The Top Seven Movie Nerds of All Time

April 11, 2009

Few character archetypes in cinema have the ability to entertain us as much as movie nerds do. Perhaps it’s because nerdiness has become trendy. Or perhaps it’s just that nerds in the movies are really the coolest guys on the screen.

Source: Universal Pictures

7. Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

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Cameron is awesome because he was way ahead of his time. He’s not your standard nerd, and he’s definitely not your standard ‘80s nerd. The guy wears a jersey, he skips the f*** out of school, and he’s got some personality disorders and neuroses that will take years of high-priced therapy to work out.

But the guy is really cool, too. I mean, not only does he let his best friend -– who happens to be the most popular guy in school –- jack his dad’s most prized possession, at the end of the day he destroys it on a whim. Yeah, he’s kind of crazy, but he doesn’t fit into any molds. One second he’s tripping balls and going catatonic at the bottom of a pool, the next he’s blasting his dad’s prized 1961 Ferrari 250GT California out of a two-story garage. The guy has balls.

Will Cameron win any awards for nerdiest nerd ever? Probably not. But he has the distinction of being one of the most original nerds the movies have ever seen.

6. Duckie from Pretty in Pink

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For some reason the people making high school films in the ‘80s decided that the girl most likely to cause dorks to swoon was the red headed, puffy lipped Molly Ringwald, and she broke a lot of nerdy hearts in her time. One of the nerdiest of them was Duckie, and he proved that just because you’re a nerd doesn’t mean you can’t have style. Guy had style in spades, and he knew how to dance, too. That’s gotta count for something.

Unfortunately, the way this movie ended was pretty dang unsatisfying for everyone, but it’s nice to know that there was another ending that John Hughes much preferred. In it Duckie actually does get the girl, and we have a kind of male equivalent to the ending of Some Kind of Wonderful. Why they decided to have Andie hook up with the bland-as-butter Blane is beyond me, but it’s nice to know that in the world as conceived by the writer – i.e., the real world of Pretty in Pink – Duckie’s ballsy nerd-swagger actually did win him the lady in the end.

Now, whether or not Duckie and Andie did the f***ie is another question altogether. You can discuss that one in the comments section.

5. McLovin from Superbad

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Yeah, I know, this is a new one. A lot of people will take issue with the fact that McLovin took the place of Lazlo and Mitch from Real Genius, Booger from Revenge of the Nerds, or any other number of nerds who deserve to be on this list. But McLovin – a.k.a. Fogell – did something very important for the evolution of the movie nerd.

With one brilliant performance, McLovin bridged the nerdiness of nerds past and present. A lot of people had written nerds off as a character contrivance without much freshness or originality, and then along came McLovin, doing nerdy, unpredictable things left and right. When was the last time you saw a nerd fire a cop’s gun in a movie, or having sex, for that matter? Movie nerds the world over owe a lot to McLovin for opening a lot of doors that didn’t exist before he came along.

But I think McLovin’s greatest contribution to cinema was his unflinching nerdiness in the face of adversity. At the end of the day, McLovin was about as close to a nerd-badass as they come: the jocks, stoners, and metal heads have nothing on him.

4. Data from The Goonies

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Data is everything we love about nerds, without all the stuff we hate about them. He doesn’t chase after the prettiest girl in school, he’s not the game master of a weekly Dungeons & Dragons game, and he doesn’t have a beef with the captain of the football team.

Here’s what Data is: a genius inventor who mispronounces funny words at the funniest possible moment. The guy shoots slippery gunk out the back of his high tops, he has a homemade grappling hook, and his trench coat is hardwired to defend against members of the local mafia. And he’s only five feet tall! That’s a nerd we’d all like to have on our side.

Data’s precociousness notwithstanding, he’s what I like to call a Utilitarian Nerd. River Phoenix in Explorers, Val Kilmer in Real Genius, Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science, and the number one nerd on this list are all good examples of the Utilitarian Nerd, but Data is perhaps the most endearing of them all.

3. Brian from The Breakfast Club

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Brian is an important nerd in movie lore, in part because of the foundation of nerdiness the actor playing him built in the ‘80s. Anthony Michael Hall played enough nerds to last five careers: most notably he was the nerd in Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Weird Science.  He made the mold for nerdiness in the first half of the ‘80s.

And then he smashed it to pieces in 1990 with Edward Scissorhands. How many nerdy actors have ever done this? Anthony Edwards came kind of close when he went from Gilbert in Revenge of the Nerds in 1984 to Goose in Top Gun in 1986, but this is nowhere near the transformation Hall made from Brian in The Breakfast Club to Jim in Edward Scissorhands.

Brian was the loveable, tragic nerd, the nerd who might end up hurting himself – or others – in his quest for acceptance and love. And then he does a total reversal in 1990 and becomes the violent jock who takes pleasure in hurting other people. Think of Anthony Michael Hall as the United States of Nerd: he creates a Declaration of Nerdiness in the early ‘80s, then has a civil war with his identity in ’90, then resolves this internal conflict with the Nerdy Proclamation of ’99, where he re-embraced his roots with Pirates of Silicon Valley and played the biggest nerd of them all: Bill Gates.

Now here’s a man who knows nerdy, inside and out.

2. George McFly from Back to the Future

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George McFly is what we call the Old School Nerd. Nerds didn’t really even exist before the ‘50s, and McFly was the ‘50s nerd to end all nerds. The man spends his lunch periods penning sci-fi stories and reading Ray Bradbury novels – that is, when he’s not getting pushed around by the Neanderthal Biff Tannen, or silently, creepily lusting after Lorraine Baines. The only thing McFly is missing is the busted up pinze-nez, but he doesn’t really need them – they’d almost be redundant.

We love McFly because he represents so many things we dislike about ourselves, and yet represents them in a weird, funny, totally entertaining way. He gets pushed around by Biff, he drinks chocolate milk, and it takes what he believes to be an alien blasting Van Halen in his ears in the middle of the night for him to get the balls to talk to Lorraine. And even then he still needs to be constantly prodded by his future son.

In short, McFly is a total wuss.

But it’s okay, because we all know that in the end he’s got what it takes to put Biff in his place when the chips are on the table. McFly might be a wuss, but he’s not a coward, and he has backbone when it counts.

George McFly is one of the all time greatest nerds largely because Crispin Glover played the part, and he brought to it a completely original, bizarre, unselfconscious vulnerability that has remained fresh for the past 24 years. The only sad thing is that Glover didn’t sign on for the last two films. It would’ve been interesting to see McFly in action in the nineteenth century.

1. Egon Spengler from Ghostbusters

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Egon is, hands-down, the quintessential nerd, and possibly the most famous nerd the movies have ever seen. Egon is proof that nerds can go mainstream and they can get big – and yet still retain their integrity. When the Ghostbusters made it big in New York City, Egon never got cocky, he was still all about increased efficiency in ecto-containment, and he effectively saved the entire city -– if not the world -– from destruction by Gozer the Gozerian. The fact that Egon didn’t win a Nobel prize for physics is a mockery of science.

It can be argued that Egon lacks a sense of humor, but when your colleagues are as uneducated as Peter Venkman, as childlike as Ray Stanza, and as out of their element as Winston Zeddmore, someone’s gotta pick up the slack. And upon closer inspection Egon actually does have a sense of humor – it’s just much drier than Venkman’s off-the-wall charm.

Egon’s real contribution to cinematic nerdiness is his indomitable willingness to do whatever it takes to keep ghouls and goblins from overrunning his city, and his lack of self-consciousness in doing so. He takes a whole lot of s*** from Venkman about his gadgets and gizmos, but when the poop makes contact with the fan, it’s Egon’s genius that saves the day. Most men would crap their pants when confronted with a hundred ton man made of marshmallowy evil, but Egon is the only one out of all the Ghostbusters who has the brainy chops to defeat the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

What’s really exciting is that, with a forthcoming Ghostbusters film supposedly in the works, we’ll get to see how Egon has evolved, and where exactly his nerdiness has taken him. To be blunt, I’m mostly concerned that Egon will have shied away from his nerdier side and become, over time, much more…un-Egon. At this point it’s a waiting game to see what kind of nerd the older Egon has become. We can only hope that he hasn’t compromised his nerdiness too much.

Sometimes nerds are perfect just the way they are.

 

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