If you were to dissect a movie–almost any movie, split it open and search for what makes it tick, what drives the plot forward–you’d find that its core holds a story of good versus evil. Sometimes, the line separating those sides is blurred, or double-crossed, or drawn pencil thin; but, that inherent conflict is there. The thematic constant is as old as time, even literally, if you’re to believe the teachings of the Bible. Late in God’s Unauthorized Biography is the story of a bitter, messy break-up between He and Satan. Satan was born glorious-beautiful and smart and driven and ambitious. Satan was, by all accounts, one of the better angels, and maybe the best and most popular. All angels, by their nature, are great. Satan was the cream of the crop. If the angels are N*Sync, Satan is Justin Timberlake.
Sadly, all of the things that made Satan great led to his eventual break-up with the Most High. His insistence on being seen as equal to or more powerful than God got him booted out of Heaven forever. It was, and remains, a very messy break-up. It’s important to imagine the relationship between good and evil within this framework. God and Satan aren’t so different, really. Like two all-powerful exes who can’t stop talking about how much they hate each other, it’s abundantly clear to everyone who listens that they can’t live without each other.
There are dozens of movies that portray these good/evil bookends in the literal sense, but not many of them capture this essence. God is not an old man in a toga and a ZZ Top beard. Satan is not a sunburnt satyr with a pitchfork. They’re two angels, battling one another by proxy, using us as revenge pawns. We won’t know what these two look like until it’s too late to report back to the rest of the world. That’s why we’re not going to talk about the clichés and caricatures, a la Tim Curry in Legend or John Huston in The Bible. What makes a movie God or a movie Satan great is how closely the actor can match their spirit.
When you think about the Devil, it’s best to clear your mind of the fire and brimstone cartoon version of legend. Satan doesn’t want you to know you’re doing something stupid, lest you change your mind at the last minute and back away. That’s why Satan would never approach you with a scorpion tail and blood-soaked antlers. Think of Satan like that guy your mother told you stay away from back in high school. Sure, you’d heard the rumors, and even your friends said he was trouble, but he had a really nice car and perfect teeth. He smoked Marlboro Reds and wore a leather jacket that covered his tattoos. He told you he loved you and he looked like James Dean. Then one day you woke up with a baby on the way and your mom’s pearls missing from the jewelry box. You don’t know you’ve been bamboozled by a Beelzebub until it’s too late. That’s how Satan works. Charming and attractive and cunning and manipulative and dripping with temptation. That’s what makes these movie devils so great.
Elizabeth Hurley, Bedazzled (2000)
Let’s make one thing clear: Bedazzled is not that great of a movie. Despite making over 90 million dollars at the Box Office (!) and despite being directed by Harold Ramis (!!), it was met with a collective shrug by critics and isn’t quite bad enough to be considered a cult classic. It’s mostly a story about how Brendan Fraser thinks he can use money and power to trick a girl into falling in love with him. It’s sort of gross, in a way. It does however, perfectly cast Elizabeth Hurley as the Prince of Darkness. Elizabeth Hurley today, tomorrow, and forever, is gorgeous and charismatic and, maybe most importantly, she is British, which makes her seem amiable and approachable even when she is threatening to steal your soul. Hurley makes the devil sexy and intelligent and even a little bit morally conflicted, which is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Satan’s Biblical description, insomuch as a movie where the Devil slinks around in a tiny French Maid costume can be considered faithful to the Bible.
Al Pacino, The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
The Devil’s Advocate is sort of like It’s a Wonderful Life if it was written by a stick of dynamite that became sentient. It’s loud and messy. The movie tells the story of young, hotshot lawyer (are there any other kinds of movie lawyers?) Kevin Lomax, played by Keanu Reeves, who takes a promotion at a fancy New York firm and slowly (very slowly… way too slowly) realizes that his benevolent, generous boss is actually the Devil. Not the “my boss is such a jerk!” type of devil like in The Devil Wears Prada, but, like, “my boss raped and tortured my wife and drove her to suicide and is the actual Antichrist” type of devil. Lomax eventually learns the error of ways and his Zuzu’s petals moment comes when he shoots himself in the head to achieve salvation. It’s heavy. The best part of the movie is Pacino’s performance as Lucifer and how long he plays out the string. He goes almost the entire movie as a man of great principal. A father figure. A guardian angel. Even though you know that things are going to turn out badly (the movie is called The Devil’s Advocate), when Pacino finally gets let off the leash and goes full Pacino, it’s just as scary as anticipated.
Jack Nicholson, The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
It’s not really necessary to get into plot structure or details here. Sometimes the most obvious casting choice is the best casting choice. Jack Nicholson plays a man Daryl Van Horne, a wild eyed, lecherous lunatic who is more likely than not Satan incarnate. That’s all well and good. The more interesting thing to think about it is this: imagine you hear a news report that someone in Hollywood has been outed as Satan. How many guesses would you need before you came up with Nicholson? Two? Would you need any? What I’m saying is that it wouldn’t shock me to find out the man behind R.P. McMurphy, Jack Torrance, The Joker, and Frank Costello is actually a Succubus…
If Satan’s true spirit is a nefarious, dangerous conman, the closest thing we have on Earth to the Most High God is our grandparents. Like God, our grandparents are infinitely wise and pure and omniscient, meaning they are incapable of learning new things, which is why God is considered all-knowing and why my grandmother Margaret repeatedly tries to text me from her landline phone. Like our grandparents, God is too often ignored until we need something or the holidays roll around again. This is why the most perfect representations of The Almighty were played by actors with experience.
George Burns, Oh, God (1977)
I was very young the first time I saw Oh, God. Before it started, I was already bored by the very idea. It’s a testament to my parent’s power of persuasion that they convinced me to watch a religious comedy starring John Denver. I was certain I would hate it. When it ended, I was truly, deeply smitten with George Burns. I found the wry croak of his voice to be soothing and familiar. He felt warm. I wanted to play checkers with him. I wanted him to sit me on his knee and tell me stories about the old days when he was younger and he built the sun and the moon and the stars with his bare hands. I believed him. He made me want to believe him. He was kind and adorable. If there was a God, I wanted him to look and sound and act like George Burns. As far as I’m concerned, George Burns is the perfect movie God. The only movie God. There is, of course, someone else we need to talk about…
Morgan Freeman, Bruce Almighty (2003)
There’s something very regal about Morgan Freeman. Listening to that famous, quivering bass in his voice is a borderline religious experience. He could read you the phone book and make it sound like Hemmingway. The sight of him in Bruce Almighty, resplendent in all-white, dispensing wisdom and advice, makes you wonder what took Hollywood so long to give him the role, and why it was wasted on a second tier Jim Carrey vehicle. It seems as though Freeman was born to play God. I’m just not so sure that he did…
The basic framework of Bruce Almighty is that God is tired of the human race complaining about the quality of His work, and so He bestows to Bruce His infinite powers, ostensibly to teach him a lesson. Bruce is intoxicated by those powers. In no particular order, he uses them to 1. Assault a gang member, 2. Give his girlfriend bigger breasts, 3. Cheat on his girlfriend with a co-worker, 4. Sabotage and destroy the career of a different co-worker, 5. Move the moon out of orbit, causing widespread tsunamis and devastation in Asia, and 6. Incite a riot in the city of Buffalo. That’s a whole lot of sinning in a short period of time. Wrath, Lust, Envy, Greed, you name it. So what happened? The man in white, played by Morgan Freeman claimed to be God. He was charming and handsome and well-mannered and powerful and very convincing.
The devil always is.