By Bill S.
The Academy Awards are airing Sunday night, and normally around this time, I'd be perusing the year's acting nominees to determine who should win the not-so-coveted SKELLY Award, for the Oscar nominee with the most embarrassing prior role.But things are a bit different this year. Five of the nominees are past Skelly nominees (including one winner), and thus ineligable. Of the fifteen remaining actors...none has a movie that's truly worthy of a SKELLY award. (To the best of my knowledge. Obviously I haven't seen every movie each of them has made.)
It might very well be time to retire the SKELLY. Before bidding farewell to this tradition, let's celebrate one last time by looking back on the past winners (and a few notable also-rans).
In the first year, the award didn't even have a name yet, because I wasn't even sure if it would even be an annual thing. The decisive winner was Denzel Washington, for his very first movie--a film so bad he had nowhere to go from there but up. It tells the story of a white businessman (George Segal) who has a 17 year old son (Washington) from a relationship he had with a black woman while in college. When the kid shows up at his door, it throws his life into chaos--he loses his job, his marriage crumbles, and he becomes a social outcast. All of this is absurdly over-the-top. The script seems horribly dated, as if it had been sitting on a shelf for a decade. Which is fitting because the leads both look about 10 years too old for their roles.
(This is also arguably George Segal's worst film, although Lost and Found was so bad, I walked out on it when it was airing on TV in the living room...and I was the only one home at the time.)
2014 WINNER: Meryl Streep, in She-Devil (1989)
Roseanne Barr's film debut and Meryl Streep's first comedy role should have been a scream, but it was more of a gag. It's about a put-upon housewife, Ruth (Barr) whose louse of a husband, Bob (Ed Begley, Jr.), dumps her for a glamorous novelist, Mary (Streep). Ruth proceeds to exact a slow, methodical revenge against them ("Not So Promising Middle-aged Woman"). The three leads are undone by the material, but no one is more undone by it than director Susan Seidelman, whose approach is so careless, so tone-deaf, you wonder if she was even paying attention to what was happening. To pick one of many examples: it's one thing for Mary's mother to embarrass her in front of Bob by revealing how old she really is. It's quite another when she drops the bombshell that Mary had a baby at 16 that she gave up for adoption. That this is played for laughs, as just another embarrassing secret, is odd enough, but it's treated as a throwaway joke, to be completely forgotten about for the rest of the film.
Maybe it would have been funnier if the kid showed up later and was played by Denzel Washington.
NOTABLE ALSO-RAN: Christian Bale in Swing Kids (1993)
In retrospect, maybe there should have been a tie in 2014. It depends on what you think is worse: a comedy that's not funny, or a drama that's completely laughable. "Swing Kids" tells the story of a group of teens in WWII Germany who rebelled against the Nazis by embracing American culture and in particular, swing music. That's an interesting subject for a movie, and had it featured actual German kids, it might have worked. But all the good guys speak with American accents, and all the bad guys speak with German accents, and when a good guy turns into a bad guy, they suddenly acquire a German accent. Then there's then ending. Oh that ending. I found it on YouTube. Just...watch it:
WHAT...in chicken-plucking Hell...WAS that? From the look on his face, even Christian Bale doesn't know what to make of it. According to some of the YouTube comments, Swing Kids is being shown in history classes. At what schools? Do those same schools screen Reptilicus in biology classes?
2015 WINNER: Edward Norton in "Death To Smoochy" (2002)
It was a flop when released, but has since developed a cult following, with fans who feel it was an underrated gem. I am not part of that cult. It tells the story of a disgraced childrens program host (Robin Williams, who unfortunately has made worse films) who plots to sabotage his replacement, a sincere, pure-of-heart dupe (Norton). It's hard to pin down why this movie never works -- it may be the most ambitiously bad movie on this list. The satire falls flat. Once you realize that everyone but Smoochy is terrible, there aren't any surprises. Watching it is like being sealed inside a bouncy castle with a family of rabid porcupines.
NOTABLE ALSO-RAN: Robert Duvall in The Detective (1968)
A crime drama about a police detective, Joe Leland (Frank Sinatra) searching for a killer whose victim is revealed to be a closeted gay man. The picture portrays gay men as either sniveling psychos, self-loathing monsters or bitchy queens who we're supposed think deserve what they get. Robert Duvall, in a supporting role, plays a fellow detective, chewing scenery in one of his few bad performances. It's based upon a book by Roderick Thorp, who wrote a sequel thirteen years later titled Nothing Lasts Forever. That book was later adapted into a film, with some plot changes, and a change in the lead character's name -- to John McClane. Yep, Die Hard is actually a sequel to "The Detective".
2016 WINNER: Sylvester Stallone, in Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot! (1992)
This movie didn't have to suck. An action buddy comedy featuring a mother-son team could have been funny, especially with Stallone and Estelle Getty in the leads. But what would have been funny would be if the mom was a shrewd, smart, street-savvy old broad--you know, like the characters Getty usually played. Instead, they made her the stupidest human being on the planet. She isn't stupid for any comedic reason (her stupidity isn't funny), she's stupid because the writers are stupid. They've created a five minute sketch, and dragged it out into six hours. Oh, wait, it's only 87 minutes. Easy mistake. Sylvester Stallone considers it the worst film he's ever made, describing it as "maybe one of the worst movies in the entire solar system, including alien productions we've never seen".
NOTABLE ALSO-RAN: Charlotte Rampling in Zardoz (1974)
It's possible that Orca was Rampling's worst film, but that was just a dumb Jaws ripoff, while Zardoz is uniquely bad. It might also be one of the most entertainingly bad movies I've seen. Every frame of it is insane. This is also Sean Connery's worst film, for reasons that are obvious when you see the wardrobe.
2017 WINNER: Isabelle Huppert, in Heaven's Gate (1981)
This expensive, expansive Western epic ipecac is one of the most notorious bombs of all time. It actually bankrupted a studio. Over the years, it's been cut and recut, so I have no idea which version I actually saw. Presumably, there's a version that's actually good, but I have no desire to see every version to find it. One viewing of this incoherent mess was enough.
The movie that put the "Dim" in "Dimmesdale". To say they took liberties with the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel is an understatement. They turned it into Hester After Dark. An actual porno film would have been more honest, and we'd know what the "A" stood for.
SHOULD-HAVE ALSO-RAN: Christopher Plummer in Starcrash (1978)
We're all saddened by the recent passing of Christopher Plummer, a consistantly fine actor with a career that spanned seven decades. When he received an Oscar nomination for All The Money In the World (becoming, at the age of 88, the oldest actor to be nominated), it hadn't occurred to me he had a movie worthy of a SKELLY. But I had not seen Starcrash. In fact, I never even heard of it until I watched the recent revival of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and it was used in one episode. It's a space opera, featuring an intergalactic pirate (Carol Munro, whose wardrobe consists mostly of bikinis), her trusty sidekick (Marjoe Gortner, whose hair upstages him), and a robot that for some reason speaks with a redneck accent. Along the way they meet the Prince of the Galaxy (David Hasselhoff. DAVID HASSELHOFF?) Christpher Plummer plays the prince's father, the Emperor of the Galaxy. He comes off a bit more dignified than the rest of the cast. I'm not sure if he's good, or it's just that the rest of the cast is so embarrassingly bad that his no-nonsense proffessionalism just makes him seem better by comparison. What I am sure of is that Starcrash is the lamest Star Wars ripoff ever. If action figures for this thing exist, owners can remove them from their original packaging, secure in the knowledge that a decrease in value would be mathematically impossible.
2019 WINNER: Richard E. Grant in Hudson Hawk (1991)
I considered canceling the SKELLY Awards that year, because it was basically a two-movie race (the other one being the lame Glenn Close vehicle Maxie) But, having avoided seeing Hudson Hawk for nearly 30 years, I finally watched it solely for the column. No way would I endure such an exhausting, mind-numbing experience, and have nothing to show for it. Richard E. Grant, who played one of the movie's villains, detailed his experiences on the film in his autobiography With Nails. According to him, star Bruce Willis kept adding new ideas and re-writing the film during production, which explains why the movie went way over budget. It also explains why the plot is so incoherent, and there's no continuity. Or, as Grant put it, "It was a stinking pile of steaming-hot donkey droppings" .
He was being kind.
2020 WINNERS: Al Pacino in Cruising (1980) and Tom Hanks in Mazes and Monsters (1982) [tie]
"Cruising" is the only movie on this list to have been picketed by a minority group. No, not film critics, though that would make sense. The LGBT community took offence to it, with good reason. Today, images of gay characters have become so mainstream that last December, there were four holiday films featuring gay couples (played by openly gay actors). But in 1980, a movie about an undercover cop (Pacino), tracking a serial killer targeting gay men who frequent leather bars, was one of the few movies to feature any segment of the LGBT community, and it confirmed everyone's worst assumptions. Controversy aside, Cruising is nothing more than a big-budget slasher flick, but the plot makes less sense, and nobody in it looks like they ever used deodorant. In their life.
From the opening, with a dribbly ballad dumped over the credits like syrup, to the WTF?? ending, Mazes and Monsters made me laugh harder than Carbon Copy, She-Devil, Death To Smoochy, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot and Hudson Hawk combined. Too bad it's not a comedy, but a cautionary tale. It centers on a group of college students who play a role-playing game, "Mazes and Monsters" (a stand-in for "Dungeons and Dragons"), According to this movie, RPG's are a gateway drug to LARPing, which leads to mental illness. Tom Hanks' character, Robbie, loses all touch with reality and begins to believe he's a character in the game. This is presented as real danger. He's like that guy in Reefer Madness who winds up being committed to a mental institution for the rest of his life. If Tommy Wiseau adapted a Jack Chick tract into a feature film...no, even that wouldn't be as ridiculous.
I hope you've all enjoyed this annual column. I'll leave you all with one final note: I have a confession to make. I've seen every one of these movies...except one. In one case--and only one case--I bluffed having seen it. I meant to, but couldn't get hold of a copy in time for the column, but was confident that it was awful enough to decalre it the winner anyway. The first person to correctly guess which one it is...won't win anything, but will have the satisfaction of being a really fast guesser. And really, isn't that reward enough?