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.
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.
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.
Check out Kendra’s review!
The English Patient (1996)
I honestly forgot he was in this film.
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.
We really should do a full review of this biopic of Howard Hughes, since it’s packed with big name stars.
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.
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.
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.