I am mostly against the critical valuation of real people in documentaries. I’ve written about this in the past, specifically in response to the reviews of The Imposter that judged subject Frederic Bourdin more than the film itself. I also wondered last fall whether it is okay to highlight the “best” characters of a given year in the form of the Cinema Eye Honors recognition of “The Unforgettables.” On that, I eventually came around to agreeing that memorable documentary characters deserve recognition if not a competitive prize that puts one above the rest (and the CEH don’t mean for them to be “the best,” just unforgettable). Even calling them characters makes me conflicted at times, but within the film space and narrative, that is what they are.
Ranking these characters, though, or calling them “best” or “worst,” isn’t something I feel comfortable doing. However, it is more acceptable to discuss a documentary character positively than negatively. Calling someone inspiring is fair, but calling someone despicable is not. Unless their deeds are horrible enough that calling a subject such is about considering them beyond the personality they exhibit on screen (think Hitler in Triumph of the Will, Anwar Congo in The Act of Killing and really any other genocidal leader). We can think anything we want of these people privately and even discuss them amongst ourselves as part of the audience, but there’s no place for it in film criticism.
So this list, which is inspired by my ongoing consideration of the Up Series for its 50th anniversary, is not intended to be a critique of any of these people (or of any of those who are absent). It is instead a celebration of ten people for being memorable characters of cinema, who just happen to be real individuals. They’re not even necessarily all likable, though in the context of their films that can be more about how they’re portrayed by the filmmakers — this is something that is permissible to address in criticism — than how they truly are.
I’ve tried to be as objective as possible with the choices, though memory is subjective and I’m sure most of you can name others you’ve found more memorable. Go ahead and share their names down below.
Harry Altman from Spellbound
One of the first notable documentary characters for the new wave of nonfiction cinema in the 2000s, Altman is such a stand-out in Jeffrey Blitz’s Oscar-nominated film (fittingly the first person we meet) that he was employed very heavily in the marketing. Many called him eccentric at the time, which sounds borderline cruel for an adolescent, but there’s really nothing bad about the expressiveness of this spelling bee contestant. He’s a brilliant guy (currently getting his PhD in mathematics) and he just happened to more lively than the other kids on the Scripps stage. We may even owe him a lot of gratitude for helping make people see that documentaries can be entertaining and have extraordinary characters.
Little Edie Beale from Grey Gardens
The younger of the two destitute subjects of the Maysles brothers’ 1975 classic quickly became an icon for her distinct style and performative behavior on screen. She has, with her mother, Big Edie, also been turned into a character for the Broadway stage and a dramatized prequel/remake on HBO. Now that she is deceased it’s a little easier to comment on her person and label her as a very peculiar human being, yet she’s always been considered odd in an endearing way. Al and David’s deep affection and respect for both Edies comes through in their gaze via their film, and that helps us remember them positively. Only Little Edie makes the list, however, because she just makes a point to stand out a lot more than Big Edie does. She can also be seen memorably in the sorta-sequel The Beales of Grey Gardens.
James Carville from The War Room
It’s difficult to quantify our memory of Carville strictly from this Oscar-nominated peek behind the scenes of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. He’s a regular on television and continues to be one of the more well-known political commentators and personalities around. Yet this film, directed by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, helped to put him in the spotlight in the first place. He might be an important political figure regardless of appearing in the doc just based on his talent and work alone, but he wouldn’t be so recognizable. The War Room is often credited for making him a star. Of course, his loud, Cajun-spiced personality is what really did it. This film just helped present him memorably to the world.
Robert Crumb from Crumb
Movies like Crumb wouldn’t exist if their subjects weren’t so wild and wonderful. But also Robert Crumb might not have become famous enough in real life to wind up warranting a doc if he wasn’t such a huge personality in the first place. So it kind of goes hand in hand. Terry Zwigoff’s doc isn’t so much about a comic book artist as it is about his longtime friend, and it’s a very subjective caricature of the real man (Crumb hates it, famously). Besides being appropriately a cartoon, there is also some weight to the way the film not only looks upon the exotic weirdness of Crumb but also means to look at where the psychological quirks come from.
Bob Dylan from Don’t Look Back
As the most famous person on this list, Dylan is enough of a celebrity outside of D.A. Pennebaker’s film that it would seem that I shouldn’t include him. Just as I didn’t allow for Hitler, George W. Bush, Al Gore, Mick Jagger, Muhammad Ali and many others. But in this doc Dylan is totally playing up a personality, one that would later be portrayed as one of a handful of his “characters” in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There. Over time, Don’t Look Back has proven to be one of the best displays of how rock stars can be an act in the public eye, whether on or off stage. That isn’t to call him a fake here, just a kind of invention, and actually it’s not something exclusive to his profession.
Damien Echols from Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and others
Some of the same distinctions about Echols that made him a legal target also made him popular with audiences. His appearance and interests and articulation of iconoclastic ideas made him stand out in his community, which unfortunately led to his being tried and convicted and sentenced to death for murders he didn’t commit, and they also made him stand out in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s original Paradise Lost film. Enough that he attracted attention from millions of viewers, some of them celebrities, many of them eventual activists for the cause of his release and at least one romantic. Even more than the other two West Memphis Three victims, partly because his death sentence made him the most in need of saving,he has been the star of the whole Paradise Lost trilogy, as well as Amy Berg’s West of Memphis, for which he was a producer.
Meredith Hunter from Gimme Shelter
He’s like the Beatrice Straight of memorable documentary characters, as Hunter only appears in the Maysles brothers’ Rolling Stones film for a matter of seconds. And that includes the replay where Jagger and his bandmates watch the incident on the Moviola. The young concertgoer was stabbed to death by Hells Angel Alan Passaro after drawing gun in the crowd in front of the main stage, and the whole thing was caught on camera. Hunter’s green suit makes him all the more visible and memorable in the moment, and there’s no denying that what happens to him is the most memorable thing about both Altamont and this doc, as horrible as it is.
Billy Mitchell from The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Villains are often more memorable in cinema than heroes, and Mitchell is one of the biggest villains in documentary. That’s mostly due to how he’s depicted by director Seth Gordon. He hasn’t killed anybody, let alone millions of people, so why should he be thought of so negatively? Because in the narrative of The King of Kong, he’s set up as the bad guy. It doesn’t help him that he’s got a very distinct look with his mullet and beard combination plus his dark but colorful clothing, either. Oh and he’s kind of a hot sauce mogul, which just sounds like a silly Bond villain occupation. For Mitchell, it’s a shame that everyone who has seen The King of Kong remembers him well and as being as nefarious as Darth Vader. Maybe he is a jerk or otherwise awful in person, but someone should make another doc just about him and give him a more rounded portrayal.
Charleen Swansea from Sherman’s March and others
If I had to pick a “best” documentary character of all time, or at least a favorite, I’d go with Swansea — in fact, I’ve made the claim in a whole feature celebrating her many appearances in Ross McElwee’s films. She’s the director’s former teacher and subsequently a great mentor and friend. She was the main subject of his graduate thesis project, Charleen or How Long Has This Been Going On?, but she’s better known for scene stealing moments in Bright Leaves, Six O’Clock News, Time Indefinite and of course McElwee’s classic, Sherman’s March. She’s frank and funny and full of spirit, talking and talking and giving advice or reflecting on her own tragedies. Once you see her wisely talking about the foliage around a tomb like it’s pubic hair in need of parting — on the spot, metaphorically as only a brilliant poet can do — you’ll never forget her.
Tony Walker from the Up series
Given the inspiration for this list, I’m somewhat obligated to include at least one of the subjects of the Up series. And Tony surely is deserving of the placement here. From the first installment, Paul Almond’s Seven Up!, he stuck out as the one to watch. He was adorable and rough and had the best lines. And over the course of the next seven installments he has had arguably the most interesting paths, especially if you consider that director Michael Apted had totally expected him to wind up in jail. He can be dislikable at times, mainly for admitted infidelity, but for the most part he’s always been the charmer of the series while also being the most publicly outgoing — he helps promote the docs and is on social media more than the rest, plus he’s got a side career as a TV actor. He also has a nickname, “Taxi Tony,” which is another of the many ways we remember him most and maybe most fondly from these films.