Sunday, February 24, 2013

When Bad Roles Happen to Good Actors

As I've had occasion to whine in the past, the Oscars are held just a couple of blocks away from us. Which means that the street is closed down, sidewalks are blocked, and a big, armored, LAPD Bomb Squad truck is parked on our doorstep.  So this is a day we traditionally observe by barricading ourselves inside and hoping the cops don't mistake us for the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Still, it's the 85th Academy Awards, a glamorous night of double-sided tape and bomb-sniffing dogs, so let's turn to our Hollywood Minute Reporter Bill S., with Bill S's S'Oscars!

For many years now, I've admired actor Bradley Cooper, as a promising film star. At the same time, I've been dismayed he hadn't yet landed a great film role. After all, what can you say about a resume where one of the high points was a film in which he gets his junk tased by Rob Riggle? So I was happy to see him land a role worthy of his acting chops, and an Oscar nod, in "Silver Linings Playbook". 
Just about every actor had a few clunkers on their way to success. And sometimes, once they do find success, they take a really wrong turn. With that in mind, I offer what may or may not be an annual tradition, the candidates for "MOST EMBARRASSING PRIOR ROLE OF A CURRENT OSCAR NOMINEE":

Bradley Cooper's co-star, JENNIFER LAWRENCE might seem to be an overnight sensation, but prior to "The Hunger Games" and "Winter's Bone", her most notable prior role was on "The Bill Engvall Show".  Engvall's best known for being one of the comics on the Blue Collar Comedy tour. No, not the one who warned about the early warning signs of being a redneck, and not the one who asked us to "Git er done", whatever that means. He was the one with the catchphrase "Here's your sign", alluding to the idea that stupid people should be forced to wear one. Too bad the producers of that show didn't have one of those.

(and they only get worse from here...)

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN. One of the most dependable character actors in movies today, just seeing his name in the credits makes one perk up. (It's a testament to his talents that he made Lester Bangs a relatable human being and not somebody I wanted to punch) You'd have to scroll pretty far down his resume to find something really bad. But scroll I did, and found:
My Boyfriend's Back (1993), a Disney comedy about a teenage girl whose recently deceased boyfriend rises from the grave. And hilarity, one assumes, ensues. Philip plays a school bully.
[a really clumsy school bully]

SALLY FIELD. With a career that now spans six decades, we all know her path to stardom from a spunky ingenue in silly '60's era sitcoms to a highly respected dramatic actress. Today those early roles on "Gidget" and "The Flying Nun" are looked on with some affection, because in their own way, they're iconic. Of course, they're only iconic because she played them -- it may seem like a backhanded compliment to call Sally Field the definitive Gidget, but, hey, she is! But there's another early sitcom role that she, and we, would all like to forget (and probably have.  Until now.  Sorry):
 "The Girl With Something Extra"

Airing in 1973, "Girl..." followed the wacky adventures of a young woman with E.S.P.,  and the efforts of her and her husband (John Davidson, a guy so generically white bread he makes Ted McGinley look like a Sweathog) to pass for a normal married couple. Hmmm...a housewife with supernatural powers married to a dull square who tries to curb them? Now where might we have seen that before?
[From Scott:  Great.  Now I'm Bothered and Bewildered, too!]
The fact the "Bewitched" had been gone off the air a year before should have been a tip-off that nobody wanted a rip-off, and "The Girl With Something Extra" was canceled after one season. It's probably just as well. After 8 years on "Bewitched", Elizabeth Montgomery was so eager to get away from the role she leapt at the chance to play Lizzie Bordon.
And I really, really don't want to see Sister Bertrille wielding an ax.

JOAQUIN PHOENIX. Under the name "Leaf Phoenix", Joaquin started as a child actor, making his professional debut at the age of 8 in the TV series "Seven Brides For Seven Brothers" in 1982. In the '90's, he began using his real name, first in the black comedy To Die For, playing a creepy teen who helps a woman murder her husband. It established him as a quirky, off-kilter presence (kind of like a bangable Crispen Glover). He stole the scenes in Gladiator that weren't stolen by Oliver Reed, did a credible job playing Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, and in general enlivened a number of stale projects (if Signs had just been two hours of Joaquin Phoenix clubbing aliens with a baseball bat -- or clubbing the director with one-I might have enjoyed the damn thing). But there was one movie he couldn't save: It's All About Love (2003). 
 I haven't seen it, but is has been the subject of a World O' Crap review, and the case for it being his worst film is pretty convincing.

NAOMI WATTS. Naomi made her film debut in the 1990 coming-of-age drama Flirting, alongside Nicole Kidman, Thandie Newton and Noah Taylor. Not a bad start, kind of the Australian equivalent to American Graffiti.  But then, four years later...she was in Tank Girl.  What the fuck? No, wait, that doesn't cover it, NAOMI WATTS WAS IN FUCKING TANK GIRL?  And she wasn't the star? Some casting director, or producer, or whoever, looked at Naomi Watts, and looked at Lori Petty, who's like a chipmunk on crack, and said, "Let's make Petty the star of this thing!"
[if there was an award for "Best acting in an otherwise shitty film", Naomi would have won for this.]

ANNE HATHWAY. Like several other actors on this list, Anne began as a teen on a sitcom, in this case the FOX series "Get Real", which, unfortunately, isn't an American spinoff of the 1998 British film. Her track record's been erratic -- for every quality film she's been in, ther have been two or three turkeys. So it's not surprising that, in the same year she landed what may be her best role, in the edgy indie flick Rachel Getting Married, she also appeared in her worst film, Get Smart. I have a question: why do we keep getting subjected to big-scren remakes of old TV shows? It'd be one thing if they made money, but most of them bomb, and bomb spectacularly. This movie had no reason to exist whatsoever. Unless they were hoping it might resurrect the ghost of Don Adams.  Which, I'll concede, would have been a worthy endeavor.

AMY ADAMS.  For the past decade, Amy's been a bright spot in many pictures -- Catch Me If You Can, Junebug, Doubt, Julie & Julia, The Fighter... but there's one early role almost nobody has seen, and with good reason, because it went straight to video, and from there, to the 99 cents bin:

"This film was originally a tv series based on Cruel Intentions, titled "Manchester Prep", with three hour-long episodes filmed...They were scheduled to air on the FOX network in the fall of 1999, but the show was canceled before any of the episodesaired. The scene where Cherie has orgasms on the horse in Episode 3.1 reportedly outraged FOX chairman Rupert Murdoch. New explicit scenes and dialogue were added to footage from the pilot and the first two episodes to make this film. The plot was re-worked to serve as a prequal to Cruel Intentions  rather than a re-telling."

I can't add much more to that. The original film was a rip-off of Dangerous Liasons without much to recommend it but a decent soundtrack single. This thing was a rip-off of a rip-off. It's a Bitter Sweet Travesty.

HELEN HUNT. Helen got her start as a child actress in the '70's, making her professional debut at age 10 in the tv movie "Pioneer Woman". most of her roles in that period were respectable enough-she even played Murray's daughter on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show". But before land the part of Morrison's girlfriend on "St. Elsewhere", her transition to more mature roles was...well, awkward, to say the least. Particularly the 1982 tv movie "Desperate Lives". The title may not ring a bell, but, I'm sure thi scene does:
[just say "No" to drugs...and creepy guys with feathered hair...and bad teen melodramas.]

ROBERT DE NIRO. For movie fans, few things are more soul-crushing than seeing a great actor dumb down their talents to such a degree you can't even look at them. Richard Burton had The Exorcist II (Electric Boogaloo), Laurence Olivier had The Jazz Singer, Shirley MacLaine had Cannonball Run 2 (Your Agent and Fire His Ass), Michael Caine and Jane Fonda BOTH had Hurry Sundown. Faye Dunaway was in that one too, but sadly it's not her most embarrassing role, as anyone who watched her waving a magic branch at Helen Slater in Supergirl  can tell you. Which brings us to Robert DeNiro, the man who gave us young Vito Corleone, Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, Al Capone and....Fearless Leader in The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle.  Why, Bobby, why? WHY DID YOU DO THIS THING THAT YOU DID?
 [this cannot possibly be the same actor who figured in enough women's masturbation fantasies for there to be a Bananarama song about it.]

ALAN ARKIN. Alan began acting in the '50's, and was also a folk singer, as a member of the Tarriers (he's credited with co-writing "The Banana boat Song"). He'd already had two Oscar nominations by the time he made what even he regards as his worst film, Freebie & the Bean (1974). Full disclosure: my parents took me and my younger brothers to see this when we were kids, thinking it was a kid-friendly comedy, probably from the title. What we instead got treated to was a violent, stupid cop-buddy flick:
It also contained one of the most offensive depictions of a gay character in movies, which you'll notice isn't in the trailer, because even in 1974, the studios knew that shit wouldn't fly. Six years later it was adapted into a sitcom, and while it lacked the violence and misogyny and homophobia of the film (and lacked any stars), it preserved the stupidity.
[Note from Scott:  For more on just how amazingly homophobic this mid-Seventies buddy cop film is, check out this review written by the Fabulous Stacia for the Queer Film Blogathon.

DANIEL DAY-LEWIS. Daniel made his movie debut at 13 in Sunday, Bloody Sunday, appearing in one scene as a boy who vandalizes expensive cars with a broken bottle. He later admitted he had fun doing it (as any kid might.) As an adult he's established himself as one the best actors around -- just listing his movies makes me want to load up my NetFlix queue: A Room With a View, My Beautiful Laundrette, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Stars & Bars, My Left Foot, The Last of the Mohicans, The Age of Innocence, In the Names of the Fa-
wait a sec. Back up...what was that one between The Unbearable Lightness of Being and My Left Foot?
Stars & Bars? What the hell was that, you might rightly ask, since it's not available on DVD, and just about nobody has seen it. I  actually have, and here a taste of it:
The rest of it is exactly as stupid. How bad was it? Let me put it this way: there's a scene in which Daniel's character, having spent the night with a young woman, flees from a bedroom window to escape detection without getting dressed. We see him in all his naked glory (hallelujah!)...and not even that was enough to keep this thing from plummeting into total obscurity.

Which brings us now, to the last entry on this list, and the "winner" for the single most embarrassing prior role from this year's Oscar nominees:

Denzel has a great track record -- he might be the only person this year who could wrestle an Oscar away from Daniel Day-Lewis, with his brilliant turn in Flight. Add his work in Cry Freedom, Glory, The Mighty Quinn, Malcolm X, Philadelphia, Courage Under Fire, The Hurricane, Training Day -- hell, even his work on "St. Elsewhere"(it's a testament to the show's quality that it made Howie Mandel a relatable human being instead of somebody I want to punch). I list all of those roles to remind myself of how far he's come. Because his worst film was also his first film. If you're ever in a debate with friends as to who had the most embarrassing film debut, and they offer up Paul Newman in The Silver Chalice, or John Travolta in The Devil's Rain, or Tom Cruise in Endless Love, you can silence all comers with the following five words:
Denzel Washington in Carbon Copy.
Released in 1981, this move tells the story of a successful white business executive (George Segal) , who learns that a romance he had with a black woman in his college days produced a son (Washington). His life becomes a mess: his marriage falls apart, he loses his job, and he becomes a complete social outcast. Did I happen to mention this is supposed to be taking place in 1981, and not 30 years earlier? Here's the trailer, and keep in mind, these are scenes intended to make you want to see this film:
No, you didn't just dream that. This wasn't a fake trailer from a sketch comedy show. This thing really exists, and got made, and was booked into theaters. I actually saw it when it aired on cable a year later. Or more likely, a few months later. In any case, I can't imagine why any actor, even a struggling actor looking for his first break, would take this role -- surely there were porn producers making better offers. I come to the conclusion that Denzel took this role on the assumption that once he took it, there was no other possible direction to go but up.
He was right. So I guess that's the hopeful thing to take away from this.

-Bill S


M. Bouffant said...

Another reason (new to me) for locals to be pissed about the whole thing.

Stacia said...

Well, now I gotta go find me a copy of Stars & Bars.

I also want to know HOW Sally Field can look the same as she did 20 years ago in Soapdish.

Carl said...

One of the pleasant surprises of Silver Linings was seeing DeNiro not imitate DeNiro.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
D. Sidhe said...

Please, god, let one of you witty people make some funny about this:

(Too migrainy to work out html. Sue me.)

Weird Dave said...

I once met a Girl With Something Extra

I was surprised.

(Talk about a hanging curve ball. And that's about the level of my wit today. Feel better Ms. Sidhe)

maurinsky said...

Another not often seen movie of Daniel Day-Lewis' which may be worse than Stars and Bars is Eversmile, New Jersey. I worked at a video store in the 80s, I saw all the terrible beginnings of our big stars, including some kind of sex romp resort movie starring Johnny Debb and a similar one with Tim Robbins.

Anonymous said...

Chris Vosburg quoted "Local Hero" on TBogg.
You know that little smile and glow you get when someone whose taste in movies you really respect quotes your Alltime Fave Movie of All Time?
I got that.
PS I prefer commenting here where I feel at home than Tbogg's place where I do not.

Chris Vosburg said...

Best Supporting Actor category was especially heartbreaking, because, well, Alan Arkin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robert De Niro, and Tommy Lee Jones are all just so very very good in whatever role they do-- I wanna give the category a five-way tie.

This fact may contributed heavily to Christoph Waltz's win-- all these other guys already got enough critical acclaim, so let's give it to the relatively unknown new guy.

Slightly OT, my California Driver's License for years identified me as Christophe Vosburg, because the database software they used, for reasons that defy explanation, exacted a ten character limit in the "First Name" field.

People who I handed the license over to (check cashing, liquor store, bar, etc.) used to ask if I was French or something, to my great amusement.

Chris Vosburg said...

Suezboo, oh that damn movie, which I know every line of dialog in by heart, I've seen it that many times.

Won best screenplay in a few award ceremonies (BAFTA, etc.), but was completely ignored by the Academy--

--och, ye great daft pillocks.

Chris Vosburg said...

Scott writes: a big, armored, LAPD Bomb Squad truck is parked on our doorstep.

Actually I think that had more to do with the bomb threats that you phoned in to the nominees of the Best Screenplay category.

Scott said...

The whole thing was a pathetic farce, and the only explanation for the year's most egregious snub is that Academy members who nominated Tony Kushner's script for Lincoln did so only through a clerical error, after having voted -- in a clear majority! -- for Seth Grahame-Smith's screenplay for Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

History will vindicate me.

Anonymous said...

simply stopping by to say hey

Woodrowfan said...

Elizabeth Montgomery also did a bit of a side-boob flash in "Mrs Sundance."

That was 1974. i was 15. It was very important to me at age 15. 8-)

Scott said...

I remember that ABC Movie of the Week, Woodrow, and how it made a young me realize that the nose wasn't the only part of Ms. Montgomery that could make magic.

Carl said...


I would but I'm sick and tired of those muthafucking mice on that muthafucking plane.

Chris Vosburg said...

Re Liz Montgomery:

Hard to believe that it was Gladys Kravitz obsessed with peering through the blinds across the street at the doings of the Stevens couple, instead of Abner. What the hell was wrong with that man, know what I mean? Liz was hot.

By the way, Bill, thanks for that, which I'm sure all of these fine actors would pay good money to make go away. Actually, they wouldn't, it's just part of any career, and if you have a thin skin, you simply won't last long in this business.

However, everybody gotta start someplace, and Elmer Bernstein's score for "Robot Monster" comes to mind, after which he did "Cat Women of the Moon" [laughing] but then struggled into respectability with fifty fucking years of very very good scoring, and too many films to mention.

It's true-- everyone in this business has a skeleton or two in the closet, and they are a lot of fun. See also Johnny Depp's big-haired work in "21 Jump Street."

Chris Vosburg said...

Scott, very funny-- I remember it was down at the pub where I first saw the trailer for Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and I fell off the damn barstool, I was laughing that hard.

Dear God, where do we go from here, I wondered.

Bill S said...

Hey, I watched "21 Jump Street". I even bought season 1 on DVD when I found it in a store at a huge markdown. I'd say "Private Resort" is more embarrassing (and also wastes Rob Morrow as well).
In re this year's nominees in the "Best Supporting Actor" category: all five was a previous winner. This has never before, in any category(I looked it up).

Carl said...

Depp got great reviews in 21 Jump.

If anyone should regret it, it's Richard Grieco. Career-killed.

D. Sidhe said...

For pity's sake, they're toxic dead mice! With tiny parachutes! AND a snake invasion! I'm sad that this tickles no-one but me. I'd make with the funny myself, but I've had a migraine since Thanksgiving.

Tommy T said...

Sorry - Stacia missed the boat on Freebie and the Bean.
She described Valerie Harper as "an actress in brownface".
Major league fail.


Kathy said...

"Freebie & The Bean". What I remember is that James Cahn used a sanitary napkin supposed to staunch his bullet wound. I wanted to shout "Idiot! That's not what it will do!" But I refrained.

Chris Vosburg said...

Having just seen Johnny Depp in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (1995), I take back everything I said about 21 Jump Street being Depp's skeleton in the closet.

Among other things, most irritating score ever (consisting solely of an echoplexed electric guitar randomly noodling, and it won't shut up, ever). GO TO HELL, MOVIE!

D. Sidhe said...


Hah! I'm stealing that. Also, pretty sure Johnny Depp is the skeleton in Johnny Depp's closet. Never understood the appeal. I mean, usually I can see why women like men, but this one? Nope. Got nothin'. He's annoyingly all affected eccentricity. Quirky is one thing. Premeditated quirky? Not so much.

Chris Vosburg said...

D Sidhe, I think one of the bots hollered that at the screen in an MST3K ep, though I don't remember which movie it was (could have been any of them, if ya know what I mean).

My first Depp performance was his Edward Scissorhands role, which was, yes, quirky, but given the Tim Burton universe (not for everyone), well handled.

Bonus Tim Burton Story:

When I first started working at InterVideo in Burbank, my first order of business was to find the nearest pub, and having found it in the Blue Chip tavern at Hollywood Way and Victory Blvd, pulled up a barstool.

I looked down, and there was on the floor under the barstool, a hairbrush, which I picked up and brought down the house, right outta the gate with:

"Hey, somebody call Tim Burton's people and tell 'em we found his hairbrush."


Turned out the owners of the bar lived across the street from the Burton family, and were as puzzled as anyone else by how Tim turned out.