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Nell Minow: Corporate Villains

Transcript for Nell Minow: Corporate Villains

Alright, now here’s our contributor Nell Minow weighing in on one of the darkest and most varied characters in cinema: the corporate villain.  Here’s Nell.

The most memorable villains in movies have been characters like Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, Keyser Söze and Cruella DeVille.  But the most frequent villain in movies is the American corporation.

In 1909, D.W. Griffith made “A Corner in Wheat,” about a greedy businessman who tries to establish a monopoly on the wheat supply.  Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” had him literally trapped in the corporate machinery.  

[Chaplin inside the machine]

“The Devil and Miss Jones” was a Depression-era version of “Undercover Boss,” with CEO Charles Coburn pretending to be a new hire in his own store and learning some important lessons about what it’s like to follow the boss’s rules instead of making them.  

“The Apartment” showed us Jack Lemmon trying to get ahead in a vast, impersonal, amoral corporation.  

[shot of endless stretch of identical desks]

And in “The Solid Gold Cadillac,” Judy Holliday plays a woman with ten shares of stock who takes on the corrupt executives, starting with their excessive compensation.  


It was just $100,000, about one percent of what some of today’s CEOs make, but that was 1954.

Thirteen years later, James Coburn played “The President’s Analyst,” a satire and spy story that’s a lot of fun.  Spoiler alert – the movie has you think that the villain is the Soviet Union, but it turns out to be the phone company.  

Cult favorite “Office Space” was about three men triumphing over a soul-destroying bureaucracy.

[TPS report line of dialogue]

In the post-financial meltdown world, even the adorable kids’ film “Despicable Me” took a poke at Wall Street.

[Shot of the sign showing Bank of Evil (formerly Lehman Brothers)]

A megalomaniac seeking “total world domination” is always a good foil for a James Bond. Each decade has its villain-of-choice – Nazis, Communists, drug lords, terrorists.  But whether the movie is for grown-ups or kids, a comedy, horror, drama, or even a musical, the corporation is still the villain of choice.  

[Possibly show some posters?]

It’s not anti-corporate bias.  Really. People just love to see movies about individuals up against some big, powerful, bureaucratic organization.  And corporations are conveniently big, powerful, beauracratic and faceless.  

Movies may be made by artists, but they’re funded  by big corporations and they know that the best way to ensure a big box office is to make the vilain a big, bad American corporation.  

Thank you Nell.