Yesterday, we talked (with some controversy) about the unwise choices that actors have made after winning an Oscar. Whether out of a desire to cash in, or an ego-driven chase for further acclaim, none were exactly fitting follow-ups. But questionable picks are hardly the sole territory of those who’ve already won Oscars; almost every actor at some point, whether out of desire to put food on the table or hope in a project that turned out to be misplaced, has appeared in a film that they probably came to regret.
And the same is absolutely true of this year’s batch of Oscar nominees. They might have spent the last few months being feted by all and sundry for their current performances, and rightly so, but with a few exceptions, they all have a stinker lurking somewhere on their IMDb page. So, as we head into Oscar weekend, and having already discussed the best of their early roles, it seemed like a good time to highlight some of the embarrassments to help remind every actor that, however bad your last project might have been, the role that could change everything for you might be just around the corner. Read our picks below, and let us know in the comments section if there’s anything you think we should have included.
Bradley Cooper – “All About Steve”
Until “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Place Beyond The Pines” convinced people that Bradley Cooper had real acting chops, he’d mostly worked in commercial fare (“The Hangover,” “The A-Team,” et al.). But probably the most embarrassing of his career is “All About Steve,” the spectacularly misjudged romantic comedy that landed just as Cooper blew up. Released in the same year as Sandra Bullock‘s two mega-hits “The Blind Side” and “The Proposal,” it stars the actress as a kooky crossword writer who goes on a date with Cooper’s Steve Miller. He’s not keen, and bails, but she becomes obsessed, getting fired from her job and stalking him around the country. Presumably originally conceived as a dark “Young Adult“-ish comedy, it’s unfortunately shot and directed like any other glossy, broad romance, which has the effect of making Bullock seem all the more unhinged. Cooper’s not all that much more likable, and has no chemistry with Bullock (which we suppose is part of the point), and the movie’s been hastily buried on his resume as a result.
Daniel Day-Lewis – “Nine”
The man considered by many to be the greatest actor of his generation has been selective in his parts; he’s only credited in eighteen films across a 30-year career and has generally avoided the temptations of the studio paycheck gig (he was pursued heavily to play Moriarty in “Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows,” but never seemed close to taking the offer seriously). But there’s one exception of a sort, and that’s his last role before “Lincoln,” in the musical “Nine.” When Javier Bardem dropped out of the Harvey Weinstein-backed, Rob Marshall-helmed picture, Harvey persuaded Daniel Day-Lewis to step in. The actor’s version of selling out is hardly comparable to most of these here, but he’s still ill-at-ease in the role, his method intensity not proving a great center point for a film that doesn’t really work in general.
Hugh Jackman – “Deception”
Like Cooper, Hugh Jackman has a background predominately in commercial studio movies, most notably as Wolverine in the ‘X-Men‘ franchise, which has worked out well (“X2“), and less so (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine“). But of all the questionable decisions he’s made over the years (“Kate & Leopold,” “Scoop,” “Van Helsing“), the worst might have been “Deception.” Somehow attracting some impressive talent (Jackman, Ewan McGregor, Michelle Williams), the desperately unsexy erotic thriller, directed in a career-ending manner by commercials veteran Marcel Langenegger, finds Jackman playing a lawyer who introduces an accountant (McGregor) to the world of secret sex clubs, in what turns out to be a scheme to embezzle money from an investment bank. We support Jackman stretching himself, obviously, and “The Prestige” proved that his natural likability can be cannily turned against itself, but he’s disastrously miscast in a part that feels like a Michael Douglas reject, and he’s deeply unscary as the villain of a film that wouldn’t even be impressive if you saw it on Cinemax at 4 a.m. Hopefully it’s an experiment not to be repeated.
Joaquin Phoenix – “Ladder 49”
A serious actor to the last, Joaquin Phoenix is another performer who doesn’t just take whatever he’s offered, tending to hold out for work with interesting filmmakers, or at least play a great role. On the rare occasions he’s taken a studio picture, it has tended to be in order to work with a respected director like Ridley Scott or (at the time) M. Night Shyamalan. But the one film he’s made that really does stink of a paycheck is “Ladder 49.” Directed by Jay Russell, the auteur behind “My Dog Skip,” the film’s a treacly drama about firefighters, with Phoenix in the lead role as a fireman trapped in a building who, through flashbacks, fills out his life in the department. Phoenix is, to his credit, the best thing in it, but the film’s terribly by-the-numbers and unchallenging. And a decade on, it more than ever feels like a callous post 9/11 cash-in on the public’s affection for firemen. It’s far from the worst film on this list, and it’s a credit to Phoenix that this is the closest thing to a paycheck he’s ever taken, but it’s still somewhat of a blotch on his record.
Denzel Washington – “Virtuosity”
One of the more sturdy, reliable leading men in Hollywood, you tend to know what you’re getting with Denzel Washington. His films are rarely terrible and, at least since “Malcolm X,” rarely masterpieces, but generally turn out to be watchable, middle-of-the-road programmers with varying degrees of success. “Virtuosity” is certainly made in that mold, but it’s also one of the worst and least successful films Washington has made. Set in the then-future of 1999, it’s one of those mid-’90s films reflecting Hollywood’s deep fear of the Internet and video games. “Virtuosity” features Washington as an ex-cop, put behind bars for killing the man who murdered his family, who must face off against SID 6.7 (Russell Crowe), a virtual reality amalgam of the personalities of the worst 200 serial killers in history who’s escaped into the real world, thanks to reasons the screenwriter’s barely bothered to figure out. It’s a defiantly stupid film, summing up so much of the worst of mid-’90s mainstream cinema, and Washington’s autopilot cop is in an entirely different film than the one Crowe is occupying with his wildly over-the-top scenery chewing.
Jessica Chastain – “Madagascar 3” & “Mama”
Having only broken out in the last couple of years, Jessica Chastain hasn’t had much of a chance to take a giant paycheck (she flirted with, but didn’t take “Iron Man 3“). And while she has done a couple of big studio movies, she’s been lucky in that both have turned out better than they had much right to be. Last summer saw Chastain lend her voice to “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” the latest in the DreamWorks Animation franchise, playing Gia, the Italian jaguar (?!) who serves as the love interest to Ben Stiller‘s lion Alex. Thanks to trippy visuals and an absurd script from Noah Baumbach, it’s easily the best of the series, and Chastain’s good as Gia, demonstrating light rom-com chops she hasn’t had displayed much on screen to date. Then, in January came “Mama,” the Guillermo del Toro-produced film which, while still a January horror, wasn’t a particularly bad example of the sub-genre, and saw Chastain acquit herself well, adding extra texture as the bass-playing girlfriend forced into a maternal role. Hopefully she’ll see this list and abstain from truly cashing out as her career continues.
Jennifer Lawrence – “House at the End of the Street”
Given that Jennifer Lawrence is only 22, and given that her big-budget studio pictures, “The Hunger Games” and “X-Men First Class,” have been relatively palatable, one might assume that the young star hasn’t yet had time to make a real stinker. But one would assume wrong, as anyone who saw last fall’s “House at the End of the Street” would attest. Shot in September 2010 before Lawrence’s first Oscar nomination but delayed by almost eighteen months, the teen-friendly horror stars Lawrence as Elissa, who moves with her mother Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) to a new town, only to discover that terrible murders took place in the house next door, with the only survivor Ryan (Max Thierot) still living there, haunted by the killings his sister perpetrated. OR DID SHE??? The answer would only surprise a person who’s accidentally traveled forward in time from the 18th century and has never seen a movie before, but perhaps more surprising is just how boring the whole affair is. Lawrence is winning enough that she just about makes it watchable, but she’ll have try (or maybe not try) to find a film as terrible as this one down the road.
Naomi Watts – “Dream House”
Like Chastain, Naomi Watts has had reasonable luck when it comes to selling out; even “The Ring” turned out to be a genuinely creepy horror film (contractually-obligated sequel “The Ring Two” less so), and even a film that didn’t work, like Marc Forster‘s “Stay,” is interesting enough not to warrant inclusion here. But 2011’s long-delayed “Dream House” marks the moment when Watts’ luck ran out. The horror/thriller, directed by Jim Sheridan, stars Daniel Craig as a novelist who finds out that his new family home was the site of a terrible murder. A murder which, he soon discovers, in part thanks to neighbor Ann (Watts), he may have been involved with, and he’s committed to an asylum as a suspect of the killings. There are more ludicrous twists to come that will ultimately vindicate him, and while the film flirts with darkness, it isn’t prepared to go the whole way, eventually turning into a sort of terrible, spooky riff on “Sleeping With The Enemy.” The movie (which was heavily reshot) was disowned by pretty much everyone involved, but the premise is so silly that you wonder what they thought they were getting into in the first place, especially Watts, whose part is so thin and generally beneath her talents that it’s genuinely puzzling that she’d sign on.
Best Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin – “The Jerky Boys”
Across his 50-year career, Alan Arkin has taken plenty of jobs to pay the bills, but of late (“America’s Sweetheart,” “Firewall,” “The Change-Up“), he’s managed to do it in tiny roles with a minimum of fuss. But probably the nadir came in the mid 1990s, long before his recent run of acclaim, in “The Jerky Boys,” the big-screen adventure of the once-popular prank callers that nobody in the world asked for. The movie stars Johnny and Kamal, the titular Jerky Boys, as thinly-veiled versions of themselves, two childhood friends from Queens who’ve amused themselves since they were small by making prank phone calls. But one day they end up ringing Tony Scarboni (Vincent Pastore, soon to be Big Pussy in “The Sopranos“), the right-hand-man of mob boss Ernie Lazarro (Arkin). The film’s about as amusing as you’d imagine a feature-length film based around two guys making prank phone calls would be, especially given that Johnny and Kamal are not particularly impressive actors. And while Arkin brings a certain gravitas to his Mafia don, he’s visibly sleepwalking through the role. One suspects if Arkin’s producer character in “Argo” had gotten this script, it’d have gone straight in the bin. For what it’s worth, the film also includes an out-of-nowhere cameo from Tom Jones, singing Lenny Kravitz‘s “Are You Gonna Go My Way” for no particular reason.
Robert De Niro – “Hide And Seek”
The two-time Oscar winner is generally deemed to be back on form with “Silver Linings Playbook,” which has given Robert De Niro his first Oscar nomination in 20 years. Picking the worst film of his career in the last two decades since his last nod (for “Cape Fear“) is a tricky feat; from “Frankenstein” and “The Fan” to “The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle,” “15 Minutes,” “Showtime,” “Analyze That,” Godsend,” “Stardust” and “Little Fockers,” the actor could have filled up this feature on his own. But for us, it’s “Hide And Seek” that takes the prize. The 2005 film, directed by Australian actor-director John Polson (“Swimfan“), sees De Niro play David, a psychologist, who moves to a small town with his daughter Emily (Dakota Fanning) after his wife (Amy Irving) commits suicide. But Emily is clearly disturbed, something that seems to derive from her imaginary friend, Charlie. If, for any reason, you have any desire to see this film (and we recommend that you don’t), look away now: Charlie turns out to be David’s murderous split personality, who killed his wife, and is ready to kill again. It’s about as ridiculous as it sounds, but without the self-awareness of something like the far superior “Orphan,” and it features a performance by De Niro that’s somewhere between disengaged (as David) and just plain terrible (as Charlie). Hopefully ‘Silver Linings’ will mark the end of this kind of film in his career.
Philip Seymour Hoffman – “Patch Adams”
Now that he’s an established Oscar-winner, it’s so rare that Philip Seymour Hoffman takes a studio gig that it feels like something of an event when he does, as with “Mission: Impossible III” or the upcoming “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” But it wasn’t always so. Before he broke out in the late 1990s, the actor was cropping up in questionable fare like “Twister” and “Red Dragon.” Probably the worst such example came in 1998, just as Hoffman was cementing his status with “Happiness” and “The Big Lebowski,” in the form of the deeply awful Robin Williams vehicle “Patch Adams.” The actor plays Mitch, the snobbish roommate of Williams’ title character, who takes against his wacky methods, but is eventually won over by him. Hoffman’s clearly been cast to replicate the same sort of thing he did years earlier in “Scent of a Woman,” and his performance is somewhat shrill, although we suppose that compared to the atrocities going on elsewhere in the film, his scenes serve as something of a relief. Especially when he does what you’re longing to do inside, and shouts at Robin Williams.
Tommy Lee Jones – “Man of the House”
Everyone’s favorite craggy-faced Texan has hardly proven adverse to a paycheck gig over the years (“Batman Forever,” “Captain America: The First Avenger,” the endless variations of his character from “The Fugitive“), but has tended to manage to retain some dignity while he pays for his summer home. Not so with “Man of the House,” a lousy, already-forgotten comedy where Tommy Lee Jones plays a Texas Ranger who goes undercover in a sorority house, disguised as a cheerleading coach, in order to protect a group of girls who’ve witnessed a murder. One can’t deny that there’s a certain degree of inherent comedy in placing Tommy Lee’s deadpan mug amongst a group of cheerleaders, but director Stephen Herek doesn’t have the faith to just let that play out, adding in a backflipping Cedric The Entertainer, half-a-dozen subplots and a rotten script. The result is that, rather than being amused, you simply pity the star.
Christoph Waltz – “The Three Musketeers”
After winning his “Inglourious Basterds” Oscar, Christoph Waltz wasted no time in cashing in, replacing Nicolas Cage as the villain in Michel Gondry and Seth Rogen‘s “The Green Hornet.” But that film doesn’t quite qualify in our eyes. It’s undeniably terrible, but Waltz’s bad-guy-with-a-mid-life-crisis is by some distance the best thing in the film. Much more egregious was a film that came later that year, Paul W.S. Anderson‘s “The Three Musketeers.” The Austrian actor is one of about a dozen villains in the “Resident Evil” director’s ludicrously overstuffed and overcomplex actioner. Playing Cardinal Richelieu (played in previous films by Charlton Heston, Tim Curry and Stephen Rea, among others), Waltz spends the film plotting on the sidelines and essentially setting things up for a sequel that will never happen, as Mads Mikkelsen‘s Rochefort takes on most of the villainy duties. By not really giving Waltz anything to do, any reason to be feared — and crucially, not giving him any decent material to play — it’s a criminal waste of the actor, and as such, much more objectionable than “The Green Hornet.”
Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams – “Leap Year”
Pretty much anyone in their right mind is a fan of Amy Adams, and after Oscar nominations for “Junebug” and “Doubt,” and the success of “Enchanted,” she was finally given the opportunity to lead her own romantic comedy, something you’d think would be a natural fit for the actress. Unfortunately, even her charms couldn’t save “Leap Year,” a toxically laugh-free romantic comedy that proved an unhappy vehicle for the actress. Adams plays Anna, who, fed up with her boyfriend’s (Adam Scott) reticence to propose, heads to meet him in Dublin to propose to him on February 29th. Even putting aside the awful, sexist overtones of the premise (it’s the 21st century, women can propose whenever they want, hell, they might not even want to get married), the film, directed by Anand Tucker, is a train wreck, lurching between slapstick comedy and hand-wringing, tonally discordant drama, all set in a picture-postcard version of Ireland that seems determined to hit every outdated stereotype that you can imagine. Adams is fine, but the movie around her does no favors.
Sally Field – “Legally Blonde 2: Red White & Blonde”
Given that Sally Field essentially broke into movies thanks to “Smokey & The Bandit,” it feels a little unfair to pick on those films, and much more fair to pick on “Legally Blonde 2: Red White & Blonde,” a more recent, and much worse, crime. The quickie sequel to the 2001 comedy that made Reese Witherspoon‘s name, the film sees her girly lawyer Elle Woods fired from her job and heading to Washington to try to pass an anti-animal-testing law, initially aided, and later abetted, by Field’s Congresswoman Victoria Rudd. Whatever charms the original had are greatly diminished the second time around, Witherspoon’s performance more grating than sweet, and the plot virtually nonsensical (it’s kicked into gear because Elle wants the mother of her gay dog to attend her wedding). Field doesn’t help much either, basically sleepwalking through the film and proving to be a pretty unmemorable adversary. In fairness to Field, the film came at a point where it seems like she wasn’t being offered many big-screen roles (it’s the only one of much note between 2001’s equally poor “Say It Isn’t So” and last summer’s “The Amazing Spider-Man“) — hopefully “Lincoln” will change that going forward.
Anne Hathaway – “Bride Wars”
Just as Anne Hathaway started to get real credit from those who’d previously doubted her, thanks to her Oscar-nominated performance in “Rachel Getting Married,” she was hit by the worst film she’s ever made (and yes, that includes “Alice In Wonderland” and “The Princess Diaries 2“). “Bride Wars” (which 20th Century Fox somehow managed to avoid calling “Bitches Be Crazy,” to their credit) sees Hathaway and Kate Hudson as life-long best friends Emma and Liv, who’ve been pretty much obsessed with weddings since childhood. They finally get engaged, and are able to book their dream venues a few weeks apart, but due to a clerical error, discover that they’ve actually been booked on the same day, with neither willing to give in, kicking off an escalating war of attrition. The incredibly mean-spirited and unfunny film manages to bring out the most unlikable aspects of its otherwise charming stars, the very concept of weddings turning two otherwise normal women into furious enemies. A couple of years later, “Bridesmaids” showed that you could tackle this kind of subject matter without being incredibly sexist; as it is, “Bride Wars” may have served as Hathaway’s “Norbit” during her first Oscar run, with Kate Winslet ultimately taking the prize (for “The Reader,” a film that’s arguably actually worse than “Bride Wars”). Good thing a sequel wasn’t coming out this January…
Helen Hunt – “Trancers”
Every actor and actress has an early skeleton in the closet — a cheap action or horror movie that can be dragged up and made fun of once they’ve moved up to bigger and better things. In Helen Hunt‘s case, that’s “Trancers,” a super low-budget film borrowing heavily from “Blade Runner,” “The Terminator” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Starring the clearly-too-old-for-the-part Tim Thomerson as Jack Deth, a police detective in the year 2247 who travels back to 1985, taking over the body of his ancestor, to track down an evil genius who can turn other people into “trancers” — zombies, it’s a very silly (but just self-aware enough) B-movie with a ridiculously complex plot, and more imagination than money. Hunt plays Leena, an unconvincing punk rocker whose boyfriend Phil is Jack’s ancestor, and she gets to kick some ass, and generally do none of the things we associate with the actress. Five sequels of diminishing returns followed, but Hunt only made it to the second one, which was probably for the best.
Ineligible: Three of the acting nominees have, so far, managed to escape the curse of the paycheck role. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” marks nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis‘s first film, so she’s not had the opportunity to do much else yet, though there’s the worrying prospect of her starring role in the “Annie” remake on the horizon. Australian actress Jacki Weaver has been a theater actress for the bulk of her career, and while her American roles to date haven’t always top-of-the-tree, she’s mostly chosen wisely (though upcoming horror “Haunt” is more concerning). And from what we’re aware of Emmanuelle Riva‘s career, the actress doesn’t seem to have taken anything particularly awful, though our Gallic readers may put us straight on that one.