On paper, “Serena” should have been something arriving in theaters with a great splash. With an Oscar-winning prestige director in the shape of Susanne Bier, it’s the adaptation of an acclaimed novel that once attracted the attention of Darren Aronofsky and Angelina Jolie. It has some stunning production value and lavish period costumes and sets, and features two of the world’s biggest and most lauded stars: Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence, and three-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper, coming off mega-smash “American Sniper.” And yet the film slinks into limited release this Friday, having debuted on VOD a few weeks back.
If you’ve seen it there, or on its release elsewhere in the world, or even just read our review from last year, you’ll know there’s a reason for this: it’s terrible, overwrought, incoherent and uneven. It could probably pass for an unintentionally funny melodrama parody, a la “The Spoils Of Babylon,” if it wasn’t so damn boring. And somehow, it manages to miscast and misuse two stars who haven’t otherwise placed a wrong foot for the last half-decade.
But Mr. Cooper and Ms. Lawrence should take comfort not just in their trophy cabinets full of awards, millions of dollars and own reflections, but also in that they’re far from the first terrific actors to have appeared in a project that was a complete disaster. Every actor worth their salt has either been in a catastrophic trainwreck that they gave a typically good performance in, or a catastrophic trainwreck that they gave an uncharacteristically terrible performance in, and so to mark the release of “Serena,” we’ve picked ten of the finest, most lauded performers in the history of American cinema, and then picked their ten darkest hours. Take a look below, and let us know your least favorites in the comments.
Al Pacino & Robert De Niro — “Righteous Kill” (2008)
The first time Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, arguably the two most acclaimed actors of their generation, were in the same film, they didn’t share screen time, or even a timeline, but the result was still the instant classic “The Godfather Part II.” The second time, in Michael Mann’s “Heat,” they only acted opposite each other in a pair of scenes, and nevertheless made cinema history in another crime classic. So “Righteous Kill,” which featured bounteous screen time between the two legends, was surely going to be the best film ever made, right? WRONG. Penned by “Inside Man” writer Russell Gerwitz and directed by “Fried Green Tomatoes” helmer Jon Avnet, the thriller (which sees De Niro and Pacino as cops investigating a vigilante serial killer known, hilariously, as Poetry Boy, who may or may not be a cop, and is almost certainly one of them) is a thunderingly stupid, wildly derivative, and completely boring picture. While it’s not quite the worst film either has made, it comes pretty close, and feels all the more egregious for being a long awaited reteam post-“Heat.” The writing’s cheap enough that the identity of the killer is obvious from the off (clue: it’s probably not going to be the one confessing in the opening scene), the film has a total contempt for women, dispatching Carla Gugino’s sole female character through a totally gratuitous rape, and features the two leads being so disengaged that 50 Cent manages to steal a scene from them. What on earth were De Niro and Pacino thinking?…
Ryan Gosling — “Gangster Squad” (2013)
Shaking off his Mickey Mouse Club origins with an astonishing breakthrough performance in “The Believer” and Oscar-nominated aged 26 for “Half Nelson,” Ryan Gosling swiftly established himself as one of the most talented young actors around, and for a while, it seemed like he could do no wrong. Then came Ruben Fleischer’s “Gangster Squad,” in which Gosling and a number of other very fine actors including Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie and Michael Peña, flounder as miscast fish in a shallow, unholy pond that somehow thought it was a good idea to meld “Public Enemies” and “Dick Tracy.” Brolin and Penn play cops (so generically written that they might as well be called Lawman McPolice and Police McLawman. Actually, maybe they were) who assemble an elite squad to take down mobster Mickey Cohen (a prosthetics-aided Penn) in an admittedly immaculate recreation of 1940s L.A. that comes across like a juvenile, cartoonishly violent fantasy better suited to a dim-witted video game than something with this many excellent actors in it. It doesn’t help that Fleischer, who once seemed like a potential talent, makes the whole thing look incredibly ugly. The cast seem to be fully aware, too, with most of them visibly wanting to be elsewhere, but Gosling himself might be the worst case: an anachronistic hipster detective who’s either stoned out of his mind or heavily concussed, it’s an admittedly bold choice that’s nevertheless actively enraging to watch. No wonder that soon after the film’s release, Gosling announced he was taking a break from acting, saying “I’ve lost perspective on what I’m doing. I think it’s good for me to take a break and reassess why I’m doing it and how I’m doing it.”
Viola Davis — “Won’t Back Down” (2012)
Once one of acting’s secret weapons, the great Viola Davis is now a two-time Tony winner, a two-time Oscar nominee (including a nod for “Doubt” for a performance with only ten minutes of screen time), and a huge hit TV show with “How To Get Away With Murder,” which is sure to win her a shelf-full of awards. But like every actor, not every move she makes works out, and Davis’ first move after the huge success of “The Help” helped to make her a household name was “Won’t Back Down,” a deeply lousy cinematic equivalent to a lengthy rant on a darker corner of a forum on a parenting website. Directed by “Cake” helmer Daniel Barnz and financed by Christian propaganda-pushers Walden Media, it sees hip bartending mom Maggie Gyllenhaal teaming with Davis’ principled teacher to attempt to revitalize their failing public school in a mix of inspirational-teacher pic, courtroom drama and a Facebook post from your right-wing cousin. It’s well meaning to a degree — who wouldn’t fight for better education for their children? — but it’s drily didactic at best, and aggressively disingenuous at worst, demonizing teachers unions (as represented by Holly Hunter’s overtly villainous antagonist) to a degree that Wal-Mart would probably think was a bit much. Worse still, despite an excellent and pleasingly multi-cultural cast (also including Ving Rhames, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Lance Reddick, Rosie Perez and Oscar Isaac, as usual the best thing in the film), it just doesn’t work as drama, proving dull and drably made. Happily, the American public agreed: the film has the worst recorded opening for a movie released on more than 2500 screens.
Sidney Poitier — “The Jackal” (1997)
As if needing to add insult to the injury of remaking the freezer-burn chill of Fred Zinnemann‘s 1973 “The Day of the Jackal” into the relentlessly dunderheaded “The Jackal,” director Michael Caton-Jones, clearly casting about for some measure of gravitas, rammed the first ever black recipient of a Best Actor Oscar into this already groaningly overstuffed and tiresome caper. But we can be thankful that, unlike his co-stars Richard Gere and Diane Verona, Poitier’s character is not saddled with an accent he can’t manage (Irish and Russian, respectively) or a series of increasingly frumpy wig-based disguises like Bruce Willis. Willis plays the Jackal, the famous hitman, who Poitier’s FBI head learns has been hired to off a high-value political U.S. target via a laughably elaborate scheme, forcing him to team up with Gere’s inappropriately twinkly IRA assassin, because only he knows this other woman (Mathilda May), and only she knows what the Jackal really looks like under all those wigs. Or something. Interminably convoluted and ultimately anticlimactic though the film is, however, it can’t really tarnish Poitier’s innate grace and charisma, and it did give a host of younger actors the chance to cross “work with Poitier” off their bucket lists (bet you forgot that JK Simmons, Sophie Okonedo, and Jack Black are also in this film). In fact, one of the film’s chief (only?) pleasures is the faint air you can detect in Poitier’s performance of a dignified elder, perhaps a “To Sir With Love“-style schoolteacher, checking back in with the next generation to see how they’re getting on, being gently disappointed that they’ve amounted to so little, but far too polite and gracious to say anything about it.
Julianne Moore — “Seventh Son” (2015)
Norbiting (v.) To have your Oscar chances threatened, or ruined, by having a terrible paycheck movie released during awards voting. e.g. “Anne Hathaway really Norbited her campaign with ‘Bride Wars.’” The impact of this effect — named for Eddie Murphy supposedly sabotaging a “Dreamgirls” win with another fat-suit comedy — has probably been overstated, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t amusing to see it in effect with both of the lead actor winners this year. First, with Eddie Redmayne’s very very quiet and then VERY VERY LOUD performance in “Jupiter Ascending,” and more useful for our purposes, Julianne Moore slumming it in dreadful CGI-drenched fantasy “Seventh Son.” The multiple Oscar nominee and current holder of the Best Actress trophy is no stranger to a paycheck gig — think “Assassins,” “Evolution,” or “Carrie” — but few have felt as grimly unwatchable, or featured the seemingly impossible, a truly bad Moore turn, in the way that this did. One of the many young adult adaptations greenlit in the hope of filling a post-“Harry Potter” hole, and hitting theaters after two years on a shelf and switching studios, the film saw Moore play Mother Malkin, the chief adversary to Jeff Bridges’ witch hunter and Ben Barnes’ mashed-potato-bland assistant. It’s a dreadful film, without an ounce of originality or wit, and swamped with well-designed, but ultimately wearying, CGI creatures. Even the stalwart leads can’t save it: Bridges is exactly as bad here as he is in “R.I.P.D,” and Moore’s pretty much going through the motions, in part because the script doesn’t give her anything to play beyond ‘be evil.’ Still, the Oscar for “Still Alice” a few weeks after the film tanked at the box office probably helped cushion the blow.
Meryl Streep — “She-Devil” (1989)
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why Susan Seidelman‘s “She-Devil,” despite being such a broad and tacky take on Fay Weldon‘s dark, delirious, 1983 revenge tale “The Life and Loves of a She-Devil,” which had been made into a much better BBC miniseries just the year prior, was a modest commercial success. Not only was it the big-screen debut of beloved small-screen sitcom star and stand-up Roseanne Barr, but it was really the first opportunity audiences got to see award-machine Streep, only just over her long “alabaster woman of tragedy” phase, try to be knockabout funny. She really does go for broke in the role of Mary Fisher, the conniving shallow bitch romance novelist who steals Ed Begley Jr.‘s venal accountant husband away from Barr’s dowdy, dumpy housewife. The chief problem with “She-Devil,” though, is also retrospect: never exactly a subtle film, it has aged terribly, and Streep herself would essay comedy more frequently thereafter, with better results, starting with the following years’ “Postcards from the Edge.” It also confirmed director Seidelman’s downward trajectory after the punky fun of her debut, “Smithereens,” and the all-out greatness (and you can quote me on that) of “Desperately Seeking Susan.” While Barr seems best suited to the material, somehow there’s little satisfaction to be gleaned in this version’s altered vision of her character, especially the infinitely less cutting ending. There was apparently a time when Streep considered taking the role of the ugly, cheated-on wife, which might have added some kind of nuance, but as it is now, “She-Devil” just feels one-note, a sour pantomime with no affection for any of its characters. It may still be worth a look as a curio, just for how much Streep commits, but the material is far beneath her talents.
Natalie Portman — “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” (1999)
There are a few examples on this list of the great, Academy-recognized actor in question being a lot better than the film they’re in, but that cannot wholeheartedly be said here. Natalie Portman turned in one of her most unconvincing performances in the prolonged taxation debate/”Star Wars” prequel “The Phantom Menace.” But partially that’s a mark of just how well, at only 18 she had already established herself as a talent. She’s astonishingly good in her feature debut, Luc Besson‘s “Leon,” of course, and solid in softhearted indie “Beautiful Girls,” along with smaller parts in ensembles like “Heat,” “Mars Attacks,” and “Everyone Says I Love You.” But in ‘Phantom Menace’ she looks simply uncomfortable, as do many of the more seasoned actors, like Ewan MacGregor and Liam Neeson, and is Fawced to Tawk in an Annaturally Clipped British Accent, in order to sound sufficiently regal as Padme Amidala, 14-year-old queen of Naboo. Overwhelmed by the elaborate headresses, marbly dialogue, heavy make up, and most of all by the leaden storytelling, Amidala is the polar opposite of the Princess Leia of the originals, whose earthy normalcy and way with a gun and a putdown made Carrie Fisher‘s “Star Wars” Princess so instantly iconic. In a way, though, it’s perhaps in Portman’s favor that ‘Phantom Menace,’ and the subsequent sequels (in which she’s marginally less stiff, being given a burgeoning romance to play), were such thoroughgoing disappointments — it’s hard to believe she would have evolved into such a capable, Oscar-winning actress if, like Fisher, her early career had been overly defined by “Star Wars.” Thankfully for her, if not for the millions of brokenhearted “Star Wars” enthusiasts the world over, George Lucas appeared determined to sully his previously ironclad legacy by churning out three turgid films that all but the most contrarian and diehard of fans would be happy to forget about as soon as possible.
Joaquin Phoenix — “It’s All About Love” (2003)
With his reclusiveness, pickiness over roles, and strong track record over the last few years (working exclusively with top-flight auteurs like Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Jonze), Joaquin Phoenix has built up an almost mythic, Daniel Day-Lewis-like reputation as an actor who can do no wrong. But that’s only in his second, post-faux-retirement phase of his career. Before, he was an actor like any other, one who made movies with M. Night Shayamalan and Joel Schumacher, who voiced Disney cartoon bears, and who appeared in the eminently disposable “Ladder 49.” But the actor’s biggest misfire came in the form of something that should have been an enticing prospect: “It’s All About Love,” the English-language debut of “Festen” helmer Thomas Vinterberg. The film is, at least, more ambitious than most of the rest of this list. A thriller/romance hybrid, the film sees Phoenix as an intellectual who flies to America to divorce his wife, heroin-addicted figure skater Claire Danes, only to become embroiled in a conspiracy involving cloning. Oh, and the world’s plagued by ‘Cosmic Disturbances,’ which see Ugandans levitate randomly, and people fall down dead from a lack of love. Oh, and Sean Penn plays Phoenix’s brother, who has to stay in a plane circling the world after taking too much fear-of-flying medication. Whimsical to the point of nausea, and buried under a heap of metaphor so obvious that they barely qualify as nausea, the film saddles Phoenix and Danes with dodgy accents and borderline-unsayable scripts. It’s the kind of movie that you’d think would be reclaimed by future generations as a cult classic, except you rewatch it and realize that it’s exactly as empty as it appeared first time around.
Jack Nicholson — “Man Trouble” (1992)
For a true screen legend, and one of cinema’s most enduring stars, Jack Nicholson has surprisingly few true disasters on his resume. Sure, he has occasionally underwhelming films, like “The Two Jakes” or “The Evening Star,” or a mediocre “The Bucket List” or “How Do You Know,” but for the most part, Jack’s picks of roles paid off to some degree. The major exception is “Man Trouble,” a baffling romantic comedy that was forgotten almost as soon as it was released. Reteaming Nicholson with both regular collaborator, Bob Rafelson, and their “Five Easy Pieces” writer, Carole Eastman, should have been exciting, given that the 1970 film had provided Nicholson with arguably one of his best roles, but here, the director and writer gave Jack perhaps his very worst. The film teams the star, as Harry, a guard dog trainer hired to provide some protection for nervy singer Joan (Ellen Barkin), who’s been receiving anonymous threats. The idea of a screwball take on the woman-in-peril genre is a pretty skeezy premise for a rom-com to begin with (even before figuring in the near 20-year age difference between the leads), but it would have needed real focus and control to pull off, which is nowhere to be found here. The film lurches between tones drastically (hi, random serial killer sub-plot!), and feels more than anything like a glimpse into an alternate reality where Nicholson’s career fizzled and he ended up on a network sitcom. He’s at least charming, whereas Barkin, given a shrill, unsympathetic character to play, is left adrift. Actively painful.
Katherine Hepburn — “The Iron Petticoat” (1956)
If you judge purely by the number of Academy Award wins (and you shouldn’t, but it doesn’t mean the Academy were wrong), Katherine Hepburn is the greatest actor in the history of the medium, with four Best Actress wins, more than any other performer. But not everything can be a winner, and worse still than late-period, low-rent family film “Olly Olly Oxen Free,” a movie that Hepburn admitted she only did for the chance to ride in a hot air balloon, was 1956’s comedy “The Iron Petticoat,” which teamed the veteran star with comic Bob Hope. It was hardly the most obvious of pairings — even MGM’s trailer for the film called it, “The star team the world has never expected” — and the results suggest there was a reason that Hepburn and the golf-loving gagsmith had never shared the screen before. Anticipating the long-delayed Janet Leigh/John Wayne picture, “Jet Pilot,” and essentially coming across as a riff on “Ninotchka,” it sees Hepburn as a Russian air force captain who lands her plane in a West German U.S. base. Hope is her American counterpart, who’s tasked by his superiors with bringing her over to defect. The making of the film was somewhat contentious: Hope was a last-minute replacement for Cary Grant, and forced changes to Ben Hecht’s script to make his role more prominent, shrinking Hepburn’s in the process, to the extent that Hecht took an ad out in the trades denouncing the finished result. But the finished film doesn’t appear to be one of Hecht’s finer efforts anyway, echoing the earlier Lubitsch picture without escaping its shadow, displaying no chemistry between the two leads (Hope’s much too self-regarding to have chemistry with anyone), and containing very little in the way of laughs.
Honorable Mentions: Let’s face it, almost every actor has at least one monstrosity lurking on their resume somewhere, even the very best, so we could have gone on forever here (and may well return to the subject at some point). But to name but a few, there’s Marlon Brando in the famously awful “The Island Of Dr. Moreau,” Daniel Day-Lewis in duff musical “Nine” (though we ultimately decided the film wasn’t quite bad enough for inclusion), Kate Winslet in eye-rollingly dumb capital punishment drama “The Life Of David Gale,” Tom Hanks in “The Da Vinci Code” and its sequel, Sean Penn in “I Am Sam” (as well as his supporting roles in the films above, and “The Gunman”), Paul Newman in volcano disaster movie “When Time Ran Out,” and Laurence Olivier slumming it in one of his final film roles in as Rudolf Hess in “Wild Geese II.”
Then there’s Dustin Hoffman in “Sphere;” Peter O’Toole in “Supergirl;” Michael Caine in “The Swarm,” “On Deadly Ground,” and “Jaws: The Revenge;” Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in “The Odd Couple II;” Richard Burton in “Klansman;” Jimmy Stewart in “The Magic Of Lassie;” Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in “Virtuosity;” Ingrid Bergman in “From The Mixed Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler;” Bette Davis in “Wicked Stepmother;” Jane Fonda in “Georgia Rule;” Jodie Foster in “The Brave One;” Elizabeth Taylor in “X Y And Zee;” Judi Dench in “The Chronicles OF Riddick;” Sissy Spacek in “Four Christmases;” Cate Blanchett in “Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull;” Susan Sarandon in “The Big Wedding;” Julie Christie in “Red Riding Hood;” Vanessa Redgrave in “Deep Impact;” and Hilary Swank in “The Reaping,” “The Black Dahlia,” “The Core,” and “PS I Love You” (oof). Plus, obviously, Nicolas Cage, Samuel L. Jackson, and Bruce Willis in three out of every four movies they make these days. Any particular favorites of great actors slumming it in terrible crap? Let us know in the comments.
— Oliver Lyttelton & Jessica Kiang