The Oscars are airing tomorrow night, which means it's time for us to look at the nominees in this year's four acting categories, and determine who among them has the single most embarrassing prior role, thus winning the not-so-coveted SKELLY Award. As always, if someone was nominated (won) in a previous year, they are ineligible for a nomination again. This rule, however, does not apply to the films they appeared in, as you'll soon see. Let's have a look at this year's contenders.
5th Place: Laurie Metcalf
Laurie made her feature film debut as a hotel maid (an unbilled bit role) in Robert Altman's 1978 comedy A Wedding. Over the years she's won multiple Emmys, a Tony, and is now in the running for Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Lady Bird. She faces stiff competition from odds-on favorite Allison Janney in I, Tonya. (Is it too much to hope for a tie in this category?) On the road to all those awards, she made an unfortunate stop in the lame-brained 1988 comedy Stars and Bars.
In the first year of the SKELLY competition -- before it even had a name -- I nominated the movie's star, Daniel Day-Lewis, who came in second place (the winner that year was Denzel Washington, for the even more lame-brained comedy Carbon Copy). I have to confess that it's been nearly 30 years since I saw Stars and Bars, and until I was researching film credits to write this column, I'd completely forgotten that Laurie Metcalf was also in it. I'm guessing she's forgotten it too.
4th Place: Sam Rockwell
The favorite to win this year's Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of those actors (like recent Oscar winner J.K. Simmons) whose name in the credits provoke an anticipatory grin. We know whatever the film's quality, we can be assured one bright spot.
Of course, everybody's got to start somewhere, and for Rockwell, his earliest roles were not quite so memorable. One such role was in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, playing (as he was billed in the credits) "Head Thug". I'm guessing when this kiddie flick bowed in theaters back in 1990, nobody was imagining that one of the bit players would one day be walking the Red Carpet. Especially since, at the time, the biggest name in the cast was Corey Feldman. And he was playing a turtle.
3rd Place: Frances McDormand
The favorite to win this year's Best Actress Oscar for her role in Three Billboards is the Coen brothers' favorite leading lady, and Joel Coen's favorite lady all around. She's also one of my favorite actresses -- I'll watch her in almost anything.
Which, unfortunately, is how I came to see one of the flimsiest films of her career: Passed Away:
Dead On Arrival
This is probably the most disappointing picture of this year's bunch. It boasts a batch of gifted actors (too many to list, but let's start by asking what possessed Bob Hoskins to sign on) so I had high hopes. Also, I tend to be drawn to movies about dysfunctional families, whether intense dramas like Long Day's Journey Into Night, or black comedies like August: Osage County. This movie is neither of those. It isn't anything, really. One problem is that it seems too short. That's not a usual complaint with bad movies, but the 92 minute running time seems to be the result of laziness more than anything else. Each character is trotted out, their identifying quirk identified (McDormand is saddled with playing the least convincing movie nun since Helen Reddy in Airport '75) and then...nothing much more happens with them. The whole thing feels less like a feature film, and more like a hastily slapped together pilot for a sitcom that would get cancelled in three weeks.
2nd Place: Willem Dafoe
Nominated this year in the Best Supporting Actor category for his subtle, empathetic performance in The Florida Project, Dafore's first film role was in Heaven's Gate, the movie that starred last year's SKELLY winner, Isabelle Huppert. His part in the film wound up on the cutting room floor, so he was spared any true onscreen embarrassment for a dozen more years...when he starred in the kinky melodrama Body of Evidence (see the Better Living Through Bad Movies chapter "Sex, Lies, and Direct-to-Videotape" for a full exegesis of this film).
No evidence of brains
In the third year of the SKELLYs, I nominated Julianne Moore for her role in this film. She only had a small role (her name's not even on the posters), and she looked gorgeous, so our embarrassment level may have been slightly lower that it is for Willem Dafoe, who's one of the leads. He plays a lawyer who's banging his client, which makes him an idiot. And he's cheating on Julianne Moore, which makes him certifiable. And so he manages to embarrass himself more than anyone else in the movie. Including Madonna.
You might be wondering then, why only second place? What could be worse than appearing in a film that was reviewed right here on World O'Crap? I won't hold you in suspense. The winner of the 6th Annual SKELLY Award is...
The favorite to win this year's Best Actor Oscar for his role in Darkest Hour, he's never won before, which is surprising. Shouldn't a guy who can play both Sid Vicious and Winston Churchill already have a bunch of them? He generally elevates the quality of the films he's in, but there was one film he couldn't save. That nobody could save. I'm speaking, of course, of The Scarlet Letter:
The most critically mocked picture of 1995 -- even Showgirls received better bad reviews. Publicity described it as "freely adapted from Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel", which is an understatement. In the book, Hester Prynne bears a child as the result of an adulterous affair, and is branded a social outcast. The man leading the crusade against her, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, is also the father of her child, which makes him a moral hypocrite, and an asshole. In the movie, though, he's a troubled, romantic, even sympathetic hero.
Putting the "dim" in Dimmesdale.
That's not all they changed. For example: Hester first sees the good reverend when she catches him skinny-dipping, and then returns home to enjoy a hot steamy bath, surrounded by candles, and um, pleasuring herself. The movie adds more action to the story, and a ridiculous happy ending (well, two ridiculous happy endings if you count that bathtub scene). They should have just dropped any pretense they were adapting the book at all and made a porno version. That would have been more honest. (You can probably guess what the "A" would have stood for in that.)
Or better yet, when crafting the screenplay, they should have enlisted the talents of esteemed author Clifford Noadtz.
[This year's column is dedicated to the late Roger Ebert, whose book "I Hated, Hated, HATED This Movie" -- a collection of his most scathing reviews -- was a very helpful reference tool, saving me both time and money. It will likely prove to be as helpful in years to come.]