Wednesday Wonders: Dune: The Awards Show, part three

In the final installment, learn who wins the best actor, director, and picture awards for DUneu

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

Kenneth McMillan

Ian McNeice

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)

Zuzana Geislerová

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)

Saskia Reeves

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…

Paul Atreides

Kyle MacLachlan (2-time nominee, Primtime Emmy Awards)

Alec Newman

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.

Talky Tuesday: Dune: The Awards Show, part two

In the second part of the Dune Awards, we get to the screenplay and first of the acting picks.

In yesterday’s installment, we gave design and music awards 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

Let’s jump right to one of the above-the-line creative roles.

Best Adapted Screenplay

1984: David Lynch (3-time Oscar nominee; honorary winner in 2020)

2000: John Harrison (1-time Writers Guild of America Award nominee)

2021: Jon Spaihts (2-time Dragon Awards nominee), Denis Villeneuve (1-time Oscar nominee), Eric Roth (6-time Oscar nominee; 1-time winner)

Two things immediately jump out with this list of nominees. One is that the director of the film was also involved in the screenplay. The other is that only one of those directors was wise enough to collaborate, and he did it with two excellent screenwriters.

That, of course, would be Denis Villeneuve.

Oddly enough, this time around, it’s David Lynch’s Dune that comes out the weakest of the bunch. While he does manage to pare the story down enough to fit into a two-hour and seventeen minute runtime, he also takes liberties with certain elements of the story and relies entirely too much on voiceover to feed us exposition or characters’ inner monologues, particularly when it comes to Paul.

The opening narration in his version runs nearly two minutes, and is mostly a shot of the actress delivering it. Meanwhile, the opening narration of Villeneuve’s version is much shorter, and we’re seeing life on the planet Arrakis the entire time.

In the TV movie version, the opening narration is also short, about 40 seconds, and it focuses on an image of the planet.

Some changes of Lynch’s changes come out of left field — for example, the addition of “weirding modules,” which are devices that convert sounds into powerful energy beams. However, it’s only select sounds that have any effect. Naturally it turns out that Paul Atreides’ Fremen name, Muad’Dib, activates the device and blows stuff up.

This prompts Paul to realize, in yet another awkward voiceover, “My name is a killing word.” You know. In case we didn’t get it.

This addition really weakens the entire idea of the Bene Gesserit training, which relied entirely on one’s own mental and physical skills. In effect, it allows anybody with a weirding module to use their own supercharged version of the Voice, and it’s really a cheat.

Lynch also added the Guild Navigators to his movie. In Herbert’s canon, they don’t actually appear in the second book Dune Messiah, but are only alluded to. They actually have a far more mutated form than that described in the books. He did a similar thing with Baron Harkonnen, having the actor covered in rather disgusting boils and lesions, all in various stages of bloating or bursting.

What he did maintain about the Baron were his ephebophilic tendencies — that is, a sexual attraction to young teenage boys that Herbert included as 1960s shorthand for “evil.” If anything, Lynch leaned into it, adding one horrific scene in which an unfortunate servant (slave?) catches the Baron’s eye, only to be molested and then murdered when the Baron pulls out his “heart plug” (also a Lynch invention) which is rather akin to the transmission fluid check stick in a car.

Probably the biggest changes in both the Lynch and Villeneuve versions involve the first acts, but in two very different ways. Lynch choses to have his first scene be a meeting between the Emperor and a Spacing Guild Navigator which lays out the entire reason that Paul Atreides is a threat to all of them. As noted above, the Navigators do not appear in the first book, nor do they make a physical appearance in Dune: Part One.

Meanwhile, Villeneuve’s first act begins on Caladan with the Atreides family, but includes scenes that don’t happen in the book. To be fair, though, we can think of them as prequels to what we learn in the early chapters. In the book, House Atreides has already accepted taking on the stewardship of Arrakis from the Harkonnens. In the movie, we see the Emperor’s representative visit to deliver the proclamation.

In both movies, we also meet all of the family retainers — Duncan Idaho, Gurney Halleck, Thufir Hawat, and so on — before the arrival of the Reverend Mother Mohiam to administer a life-or-death test to Paul.

Basically, he has to put his hand in a box that uses direct nerve induction to cause the sensation of pain. If he pulls his hand out, then the Reverend Mother will kill him with her gom jabbar, which is a poison-tipped needle.

Villeneuve’s specifics here differ from the other films in two ways. Actually, three. In the other films, the boxes are large and shiny, while in Villeneuve’s the box is small, rough-surfaced and probably made of wood.

Second, in the other two films, the gom jabbar is a device mounted on a thimble-like object on the Reverend Mother’s finger. Or, in other words, she has a lot more control over it. In Dune: Part One, it’s pretty much just an oversized needle that she holds in her fist, pointed at Paul’s neck. This makes it a hell of a lot more dangerous.

Finally, in the first two versions, both directors felt it necessary to show a cutaway view to the inside of the box to reveal the skin on Paul’s hand burning and blistering. Villeneuve, on the other hand, relied entirely on his actor to sell it — and his actor did.

As for the changes made by Villeneuve et al, they serve more to make this a story about an oppressed indigenous people, the new group of colonizers that replace the old oppressors, and the question of whether the Fremen will actually be better off — especially when the former group of oppressors just comes roaring back onto the scene.

Not that Herbert’s book wasn’t always about this too. It’s just that Lynch focused on imperial politics, and so inadvertently centered the colonizers instead of their victims. But of course.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opening narration. In the books as well as the other two adaptations, it comes from Princess Irulan, the Emperor’s daughter, taken from the pages of one of the many history books she wrote long after the fact. In Dune: Part One, Irulan doesn’t even appear, and the opening narration goes to Chani, the Fremen woman who will become intimately connected to Paul.

It’s an immediate and welcome change to POV. Another big change is gender-flipping the role of Dr. Liet Kynes, Imperial ecologist to Arrakis and Judge of the Change, i.e. overseer of the handoff of power from House Harkonnen to House Atreides. Villeneuve and company also give the character a very different and much more meaningful death scene.

Of course, the biggest change in Dune: Part One is in its title, so it’s not an adaptation of the entire book. However, the adapters chose the exact perfect moment to end it, as well as the right exit line. Of course, this leaves out a few important characters, like the Emperor, his daughter, and Baron Harkonnen’s other nephew Feyd Rautha, but that’s why there’s another film on the way.

I don’t think there’s any question here at all, although Frank Herbert’s Dune is a close runner-up.

Winner: Spaihts, Villeneuve, and Roth for Dune: Part One

Acting/Casting

And now we come to the big tamal, as it were. Who played which role better? By default, David Lynch’s Dune wins for Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer), his daughter Princess Irulan Corrino (Virginia Madsen), and Feyd Rautha (Sting), but only because they don’t appear in Dune: Part One and because the miniseries versions were really pale shadows of the movie versions.

The characters where it’s really hard to decide between Lynch and Villeneuve are mostly Atreides retainers, and here they are:

Duncan Idaho:

Richard Jordan (1-time Emmy nominee; 1-time Golden Globe winner) vs.

Jason Momoa (1-time SAG Awards nominee)

I was really taken with Jordan’s performance in the original film to the point that I had to track down his other work in Logan’s Run and the TV miniseries from the same year Captains and the Kings. The former was easy to catch up with in revival cinemas all through the 80s and 90s. The latter, not so much until late in the days of VHS, right before DVDs took over, and I was able to pick up all the episodes for really cheap.

Anyway, I found him engaging, ideal for the role, and with a purity that made what I knew was coming later (as a fan of the books) even more tragic. Plus he died at only the age of 56 in 1993 due to brain cancer.

So, I was leaning heavily toward Team Jordan, but then I saw Momoa in the role and, sorry. He had all of the same engaging traits that Jordan did, but also a physical presence that Jordan did not but which the character needs.

Winner: Jason Momoa for Dune: Part One

Gurney Halleck:

Patrick Stewart (4-time Primtime Emmy Awards nominee) vs.

Josh Brolin (1-time Oscar nominee)

Keep in mind that Star Trek: Generations was nearly a decade in the future when Dune came out, so that Patrick Stewart did not have the same connotations at the time. He was just some bald, British actor. Still, he did make an impression on me as the character tasked with teaching Paul how to fight, and pretty much forcing him into his lessons.

Brolin’s take on the character does the same as well, and their scenes are pretty similar. However, Stewart brings a lot more humanity to the character, while Brolin’s Halleck is just kind of a dick. Plus I can only ever think of him as Thanos now.

Winner: Patrick Stewart for Dune

Thufir Hawat:

Freddie Jones vs. (1-time BAFTA nominee)

Stephen McKinley Henderson (2-time SAG Awards nominee, 1-time Tony Award nominee)

Although it’s one of those “if you know, you know” instances in Villaneuve’s version, Mentats are very important to all of the Great Houses mainly because they serve as human computers, which is a necessity because the Butlerian Jihad 10,000 years earlier outlawed all mechanical computing devices.

Thufir Hawat is Mentat to the House Atreides, and while Freddie Jones has a certain gravitas for the role, Henderson just walks away with it by pure physical presence. He sort of embodies the grandfather we all wish we’d had as kids.

Winner: Stephen McKinley Henderson for Dune: Part One

Dr. Yueh: Dean Stockwell (1-time Oscar nominee) vs.

Chang Chen (1-time nominee, Asian Film Awards)

This one is the hardest call of all for one simple reason: Stockwell was an iconic actor who passed away only a few weeks ago and, in fact, after Dune: Part One was released. If this had been an actual Oscar ceremony, he might have just won based on that — although that’s not always the case. Just ask Chadwick Boseman. Or Heath Ledger. Hm. What’s the difference, again?

Stockwell was a Lynch regular, and probably most well-known for his role in the TV series Quantum Leap, but also memorable for his turn in Blue Velvet, which came out two years after Dune.

But the elephant in the room, of course, is the name “Yueh,” which is of Chinese origin. And while Herbert’s books are set nearly 8,200 years in the the future, it’s definitely a future that includes Earth. So, while the ethnic and national sources of names may have completely broken down by that point, it’s also clear in Herbert’s universe that the certain planets and societies have managed to remain insular and tribal.

For example: The Fremen of Arrakis, the Spacing Guild, the Bene Tleilax, or Planet Ix.

Still, while Stockwell was memorable in the role, this one has to go to the first actually Asian actor to play him. Not to mention that his whole “being a doctor” acting goes way beyond anything Stockwell did. In fact… I really don’t remember Stockwell’s Yueh doctoring at all.

Winner: Chang Chen for Dune: Part One

Piter de Vries

Brad Dourif (1-time Oscar nominee) vs.

David Dastmalchian

The Harkonnen version of Mentats, this one is really a total no-brainer. Dastmalchian has a couple of scenes where he’s basically background, and then he dies. Meanwhile, Dourif’s take on the character embodies the mental mania that would be going on in a human computer’s head.

Another Lynch stalwart, he also appeared in Blue Velvet. Keep your eyes on “Raymond” in this disturbing sequence from that film, which also features Dean Stockwell. Dourif has this uncanny ability to play both almost lovably dorky and incredibly creepy at the same time.

I guess there’s a reason he’s the voice of Chucky, after all.

Though probably no fault of his own because his character had nearly no development in the script, Dastmalchian loses out.

Winner: Brad Dourif for Dune

Uncontested winners:

Duke Leto Atreides: Oscar Isaac for Dune: Part One

Shadout Mapes: Golda Rosheuvel for Dune: Part One

Dr. Liet Kynes: Sharon Duncan-Brewster for Dune: Part One

Chani: Zendaya for Dune: Part One

Stilgar: Javier Bardem for Dune: Part One

And now it’s the time you’ve been waiting for — the top three acting awards, best director, and best picture, but… crap. We’ve run out of time again and have to pre-empt Wednesday’s regularly scheduled article, so tune in tomorrow for the grand finale!