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100 Years, 66 Villains: #5. Mr. Perry from Dead Poets Society

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 26, 2008

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

Think about the general impression that comes to mind when someone mentions Dead Poets Society. A couple of famous scenes probably immediately jump to mind–Mr. Keating instructing his students to rip a passage about grading poetry out of a textbook, Keating teaching his disciples to carpe diem, and of course the movie’s finale, in which Keatings students salute him by standing on their desks and shouting “O Captain, My Captain!,” the Walt Whitman-inspired sobriquet he adopted at the beginning of the movie. In addition to those dramatic, much-parodied scenes, you probably instantly picture the flamboyant, Oscar-nominated performance of Robin Williams as inspirational English instructor Mr. Keating–an archetype he would return to, with diminishing returns, over the rest of his career. Throw in a couple touching coming-of-age subplots, and you’ve got a movie that, despite a spate of Oscar nominations at the time, has become probably come to be synonymous in your mind with overdramatic, sentimental, lowest common denominator pap.

And it’s all true–that is, until the last third of the movie. At that point, it stops being an inspirational, feel-good story about boys learning to think and feel outside the boxes provided for them by the various authority figures in their lives, and starts being a movie about how, try as we might to fight it, those authority figures always have ultimate say in the end, and we better start putting some nice wallpaper on our boxes because they’re not going away anytime soon. It becomes, without a doubt, the most cynical movie ever made about Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau. And the blame for that soul-crushing lesson in moral pragmatism can be lied almost solely at the hands of one man–Mr. Perry, played by the irrepressible Kurtwood Smith.

Let’s go over the events of the movie for a minute, to properly get a sense of the plot’s trajectory. Mr. Keating is the new English teacher at Welton academy, a private boarding school back in the 50s known for its prestigious history, strenuous cirriculum and efficient production of upstanding young men. Keating’s unconventional lesson plan rocks the worlds of his students, as Charlie (Gale Hansen) has his rebellious streak sparked, Knox (Josh Charles) is inspired to chase a girl at a nearby school, Todd (Ethan Hawke) comes out of his nervous shell, and Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) begins to pursue a passion in acting, while all the boys participate in a the titular secret society. A few feathers are ruffled when at first one of Charlie’s pranks goes too far, but the hubbub dies down and the boys are set back amongst their merry, free-thinking ways.

Enter Mr. Perry, Neil’s father. Perry has decided that his son will be most happy and successful pursuing a career in medicine, and has strictly forbade any thoughts his son may have to the contrary. Neil declines to mention to his father when he tries out for the school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a move which backfires when Perry shows up at one of the final rehearsals and demands that Neil pull out from his involvement in the show. Neil fakes the move, but decides to disobey his father and appear in the show anyway, in which he performs brilliantly. Unmoved, Perry announces that Neil’s betrayal has forced him to remove him from Welton and enroll him in military school, where he will then proceed to Harvard and a career in medicine. Neil starts to tell his father about his real passion for acting, but is dissuaded by his dismissiveness, and instaed just murmurs to his meek mother and himself “I was good tonight…I was really good.”

Then Neil takes a walk outside with his dad’s revolver. While I was watching this the first time, I literally did not believe what I was seeing. When Neil grabs the revolver, I don’t know what I thought he would do, but it certainly wasn’t that. When I heard the shot, I still refrained from jumping to conclusions. Even in that later scene when Todd goes running and yelling and crying in the snow, I managed to believe that there must be some other explanation. You’re trying to tell me that in this piece of overdramatic, sentimental, lowest common denominator pap….that the teen protagonist kills himself? No overcoming adversity, no making his father understand what’s really important in life, no touching final embrace with Mr. Keating–nothing but a goddamn SUICIDE?? I’ve seen a couple movies before–this is not how this movie was supposed to end.

And guess what? That’s not even the most depressing part. The most depressing part, the part that really sticks in my craw, the part that ultimately convinced me that the primary moral of Dead Poets’ Society is that humanity = shit is that Mr. and Mrs. Perry get to completely pass the buck on the blame for Neil’s death. Well, let’s see, we have a kid who kills himself directly after his father embarrasses him in front of all his friends, makes plans to send him off to a school where he’s guaranteed to be miserable, and crushes his dreams in no uncertain terms (“Tell me what you feel! What is it? Is it more of this, this ACTING business? Because you can forget about that!”), and who’s to blame? Well, it’s gotta be that nutty teacher who put all those fruity acting/thinking ideas in his head in the first place, right? Sure enough, it’s Keating and not Perry that gets cited for investigation in the matter.

At this point, after watching student after student sell out Keating by signing an untrue confession effectively blaming him for everything, I was just praying that something would come along to redeem the events of the movie–something that would show hope for the future of humanity after all. And thus we come to the movie’s consolation prize, the legendary “O Captain My Captain!” scene, where all the students proclaim their allegiance to the departing Keating despite their new instructor’s threats of discipline. I won’t lie, when I first saw it, it just about did the trick–I don’t think I cried, but I came pretty close, and I forgot about all the horrors that came before. But when you have a second to think about it, is anything really accomplished by this? OK, so the students aren’t completely dead inside, but what do you think happens after Keating walks out of the room? A few weeks’ worth of doing dishes, a series of paddlings, and whatever other punitive measures the school will enforce for this final disobedience will likely quash thoughts of any future rebellions. In the meantime, Neil is still dead, Mr. Keating is still unemployed, and Mr. Perry gets off responsibility and guilt-free (if maybe not quite grief-free) for his part in Neil’s death.

No one could have predicted this upon the movie’s release in 1989, but to really understand how and why this character is so villainous, you sort of have to be familiar with the the future role that Kurtwood Smith would come to be most well-known for–that of Red Forman, father of protagonist Eric Forman, in That 70s Show. Red was definitely cut from the Archie Bunker cloth but with a (possibly unintentional) twist–whereas Archie Bunker was seen as something of a relic, ultimately lovingly tolerated by his kinder, less reactionary family, Red was surrounded by such a cast of unlikeable idiots (simpering wife Kitty, slutty daughter Laurie, space cadet son Eric and his moron stoner friends) that his crotchety way of thinking seemed the show’s most acceptable viewpoint. When he chewed out Eric or accidentally insulted Kitty, you didn’t think “dear lord, what a dick,” you thought “man, how does Red ever put up with all these losers?” quickly followed by “goddamn it, is That fucking 70s Show really the best thing on TV right now?”

Mr. Perry is Red, having learned all the wrong lessons and enforced all his worst suspicions from his experiences on That 70s Show, and now too set in his ways to extend any sort of lifeline to son Neil, who desperately needs one. And the sad thing is that unlike Eric, who just sort of freeloaded and complained a lot for EIGHT SEASONS, Neil is actually a talented, ambitious guy, who just asked for the slightest bit of understanding and compassion from his parents–which, apparently, was simply far too much to ask for. And though the bravery of Dead Poets Society has been called into question, the final scene seeming to try to let the movie off the hook, Mr. and Mrs. Perry are given no redemption, no chance for explanation. As another young man tried to teach us in the late 80s, sometimes parents just don’t understand. And sometimes their children kill themselves as a result.

(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
5. Mr. Perry (Kurtwood Smith), Dead Poets’ Society

7 Responses to “100 Years, 66 Villains: #5. Mr. Perry from Dead Poets Society”

  1. Chris Argento said

    Should I take the last paragraphs to mean that you dislike “That 70’s Show”? I never watched it when it was first on, but caught up with most if not all of the episodes when they started rerunning them on FX a couple of years ago, and I have to say I think this show will be looked on as the defining sitcom of the era between Seinfeld/Friends and the Office/HIMYM. Topher Grace (who I have liked in almost everything I’ve seen him in and led me to buy Win A Date With Tad Hamilton on DVD for full price when it first came out) and Ashton Kutcher are absolutely hilarious in this show. A lot of the plotlines get redundant later on and I’m going to pretend the Kelso and Eric-less last season never occurred, but the performances by the leads make this a modern classic IMO.

  2. intensities said

    Chris–

    No.

  3. Tal said

    Hilarious. Let’s not forget that he was one of the central villains in Robocop as well, and a terrific one at that.

  4. jr said

    I recall reading an interview w/the screenwriter of Dead Poets Society wherein dude stated that he absolutely ‘hated’ the ending of the movie, particularly the “O Captain My Captain!” scene. Apparently he’d originally conceived it to be much more subtle, and thus to his thinking realistic, with which I’m inclined to agree; instead of actually standing up on their desks w/that sappy climactic music in the background you’d just see the idea of doing something like that flicker across one or two of the boys’ faces but in the end, no matter how badly they wanted to do otherwise they’d wind up bowing in to the overwhelming pressure to conform. Which of course is what happens in real life far more often that not. And Mr. Keating, obv. being very smart, would understand. I have to agree that the bombast of the way it wound up is effective, in the same as walking into an enormous, ancient cathedral will cause awe even if you’re an atheist, but I think if they’d done it the way screenwriter wanted it would have been a much better & more powerful movie. But I guess the studio execs or the director (or whoever makes those decisions) really wanted a consolation prize for audiences after that suicide which is admittedly pretty brutal stuff for a pretty standard coming-of-age story.

  5. MBI said

    Ugh, do I hate Dead Poets Society. Lowest common denominator bullshit, yes, but no one ever harps on the idiotic “Let’s all be non-conformist… together!” moral.

    I hate the suicide scenes most of all. It seems to be borne of that bullshit adolescent suicidal thought pattern “I’ll kill myself, THEN they’ll be sorry.” It’s a move meant less as a tragic turn and more as a way to punish Mr. Perry.

  6. […] infuriatingly stubborn and ignorant, albeit technically well-intentioned, assholes (like, say, Mr. Perry in Dead Poets Society). I’m not even sure what Smith’s beef with Bauer is–apparently he really […]

  7. personalspecialties…

    […]100 Years, 66 Villains: #5. Mr. Perry from Dead Poets Society « Intensities in Ten Suburbs[…]…

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