school graduate, to be his assistant, using and abusing him as only a Kevin Spacey character can.
As The New York Times’ Janet Maslin said, Ackerman is “cool, withering, studiously suave and spurred by impulses that might seem peevish even in a two-year-old child.” Guy exacts revenge on the tyrant, but only after much suffering.
Boss's turkey talk: “You are nothing! If you were in my toilet I wouldn't bother flushing it. My bathmat means more to me than you!”
Meredith Johnson (Demi Moore)
The late, great Roger Ebert called Disclosure an “exercise in pure cynicism with little respect for its subject,” framed by a “thriller plot” that defies explanation. That may be the case, but there’s no doubting that Meredith Johnson, played by a very lovely Demi Moore, is a toxic top-dog that belongs on this list.
After getting a promotion ahead of ex-lover Tom Sanders (Michael Douglas) at the technology company where they work, Johnson tries, very aggressively, to restart their affair. Now a family man, Sanders rejects her advances, and the next day Johnson, a devious and malicious character, cries sexual harassment.
Based on the Michael Crichton novel, Disclosure isn’t a great film, but it’s worth watching to see Moore in her prime.
Turkey boss quote: “Poor Sanders. You have no idea what you're up against—as usual.”
John Milton (Al Pacino)
The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
While The Apartment’s Mr. Sheldrake is a mere metaphorical devil, John Milton of The Devil’s Advocate is the real deal. After welcoming hotshot attorney Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) to his prestigious (if ethically challenged) law firm, setting him up with a nice apartment and an even nicer salary, Milton proceeds to drive Lomax’s adoring wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron), insane.
Named after the author of Paradise Lost, John Milton is based on a creature of ancient myth, but Al Pacino imbues him with a menace and an evil that seem all too real.
Boss's turkey talk: “Free will. It's like butterfly wings: once touched, they never get off the ground. No, I only set the stage. You pull your own strings.”
Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole)
Office Space (1999)
Surely everyone in the workaday cubicle world has had a boss like Bill Lumbergh, the annoying middle manager in Office Space who hovers over desks, coffee cup in hand, droning on about memos, meetings and other minutia. Even worse, he makes his employees come in on weekends to finish up their work.
Played by Gary Cole, who was charming as the dad in The Brady Bunch movies (trust us, you’d rather have Brady as a father than Lumbergh as a boss), Lumbergh, with his repetitious dialogue and relaxed demeanor, helps make Office Space a hoot.
Boss's turkey talk: “We’re going to need to go ahead and move you downstairs into Storage B.”
J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons)
Created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko for Amazing Spider-Man #1 (1963), J. Jonah Jameson, the crew cut-wearing, cigar-chomping, order-barking editor of the Daily Bugle, makes Peter Parker’s life miserable by reporting that his alter-ego, Spidey, is a villain, and by paying Parker puny rates as a freelance photographer for the paper.
In Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (and its two sequels), J. K. Simmons, who, fittingly enough, played a neo-Nazi inmate on the HBO prison drama Oz, is perfectly cast as Jameson, chewing the scenery, belittling Parker and in general being a jerk.
Boss's turkey talk: “They’re crap. Crap, crap, megacrap. I'll give you two hundred bucks for all of ’em” (referring to Parker’s photos of Spider-Man).
Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep)
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
Famed actress Meryl Streep, best known for her dramatic roles, exhibits expert comic timing in The Devil Wears Prada, a film based on Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 novel. She plays Miranda Priestly, the bitchy and demanding editor of a Vogue-like fashion magazine called Runway.
When Anne Hathaway, as Andy Sachs, gets a job as Priestly’s junior assistant, the magazine magnate criticizes her underling from top to bottom (weight, clothes, writing ability), but Priestly’s words aren’t her most vicious weapon. Rather, it’s her snooty, soul-crushing body language: curt glances, dismissive head tilts and mock-pity facial expressions.
Boss's turkey talk: “You have no style or sense of fashion…no, no—that wasn’t a question.