MCM: Willem Dafoe


It actually surprised me that Willem Dafoe has been in so many frock flicks since 1980, because I guess I’ve always associated him more with his modern roles. After going through the list of his historical films on IMDB, I realized just how many of his films are actually based in some era of pre-1969 history! He’s one of my favorite actors, so let’s dig in!


Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Kris Kristofferson stars in this flick about a Harvard-educated sheriff in the late 19th century. It was Willem Dafoe’s first acting role, and he apparently got fired halfway through filming.


The Loveless (1981)

Standard issue 1980s-does-1950s nostalgia piece about a renegade and the rich girl who falls for him.


Platoon (1986)

Standard issue 1980s-tries-to-grapple-with-the-Vietnam-War period piece. It won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Oliver Stone. Willem Dafoe was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.


The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Harvey Keitel and Barbara Hershey round out the cast in this controversial film about the last 40 days of Jesus of Nazareth’s life. I read the book, and it was enough.


Mississippi Burning (1988)

Willem Dafoe as an FBI agent sent to investigate the murders of three civil rights workers during the Freedom Summer campaign in 1964. It was nominated for a bunch of Academy Awards.


Triumph of the Spirit (1989)

Based on the true story of Greek boxer Salamo Arouch, who was interned in Auschwitz during World War II, where he was forced to box other internees to entertain their Nazi captors.


Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Willem Dafoe plays a paraplegic Vietnam vet whom Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise) encounters while staying at a Mexican resort for wounded veterans. Shenanigans ensue before Ron moves on.


Cry-Baby (1990)

Cult 1950s nostalgia piece by John Waters that somehow manages to be weird, kitschy, and slightly disturbing, yet still somehow charming. Willem Dafoe plays a prison guard while Cry-Baby (Johnny Depp) is incarcerated.


Tom & Viv (1994)

Dafoe plays writer T.S. Eliot in this biopic about Eliot’s first marriage to the troubled Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot.


The Night and the Moment (1994)

1994 The Night and the Moment

Check out Kendra’s review!


The English Patient (1996)

I honestly forgot he was in this film.


Victory (1996)

I read the synopsis on Wikipedia and it just sounds like A LOT of angst.


Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

I saw this movie once when it came out and it has lived rent free in my head ever since.


Pavilion of Women (2001)

The old “White missionary travels to far away land and falls in love with a local married woman, testing his faith” plot.


Edges of the Lord (2001)

Willem Dafoe plays a Catholic priest who helps a wealthy Jewish boy (Haley Joel Osment) hide from Nazis in Poland by posing as a Catholic peasant.


The Reckoning (2002)

I swear, one of these days I will actually watch this movie about a traveling group of actors and a rogue priest (played by Paul Bettany) in the plague-ridden Middle Ages.


The Aviator (2004)

We really should do a full review of this biopic of Howard Hughes, since it’s packed with big name stars.


Manderlay (2005)

Lars von Trier film set in 1933 about the perpetuation of slavery into the 1930s in rural Alabama.


Adam Resurrected (2008)

Jeff Goldblum stars as a Jewish comedian who is spared most of the horrors of the concentration camp he and his family were sent to during World War II when an SS officer (played by Willem Dafoe) recognizes him and makes him his “pet”.


The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

One of my favorite Wes Anderson films, about the heyday of a once-glamorous hotel in Central Europe. Willem Dafoe plays a hitman sent to kill the hotel’s concierge.


The Great Wall (2016)

An American-Chinese co-production fantasy historical film about a group of European mercenaries who travel to China only to discover that the fabled Great Wall was actually built to keep monsters from attacking humans.


Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Willem Dafoe plays Cyrus Bethman Hardman in Kenneth Branagh’s film based on the Agatha Christie novel of the same name.


At Eternity’s Gate (2018)

A biopic about Vincent Van Gogh. Dafoe nails the look pretty well, don’t you think?



The Lighthouse (2019)

Dafoe and Robert Pattinson play lighthouse attendants on a remote island who slowly succumb to delusions and madness. It’s a weird, WEIRD film.


Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

I’m on cold medicine right now and couldn’t follow the complicated plot description on Wikipedia, so … uh … yeah.


Togo (2019)

Another movie about a man and a sled dog. How many are there now?


The French Dispatch (2021)

This film allegedly takes place sometime between the 1950s and 1960s, but really, it’s that weirdly ambiguous non-historical-historical period Wes Anderson is famous for.


Nightmare Alley (2021)

A film packed to the gills with star power, about a mentalist and all the crazy shit he gets up to while running from his past. Willem Dafoe plays an unscrupulous owner of a carnival.


The Northman (2022)

My review of this film is in the works. For the record, I loved it.



17 Responses

  1. Boxermom

    Thanks for this post! I adore Willem Dafoe, especially in Shadow of the Vampire. :)

  2. Roxana

    The old “White missionary travels to far away land and falls in love with a local married woman, testing his faith” plot.

    That is absolutely not the plot of Pearl Buck’s book which is all about Madame Wu a middle aged Chinese lady who has never loved anyone, not her husband, not even her sons, and doesn’t even realize there’s something wrong until a heterodox foreign priest makes her see herself as she really is, a trauma that is only bearable be ause she loves him, platonically, and he her.

  3. MJ

    I’m honestly shocked at how many of these films I’ve seen or known about, and never realized Willem Dafoe was in them. Adding a bunch to the rewatch list right now.

    Ooo, yes, please do a review of The Aviator at some point!

    I remember Shadow of the Vampire being a really good film, but I’ve never revisited it.

  4. Gretchen

    Love Willem Dafoe. He’s quite the actor’s actor. Can do funny or frightening, handsome or hideous. I heard him speak once on In the Actor’s Studio and it was enlightening. Controversy over The Last Temptation of Christ was misplaced; it’s one of the most spiritual depictions of the story and faithful to the Book. His hair in it is bad though.

    • Al Don

      Well put – I completely agree.

      Especially about The Last Temptation of Christ – I feel a lot of its controversy stems from people not actually watching it but hearing its contents out of context. It was my favorite film depicting Jesus until a few years ago I saw the incredibly literal The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). The Last Temptation still retains a comfy second place for me, though.

      David Bowie’s brief role as Pontius Pilate is simply great.

  5. MsNomi

    Willem Dafoe and Eddie Izzard in Shadow of the Vampire. What more could you ask for? Dafoe’s tongue-in-cheek Nosferatu reminds me of Tony Hopkins equally funny Van Helsing in the Gary Oldman Dracula. Love to laugh at the “horror” of it all!

  6. Al Don

    Willem Dafoe is one of my favorite actors and I love so many of these movies.

    I thought Heaven’s Gate (1980) was a meandering and flawed ambitious piece. Visually stunning – directors should be jealous at how well done some of those scenes are – and one the best topics I’ve ever seen for a Western, however confusingly executed.

    Cry-Baby (1990) is classic John Waters but I did wince when Johnny Depp pronounced the “t” in Baltimore. John Waters is a native and should have caught that.

    I haven’t seen Manderlay (2005) yet but its precursor with the same characters, Dogville, was incredibly harrowing to watch but unforgettable.

    I have seen The Reckoning (2002). It was interesting enough, though in my opinions the costume designers just sort of shrugged when it came to late 14th century clothing. Matthew Macfadyen’s character in particular has a very “what in the fresh hell?!” haircut and costume. Full blown Castlevania cosplay. The brief appearance of Medieval armour is actually pretty good, even though it’s completely unnecessary (suggesting knights would travel that way).

    • Kathleen Norvell

      Hey, I’m from Baltimore and we always pronounced the “t.” It depends on which part of Baltimore you’re from.

      • Al Don

        You take that back, traitor!

        There’s no “t” in Baltimore. It’s “Bawlmer” or if you’re being fancy, “Baldamore”. Funnily enough it’s on the “Baltimorese” Wikipedia. And in the guide to moving to Baltimore: “Saying ‘Ball-tee-more’ instantly brands you as an outsider.”

        Ten Hail Marys and throw some Old Bay over your left shoulder.

      • MoHub

        We had family in Baltimore who went out of their way to overpronounce it, to the point that they called it “bal-tee-more.”

    • hsc

      “Cry-Baby (1990) is classic John Waters but I did wince when Johnny Depp pronounced the “t” in Baltimore. John Waters is a native and should have caught that.”

      Nope. A good number of John Waters movies before and after CRY-BABY have local people pronouncing the “T” in “Baltimore”– it isn’t just “outsider” Depp.

      For example, the “classroom snitch” scene in FEMALE TROUBLE (1974) has the teacher (“Mr. Weinberger!”) clearly and crisply enunciating the “T”– the first thing you hear in this clip:

      Furthermore, while he describes the local accent and the “Bawlmer” pronunciation in his 1981 book SHOCK VALUE, John Waters himself pronounces the “T” regularly– as can be heard in this interview, particularly in a stretch at about 3:30 in:

      And as a longtime John Waters fanatic, I am absolutely tickled to see CRY-BABY listed as a “frock flick” in an overview. Waters actually did do a tiny amount of “period” work that qualifies.

      In addition to the best-known example HAIRSPRAY (1988), which takes place in 1962, FEMALE TROUBLE has its opening scenes with “troubled teen” Dawn Davenport set in the early ’60s as well (as can be seen in the YouTube clip above).

      And though it’s now nearly impossible to see, his early short film EAT YOUR MAKEUP (1968) contained a brief recreation of the 1963 JFK assassination, when a character played by Divine imagines herself as Jackie, pillbox hat and all:

      Of course, Waters’ early films had pretty much zero budget for costuming (and even HAIRSPRAY and CRY-BABY were low-budget by Hollywood standards)– and they were trying to make everything as ridiculous and trashy as possible– but they really did manage to get the look right in a number of ways.

  7. Lily Lotus Rose

    Willem Dafoe is just soooooooooooo good.He’s definitely a top-notch choice for MCM!! He’s always compelling. He has a face you can’t take your eyes off and his acting chops are phenomenal–even if he’s in a production that’s unworthy of him. I love, love, love Shadow of the Vampire and The English Patient (as much as one can “love” a tragedy). Gotta plug, as always, The Reckoning. I think this post contains the most shocking sentence I’ve ever read on this blog, “I honestly forgot he was in this film” (re The English Patient). Just the pic of The Night and the Moment looks like everything I ever wanted–gotta check it soon. Thanks for this post. Willem Dafoe is definitely a top-notch MCM choice!!

  8. Damnitz

    I like his appearance in “The Northman”. He is able to add so much to a film even in such a small role.

  9. Roxana

    I hear the costumes in The Northman are very good indeed, except for the leather speedos 😉
    These keep popping up in ancient and medieval period drama, though to the best of my knowledge they were never, ever worn in RL anywhere.

    • Jeff

      Honestly I suspect leather speedos are more a concession to modern actors/expectations than anything else considering that for the great majority of history most men didn’t wear underwear other than perhaps a loincloth or light linen shorts.

      We can also probably blame the Zack Snyder film ‘300’…


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