Just like real life, fictional character in film range the whole span of the intelligence scale. Some of us tend to enjoy movies like “Dumb and Dumber” but to really bond with a character there is usually a bit of respect required. This usually happens partly due to how the character is written and then interpreted on screen by the actor. Of course, being smart does not just pertain to IQ or SAT Scores, or even formal education–it’s much more than that. It involves how a character deals with what is handed to them in the story. The character does not even have to be likable, as smart villains make for great cinema which is particularly important in movies when the hero lead is nothing more than muscles with a semi-functioning brain on top.
So whether they use their skills for good or evil, here are 20 of the smartest fictional characters in the history of big-screen film.
Mildred Pierce (Mildred Pierce, 1945 )
So hubby is a loser who would rather play around with Mrs. Biederhof down the street than look for a better job? Mildred, played by Joan Crawford, with two young girls to raise, gets into action. She becomes a waitress and learns everything, I mean everything about the business while working her poor feet off until she gets the chance to buy her own restaurant. She knows what people like–chicken plain and simple! Colonel Sanders had nothing on her! From baking cakes in the kitchen to owning a chain of restaurants in no time flat, this gal makes the most of her sorry predicament –at least at first. The only chink in her smarts armor is her poor choice in men and that awful daughter of hers. Beyond that she is stellar.
Lila Crane (Psycho,1960)
She was on her sister’s mysterious disappearance like a flash. She didn’t buy Norman’s boyish charm or his story about her sister having checked out. She was going to enlist some help and see it to the end, even if it meant confronting “mother” in the fruit cellar! She was evidently the smart sister of the duo and she comes out a hero. If she had not contacted Sam Loomis about Marion’s disappearance, would he have bothered to look for her?
Danny Torrance (The Shining 1980 )
Okay, so he got a bit of help from “Tony” and a lot from Dick Hallorann but this kid was smart as a whip. He knew something was terribly wrong with dad, and was thinking about getting some help up to The Overlook while Wendy was running around wringing her hands and trying to placate her husband as he evolved into a monster. And how about that backtracking in the snow maze–pure genius! Danny Lloyd delivered an amazing performance as the kid who had to deal with a very dysfunctional family.
Edward Bloom (Big Fish 2003)
This man lived his life to the fullest and had an extraordinary imagination. He weaved so many tales that those closest to him, namely his son, had a hard time figuring out what was real. If Edward, played to perfection by Ewan McGregor, did even half the things he said he did, he was one terrifically smart guy. The best minds are often the most creative and keeps us guessing long after they’re gone.
Marge Gunderson (Fargo 1996)
This amazing female cop became the prototype for the smart yet unpretentious women officers in the recent Fargo reboot as a series. Marge does not give up and she knows there is something off about that little weasel Jerry Lundegaard and keeps grilling him in her own subtle style until he makes a run for it. She’s so kind yet beneath her homespun exterior she is so damn savvy, partly due to how she is expertly portrayed by Frances McDormand.
Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes 2009)
He may not be every woman’s favorite portrayal of the British super sleuth due to Benedict Cumberbatch’s BBC series, but you have to admit he’s really brilliant. Robert Downey Jr. brings a combination of knowing stares and snappy delivery to this gorgeous steampunk version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic character. True to canon, he has a weakness for drugs, and for Irene Adler, but even while high he is a delight to watch as he makes his astute deductions.
Dick Hallorann (The Shining 1980)
Who else could work in a hotel like that year after year and still be able to separate the real from the things that “shine”? In a few short minutes he leaves Danny chock full of good advice on how to get along in that creepy place. Scatman Crothers is the perfect actor to portray the wise, friendly cook who has a much better handle on the hotel than the manager. In Stephen King’s book his character is even better!
Hermione Granger (Harry Potter Film Franchise)
She may be just a “muggle” to Malfoy and friends, but Harry and Ron would not have made it through the series alive without her. Partly due to good instincts and partly because she was smart enough to do some extracurricular research, Hermione saves the day again and again. She also has the good sense to call out Harry and Ron when they are acting like idiots.
Samwise Gamgee (Lord of the Rings)
He needs to be included here as he is actually much smarter than the hero, Frodo Baggins. Sam saw through Gollum’s pitiful mascot routine and also did a super job of snagging the ring when he thought Frodo might be a goner. HIs best line: “What are you doing!!! Throw it in the fire!!!” For a simple gardener, he had his wits about him nearly throughout all three films. Sam also ends up with the happiest “ever after” in literature and film. On a quest to save Middle Earth, sometimes common sense is a hard to find commodity.
Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With The Wind, 1939)
Being the smart one in the family is almost as difficult as being the most beautiful, and Katie Scarlett O’Hara whips her family home, Tara, back into shape like a boss. Sure, she marries her sister’s beau to get some money but when the chips are down she knows how to protect those closest to her. Scarlett’s best scenes are ones where neither Rhett Butler nor Ashley Wilkes are around. The Civil War took away all the manners and social positions, and Scarlett had to face some raw truths about herself but never let anythign defeat her. It is often quite wise to just “think about it tomorrow”.
Will Robinson (Lost in Space 1998)
Will is the real geek on the mission. He changes the robot from foe to friend and like in the 1960s TV series, he comes up with just the right ideas at the right time. Sure everyone is smart in that movie, even Matt LeBlanc, but Will shines as the brightest star in this film. Professor Dad should have paid more attention to Will’s science projects before liftoff.
Sarah Connor (Terminator Series)
Sarah begins as a regular girl but when a being visits from the future, her destiny unfolds. She learns about Skynet and rises to the challenge and by the end of the first film she is stockpiling weapons and learns how to kick some serious butt. She goes from zero to hero in classic style. She could not embrace her destiny and go out on her own without some serious smarts that she was hiding in plain sight all along. She is one of the first characters of the 80s that brought us a smart woman who is also physically able to hold her own.
Lord Elrond (Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit )
Played by the man with the most interesting face in the world, Hugo Weaving, Elrond is the go-to guy for advice and finds himself, along with a few others, exasperated by fools at the council meeting. In The Hobbit he is the one who understands about Thorin’s hereditary Dragon Sickness but does anyone really listen? He tried to warn them. He’s also smart enough to offer Bilbo a way out if he so chooses as he knew their quest was a suicide mission. Sure, he has some special gifts of prediction; however, he also uses his gifts wisely.
Jane Hudson (What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? 1962)
Okay, so she’s bat cage crazy but man, that woman is brilliant. The way she got on the phone with the liquor store and did a spot on impression of her sister was amazing! She also managed to manipulate her family when she was only a child. The only thing she didn’t know was that she lived with a truckload of guilt for nothing. Bette Davis showed us in nearly every scene that under that crazy banana curl wig dwelt a maniacal mind.
Guy Woodhouse (Rosemary’s Baby 1968)
Ira Levin’s book gave us the quintessential husband from hell, aspiring New York actor Guy Woodhouse Instead of paying his dues he gets in the fast line by literally letting the devil rape his wife. John Cassavetes’ performance as Guy in the movie is so layered as he plots, plans, and comes up with a lie or a macho demand to counter every suspicion as Rosemary starts fitting the pieces together. . Yes, it was the coven’s idea, but Guy made it all work. He was so calculatingly evil than Satan himself in this film.
The Joker (The Dark Knight, 2008)
Fans will forever love watching Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight as he lures Batman closer and closer to the edge of chaos and despair. The character has always been wonderful (thank you, Cesar Romero) but Ledger brought a new deep level of cunning and a fresh and awful genius to the role. His intelligence kept us all guessing as to what he would do next. Let’s hope that the series Gotham keeps Cameron Monaghan around as Jerome Valeska, as his performance gives us shades of Ledger as well as Jack Nicholson in his spellbinding character interpretation.
Gandalf (Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit)
He may lose some points for subtlety but he arranged quite a few “chance meetings” and orchestrated the action in all of the Tolkien films. He saw everyone for exactly who and what they were and had his antennae out about Boromir from the first. The only person who humbles him is Lady Galadriel but it’s clear that the grey wizard has quite a crush on her. Even his seemingly dumb move of not moving away from the ledge after yelling “You Shall Not Pass!” is forgiven as it was all meant to be part of the bigger picture.
Tess McGill (Working Girl) 1988)
This character served as inspiration for many women who wore pounded the pavement in tennis shoes on their way to the office. Yes, Melanie Griffith’s baby whispery voice was annoying, but she had the smarts and the chutzpah to earn that corner office and the great boyfriend to boot. As bosses have been famous for stealing subordinate’s ideas from the beginning of time, it’s great to see that working girl turn the tables.
Mr. Spock (Star Trek 2009 and TV series)
Being part Vulcan is not half bad when it gives you the gift of uncanny logic. Leonard Nimoy will forever be Spock, and the smartest guy in the Star Trek Franchise. His human tendencies actually enhance his wisdom, instead of interfering with his decisions. This makes him not only pure genius but the best guy to have on your side in outer space.
Andy Dufresne (The Shawshank Redemption, 1994)
It only goes to show to keep an eye on the quiet ones. He wasn’t a criminal when he went in, but he used his smarts to pull off one heck of a caper. Every step he took, from the pin up on his wall to his rock carving hobby, fit in with his master plan.