Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die: A Look Back at Terry Gilliam's Most Memorable Characters
Heath Ledger in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
It's a journey through a magic mirror where the lead character in the film changes form not because the original script dictated it, but because the actor sadly passed away in the midst of filming. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus isn't just a fantasy film, but a test of director Terry Gilliam's imagination. By now, the behind-the-scene tragedy has been well-documented, how Imaginarium almost ceased to exist after Heath Ledger's death, how Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell took over various incarnations of the role, thus averting disaster. The saga is, in some ways, reflective of former Monty Python member Gilliam's work as a whole.
As Gilliam's fans are well aware, the filmmaker's body of work is marked with stories of dreamers and rebels whose lofty ideas stand against the conventions of their world. They are the heroes of non-conformity, embarking on quests that may seem ludicrous to some, much like the artist himself. Below, we take a look back at a handful of the memorable characters that have lined Gilliam's career.
Character: Raoul Duke
Film: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
The quest in this film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey into the Heart of the American Dream seems simple, journalist Raoul Duke must travel to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle competition. But Duke is armed with his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, a suitcase filled with hallucination-inducing drugs and weaponry as if the real goal is to test his body and mind. What transpires is succinctly described in the subtitle of the original novel. Somewhere between the hallucinations, Duke comes to a myriad conclusions about American life and his stance against authority figures. But, when Duke refers to Dr. Gonzo as "too weird to live, too rare to die," the statement takes on new meaning, reflecting the film, and probably much of Gilliam's work, as well.
Character: Jeffrey Goines
Film: Twelve Monkeys
When Jeffrey Goines first encounters time traveler James Cole in an institution, he is a twitchy, rambling mess. His rants against animal testing and consumerism have, at least in part, led to his being labeled as unstable. Even to an audience member, Brad Pitt's scene-stealing character could be construed as unsettling. But it's Goines who offers some of the most poignant lines in the film, particularly "You know what crazy is? Crazy is majority rules."
Character: Baron Munchausen
Film: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
It's the Age of Reason, or so we are told in the beginning of Gilliam's re-imagining of the famed German literary character, but reason can't save a town that is on the cusp of a Turkish invasion. And so enters the famed adventurer Baron Munchausen, keeper of whimsical tales and extraordinary plans to help save the community. While town official the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson says that Munchausen "won't get far on hot air and fantasy," the aging dreamer seems to know instinctively that ladies "knickers" make for a good hot air balloon, one that might just help him save the day.
Character: Terry Gilliam
Film: Lost in La Mancha
In Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's documentary on the making of Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, the director takes on the role embodied by so many characters in his films. It was an ambitious dream to take on a film adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes classic, one that he had been trying to make for years. Then, when filming had just begun, the set was struck by a storm and his Quixote, Jean Rochefort, suffered a double herniated disc. Filming came to an abrupt halt and, at the end of the documentary, Gilliam's team was adamant that the movie would never happen. But, in recent years, the director has regained the rights from the involved insurance company and pre-production has begun anew. Watch Lost in La Mancha and you'll never view a Gilliam film the way again.
Character: King Arthur
Film: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (co-directed by Gilliam and Terry Jones)
He's a king on the grandest quest of all, one for the Holy Grail. Yet, he manages to garner the taunting of nearly all he encounters, from the French to his own subjects (anarcho-syndicalist agricultural communes aren't particularly fond of monarchy, you see). Yet, he thrives, even when he has to put aside the first quest for a unexpected second one for a shrubbery. In Monty Python's first original film, Gilliam's style is readily apparent with the use of absurdist humor, quirky animation, fantastical story lines and literary references.
Trailer for the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus:
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