Great performances in bad movies

Posted by · 8:21 am · April 3rd, 2009

Tim Roth in Planet of the ApesIt happens, sometimes when a really fine actor manages to give a brilliant performance in a terrible or weak film, a diamond in the rough. In fact, some of the best actors working have shone brightly in bad films as far back as the 1940s, though I will focus on the 1970s to present day here today.

For whatever reason the respective film fails: perhaps the writing was weak, the direction went horribly wrong, or all the ingredients needed to make a great film, hell even a good film, simply were not there. Yet a single actor did everything right, understood their character, understood the impact they needed to make in their scenes and they give a superb performance despite his or her surroundings.

Look at Bruce Dern in “The Great Gatsby.”  Here we have an exceptional actor in one of the roles of his career.  He WAS Tom Buchanan, elevating every single scene he was in with sheer presence. Jack Clayton’s direction was lumbering, Robert Redford was woefully miscast and Mia Farrow? Please.  (The single burning question we need to ask ourselves is what about Daisy attracts Gatsby when he can now have anyone — she doesn’t appeal on that level.)

Dern radiates the sort of danger Redford needed to have in the role of Gatsby, but is far too good as Tom to even think of him in a different role here.  The lead really should have been Jack Nicholson.  Can you imagine the sparks between him and Dern?

Perhaps one of the best performances ever given in a bad film was Morgan Freeman’s breakthrough in “Street Smart,” portraying a vicious pimp using a journalist portrayed by Christopher Reeve to get off a murder rap without realizing that he too is being used. Freeman is brilliant, all smiles and kindness, the sort of guy you would like to hang out with until his temper flares (to say the least). With just a few moments of screen time he gave an unforgettable performance as Fast Black.

All the major critics groups took note and awarded him supporting actor honors and he got his first Oscar nomination, a rave review from Pauline Kael, and a career.  But the movie wasn’t up to his work.

Remember the Barbra Streisand ego trip “A Star is Born,” in which she transplanted the the story to rock and roll and pop? Streisand and boyfriend Jon Peters bullied director Frank Pierson on set, made life a living hell for most of the cast and crew and turned the film into one big Babs close up. The one thing they did not screw up was the haunted, beaten up performance of the great Kris Kristofferson as rocker John Norman Howard.

From the moment we first see him, arriving late for a concent, his eyes defeated, his body telling us he has had enough, to the final moments on screen, Kristofferson dominates this ego fest with a remarkable performance. The producers initially wanted Elvis Presley for the film but I cannot imagine anyone other than Kristofferson in the role.  A terrible film, a wonderful performance.

Even the greats can steal a film away from the garbage bin. Jack Nicholson was terrific as the labor organizer in “The Last Tycoon,” Elia Kazan’s sleepy adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald work, with Robert De Niro as a thinly disguised version of Irving Thalberg.  While De Niro chooses to portray his character virtually asleep, Nicholson imbues his with a life force so strong he all but blows De Niro off the screen. The role has but a few minutes of screen time, but he steals the film.

Just as Al Pacino did with “Cruising,” a guilty pleasure of mine that I always felt was much better than it was given credit for. William Friedkin turns his lense on S&M and homosexuality, creating instant controversey.  Pacino portrays an undercover cop who goes deep into this world to find a killer, and in the process begins to question his own sexuality.  It is a brave, strong performance in a film that was butchered by the studio and then the critics, rather unfairly I think. Somewhere in there is a fine film, unsettling though it might be, a powerful work and one of Pacino’s more interesting performances.

When challenged by a director or the role Harrison Ford can be an excellent actor. The great Burt Lancaster made it clear that it takes a real actor to portray Indiana Jones because of the sheer presence required for the part, and Ford has always been just that, a real actor. He gave an Oscar-nominated performance in “Witness” and should have been nominated the next year for “The Mosquioto Coast.” As far back as the 1970s however he was quietly stealing films from his co-stars.

In “Heroes,” a goofy film about a Vietnam vet played by Henry Winkler on his way to start a worm farm, Ford portrays fellow vet who misses the conflict because he enjoyed killing. The scenes take place in the latter third of the film and Ford is eerie; you cannot shake him once he is gone. Winkler you wish you could shake, though.  Wretched.

And one more, Tim Roth in Tim Burton’s horrible remake of “Planet of the Apes” as the chimpanzee General Thade, a ferocious character you would not want to cross. Both Roth and Burton did a great deal of research and found that chimps are by far the most agressive and terrifying of the species when provoked and incorporated that into Roth’s amazing performance. Watch how he sniffs out the fear in another character or goes out of his mind when betrayed. A brilliant actor giving a wonderful performance in a grostesque and stupid, stupid, stupid film.

Obviously there are more, and yes I am preparing one for the ladies…yours?

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39 responses so far

  • 1 4-03-2009 at 10:54 am

    Jeff said...

    Don’t forget about Kathy Baker – also in Street Smart. One of the great underrated actresses in recent times. She was breathtaking in Picket Fences.

  • 2 4-03-2009 at 11:04 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    Great call on Tim Roth. His performance was the first thing on my mind after that movie was over, followed by, “Good lord, what a piece of shit.”

    I always thought that Debra Winger’s work in Terms of Endearment was perhaps the finest of her career. Despite my utter disgust at how nauseatingly schmaltzy that film was, Winger did an outstanding job making her character believable and interesting when she had every opportunity to resort to histrionics.

  • 3 4-03-2009 at 11:09 am

    colby said...

    the most recent one that comes to mind for me is Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. He was brilliant. Everyone else was incredibly amateur. Horrible. With cliche storytelling. But Clint was amazing.

  • 4 4-03-2009 at 11:26 am

    Marlowe said...

    I don’t particularly dislike either “Primal Fear” or “The Last King of Scotland”, but I thought Edward Norton and Forest Whitaker, respectively, were both phenomenal performances in otherwise middling movies.

  • 5 4-03-2009 at 11:34 am

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Kathy Bates in Misery. The movie hasn’t aged well at all–but her performance continues to be legend for me.

  • 6 4-03-2009 at 12:35 pm

    chris said...

    Anne Hathaway in “Rachel Getting Married” – A wonderful performance by Anne Hathaway, who is showing a lot of promise as of late in an otherwise awful film.

    Harrison Ford in “Regarding Henry” – Not a awful film, just not a good one either. Harrison Ford was the best thing about this film. He showed a range of emotions, we had never seen him act out on the screen before.

    Michelle Rodriguez in “Girlfight” – A fairly predictable “Rocky” knockoff. But Michelle Rodriguez’s debut performance elevates this by the numbers boxing film. She is just wonderful, its a shame she chooses films like “The Fast and the Furious”, when she has the acting chops to pull off a great performance like the one in “Girlfight”

  • 7 4-03-2009 at 1:07 pm

    John said...

    Well, The great Gatsby is a beautiful and underrated film, and imo Karen Black and Sam Waterston give the best performances in the film. And about good performances in bad films the first name that came to my mind was Ashley Judd and her fascinating performances in Eye of the beholder, Bug and Come early morning; and Jessica Biel is also pretty good in that awful mess named Home of the brave.

  • 8 4-03-2009 at 1:24 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    John — have to disagree my friend about Karen Black’s shrill and wildly over the top performance in “The Great Gatsby” — she looks so ridiculous it is sort of sad, while Dern is drop dead brilliant — agree the film is beautiful, but I do not go to the movies to look at postcards —

    Harrison Ford was pretty damned fine in ‘The Mosquito Coast” as well — thought ‘Regarding Henry” was a tad…contrived? Overly predictable.

    And on Kathy Bates…never did think she deserved the Oscar for “Misery”, believing Anjelica Huiston should have gotten in for her ferocious mom in ‘The Grifters” – the moment that camera moves in on Bates, we know a rant is coming —

  • 9 4-03-2009 at 2:11 pm

    richard said...

    Charlize Theron in Monster.

  • 10 4-03-2009 at 2:17 pm

    chris said...

    Matt Dillion was terrific in the other wise god awful “Crash”. How did that win best picture?

  • 11 4-03-2009 at 2:45 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    “And on Kathy Bates…never did think she deserved the Oscar for “Misery”, believing Anjelica Huiston should have gotten in for her ferocious mom in ‘The Grifters” – the moment that camera moves in on Bates, we know a rant is coming ”

    Two wonderful character actresses — two awesome performances — but Anjelica won for being the best thing about her father’s sucky movie and getting a much deserved Oscar away from an unknown Oprah Winfrey.

    I’m more than pleased Kathy Bates won, it was well earned and deserved — I still get chills from her Rocket Man speech.

    Another thing to think about that year all the winners were character actors not one star won except for Whoopi Goldberg.

  • 12 4-03-2009 at 3:17 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Some of the people here offer some dubious choices to say the least.

  • 13 4-03-2009 at 4:53 pm

    Jester said...

    Klaus Maria Brandauer in Mephisto. Yes, he is the whole movie, which almost diludes you into thinking the film is good. However, Istvan Szabo does not have a handle on the material and the film is quite the mess. It needed the guidance of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Neverthless, Brandauer gave one of the all time great screen performances.

  • 14 4-03-2009 at 6:42 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin in “The Piano.” A grimy, wrongheaded little film, but they are quite extraordinary in it.

  • 15 4-03-2009 at 6:51 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    I like The Piano –the only woman’s POV erotic-drama ever made that I have any respect for.

  • 16 4-03-2009 at 8:00 pm

    Pauley said...

    The Piano is one of the best films ever made. Superb direction, writing music, cinematography, acting….it’s all there.

  • 17 4-03-2009 at 9:03 pm

    Bridgeman said...

    Looking at that photo of Tim Roth, I still can’t believe that Planet of the Apes didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Best Make-Up. Unbelievable.

  • 18 4-03-2009 at 10:08 pm

    Speaking English said...

    ***The Piano is one of the best films ever made. Superb direction, writing music, cinematography, acting….it’s all there.***

    Yeah, including the ugly misogyny masquerading as feminist empowerment. It’s deplorable drivel masked in a sheen of high art.

    Pauline Kael wrote “This movie congratulates its heroine for every damn thing she does.” And she got it right. Manipulative, condescending nonsense.

  • 19 4-04-2009 at 12:32 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    A couple of completely random examples that spring to mind: Brando in “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” Streep and DeNiro in “Falling in Love,” Charlize Theron in “The Devil’s Advocate,” even Jennifer Garner in “13 Going on 30.”

    From last year alone, Michelle Williams in “Incendiary” and Patricia Clarkson in “Elegy” were both the sole redeeming features of otherwise turgid, misconceived films.

    PS. For my money, Anjelica Huston completely deserved her Oscar — but then I wouldn’t describe “Prizzi’s Honor” as “sucky.” And I think Margaret Avery is better than Oprah Winfrey in “The Color Purple.”

  • 20 4-04-2009 at 2:31 am

    eferleahsi said...

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  • 21 4-04-2009 at 5:20 am

    Hardy said...

    I hardly think Dern is notable in The Great Gatsby. That movie was an all-around mess.

  • 22 4-04-2009 at 8:33 am

    Xander said...

    how about Gary Oldman in most movies he’s in

  • 23 4-04-2009 at 9:04 am

    /3rtfu11 said...

    “Yeah, including the ugly misogyny masquerading as feminist empowerment. It’s deplorable drivel masked in a sheen of high art.

    Pauline Kael wrote “This movie congratulates its heroine for every damn thing she does.” And she got it right. Manipulative, condescending nonsense.”

    Dogville – Dancer In The Dark – Breaking The Waves

  • 24 4-04-2009 at 9:50 am

    RichardA said...

    Reese Witherspoon in Vanity Fair.

  • 25 4-04-2009 at 11:07 am

    Speaking English said...

    First of all, I never said those films didn’t do the same thing. I haven’t seen the first two, but “Breaking the Waves” doesn’t. That film is about a woman crippled under her complete and uncompromising devotion to religion. It doesn’t condone what happens to her, it doesn’t trivialize it or contradict it; it just shows it as is, brutally.

    “The Piano” has us root for a woman who’s abused and ends up in an erotic affair with a man who’s a sick, animalistic freak. Not loving. Not passionate. Just ugly. And she ends up living with the guy. Big difference.

  • 26 4-04-2009 at 11:12 am

    Walter said...

    Gene Kelly in Xanadu. Charming, sincere, and at 68, still a hell of a dancer — on roller skates!

  • 27 4-04-2009 at 12:56 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    How about Jack Nicholson in “The Missouri Breaks”? Guilty pleasure of mine — he’s wonderful but I cannot to this day figure out what the hell Brando was doing…and why Arthur Penn let him get away with it.

  • 28 4-04-2009 at 7:41 pm

    Anuj Shelat said...

    A couple of completely random examples that spring to mind: Brando in “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” – very nice choice, guy lodge.

    and, as always mr. foote, i really love your pieces. Brando wasn’t giving a fuck in Missouri Breaks, that’s what he was doing. can’t speak to Penn lol

  • 29 4-04-2009 at 10:25 pm

    Jose said...

    Salma Hayek in Ask the Dust and Lonely Hearts. She is not given enough credit but those two performances were exceptional in so-so movies.

  • 30 4-04-2009 at 10:30 pm

    Jester said...

    Speaking of Brando, what about him in the Wild One. A terrible film, barely fills out its hour and seventeen minute running time, but Brando, given what little he has to work with really produces something extraordinary. Watch the film with the sound off. Watch his eyes. Slight facial gestures. He rarely speaks above a whisper, and in a scene toward the end when he is supposed to sea yea, it barely comes out of his mouth. Every actor around him seems worse than they usually would, because Brando is playing a laconic person, a real person. Everyone else is in hyperbole land.

  • 31 4-05-2009 at 3:46 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I quite like “The Wild One” in a campy way, but Brando certainly had a good track record of elevating godawful material.

    I mean, “Sayonara?” Ugh.

  • 32 4-05-2009 at 8:05 am

    KBJr. said...

    Haing S. Ngor in the plodding, overlong, and pointless “The Killing Fields”

    Tim Curry for his breathtaking and menacing ‘Lord of Darkness’ in the rather odd and slowpaced “Legend”

    Jodie Foster in the run-of-the-mill “The Accused”, a film which should have been a TV movie instead.

  • 33 4-05-2009 at 2:20 pm

    entertainmenttoday... said...

    I agree with Tim Roth in Apes. He was that films juice.


  • 34 4-05-2009 at 4:33 pm

    Sarah said...

    Jackie Earle Haley in Watchmen.
    Ben Foster in The Punisher.
    Peter O’Toole in Troy.
    Helena Bonham Carter in Planet of the Apes.
    Rachel Weisz and Tilda Swinton in Constantine.

  • 35 4-06-2009 at 6:25 pm

    Joe.f said...

    I think marlowe is completely right with picking Ed Norton in Primal Fear. I felt the film was horribly slow and one note without nortons performence.

  • 36 4-06-2009 at 10:50 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Whoa, whoa, whoa…Helena Bonham Carter in Planet of the Apes? She was terrible in that film! Possibly the worst performance of her career. Even she admitted that she “flunked monkey school”, meaning that she couldn’t even get the primate movements right for her part. Tim Roth, meanwhile, had his role down pat.

    Not sure about Ben Foster, either. I forgot he was even in the film, but I’m not knocking the guy since it was pretty forgettable overall. And I would place JEH into the category of “Performances That Elevated Otherwise Mediocre Films”, but I know that this is the safe haven for people who hate Watchmen with a passion so I’m not going to push the issue.

    I’m right there with you on Swinton and Constantine, though. That lady takes androgyny to a whole new level!

  • 37 4-07-2009 at 4:21 am

    John H. Foote said...

    I always thought Ben Foster rocked in “Alpha Dog” — stpuid film, but he knew it and went over the top to make it work, Jon Voight did tha same in “Anaconda” — knew what they were doing was junk but thought, “what the fuck” let’s ramp it up and have some fun — both gave wildly entertaining performances.
    And agree with Bonham-Carter in ‘Apes”…she was dreadful — Roth and Giamatti got it right though….

  • 38 3-25-2010 at 7:46 am

    brittany said...

    i think this book was not all tht good im very piss how they=[ movie end