In yesterday’s installment, we gave out the best adapted screenplay award, as well as some for supporting actors.
for the best from each film, and it was a Dune: Part One sweep. This time around, the competition gets a little bit stiffer. Here we go.
The three versions, to remind you, are:
Dune (1984), directed by David Lynch
Frank Herbert’s Dune (2000, miniseries), directed by John Harrison
Dune: Part One (2021), directed by Denis Villeneuve
We’re down to the villains and heroes now, and although the villains in Dune: Part One get less screentime (of necessity) than they do in the other two, they are still formidable. Here are the contenders.
Baron Vladimir Harkonnen
Stellan Skarsgård (1-time Primetime Emmy nominee)
Baron Harkonnen, of course, is the most visible Big Bad in all of the Dune adaptations but, of course, he’s really just the puppet of the Emperor (and, secretly, of the Bene Gesserit). At the start of Dune: Part One, it’s made quite clear that House Harkonnen has been in control of Arrakis and the spice for eighty years, during which time Baron Harkonnen has made himself possibly the wealthiest man in the galaxy by generously skimming off the top.
He doesn’t take it well, then, when the Emperor decides to remove his House from Arrakis, to replace them with the Atreides. It probably doesn’t help that the Harkonnens’ home world is Giedi Prime, a planet that’s been turned into a hellhole by overdevelopment and over industrialization. In contrast, the Atreides home world of Caladan was a very lush and rainy place.
Also depicted in the books as so obese that he has to use anti-gravity suspensors in order to move because he can’t carry his own weight, it’s quite easy to turn the character into an over-the-top, operatic monster.
This is exactly the trap that Kenneth McMillan falls into, and he chews the scenery so hard that it’s in danger of falling apart — a really good trick considering that the sets Lynch constructed for all things Harkonnen are pretty much solid metal.
While Ian McNeice doesn’t chew as hard and never swallows, he still falls into the trap of going almost melodramatic with the character. But both of these actors seem to forget something that Stellan Skarsgård absolutely nails: the banality of evil, a concept coined by the philosopher Hannah Arendt during the 1961 War Crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann.
That is, by lacking the ability to think of others and to reflect rationally, it became very easy for governments and their leaders to impose really heinous policies while not leaving any kind of trail of actual intentions.
In the case of Baron Harkonnen in all three versions, his only interest is regaining control of Arrakis and the spice, and keeping his fortunes flowing. But the first two Barons indulge in the evil of what they do and rejoice in their intentions.
Skarsgård, on the other hand, does not play it over the top and, in fact, doesn’t really seem to have any sort of agenda toward the people of Arrakis at all as long as his nephew can get them to behave. He wants the spice, but his personal agenda is against the Atreides because he feels they have stolen from him even though it was done on the Emperor’s order.
And so Skarsgård’s Harkonnen never turns into a raging madman. Rather, he downplays everything, and that just heightens the threat. On top of that, thanks to a little change in the script, he is seriously injured when a certain character’s poison-gas “suicide tooth” manages to hit everybody in the room. Harkonnen only survives because he can literally rise above it.
So the clear winner is the actor who prove that you can play the far scarier villain by keeping it down low and quiet, which is much more menacing. Honestly, think about it. Which one is scarier? A villain screaming, “I’m going to fucking kill you!” at the top of his lungs, or the villain who smiles, steps behind you, strokes your face, and whispers, “I will kill you.”
Winner: Stellan Skarsgård for Dune: Part One
Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam
Siân Phillips (3-time BAFTA nominee, 2-time winner)
Charlotte Rampling (1-time Oscar nominee, 1-time Primetime Emmy nominee)
This is probably the hardest choice of all because I have been a huge fan of both Phillips and Rampling since forever. And while Geislerová gave her noble best effort, she just lacked the gravitas and age, and really just came across as a budget Shelley Duvall with an Eastern European accent.
The other things that make it difficult are this. One is that Rampling has so little screen time in the Villeneuve version, but I suspect that this is by design, and that she will step more into the foreground in part two, especially once the Emperor is revealed.
The other is that the costume design, though brilliant, almost completely hides her face, so we’re only left with her voice. She is brilliant and powerful in the role, but for the moment subdued.
Meanwhile, Phillips gets an entire arc in Dune, and she’s another actor who remembers that the less you overplay a villain the scarier you become.
I really saw this in action about a decade after Dune when an SO gifted me with the DVD box set of the 1970s BBC miniseries I, Claudius (because of my thing for Roman history), in which she played the wicked and manipulative Livia for the first six episodes and was brilliant.
So as much as I’m a big Rampling fan, I have to defer her award until we get Dune: Part Two, where I know that she’s going to kick ass.
Winner: Siân Phillips for Dune
Lady Jessica Atreides
Francesca Annis (6-time BAFTA nominee; 1-time winner)
Rebecca Ferguson (1-time
Globe Award nominee)
Needless to say, Villeneuve gave his Jessica one big leg-up in his adaptation that the other two didn’t have, and this is that he gave the character a lot more agency in the story. In the others, mother is always somewhat less powerful than son. This time around, Jessica is still the mentor, and Paul still has a lot to learn.
Surprisingly, or maybe not, each of the actresses to play Jessica wasn’t all that much older than the actress playing their son, although Rebecca Ferguson and Timothée Chalomet probably came closest to the reality in the books, with 14 yeas between them.
In Dune, the difference was 11 years, and in Frank Herbert’s Dune it was 13. Not that this really makes any difference, because ages really don’t matter in casting. It all depends upon what you can play — more on that in the next section. In every case of a Jessica, she did seem old enough to be Paul’s son.
But… only one of them also had the weight and presence to play Paul’s mother, so the winner in this category is easy.
Winner: Rebecca Ferguson, Dune: Part One
And this brings us to the big bambú, the star of the show, the kwisatz haderach himself…
Kyle MacLachlan (2-time nominee, Primtime Emmy Awards)
Timothée Chalamet (1-time Oscar nominee)
I could just jump to the winner right now, but let me digress. The trick with casting Paul Atreides is to keep in mind that in the first book he ages from 15 to 18 years old. It’s the old Romeo & Juliet problem. You need to cast actors who appear to be in their early teens but are at least mentally (and legally) mature enough to play the adult roles.
This is the direct source, of course, of the enduring trope of every high school student in film or TV looking like they’re in their late 20s.
And yes, 2/3rds of the nominees here suffer that fate.
Ironically, Kyle MacLachlan was only about a year older than Timothée Chalomet when he made Dune, and yet he appears to be so much older. I won’t even get into Alec Newman here, who was the oldest of the bunch at 26 when he played Paul, and always just felt really wrong anyway.
But here’s the weird thing. Chalomet can easily pass for a late teen. Maybe not 15, but I’d certainly believe him as early high school, strictly based on his physicality.
MacLaclan, on the other hand? Yeah, even though he was 24 when production started, he came in reading a lot more like 30. I mean, no offense, because he didn’t look that old, but he just vibed that old.
And, to be honest, it’s probably because he’s always been a very wooden and stodgy actor. Chalomet plays from his gut. MacLachlan plays from somewhere between his forehead and nose. But knowing what I know about Lynch, this is exactly why he latched onto to MacLachlan so early and kept using him — MacLachlan is just as buttoned up and uptight as Lynch.
MacLachlan is Lynch’s self-projection into his work. Too bad, then, that Lynch is no Paul Atreides, and never was, because despite all of his weird artistic pretensions, there really isn’t a rebellious or defiant bone in his body. He only pretends to create transgressive art, but he isn’t.
His version of Dune is probably the best example of this, especially since he allows the character of Paul to go full fascist at the end, once he’s basically taken control of Arrakis and the spice.
Not that MacLachlan wasn’t great in Blue Velvet, where he got to play an oppressed and voyeuristic douchebag who managed to fuck up everyone else’s fun times by projecting his own paranoia, or Twin Peaks in which he was, after all, a frickin’ FBI officer. But, again, in both of those projects, it was his wooden and unfeeling performances that actually made it work, and not otherwise.
But I think that the audience is way ahead of me even before I open this envelope.
Winner: Timothée Chalomet for Dune: Part One
Best Picture/Best Director
And, as we get to the finale, I think that all the other awards may have given the clue, so I’m not going to belabor it. Here are the nominees for both again:
Dune (1984), directed by David Lynch (3-time Oscar nominee; 1-time honorary winner)
Frank Herbert’s Dune (2000, miniseries), directed by John Harrison (1-time Hugo Award nominee)
Dune: Part One (2021), directed by Denis Villeneuve (1-time Oscar nominee)
And if I’m going to score this numerically, it’s this, with 3 being worst and 2 being best: Frank Herbert’s Dune at 3; Dune at 2; and Dune: Part One being number 1.
There are probably other award concepts I could think of, but these are enough for now. I am hoping that Charlotte Rampling, for example, regains her title in Dune: Part Two, as does Josh Brolin. But we shall see.
Denis Villeneuve has bitten off quite a bit but, on the other hand, he has proven that he was also quite capable of chewing all of it.