My cemetery’s in Key Biscayne. It’s one of the prettiest in the
world. It has lovely trees. The sky is blue. There are birds. The one is Los Copa is
really shit! … What a pain in the ass you are. And it’s true: you’re not young, and you’re
not new, and you do make people laugh. And me? I’m still with you
because you make me laugh. So you know what I got to do? I got to sell
my plot in Key Biscayne so I can get one next to you in that shithole
Los Copa, so I never miss a laugh.
May I please ask how you would rank the various Live Action Lex Luthors? (also, if you were assembling a "Luthorstein" out of these performers then which bits of them would you stitch in before applying the vivifying shock?).
As usual with these I have to recuse myself from a couple of the takes in question since I’m not familiar with say, Lyle Talbot. But I do have to give the most honorable of mentions to Superboy’s Luthor actors, Scott Wells:
…and Sherman Howard:
Shine on, you beautiful loons.
5. Jessie Eisenberg
For the first two acts of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Eisenberg is actually a really good Lex Luthor. A radical new take, no question, but that whole bit where he’s slowly turning up the intensity on a politician to get control of Kryptonian tech, culminating in literally shoving a jolly rancher in his mouth as a low-grade but unmistakable show of utter dominance? That is Lex Luthor as all get-out, and while not every choice Eisenberg, Snyder and company made with him totally hit the mark, it all at least made some kind of sense in the context of revamping him as a Zuckerberg-y 21st century Evil Businessman (not knowing just how much the 80′s corporate tycoon was about to come back into fashion as a horror story for America), with just enough darkness peeking out from underneath to stoke the appetite for seeing him laid bare.
The problem is when the mask comes off, and it turns out his true nature is being very possibly the worst big-screen supervillain of all time; a tittering, spasmodic caricature of mental illness, squeaking and barking about circles and Alice In Wonderland in heartbreakingly pathetic attempts at faux-profundity between half-explanations for hating Superman because of his daddy proving God doesn’t exist. There’s a lot about the DCEU that gets ragged on that at least doesn’t deserve the intensity of the criticism, even some of the truly awful bits I can at least kind of conceive of someone getting stimulation or satisfaction out of, but the Luthor we’re presented with here is genuinely, inarguably unforgivable by any but the most pathologically dedicated of contrarians. Not that he’s necessarily unsalvageable - Eisenberg himself remains an inspired choice, and the worst bits could be written off in the future as a product of Darkseid’s influence - but given the establishment of a Lex Luthor Sr. to potentially return from the dead and take his son’s place, I suspect the creators themselves at least suspected this could turn out as horribly as it did.
4. Gene Hackman
His low ranking here isn’t meant as a knock on Hackman’s performance - if nothing else, “We all have our little faults. Mine’s in California” is stone-cold one of the best supervillain lines of all time. But while he’s fantastic as an enemy for Reeve’s Superman, unapologetically blown up on his own intellect and ambition, he’s only Luthor in the most technical sense as a selfish follically-challenged genius who needs Superman out of the way and has the narcissism to think he can get the job done. He works spectacularly in his context, but it’s ultimately a different character.
3. Kevin Spacey
If it weren’t for Eisenberg, Spacey would be the definition of wrong place, wrong time when it comes to Lex Luthor. He brings so much that works to the table - the quiet confidence, the callous disdain for humanity, the raw genius, and the venomous hate just waiting for a chance to claw its way to the surface - but Superman Returns was trying to have its cake and eat it too, playing up some more traditional Luthor attributes while keeping him in the mold of Hackman’s version with more wigs, goofy stage-left exits and another genocidal real-estate scheme, and while it doesn’t quite tear him apart, it critically undercuts what could have been a classic take on the character.
2. John Shea
Not many seem to hold any particular fondness for Shea’s performance on Lois and Clark, but I’ve always thought of his take on Lex as inspired. Certainly he was the smoothest Lex Luthor, the take on the character from any medium I could most easily believe conning Metropolis into seeing him as their savior, while just as plausibly cackling as he tortures Superman in a basement on his wedding day. But it was his overall air of amused but only vaguely self-aware superiority that won me over, quoting Shakespeare at the drop of a hat in a transparent attempt at proving his intellectual boda-fides even as he genuinely manipulates and destroys everything in his way, articulating the pettiness and ego that drives Luthor in a fashion unlike anyone else. And most importantly, we see in the first episode that he has his servant occasionally try to kill him to keep him on his toes - ala Cato in The Pink Panther - and when he sets a cobra on his master, Lex just stares at it with all the intensity he can muster until it backs off and slithers away, at which point Luthor sheds a single, perfect tear. It is the most metal moment of all time.
1. Michael Rosenbaum
His performance would have been iconic in any context, but on Smallville his every scene was the living embodiment of “listen up 5s, a 10 is speaking”. I’ve discussed his work as Lex before, and while certain aspects of this take only really suit the character in the show’s particular soap opera context - the focus on his business acumen over his genius, his relationship with his father (John Glover being the 11 in the previous metaphor), precisely how his rivalry with the man who would be Superman is born - Rosenbaum brought a scale of intensity, cold intellect, charisma, desperation and vulnerability to the role that defined Lex Luthor in the eyes of a generation and saw him easily bypass any competition as the greatest live-action Lex Luthor to date, likely for decades to come.
As for the Frankenstein, Rosenbaum as the base (or at least his passion and vulnerability), Shea’s charm, Hackman’s wit, Spacey’s cold cruelty, and Eisenberg’s attempt at delving into the more philosophical underpinings of his war with Superman, if hopefully dragged upwards by the residual quality of the others.
“This whole thing is so ugly. Have you any idea what it’s like to live
with all this? People look at us and only see bigots and racists. Hatred
isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught. At school, they said
segregation what’s said in the Bible… Genesis 9, Verse 27. At 7 years
of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the
hatred. You live it… you breathe it. You marry it”