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.
5. Steve Martin for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
OK, this one’s a bit of a stretch. Steve Martin isn’t an acting nominee, indeed he isn’t a nominee at all; he’s already a winner, along with Angela Lansbury and Italian costuming great Piero Tosi, of one of this year’s honorary Oscars (the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award goes to Angelina Jolie this year, by the way).
Out of Martin’s long filmography, it’s hard to find much that’s glaringly bad. Even his duds are mostly polished. The 1996 Sgt. Bilko, though a disgrace to the classic TV show, was less memorably awful than another “Sgt.” Movie, the unholy 1978 Beatles/Bee Gees abomination Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in which Martin mugs his way through “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”
That film is sometimes referred to as Martin’s feature debut, but it wasn’t, quite. He shows up, about 37 minutes in, as a hippie in Bob Einstein’s obscure 1972 spoof Another Nice Mess, with Rich Little and Herb Voland as a Laurel-and-Hardy-esque Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.
4. Chiwetel Ejiofor for 2012
Remember when the Mayan calendar said we were all done for in December of 2012? Hopefully you were smart enough to realize that, with only a precious few years remaining to this world, you had better things to do than sit through Roland Emmerich’s grandly inane epic 2012 (2009), almost certainly the least frightening Doomsday vision ever.
If so, you may not be aware that one of the film’s heroes was a pure-hearted geologist played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, currently stunning audiences as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave. Emmerich’s movie offered Ejiofor quite a daunting acting challenge too: that of unfolding the pseudoscientific babble explaining how the Mayans had nailed it, and planetary alignment and solar eruptions were about to make the earth’s core throw a tantrum.
Ejiofor’s dreary expository duties are probably not what people remember about the film. If they remember anything, it’s the other hero, limo driver and struggling sci-fi writer John Cusack, frantically taking his family to the Santa Monica airport while the surface of the greater L.A. area buckles away just behind the car like a ruined souffl?. Cusack pilots the car around, over or even straight through one collapsing edifice after another, and despite the extravagance of the visuals, the sequence carries absolutely no sense of real danger or threat. It feels, rather, more like an externalization of the emotional state you’re in when you’re running late.
Once Cusack and company’s wild Buster Keaton ride begins, any claim on our authentic eschatological dread simply caves in faster than the earth’s crust. Thus 2012 starts to seem like a sort of an EPCOT Center of the Apocalypse: we see Yellowstone Park destroyed, then Vegas, then Washington D.C., then Rome, and so forth. It isn’t boring, at least not at first, but there isn’t a whiff of horror or pity, or even, really, much variety – as with other thrill rides, the various episodes of ruination start to seem much the same.
It runs out of fun altogether in the climactic scenes, with Ejiofor passionately insisting that there’s room for more people on the international survival ark on which he has a berth, and skunky Oliver Platt taking the con position. This is followed by a long and gruelingly tedious struggle to get the ark’s jammed door closed.
The movie’s major distinction, perhaps, is commercial: As I recall, the very last lines of 2012 are a product placement. Some things even Doomsday can’t destroy.
3. Meryl Streep for Mamma Mia!
This one sets Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgard, Colin Firth, Julie Walters and Christine Baranski gamboling about a Greek island, using ABBA’s hits and near-hits to string together a dopey little musical-comedy plot in which Streep, as an expat American running a hotel, is unsure which of her three old flings (Brosnan, Skarsgard, Firth) fathered her daughter (Amanda Seyfried) 20 years ago and should now walk her down the aisle at her wedding.
Going in, I was pretty sure I’d enjoy it. Watching a bunch of famous actors goofing their way through the finely-crafted pop ballads of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus sounded like fun whether it was good or bad. For a while it was fun, too, just because it’s so campy and shameless and strange, and because Streep, a real trouper, gamely pushes things along by force of her good-humored exuberance.
The dialogue is really insipid, though, even by the standards I was expecting. As the movie drags on, and even tries to get a little serious toward the end, you may find yourself starting to feel embarrassed for the cast members. Also, from time to time the careworn Greek peasants drop their bundles of sticks or whatever and join in as a chorus – a Greek Chorus, but not the good kind – backing up the cavorting of the expats in perfect English. Somehow this has an unsavory, almost minstrel-show flavor; it’s surprising that no Hellenic Anti-Defamation League complained.
2. Matthew McConaughey for Paparazzi
“Awright, awright, awright…”
Glorious though Matthew McConaughey’s classic turn as the easygoing perv Wooderson in Dazed and Confused may be, it’s still remarkable what a varied film career to which he’s gone on. In looking for a low point to his career in contrast to his fine star performance in Dallas Buyers Club, the obvious choice is the lousy Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (released 1994, but shot years earlier), in which he played one of the psycho Texans opposite Renee Zellweger.
But I’m going to narrowly give the honor, instead, to 2004’s Paparazzi, a lame thriller starring Cole Hauser as an action movie star bedeviled by vile paparazzi, the vilest being Tom Sizemore. It gets the nod here only because McConaughey, in his very brief appearance near the end of the film, plays the role of…Matthew McConaughey, congratulating Hauser’s character on his new film Adrenaline Force 2 after the premiere.
Something about this cameo suggests a halfhearted endorsement of the movie, as does Chris Rock’s bit as a pizza delivery guy. Both may well have been favors called in by the producer, Mel Gibson, who turns up himself for a tiny appearance as an anger management patient. What a riot.
OK, time to tear open the envelope…but what shall we call the uncoveted award? The Toppie? The Robbie? The Bottie? Whatever, the honor goes to…
1. Bruce Dern for The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant
Early on, in the ’60s, there were some cheesy biker pictures, and later on, in the ’90s, there was that wretched remake of The Haunting. But none of these, nor a few other low points, can quite compare, in the career of the superb Bruce Dern, nominated this year for his wonderfully taciturn performance in Nebraska, with The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant.
This 1971 shocker features Dern as a mad scientist experimenting with, as you might guess, the transplanting of noggins from one body to another. After success with a monkey, he tries affixing the melon of a raving sexual psychopath (Albert Cole) to the body of a slow-witted but titanically strong giant (John Bloom). This operation is also a success – an incredible success, you might say – but its results prove unfortunate.
This movie isn’t just ridiculous, it’s also highly sleazy and twisted. A year later, AIP released a more agreeable semi-remake called The Thing With Two Heads, with a blaxploitation twist: bigot Ray Milland’s head gets attached to soul brother Rosey Grier’s shoulder. I’ve long felt that an opportunity was missed, during the 2008 election, for a remake featuring Obama and McCain and titled The Thing with Two Heads of State.
Anyway, it should be noted that nasty and unsavory though Incredible 2-Headed Transplant may be, right there in the middle of it is Dern, giving a genuinely good, believable performance as the well-intentioned, utterly self-absorbed whackjob of a scientist. And this is what I keep noticing about this list. Terrible as these movies are, in almost every case – not in DiCaprio’s, but he was still developing – the nominee is the best thing about the flick in question. So I guess there may be a reason that they ended up nominated.
Previously by M.V. Moorhead:
The Top Ten Taxmen in Pop Culture
The Ten Best Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror Novels You’ve Probably Never Read
The Thirteen Greatest Fictional Snails