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100 Years, 66 Villians: #6. Biff Tannen

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 22, 2008

Now that 100 Years, 100 Villains has gotten to the very bottom of the barrel, the abbreviated write-ups are simply unsifficient. Stay tuned this week as we count down the top six in proper fashion.

How many film trilogies can you think of that only needed one real villain? Star Wars had the double-whammy of Darth Vader and The Emperor, Alien always had at least one man on the inside that was usually just as despicable, and Lord of the Rings had more villains than I could count, keep track of, or stand to watch consistently for three hours at a time. But aside from the mild antagonism of the stern, unsupportive Principal Strickland (James Tolkan), and some back-up villainy from the Pips of 80s teen villainy, Match, Skinhead & 3-D (IITS-approved villain Billy Zane, Jeffrey Jay Cohen, and Casey “Young Guns” Siemaszko), the evil of the Back to the Future trilogy is the solo reign of one Biff Tannen.

And a historic villainy it is. Biff haunts Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and his family for three whole generations, bullying patriarch George (Crispin Glover) and sexually harrassing mom Lorraine (Lea Thompson) as a teenager in the 50s, taking advantage of now-employee George in the 80s, and stealing and abusing Marty and Doc Brown’s (Christopher Lloyd) in the 2010’s. His villainy is as such that it even dates back to the family’s ancestors, as Biff’s 1880s predecessor Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen terrorized not only then-McFlys Seamus (also Fox, though I thought it was Eric Stolz until very recently) and Maggie (Thompson again), but the entire Hill Valley area, robbing, looting and pillaging at will. And as if all that wasn’t enough, we find out that he’s even more evil in the film’s alternate timeline, when once mad with money and power, he almost single-handedly ruins the whole future, starting a toxic waste company, getting Richard Nixon elected to five staight terms, and even enabling the Vietnam War to run another decade. Not so good, Al.

Sleazy billionaire Biff of 1985-A

Even compared to other 80s teen villains, Biff’s brand of villainy was exceedingly straightforward. He wasn’t conniving or monetarily corrupt like Steff in Pretty in Pink, he wasn’t under the influence of an even more demonic role model like Johnny in The Karate Kid, and he didn’t even have the technical justification of an unfaithful girlfriend like the jerky dude from the rival school in Teen Wolf had for hating on Wolfie. He wasn’t socioeconomically motivated, he wasn’t trying to achieve anything purposeful, and he wasn’t acting on a higher calling. He was just a bully, uncomplicated and unrepentant. There is no explanation or justification for Biff’s actions besides the simple fact that there were people who got in the way of what Biff wanted, and he didn’t look unfavorably upon using violence to fix that. And often, those are the most chilling villains of all.

And yet–there’s something unmistakably human about Biff, isn’t there? The film makes no apologies for him, certainly, and never tries to really portray him in any kind of sympathetic light. But even with all of his misdeeds, it’s still hard not to feel like he’s kind of a sad character. The fact that he’s too stupid to ever consistently outsmart Marty has a lot to do with it–sure, he’s significantly bigger than Marty, but aside from that, it’s not ever really that fair a fight, and whenever the two end up tangoing, it’s always Biff that crashes into the large quantities of horseshit. His predilection for mixed metaphors and malapropisms (“Why don’t you make like a tree…and get the hell out of here“) only enforces this pitiable lack of any sort of cunning.

Also, despite his position of power, he’s kind of a lonely guy, never having much in the way of friends and permanently on the losing end in love. Sure, he’s got Match, Skinhead and 3-D, but he doesn’t seem to like them or care about their well-being very much, and they don’t seem to think of him as anything but a cruel master (and their Wiki page seems to suggest that they only do Biff’s bidding because he’s the sole member of the group with a car, an assertion that says interesting things about the nature of High School serfdom in the 1980s). And of course, he remains permanently unrequited in his love for Lorraine, who roundly spurs his affections. He definitely doesn’t deserve her, of course, a point driven home by his attempted rape of Lorraine in the first movie, but watch the scene in II after she rejects his forceful invitation to the Enchatnment Under the Sea dance, and he yells after her “SOMEDAY YOU’LL BE MY WIFE!!”–c’mon, you gotta feel for the guy at least a little bit, even despite the fact that in II’s alternate timeline, his prediction actually turns out to be accurate.

It’s not surprising that the only real live action role of note that Thomas F. Wilson would have after Back to the Future is as a vaguely Biff-like (although significantly better-meaning) high school gym teacher in Freaks & Geeks. Some roles are iconic to the point of being totally uneclipseable, and despite stiff competition from the O’Bannions and Regina Georges of the world, Biff is deservedly almost without question the most iconic bully in film history.

(Here’s the list so far, for those of you just tuning in, all of which can be read about in detail from here:

66. Ian / Ray (Tim Robbins), High Fidelity
65. Jacy (Cybil Shepherd), The Last Picture Show
64. Jesus’s Entourage (Bill Nunn, Rosario Dawson, Arthur J. Nascarella), He Got Game
63. Sarah Mitchell (Bridget Fonda), A Simple Plan
62. Agents Big Johnson and Little Johnson (Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush), Die Hard
61. Taylor Vaughn (Jodi Lynn O’Keefe), She’s All That
60. Coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight), Varsity Blues
59. Philip Stuckey (Jason Alexander), Pretty Woman
58. Mrs. Chasen (Vivien Pickles), Harold and Maude
57. Officer Coffey and Officer Graham (Jessie Lawrence Ferguson and Kirk Kinder), Boyz n the Hood
56. Oliver Slocumb (Ryan Philippe), Igby Goes Down
55. Rick Spector (Michael Bowen), Magnolia
54. Jeanine Pettibone (June Chadwick), This Is Spinal Tap
53. Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston), The Cooler
52. Muriel Lang (Rosie Perez), It Could Happen to You
51. Zachary “Sack” Lodge (Bradley Cooper), Wedding Crashers
50. Bert Jones (George C. Scott), The Hustler
49. Little Bill’s Wife (Nina Hartley), Boogie Nights
48. Amber (Elisa Donovan), Clueless
47. Warden (Patrick McGoohan), Escape From Alcatraz
46. Various Game Ruiners (Clifton James, Michael Lerner, Christopher Lloyd, Michael Rooker, Richard Edson, Kevin Tighe, John Anderson, Don Harvey), Eight Men Out
45. Laura Lizzie (Christine Taylor), The Craft
44. Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), The Ice Storm
43. George Willis Jr. (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Scent of a Woman
42. David Bedford (John Laroquette), Blind Date
41. Ronny and Donny Blume (Ronnie & Keith McCowley), Rushmore
40. Jonathan Poe (Michael Nirenberg), Searching for Bobby Fischer
39. Bernie and Joan (Jim Belushi and Elizabeth Perkins), …About Last Night
38. Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep), Kramer Vs. Kramer
37. Principal Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
36. Bill Houston (David Morse), Dancer in the Dark
35. Sid (Voice of John Morris), Toy Story
34. Mike (Joe Mantegna), House of Games
33. Buck Grotowski (Peter Boyle), Monsters’ Ball
32. Gil Shepherd (Jeff Daniels), The Purple Rose of Cairo
31. Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant), Donnie Darko
30. Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole), Office Space
29. Mitch Hiller (Billy Campbell), Enough
28. Mrs. Lisbon (Kathleen Turner), The Virgin Suicides
27. Rose Chasseur (Glynis Johns), The Ref
26. Cobra Kai Dojo (William Zabka, Martin Kove, others), The Karate Kid
25. Heathers (Shannon Doherty, Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk), Heathers
24. Cal Hockley (Billy Zane, Titanic
23. Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
22. Shooter McGavin (Christopher McDonald, Happy Gilmore
21. Jo (Gretchen Mol), Rounders
20. Ruth Folwer (Sissy Spacek), In the Bedroom
19. Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavettes), Rosemary’s Baby
18. Earline and the Rest of the Fitzgerald Clan (Margo Martindale, Others), Million Dollar Baby
17. Coach Jack Reilly (Lane Smith), The Mighty Ducks
16. Jack Lopate (Thomas Hayden Church), Sideways
15. Walter Peck (William Atherton), Ghostbusters
14. Stephen Glass (Hayden Christiensen), Shattered Glass
13. Beth Jarrett (Mary Tyler Moore), Ordinary People
12. Professor Edward Alcott (Greg Kinnear), Loser
11. O’Bannion, Darla & Clint (Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Nicky Katt), Dazed and Confused
10. Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), Election
9. Troy (Ethan Hawke), Reality Bites
8. Regina George (Rachel McAdams), Mean Girls
7. Steff (James Spader), Pretty in Pink
6. Biff Tannen (Michael F. Wilson), Back to the Future trilogy

3 Responses to “100 Years, 66 Villians: #6. Biff Tannen”

  1. Dan said

    Ahh, Biff. He’d be my number one for this type of list.

  2. Victor said

    He did technically murder Marty’s father George (and nearly succeeded in murdering Marty) in the alternate 1985 time line which makes his eligibility a little cloudy.

    Personally, the scene in Part II where Biff is leaving his home with his angry grandmother screaming at him seemed to suggest that Biff was the product of a sad, parentless childhood, where he was constantly abused by his evil alcoholic grandmother.

  3. I love this countdown. Can’t wait to see who is #1.

    The reason that Biff is so great is because he isn’t a cartoony over the top supervillain. He’s just a normal guy. The only reason he’s pissed is because Marty moved in to town and tried to move in on his squirrel. He’s memorable because he’s believable.

    And also, because he loves French porn. I mean, who doesn’t love that?

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