Terry Gilliam is known for his inventive visual style—talking disembodied doll heads, flying metal Icarus costumes, a medieval knight riding through Central Park—but what some people overlook is that he fills his films with off-the-wall performances that tend to stick with you for a while. One can hope that’s the case for the director’s latest film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which is out in limited release now. Like many of his other films, Imaginarium has a large supply of talented actors, from Christopher Plummer to the late Heath Ledger, and which performance stands out has yet to be seen. To coincide with the release of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, here is a list of (some of) the most memorable characters that Gilliam has brought to the screen.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Is there a single performance in Monty Python and the Holy Grail that isn’t memorable? The movie, co-directed by Monty Python members Gilliam and Terry Jones, has some of the greatest lines from any comedy movie, ever (“It’s just a flesh wound!” “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?” “O Lord, bless this thy hand grenade, that with it thou mayst blow thine enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy.” And, obviously, “NI!”). But the most memorable performance is John Cleese as the French Knight (“You don’t frighten us, English pig-dogs. Go and boil your bottoms, you sons of a silly person. I blow my nose at you, so-called ‘Arthur King’, and you all your silly English k-nnnnnnig-hts.”). Any questions?
Time Bandits (1981)
Time Bandits is chock-full of absolutely crazy performances—noticing a theme here, are we? The most memorable, however, is Ian Holm, who would later act in Gilliam’s Brazil—as Napoleon. Holm’s Napoleon is full of insecurities about his small stature, and the best part of the movie is when he drunkenly (and with a heavy French accent) starts listing off the heights of various historical leaders. “Alexander the Great: Five feet exactly. Isn’t that incredible? Alexander the Great, whose empire stretched from India to Hungary, one inch shorter than me!” It’s a bit funny, but mostly sad, seeing as Napoleon’s about to get robbed of some very valuable possessions.
Jonathan Pryce did an excellent job playing the timid public servant Sam Lowry in Brazil, and there were so many wonderfully twisted supporting characters in the film—Katherine Helmond as Sam’s cosmetic surgery-obsessed mother, Ian Holm as Sam’s boss, Robert De Niro as the duct repairman/terrorist Archibald Tuttle—that it’s hard to choose between them. But the most memorable character in my mind is Jack Lint, played by Michael Palin. Jack is a congenial family man, a father of triplets, who has worked his way up the corporate ladder to a job torturing suspected terrorists. There’s something about seeing Monty Python member Palin chatting calmly with Sam about family matters after having brutally tortured a (probably innocent) person that chills the blood.
The Fisher King (1991)
Robin Williams’ performance as Parry is certainly the most outlandish and energetic in The Fisher King, but it’s Mercedes Ruehl’s performance as Anne, the long-suffering girlfriend of Jeff Bridges’ character Jack Lucas, that truly stays with you. The movie has some crazy sci-fi elements, mostly to do with Parry’s hunt for the Holy Grail, but all of Anne’s scenes are free of that. She has no action sequences, and she’s not the main character—she interacts with the other characters, and she does it splendidly. Ruehl won an Oscar for her performance, and rightfully so—her speech near the end of the film, when Jack breaks up with her, is one of the movie’s finest moments.
12 Monkeys (1995)
Most people would not consider 12 Monkeys to be Gilliam’s best film, but it does have one particularly memorable performance, in the form of Brad Pitt, playing the mental patient Jeffrey Goines. Goines goes on many a rant on a variety of topics: Germs (“In the 18th century, no such thing, nada, nothing. No one ever imagined such at thing. Along comes this doctor… He’s trying to convince people, well, other doctors mainly, that there’s these teeny tiny invisible bad things called germs that get into your body and make you sick. Ah? He’s trying to get doctors to wash their hands. What is this guy? Crazy?”), time travel (“He couldn’t quite grasp the idea that the charge nurse couldn’t make it be yesterday. She couldn’t turn back time. Thank you, Einstein! Now, he was nuts! He was a fruitcake, Jim!”), and TV (“There’s the television. It’s all right there—all right there. Look, listen, kneel, pray. Commercials! We’re not productive anymore. We don’t make things anymore. It’s all automated.”). The movie itself is only so-so, and the ending feels tacked-on, but it’s worth watching, if only to see Pitt as something other than a heartthrob leading man.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Like Brazil, there are tons of actors of note in Fear and Loathing. There’s Benicio del Toro, Tobey Maguire, Gary Busey, Christina Ricci, Ellen Barkin, Cameron Diaz and, briefly, Lyle Lovett and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. However, the best performance in this instance is the main one: Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke, the drug-addicted sports journalist who was based on Fear and Loathing novelist Hunter S. Thompson. His dialogue is some of the best in the movie (“Few people understand the psychology of dealing with a highway traffic cop. A normal speeder will panic and immediately pull over to the side. This is wrong. It arouses contempt in the cop heart.” “I’m a relatively respectable citizen. Multiple felon perhaps, but certainly not dangerous.” And, of course “We can’t stop here! This is bat country!”), and he delivers it with a manic energy that not many other actors could pull off.