Like a grisly car accident, it’s hard to avoid staring when a great actor gives a lousy performance in a horrible movie. One recent example is Michael Caine in “Harry Brown,” where the two-time Oscar winner impersonates Charles Bronson’s vigilante from “Death Wish.”
Think Laurence Olivier was immune from awful? You’ve obviously never seen him in “The Betsy,” where his auto tycoon sports an accent that’s equal parts Southern, Midwestern and Martian. Or what about his rabbi in the Neil Diamond remake of “The Jazz Singer”? Oy.
Marlon Brando made a lot of stinkers, though he usually managed to be good -- or at least enjoyably perverse -- even in bad movies. Not so with “The Appaloosa,” where he plays a Mexican-American buffalo hunter trying to recover his stolen horse from a Mexican bandit. The thief appears to have absconded with Brando’s talent, too.
Paul Newman was so mortified by his screen debut as an ancient Greek in “The Silver Chalice” that he later apologized for it in a newspaper ad. He should have done the same for his performance as a soldier in the dunderhead comedy “The Secret War of Harry Frigg.”
Cary Grant, usually the epitome of perfection, bombed as Cole Porter in “Night and Day.” Amazingly, he even looks uncomfortable in a tuxedo. So much for typecasting.
Of course, lousy casting has led to some horrible performances, such as Katharine Hepburn’s heroic Chinese woman in “Dragon Seed” and Steve McQueen’s whistle-blowing doctor in Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People.” McQueen was a man of few words and Ibsen used a lot of them.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is a wonderful character actor and, until I saw him in “Love Liza,” I thought he was incapable of being horrendous. I was wrong.
Robert De Niro is often called our greatest actor but he’s been mugging his way through junk movies for years now. He’s so bad as a Los Angeles cop in “Showtime” that he gets upstaged by William Shatner.
Al Pacino has been more adventurous -- and much hammier -- than De Niro in his acting career. Sometimes the ham is Grade A, like his Satan in “The Devil’s Advocate.” Other times, as in “88 Minutes,” it’s Grade Z. Then there’s “Bobby Deerfield,” where Pacino is a great big blank.
Undeserved Oscar Nod
Sometimes terrible performances get Oscar nominations. Such was the case with Sean Penn’s retarded father in “I Am Sam.” Even with the best of intentions, I can never watch this movie and keep a straight face. Penn scales the heights of method acting -- and proceeds to jump off the cliff.
Meryl Streep went through a dry spell in the mid ‘90s and was never more parched than in “The River Wild,” where she plays Mother Courage on a whitewater raft expedition. Great as she is, Streep was not cut out to be an action star.
Kevin Spacey’s messianic nutcase in “K-PAX” was bad, his messianic grade-school teacher in “Pay It Forward” was worse and his Bobby Darin in “Beyond the Sea” was beyond belief.
When it comes to personal worsts, George Clooney has the right attitude. He rarely misses an interview opportunity to slam his Batman in “Batman & Robin,” a movie that came close to finishing off the franchise.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).