It's worth remembering that even those who have scaled such showbiz heights that their hot sweaty palms are within grabbing distance of the Little Golden Man have often paid their dues in the grungy trenches of exploitation, or made missteps even after they became stars. So on the occasion of the 86th annual Oscars this coming Sunday, let's pause to remind ourselves of the stinkers from earlier in the careers of this year's crop of nominees.
By the way, I've limited myself, with one exception, to acting nominees. It seems a bit petty to use the fact that, say, Chris Burdon is nominated this year for Sound Mixing on Captain Phillips as an excuse to point out that he also worked on Basic Instinct 2.
Anyway, the nominees for Worst Picture by a 2014 Oscar Nominee are:
10. Leonardo DiCaprio for Total Eclipse
Many viewers were so offended by The Wolf of Wall Street that they might name it, out of DiCaprio's credits, as the candidate for this list. It struck me as odd that a Scorsese movie full of drug use and violence somehow seemed to outrage people's sensibilities more than all those Scorsese movies full of assault, torture and ghastly murder.
In any case, there can be little doubt that DiCaprio has grown into a far more mature and substantive movie star than many of us could ever have predicted from his child actor or teen heartthrob days. He did go through some growing pains onscreen, however, a stretch of work - it might be called his Basketball Diaries period - where his voice had a pulling, screechy, cat-having-sex sound that required indulgence on the part of audiences. One of these performances marred Sam Raimi's otherwise enjoyable faux-spaghetti western The Quick and the Dead, for instance.
But this phase utterly destroyed Agnieszka Holland's 1995's Total Eclipse, about the tempestuous relationship between the 19th-Century French symbolist poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, played by DiCaprio - not a bad likeness for the surviving pictures of Rimbaud - and David Thewlis respectively. Rimbaud and Verlaine were authentically great poets, but the film's depiction of their absinthe-fueled, despicable behavior will make it hard for you to care, and DiCaprio's grating whine may leave you wishing for a couple of belts of the Green Fairy yourself.
9. Amy Adams for Serving Sara
Back when Hollywood thought Matthew Perry was a movie star, one of his several efforts to dissuade them was this limp 2002 comedy, in which he played a process server who gets caught up in the intrigues between an estranged husband and wife (Elizabeth Hurley and Bruce Campbell). The movie didn't leave much of an impression, but one supporting player did: Amy Adams as Campbell's gold-digging mistress.
Not only does Adams, nominated this year for American Hustle, show poise and confidence in this relatively early role, she also manages an impressive physical feat. Or, at any rate, she seems to manage it - it could perhaps have been computer-generated.
8. Jared Leto for Urban Legend
His excellence in Requiem for a Dream and a few other films notwithstanding, an Oscar nomination for Jared Leto was not something I saw coming. First of all, while by no means untalented, Leto has never struck me as an terribly dynamic screen presence. "I found a picture of Jared Leto in her drawer once," says the heroine's sister in 10 Things I Hate About You, "so I'm pretty sure she's not harboring same-sex tendencies." Maybe not, but Leto's curiously passive, almost recessive quality - which made him perfect for Requiem - might suggest that's she's not exactly into the strong, commanding types, either.
Secondly, for the last several years, prior to his touching, ethereal performance in Dallas Buyers Club, Leto hasn't been a screen presence at all. He's been a screen absence. He walked away from movies to focus on music.
Choosing a low point for his career, one is tempted by the disjointed 1997 thriller Switchback. But I think it's edged out by Urban Legend, a flat, frightless, not very witty Scream knockoff of 1998. The premise was that somebody was bumping off the attractive cast members not, as in Scream, by self-consciously using the tropes of the slasher movie, but rather by lethally re-creating famous urban legends. This wore pretty thin pretty fast, but there wasn't anything very wrong with Leto's nice-guy performance in the lead.
The movie did, incidentally, spawn a (Leto-less) 2000 sequel, Urban Legend: Final Cut, which by comparison made the original look like a lost work by Ingmar Bergman or something.
7. Bradley Cooper for Midnight Meat Train
Back in 2008, before he was declared the Sexiest Man Alive, before his nominations for the entertaining American Hustle and the overrated Silver Linings Playbook, before The Hangover and its sequels, Bradley Cooper ran afoul of the "City Fathers," the cannibalistic mutants who dwell at the end of the New York subway line serviced by the Midnight Meat Train. Director Ryuhei Kitamura's very silly movie, based on a very creepy short story from Clive Barker's Books of Blood, received only a limited release to a few secondary market screens along the express line to DVD. Nonetheless, it has its admirers, among them Barker himself, who called it "beautifully stylish" and "scary."
I'll grant Barker stylish, even entertaining in its corny way, but - unlike his unnervingly matter-of-fact, convincing tale - not a scene of the movie scared me, wimp though I am. Cooper is the leading man, by the way, but his character is far less memorable than his costar Vinnie Jones as "Mahogany," the malignantly glowering meat supplier.
6. June Squibb for Atlas Shrugged: Part I
Despite the urgent and heartbreaking work of the probable and deserving winner Lupita Nyong'o, if I were voting this year my vote for Best Supporting Actress would go to June Squibb. She's a delight as Bruce Dern's blunt, unfiltered wife in Nebraska, but aside from that, how many more chances at an Oscar is she likely to have?
Squibb, now 84, was in her sixties when she started film acting. Her solid list of credits includes a short but memorable role in an earlier Alexander Payne movie, About Schmidt, as title-character Jack Nicholson's cranky wife. But her resume also includes a role in one of the worst feature films in decades, Atlas Shrugged: Part I.
This 2011 adaptation of some of Ayn Rand's 1957 magnum opus is about an abrupt disappearance, in the near future, of society's "prime movers"--the inventors, innovators, independent business tycoons and so forth. The author's view is that if such people were to one day take their marbles and stalk off in a huff, the rest of us parasitical mediocrities would curl up in the fetal position and everything would fall apart.
While I freely admit that I find Ayn Rand's ideology loathsome and her daddy-issue-fueled prose style laughable, I honesty thought that Atlas Shrugged: Part I might be an exciting movie, as was the glamorous 1949 version of The Fountainhead, with its possibly even stupider and more odious premise. But while there are a few pretty aerial shots of desert landscape, a cool-looking suspension bridge design and a rousing musical score in the manner of a '70s disaster movie, Atlas Shrugged: Part I is otherwise about as amateurish and tedious to sit through as any fiction film I can remember. Sit through it I did, but I must confess I don't remember Squibb's role, or whether it should be added to the movie's short list of virtues; alas, it's possible that I nodded off during her scene.