With the Academy Awards airing tonight, there's just enough time for me to hand out one more pre-Oscar honor, the "Skeleton In the Closet" award, bestowed upon the current Oscar nominee with the most embarrassing prior role, or "Skelly" for short. (I didn't have a name for it last year because I wasn't sure this was even going to be an annual thing.) The winner last year was Denzel Washington, who can take comfort in knowing that, even though he didn't get to take home a third Oscar, at least he'll never again make another movie as bad as Carbon Copy.
Winners enjoy Hollywood's Most Glamorous Night at the exclusive after-party at SkyBar.
After looking at this years twenty nominees in the four acting categories (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress), I've narrowed the winner down to 10 finalists. Some didn't make the cut at all because they were either very lucky or very smart, or in the case of Dame Judi Dench, both.
10th place: SALLY HAWKINS. I have to confess that, prior to Blue Jasmine, the only other film I'd seen her in was the quirky comedy Happy Go Lucky, in which she plays a woman who tries to find a positive outlook in every situation (she's like Chris Treager on Parks & Recreation). So I had to look through her credits, and stumbled up something called Happy Ever Afters, a small budget, indie comedy that manages to be as formulaic and predictable as the rom-coms Hollywood churns out by the dozen every year.
If I tell you that the plot centers around two wedding receptions that wind up being doubled-booked at the same hotel, I'll bet every single one of you can predict exactly what happens next. That said, I did laugh out loud twice, and costars Hawkins and Tim Riley display a flair for slapstick comedy that might, in a better movie, prove to be of use to them. Which is why she's just in 10th place. They only get dumber from here.
9th place: JONAH HILL. If you think I'm going after one of his Judd Apatow comedies or their imitators, guess again. I thought Superbad was pretty damn funny. It's when Jonah tried to get all edgy on us that he let us down, with a short-lived animated series that aired on FOX called Allen Gregory, centering around the most pretentious 7 year old ever. The show seemed to have been made by a pretentious 7 year old too. I'd supply a clip, but that would mean I'd have to watch it again. So...no.
8th place: JULIA ROBERTS. She's been a star so long and became one at such an early age that it's easy to forget that, once upon a time, she was only known as "Eric Roberts' baby sister". That'd be around the time she made her very first movie:
Whoops, wrong trailer. That's the one NBC used to promote the movie when it aired on TV after Julia became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Here's the original theatrical trailer:
Hmmm...looks like she's barely in it, and in any case wasn't the star. It was actually an ill-fated attempt to launch Mallory Keaton into the motion picture firmament. Every generation gets the Crossroads it deserves, and this was mine. (Wait a sec, lemme see that trailer again...was that Liam Neeson? Liam Fucking Neeson was in this damn thing? Excuse me, I need to lay down for like, five minutes or a couple hours, before I can continue.)
7th place: JARED LETO. Jared first got our attention playing teen dreamboat Jordan Catalano on My So-Called Life. When that showed bowed out, he steered clear of standard teen idol fare (Requiem For A Dream is about as far away from that as you could get) and took a break for a bit to focus on his music career, as a member of the band 30 Seconds to Mars. But before doing that, he found time to take a road to nowhere...
Set in 1994, Highway is about a pair of teens who take off on a road trip after one of them gets caught in a compromising position with the wife of a very dangerous man. (Although it was made 8 years after My So-Called Life, Jared can still pass for 19. His costar, Jake Gyllenhaal, isn't as lucky -- he looks about 12.) Along the way, they pick up Selma Blair as a shoe-stealing prostitute and John C. McGinley as a zonked-out, dreadlocked, possibly bisexual stoner named Johnny the Fox. The trip ends in Seattle, just in time for them to attend a candlelight vigil for Kurt Cobain. I'm sure Kurt would be delighted to learn his suicide was being used as a plot point for a crappy movie that seems to be a very calculated attempt to manufacture a cult following out of nothing. Throw in enough sex, drugs and rock & roll, and fake slang (Johnny refers to women as "gowns") and maybe kids seeking something edgy won't notice there's nothing there. It's the kind of movie Val, as in Val would produce.
6th place: LEONARDO DICAPRIO. Everybody probably knows that Leo's early roles as a teen were less than stellar -- he was on Growing Pains , and also starred in the first TV adaptation of Parenthood , which aired for one season in 1990. (He had the role that was played in the movie by Joaquin Phoenix -- probably the only time they'd ever be considered for the same character.) I like to say his first feature film was his star-making turn in This Boy's Life , but, unfortunately, it was two years before that.
To be fair, he was still a minor when he made Critters 3 so maybe had more to learn about managing his career. His next film was Poison Ivy , but it's such a brief role that the only way you'll be able to spot him is if you watch it with your eyelids taped open like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. (Which is probably the only way a person could sit through all the way through that.)
5th place: CHRISTIAN BALE. He made his movie debut at the age of 13 in Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, giving the finest performance of the decade by a child actor. (And by "decade", I mean any 10 year period that includes 1987.) After such a great start, anything might be a comedown, but the biggest slip-up was another movie set around the same period...
Swing Kids was inspired by the real-life stories of teens in Nazi Germany who listened to banned American music by black and Jewish musicians, resisting the social pressure to join the Hitler Youth movement. It centers around two childhood friends,Thomas (Bale) and Peter (Robert Sean Leonard), who spend time partying and dancing to forbidden music, until a stupid prank leads to them both getting arrested. They wind up being forced to join the Hitlerjugend. While Peter struggles to maintain his identity as a Swing Kid, Thomas eventually buys into the Nazi propaganda and turns his own father in to the Gestapo. Bale and Leonard are good actors -- damn good -- and they try to make this misguided mess work, but they're defeated by a glaring flaw: you know how sometimes, if an actor's too young for a part, they seem to be playing dress-up? Well, Swing Kids is an entire movie that's playing dress-up. We never, ever for a minute feel like we've been transported to Nazi Germany, because all the kids look and sound American. It's the baddies who sound German, like main villain Kenneth Branagh (WTF is he doing in this?). And when Peter's mother (Barbara Hershey, why?) begins dating Branagh and switches sides, she actually starts talking in a German accent. That's the kind of movie this is. The worst moments are the ones intended to have the greatest emotional impact, including the final scene, which had me laughing my ass off. And since that involved a kid being dragged off to a labor camp, this movie failed in a big way.
"It don't mean a thing if.." uh, you know, we can leave it at that.
4th place: SANDRA BULLOCK. She had to slog through an awful lot of junk before becoming a star, including a short-lived sitcom version of the movie Working Girl, and a truly awful American remake of The Vanishing. But the biggest misstep was a film based on a great Leiber-Stoller song.
The movie centers around a nerdy biochemist (Tate Donovan) who harbors a crush on a fellow scientist, played by Bullock. Because, y'know, when people look at Sandra Bullock, the first phrase that pops into their heads is "Geeky Biochemist". They're both clueless and awkward when it come to romance, until they stumble onto a formula that, when which spritzed in the mouth like Primatene Mist, will render them irresistible to any member of the opposite sex, even if the person is gay. All they have to do is speak. So hopefully, they never get a phone call from their parents, or encounter any children. There's a convoluted "scientific" explanation for this, but I'll spare you that. The effect wears off after four hours, which is about three hours and fifty minutes longer than our love for the movie lasts.
3rd place: MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY. I could just phone it in and point out that one of his early roles was in My Boyfriend's Back, the movie the put the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman on the list last year. Or I could point to his most notorious role, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, in which he plays a psychotic, bionic redneck killer named Vilmer Sawyer (which, now that I think of it, actually sounds awesome,especially if McConaughey plays him). But they both have to take a step aside for one film:
Surfer, Dude is an aimless series of vignettes about a laid-back, dim-witted surfer. To call it "dopey" would be apt: at times, it looks like the actors wandered onto the set completely baked and began improvising. Or maybe I'd just rather believe that than think they were working from a finished script, which, according to the credits, took four people to write.
Now, I'm sure that somebody, somewhere, ran across the DVD of this movie in the $5.00 bin and, sensing it'd be 85 minutes of Matthew wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, snapped it up immediately without any genuine interest in the "plot". I'm not saying I know anybody who'd do such a thing, only that such a person possibly--okay, PROBABLY exists.
2nd place: BRUCE DERN. At 77, Bruce is not only one of this year's oldest Oscar nominees, but among the men, he's the only one over the age of 45. He began acting in movies a full decade before the second oldest guy was even born. With a career spanning that many years, he was bound to have more than a few lows, but his most subterranean moment came with a Grade Z horror flick from the '70's.
[Warning, Film is Rated GP!]
Believe it or not, The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant wasn't the only movie out at that time about two-headed monsters -- there was also one called The Thing With Two Heads starring Ray Milland and Rosey Grier, both of whom deserved better. (It's a shame that trend wasn't around when Bruce made Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte. Think what a classic could have been made of a picture where Bruce and Bette Davis had to play a two-headed creature) I don't think I can do a better describing this movie than the plot summary found in the IMDb:
"Dr. Richard Girard is a rich scientist conducting experiments on head transplantation. His caretaker has a son, Danny, who, although fully grown, has the mind of a child. One day an escaped psycho-killer invades Girard's home, killing Danny's father before being gunned down himself. With the maniac dying and Danny deeply unsettled by his father's death, Dr. Girard decides to take the final step and transplant the killer's head onto Danny's body. Of course, things go horribly wrong and the two-headed creature escapes to terrorize the countryside."
Um...okay, that made perfect sense. But Bruce only hit Number 2 on our Billbored Chart, which brings us to this year's winner of the not-so coveted SKELLY. And it's someone who's no stranger to winning awards:
She's one of my all-time favorite actresses, and I'm sure she's on a lot of other peoples' lists as well. Right out of the gate, her first movie was Julia (only a minute or two on screen, but even Jane Fonda knew she was working with a powerhouse), received her first Oscar nomination the following year for The Deer Hunter, won for the first time the year after that for Kramer Vs. Kramer, and this year, scores a record-breaking 18th nomination for August: Osage County. When I was writing this column, I wasn't sure she'd even make this list at all. Still of the Night and Falling In Love were merely disappointing, and for me anyway, Mamma Mia! was a guilty pleasure (though I'll admit my guilt is eased somewhat by the fact that it gave Debbie Schlussel gas, which she expelled into a poutrageously stupid column I made fun of a few years back). Could there be any movie in Meryl's (mostly) illustrious canon that qualifies as a true, "What the hell was that?" embarrassment?
And then, I remembered, there's one. Just one. And it's a doozy.
Directed by the once-promising Susan (Smithereens) Seidelman, She-Devil is a black comedy about a housewife, Ruth (Roseanne Barr) who exacts revenge on her cheating husband Robert (Ed Begley, Jr.) and his mistress, Mary Fisher (Streep), a self-absorbed, pretentious author of trashy romance novels, based on a combination of Danielle Steel and Jackie Collins. Critics in New York who'd seen Meryl Streep on stage were always quick to point out she was at her best in comedy roles, but after more than a decade in films, this was her very first all out comedy lead. It should have been a career milestone, her "Garbo laughs!" moment. So what went wrong? So much. So very, very much: [Click Here for Illuminating Sample At Your Own Risk]
To quote Meryl's maid in the movie: "Up with this bullshit I will not put!"
It's shocking just how shrill and unfunny this picture is, how awkward Streep looks, and how little in the way of anything more than stock sitcom devices the plot offers. (Hell, even the trivia page from the IMDb is boring, unless you think learning that Robert's nickname is "Bob" fascinates you) There had already been a previous TV adaptation of Fay Weldon's book, a four hour miniseries starring Julie T. Wallace as Ruth and Patricia Hodge as Mary. Perhaps that length helped give the characters more depth, and perhaps the more British tone of humor helped make the material work better. As it is, this version is crass, tiresome, dead in the water. And Meryl Streep has never been more uncertain of how to play a role. She has exactly one funny moment, and it lasts about a few seconds: when Doris Baleck, as her agent, places her hands on Mary's cheeks while consoling her, Streep's annoyed facial expression in that moment is priceless. It's the only laugh in the entire movie.
Thankfully, every subsequent comedy she's done has been better. (In fact, the next one she made, Postcards From the Edge, is among my favorite of her roles, which is saying quite a bit.) But She-Devil remains the one film where she completely dropped the ball, proving that even the best of them can sometimes fumble.
"Now, a warning..."