The Nobel Prize-winning philosopher Bertrand Russell probably said it best: “Vanity is a motive of immense potency.” Of course, it’s doubtful that Lord Russell had Hollywood in mind when he came up with that keen insight, even though it fits the creative community like a Prada glove. It’s obvious that the perks of fame and fortune are many, but nestled among those benefits is an insidious one that’s frequently overlooked and can lead to ridicule, and perhaps, even ruin. No, it’s not access to the best in drugs, women or debauchery. It lies in that invisible transformation whereby friends and handlers suddenly morph into sycophantic “yes-men.”
As insidious as it is ubiquitous, this inevitable by-product of showbiz success convinces a distressing number of actors, writers and directors that every idea that springs from their brow is infallible. That the world will breathlessly embrace any product of their imagination, even those that should have been strangled in the crib of creativity before ever being allowed to take form. It manifests itself in singers who think they can act, actors who think they can direct, and directors who think they’ll be replacing God on the next go-round.
Film history is littered with the carcasses of such endeavors. Those egregiously awful attempts at which one can only marvel and ask the eternal question: “What the fuck were they thinking?” With that query front of mind, we salute thirty of the most misguided, self-delusional and just plain wretched achievements of the last half-century (give or take a few years).
AFTER EARTH (2013)
Please welcome the newest member to the club! Not content with having been arguably the world’s biggest movie star over the past ten years, Will Smith decided to try his hand at storytelling. Bad move, Fresh Prince. Smith came up with the idea for this futuristic tale of a father and son stranded on a ravaged Earth, as a starring vehicle for himself and his son, Jaden. When you have made as much money for Sony as Smith has over the years, who was going to tell him no? Certainly not writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, who was probably just glad to get out of Director Jail. Blistering critical reception and anemic box-office receipts have pretty much assured the film future notoriety, and while the Smiths will not doubt survive, it looks like Shyamalan’s parole will be revoked.
THE ALAMO (1960)
In the late ’50s, John Wayne, one of the biggest stars in the world at the time, convinced United Artists that a sprawling saga about the 1836 Battle of the Alamo was what America needed, and they obliged. The Duke took the reins as producer, director and star, and the result was a bloated three-hour-and-twenty-two-minute history lesson from a right-wing point of view. Historical accuracy gave way to polemics, and based on its poor performance at the box office, most of America agreed. If it was released today, Fox News would declare it one of the best films ever made, it was that myopic. Even so, Wayne recovered and won an Oscar nine years later, but would direct only one film after that, the equally politicized The Green Berets, in 1968.
AT LONG LAST LOVE (1975)
With three successes to his name (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, What’s Up Doc?), director Peter Bogdanovich had Hollywood at his feet in the mid-’70s. He started out as a film historian, and his love of cinema surely influenced his decision to make a musical built around the tunes of Cole Porter. He couldn’t have made a worse choice. With a cast led by those renowned singers Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepherd (Bogdanovich’s girlfriend at the time), At Long Last Love is a classic example of what happens when a filmmaker thinks he cannot fail. And fail Bogdanovich did, so much so that he took to sending out a letter of apology to American newspapers — which only served to underline his megalomania. It wasn’t his Waterloo, but it came damn close.
BATTLEFIELD EARTH (2000)
Okay, mentioning this is easy pickings, but then again, what list would be complete without it? John Travolta’s attempt to get the Scientology message out to the masses had long been a pet project, but like some pets, it should have been put down. J.T. starred and produced this incomprehensible sci-fi dross about a futuristic rebellion against oppressive captors, but its utter failure in every technical and creative way imaginable have made it a punching bag for years to come. Some reputations are well-deserved. This is one of them.
BEYOND THE SEA (2004)
Kevin Spacey was born to play Bobby Darin. Unfortunately, he waited too long to do it. A biopic based on the life of the legendary singer, who died tragically at thirty-seven, had long been a passion project for the two-time Oscar winner. Even back as far as 1994, however, Spacey was considered too old for the part. Ten years later, when he finally got to do it, things weren’t any prettier. The film was a true labor of love. Spacey wrote, directed and produced it —if only he had recast the lead. The failure to do so sunk the entire enterprise. He had zero chemistry with Kate Bosworth as Sandra Dee, and their age difference edged into creepiness. Nothing about the film works, an outcome that rests squarely on Spacey’s aging shoulders. Sometimes finally getting what you wish for isn’t a good thing.
After Bo Derek became America’s most wanted double-digit desire in 10, her husband, John, took it upon himself to continue to exploit her beauty in three lamentable films he directed (this, Tarzan the Ape Man and Ghosts Don’t Do It), and in the process killed any chance at respectability for her. Derek’s risible story of a young beauty traveling the world to decide who gets her virginity, and his hilariously pretentious stab at erotica, make Zalman King seem like Ingmar Bergman. He also contributed the gauzy cinematography, making him a true renaissance man. Or not. But pimping your wife out onscreen to try and save a failed career isn’t just vain; it’s grounds for divorce.
THE BROWN BUNNY (2003)
Perhaps everyone has been looking at this notorious film the wrong way all this time. Vincent Gallo actually got someone to give him $10 million to write, direct, produce, star, edit and shoot what looks like a home movie — and had an Oscar-nominated actress (Chloë Sevigny) perform unsimulated fellatio on him on camera. And he’s to be condemned for this? In some corners, he’d be hailed as a genius! Rarely has one man worn so many hats — except maybe Ed Wood, who might be the only one who could appreciate this mind-numbing exercise in navel-gazing. The thimble-deep story: Gallo is a motorcycle racer on a cross-country journey, meeting different women along the way; his final stop is a visit to his one true love. Given the level of self-absorption, it’s surprising that it didn’t turn out to be Gallo meeting himself.
Blame Gore Vidal. When financing for his screenplay about the decadent Roman emperor fell through, he got in touch with skin-mag magnate Bob Guccione, who wound up bankrolling and producing the project. The result was porn-meets-Masterpiece Theater, with Penthouse publisher Guccione directing and (ahem) inserting hardcore sex scenes in a movie starring legends such as John Gielgud, Helen Mirren, and Peter O’Toole. The whole enterprise basically became about Guccione trying to gain legitimacy, all while still directing traffic to his mainstay business of skin. Colossal in its excess and depravity, Caligula is a train wreck of jaw-dropping proportion. The making of it would be a great film but the original has to be seen to be believed.
COOL AS ICE (1991)
Who couldn’t see this coming? You give a shot at movie stardom to Vanilla Ice, a man whose fifteen minutes of fame were over before the first yell of “Action!” was called? But the movies will always be a lure for musicians, who inevitably follow the sirens’ call straight onto the jagged rocks of humiliation. Ice Ice Baby played a rapper that…oh, who cares? The tissue-thin story tried to pass him off as a musical Brando, and the more he emoted, the more hilarious it became. Amazingly, it was shot by Janusz Kaminski in his first studio film, just two years before he won an Oscar for Schindler’s List.
CUTTHROAT ISLAND (1995)
Another sterling example of why husbands and wives shouldn’t work together, this legendary flop torpedoed Geena Davis’s career thanks to then-hubby director Renny Harlin swearing he could turn her into an action star. With the success of Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger as bargaining chips, Harlin pretty much got what he wanted to make this pirate saga, including a budget that spiked to nearly $100 million dollars. But when you’re hot you’re hot, and no one told Harlin any different…that is, until the film opened, and the positive reviews could be counted on one hand and the gross with simple math.
FALLING FROM GRACE (1992)
It’s one thing for a musician to make an acting debut, but to make his directing debut with the same film is just cruising for a bruising. Just ask John Mellencamp, who crashed and burned despite working from a Larry McMurtry script. Mellencamp’s vanity was on full blast in this meandering story about a famous singer (surprise!) returning home for his grandfather’s birthday. Old wounds are open and many feelings hurt. But the film just sits there, with Mellencamp showing nominal charisma as a lead, and even less as a storyteller. The biggest surprise of all was the blandness of the soundtrack, something you’d figure he would at least get half right.
FREDDY GOT FINGERED (2001)
Between 1999 and 2000, shock comedian Tom Green had a hit with his self-titled MTV show, got engaged to Drew Barrymore and was riding high in the Hollywood firmament. So a film would be next, right? Not just any film, but one he’d write, star in and direct! That’s how things work in Hollywood when you acquire a patina of heat. The result was a ninety-minute gross-out comedy that gave new meaning to the word “abhorrent” in telling the tale of a wannabe cartoonist and his attempts to become famous. If you ever need an example of why letting talent think they’re auteurs is just bad business, this is a case study if there ever was one. Hell, almost all of these are!
FUNNY PEOPLE (2009)
Technically, just about every Judd Apatow film could be termed a vanity project, what with his hermetically sealed worldview and continual casting of family members. This Is 40 worked, but Funny People sure didn’t. And then some. There’s nothing more galling than watching a narcissist trying to be sincere, and in telling the story of a comedian (Adam Sandler) who becomes deathly ill, only to recover, Apatow tries to straddle the line between crass and sentimental. It’s truly a horrific sight, filled with unfunny humor, scenes that never end and the sinking feeling Apatow will not let you go until you submit to his toxic brand of curdled comedy.
GIVE MY REGARDS TO BROAD STREET (1984)
Maybe Paul McCartney really did die in the ’60s. How else to explain this non-film that stars the former Beatle, playing (get ready for the stretch) himself! Macca’s master tapes have been entrusted to an ex-con who has now vanished. That’s it for story; the rest of this is an excuse to shoehorn in lots of McCartney and Beatle songs. Normally that wouldn’t be a bad thing, but that’s what CDs and concert films are for. Clearly grasping for some of the magic from A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, this fails in every way, making Sir Paul look wan and disinterested at the same time. Positives — it gave us “No More Lonely Nights” and one of the very first appearances by Tracey Ullman.
No list of abortive singer-turned-actor starring debuts, would be complete without this fiasco. Intended as a vehicle to break Mariah Carey as a movie star, it instead became a year-long punch line. Carey might have a five-octave voice, but her performance as a burgeoning singer was strictly one-note and garnered her a Razzie for worst actress. Trotting out every hoary cliché about the music business imaginable, Glitter isn’t just one of the worst music-themed films ever — it’s one of the worst films ever made, period. Unbelievably, Fox, the studio that released it, repeated the same debacle two years later with the D.O.A. From Kelly to Justin, as they turned singers Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini into box-office road kill. Dear Fox, please make a movie with Justin Bieber.
THE GREEN HORNET (2011)
After passing through many hands over the years on its way to getting made, The Green Hornet finally morphed into a Seth Rogen slob comedy that — oh, yeah — also happened to be about a masked crime fighter. In addition to acting, Rogen co-wrote and executive produced the film, tailoring it to his well-worn penchant for bromance high jinks, with little regard for the original source material. Worse yet, it wasted the talents of director Michel Gondry, because in a Seth Rogen film, dick jokes always take center stage. With your eyes closed, you wouldn’t be able to differentiate this from any previous — or, for that matter, subsequent — Rogen outing, he’s become that repetitive and predictable. The fact that he trashed a potentially viable franchise just shows the power an actor can wield with a couple of successes in the vault. There oughta be a law.
Since Quentin Tarantino has carried the mantel as Harvey Weinstein’s golden boy, he’s been given carte blanche. That entitlement, however, came back to bite Weinstein in the butt, big time, with this financial calamity. The mere idea of giving Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez nearly $70 million to make two B-movies probes new depths of illogic. If you’re going to ape a particular style, why not stay true to the genre’s roots? All this came about because of the pair’s love of ’70s exploitation, but Tarantino’s Death Proof is 90 percent talk and 10 percent action, an indulgent miscalculation that would’ve caused real grindhouse crowds to burn theaters down in protest. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is a little closer to the real thing, but still fairly incompetent in its own right. It’s one thing to pay homage, but when the mock trailers get a better reaction than the features, you know you’ve missed the mark.
HARLEM NIGHTS (1989)
It should’ve been a match made in heaven, with Eddie Murphy finally getting the chance to co-star opposite his idol, Richard Pryor. Unfortunately, Murphy also took on the extra duties of writing and directing this period vehicle that, despite great costumes and sets, wound up being not just ugly and unfunny, but downright misogynistic. The story about cons and criminals set in 1938 New York apparently didn’t hold much sway over Murphy, who basically played this like one of his modern-day standup routines. He clearly couldn’t be bothered by such niceties as believability, as he was the King of Comedy at the time. Someone just didn’t have the heart to tell him that this just wasn’t funny — or good.
HEAVEN’S GATE (1980)
Armed with two Oscars for directing and producing The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino convinced the powers-that-be at United Artists that his dormant screenplay about the Johnson County War of 1890 was his next masterpiece. They basically gave him a blank check, and $44 million later (a beyond-belief sum at the time), he delivered a torpid, nearly four-hour opus that eventually was hacked down to two-and-a-half hours for release. It didn’t help. Cimino’s cost overruns and obsessive set behavior are the stuff of legend, leaving a passive studio twisting in the wind. Excoriating reviews and a dismal box office helped cement the film’s ignominious fate. UA suffered irreparable harm as major player, and Cimino’s reputation as a world-class filmmaker never recovered. A textbook study in what happens when you give a director free rein to realize his “vision.”
JACK AND JILL (2011)
When do you know you’ve reached rock bottom with Adam Sandler? If we’re being honest, it’s still an unfolding process, but for now, this will do. Sandler wrote, produced and does double duty playing L.A. ad-man Jack and, in drag, Jill, his irksome visiting twin sister. Beyond the dual-roles gambit, it’s redolent of virtually every dumb Sandler comedy, full of insipid humor, mean-spirited and more than a little cruel toward women. He’s become so increasingly outlandish, it’s almost as if he’s reached a point where he’s daring his home base of Sony to tell him “no.” The fact they allowed him to play his twin sister — rather than, say, his twin brother —confirms that the execs will roll over for anything where Sandler is concerned. And why not? After all, it made money. Weep for humanity.
THE LADY IN THE WATER (2006)
It’s almost cruel to pick on M. Night Shyamalan again when he’s already flat on the canvas, but then again, one only needs to remember the pain he put audiences through with basically everything post-Sixth Sense. Add to that the hubris he showed during the making of this film —not to mention the final product itself — and he deserves to be turned into a human piñata. Forget the clashes with Disney, which are legend, it’s the complete arrogance of the filmmaking, which includes Shyamalan casting himself as a visionary writer, and the killing of a film critic character. No wonder the book on the making of this was titled The Man Who Heard Voices. Yes, and if you listened closely, they were saying, “You’re finished.”
THE LAST MOVIE (1971)
After rocking the Hollywood establishment (and box office) by directing and starring in Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper was welcomed with open arms by studios hell-bent on making some of that counterculture magic happen for them. Universal wound up being the winner (or loser) by letting Hopper shoot this long-gestating project in Peru. That was the last they saw of him for a year. The story is a murky, nearly incomprehensible mess about reality vs. fiction as a stunt coordinator (Hopper) helps out with locals in a village. It might’ve been clear to Hopper, but not to anyone else. The antics that went on during the making of it were the real story.
THE MIRROR HAS TWO FACES (1996)
Barbra Streisand bashers might cite Yentl as the most insufferable of her directing efforts, but that was Chinatown compared to this self-indulgent rom-com about a plain Jane English prof who gets a second chance at love. When you’re directing and playing the lead as an ugly duckling who becomes a swan, you’re not only giving critics plenty of ammo, but the gun as well. The film is an obvious metaphor for Streisand’s wish to be admired not just for her talent, but for her physical attributes. But the pandering is so shameless and ham-fisted that it borders on compulsive narcissism. What worked beautifully for Babs in Funny Girl, is just sad this time around.
ON DEADLY GROUND (1994)
This eco-action thriller belongs to a very select group — films that scored a zero on Rotten Tomatoes. That noble achievement aside, it once again shows what a little clout can do. Coming off his biggest success (Under Siege), Steven Seagal got the suits at Warners to okay his ascent to the director’s chair. After all, what could go wrong? It was Seagal kicking ass, he had Michael Caine as a co-star and, hey, it even had a little social message! What emerges is a generic action film that is hilarious in its hypocrisy — Seagal’s character loves the environment so much that he destroys half of Alaska in protecting it! The capper, however — and a must if you ever need to see an ego truly run amok — is Seagal’s closing speech about protecting nature and going after the wrongdoers. The only thing missing is a laugh track.
PARADISE ALLEY (1978)
While we’re on the subject of action stars riding high… After Rocky and the underrated F.I.S.T., Sylvester Stallone added director to his resume with this bombastic drama about three brothers struggling to survive in 1940s New York. If you’ve seen any of the subsequent Rocky films, you know Stallone’s directorial touch is one of a genteel nature, full of nuance and ambiguity. Well, this is where he cut his teeth, and if writing and starring weren’t enough, his warbling of the closing song, “Too Close To Paradise,” brings back echoes of someone trying to pass a kidney stone. This completely undid all the goodwill generated by Rocky, and sent Sly on a career-long road to cinematic self-involvement.
THE POSTMAN (1997)
All the snarkmeisters who in 1990 were proclaiming that Dances With Wolves would be Kevin’s Gate, and were made to eat crow, got their revenge seven years later with this nuclear bomb-sized fiasco. As if the lessons of post-apocalyptic bloat weren’t learned from Waterworld, Mr. Costner dove back into the genre with this three-hour ordeal about a nomad who becomes a postal carrier among warring factions. Costner also produced and directed this turgid drama that basically ended his incredible run as a box-office draw, something he has yet to recover to this day. If the soul-deadening running time and self-serving hero deification weren’t enough, there’s a Kevin Costner song on the soundtrack!
SHADOWS AND FOG (1991)
Woody Allen works at a pace that should shame many a young director, turning out virtually a film year. But in doing so, it’s a given that not all will be masterpieces. He’s never made any secret about his European directing influences, but his love of German expressionism and Italian neorealism failed him mightily in this ponderous and pretentious serio-comedy that was a transparent and slavish homage to the works of Lang and Fellini. In telling the story of Kleinman (Allen), a nebbishy bookkeeper on the run from an angry mob, he failed to engage, spinning out an episodic tale that validated what his detractors had been saying for years — that he was indeed losing his touch. Luckily, he rebounded the next year with Husbands and Wives, but for a brief moment he reached a nadir with this pale pastiche.
SWEPT AWAY (2002)
And it was all going so well for Guy Ritchie. He was coming off Lock, Stock… as well as Snatch, and then he had to go and put his wife in a movie. Not just any wife, but one of the most famous people on the face of the Earth. It’s actually harder to decide whose vanity this dreadful remake of the Lina Wertmuller classic was intended to serve more — Madonna’s, in an effort to overcome her incompetence as an actress, or Ritchie’s as he tried to show that he could make anyone look good. They both lost, although the good news is Madonna has never starred in a movie again since this boondoggle. The bad news: she’s now turned her filmic “talents” to directing.
UNDER THE CHERRY MOON (1986)
With the success of Purple Rain in his back pocket, Prince took over directorial chores from Mary Lambert in this misbegotten drama where The Purple One plays a gigolo out to scam rich women. Shot in black and white, with only a whiff of a story, the film really exists solely as a vehicle for some Prince tunes and a showcase for some solid art direction. You have to assume studio execs were hoping Rain-like magic would strike again, and after bad test screenings, they decided to give Prince even more money for reshoots. Some people just don’t know when to quit. The film did poorly both critically and financially (big shock, huh?), but there were two great takeaways from Cherry Moon: it introduced Kristin Scott Thomas to the world, and gave us the classic track “Kiss.”
ZABRISKIE POINT (1970)
When you have most of the critical cognoscenti hailing you as a genius, there’s a good chance you’ll be hoisted on your own petard. And that’s exactly what happened to Michelangelo Antonioni, who four years after the international success of Blowup, thought he’d tap into the counterculture zeitgeist. The result was this prettified but stilted story of two young lovers who meet amid personal turmoil. It also didn’t help that neither of his leads, Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, had acted before, as Antonioni was more concerned about his visual motifs. The last scene, of a house blowing up to the strains of Pink Floyd’s “Come In Number 51, Your Time is Up,” is the reason a lot of art-house films got a bad name.