For any actor, choosing a film role must be a true leap of faith. And if you happen to be an Oscar-winning or particularly famous actor, the decision making process must be more difficult still. How do you know the director of your next picture won’t make you look like a complete idiot?
This list, then, is devoted to 10 actors and a few of their oddest career choices. Not all of them are necessarily bad films, but the appearance of such esteemed actors in them most definitely is…
Robert De Niro – Godsend
An actor once lauded as the finest of his generation, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile Robert De Niro’s remarkable early work (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Godather Part II and Raging Bull, to name a few), with his more recent efforts.
It’s hard to believe that the man who was once so brilliant as Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta has, in more recent times, appeared in such pap as Rocky & Bullwinkle (which I’ve never found the resolve to sit through), Righteous Kill and those dreadful Fockers movies.
It’s the cheesy Godsend that surely marks De Niro’s absolute nadir, though. It’s a dismally familiar horror thriller about a couple who bring their dead son back to life using the breakthrough cloning procedures of De Niro’s mad scientist, Doctor Wells. It later transpires that neither Wells nor the newly cloned son are exactly who they initially appear to be.
A generic and thoroughly daft film, it’s a complete mystery why De Niro opted to appear in it. Godsend‘s made-for-TV level direction and plodding script are enough to make me wonder whether De Niro chose the role by flipping a coin.
Michael Caine – The Swarm
Poor Michael Caine. He’s certainly made some classic movies over the years, and is currently enjoying a late career resurgence, with great performances in The Dark Knight and Harry Brown, to name but two. But in the 70s and 80s, Caine made quite a few career choices that appeared to be, shall we say, financially rather than artistically oriented.
The horrors of Jaws IV are well documented, as is Caine’s later admission that he’d never actually seen it, but was more than happy with the house it paid for.
Irwin Allen’s 1978 disaster flick, The Swarm, is a Caine movie that is seldom discussed these days, which is a shame, since it’s unintentionally hilarious.
A seething cloud of deadly killer bees brings chaos to the cities of America and an all-star cast, which includes Richard Chamberlain, Henry Fonda and Richard Widmark, who all appear to be competing to see who can turn in the most ridiculous performance. Caine wins hands down, shouting and howling his way through as Brad Crane, the angriest scientist in cinema history.
In one scene, Caine goes toe-to-toe with an army general for a five-minute shouting contest. It’s difficult to work out what Caine’s so angry about. Maybe it’s the horrible turtleneck sweater he’s forced to wear, or maybe he’s figured out that the film he’s in really isn’t working out well at all.
Whatever the reason, the Cain gets to shout things like, “Doctor Connors hasn’t the foggiest idea whether I’m on, off, on top of, or under this complex,” which doesn’t make a lot of sense, but is nevertheless extremely funny.
Sean Connery – Meteor
Another great actor from the British Isles, and another terrible 70s disaster movie. To be fair to Connery, Caine and all the other big name actors who appeared in disaster flicks of the period, they were usually big hits at the box office, and probably paid well, too.
How was Connery to know, then, that Meteor would not only be a notorious financial misfire, but also one of the most unintentionally funny disaster films ever made. Connery plays Dr Bradley, one of several scientists who try to avert the threat of an incoming meteorite.
This being a disaster movie, the scientists’ efforts aren’t much use, and the final reel of the film is devoted to an eye-melting salvo of stock footage, wobbling sets and exploding model skyscrapers.
Before that, Connery delivers his dialogue with an admirably straight face, describing the destructive power of the forthcoming rock from space with his usual dour charisma. It’s just unfortunate that, as Connery keeps his acting chops together, the rest of the film falls apart.
I was originally going to go for Zardoz as Connery’s weirdest film choice, but having watched that bizarre classic again recently, I can safely say that Meteor is the dodgier film by a considerable margin.
Sam Rockwell – Gentlemen Broncos
Having scored a cult hit with Napoleon Dynamite, writer and director Jared Hess failed to gain the same level of attention for his equally quirky Gentlemen Broncos, released in 2009. The result is a film easily as odd as Napoleon Dynamite, though it lacks the earlier film’s satisfying payoff.
Michael Angarano stars as Benjamin, a young author whose work is plagiarised by a more famous sci-fi hack, played by Jemaine Clement. It’s a gentle, odd film, and its biggest surprise is the appearance of Sam Rockwell in a series of sequences that bring Benjamin’s juvenile literature to life.
Given that Rockwell was so brilliant in films like Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Moon, it’s rather jarring to see the actor wearing long hair and a beard, and riding a jet-powered stag. I’ve no idea why Rockwell agreed to star in Gentlemen Broncos, but I’m glad he did.
Join Voight – Anaconda
A brilliant actor in such films as Midnight Cowboy, Deliverance and The Champ, it’s a complete mystery why Jon Voight should choose to star in a B-movie creature feature about a giant snake.
I suspect it was the disposable nature of the movie that attracted him, since Anaconda‘s a fun film, albeit in a camp, retro way, and Voight puts considerable energy into the role of a sleazy snake poacher who appears to be the distant relation of Marlon Brando or Scarface‘s Tony Montana. Voight is so good, and so creepily lecherous, in fact, that I’m surprised that director, Luis Llosa, didn’t give him title billing above the killer snake.
If you were Jennifer Lopez in the situation below, would you be more frightened of a legless reptile, or the unwanted attention of Voight’s character? I know which I’d choose. Brr.
Kirk Douglas – Saturn 3
There’s actually an awful lot to enjoy in the delightfully cheesy 1980 sci-fi movie, Saturn 3. It’s got a great, menacing robot called Hector (one day, I’ll have my own robot called Hector, I hope), and some quite decent model effects. I’ve still no idea why aging Hollywood legend, Kirk Douglas, signed up for it, though, nor is it clear why he spends so much of the film wearing very little.
To be fair, no one involved in Saturn 3 comes out of it looking very good. The late, great Farrah Fawcett is saddled with a series of awful haircuts and kinky outfits. Director, Stanley Donen, was brought in to replace John Barry during Saturn 3‘s troubled shoot, and the result is an unintentionally amusing mess. For Donen, veteran of such classic movies as Singin’ in the Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, it marks a low point in his later career.
Writer, Martin Amis, would probably prefer to forget Saturn 3, too. In an interview, Amis later admitted that his 1984 novel, Money, was inspired by his experiences on Saturn 3. In the book, there’s a character called Lorne Guyland, an aging film star who enjoys taking his clothes off. Guess who he’s based on.
Christopher Walken – Communion
Unlike some of the other movies on this list, Communion isn’t a bad film, but it’s most definitely a weird one. Christopher Walken, rightly lauded for his intense, unusual performances, puts in a memorably eccentric turn here, playing the part of Whitley Strieber, a writer who may or may not have had a close encounter with visiting aliens.
Walken’s made all kinds of strange career choices, of course, including the role of a Chinese ping-pong expert called Feng in Balls of Fury, but Communion remains, for me, his oddest film to date.
Walken appears to improvise his dialogue in places, with some of his lines trailing off at the end as he mumbles about alien visitors and exploding computers. Later on in the film, he’s taken aboard an alien craft by troll-like entities in black hoods, where he’s stripped naked and subjected to all kinds of invasive experiments. “Look’s like we’re going to sing White Christmas,” Walken says as an alien produces a rather worrying looking metal probe.
Communion is a hallucinatory, surreal film, and Walken’s performance is, even by his own standards, extremely eccentric.
Ben Kingsley – Species
He won an Oscar in 1982 (Ghandi), and got nominated in 1993 (Schindler’s List). So, why did such a revered actor as Sir Ben Kingsley appear in a sleazy sci-fi B-movie like Species? Maybe it was the allure of the film’s other cast members, which includes Michael Madsen, Alfred Molina and future Oscar winner, Forest Whitaker. Maybe he liked the art of HR Giger, who designed the film’s comely alien creature. Or maybe he just really likes sci-fi B-movies.
Whatever the reason, it’s strange to see Sir Ben in a film about a group of scientists trying to stop a sex-crazed alien from getting pregnant. It’s like seeing a famous, Michelin star chef eating in McDonald’s. Mind you, Kingsley clearly caught the sci-fi B-movie bug, since he chose to appear in A Sound of Thunder in 2005, which was rather awful.
Harrison Ford – K-19: The Widowmaker
Harrison Ford is a great actor. One of the things he’s not so good at, though, is a Russian accent. I’ve no idea why he chose to appear in Kathryn Bigelow’s K-19: The Widowmaker as Russian submarine captain, Alexei Vostrikov, but the results aren’t great, it has to be said. I think it’s best if we let the man speak for himself…
Marlon Brando – The Island of Dr. Moreau
Like Saturn 3, the 1996 adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau saw its director replaced during the film’s troubled shoot. In the end, it was John Frankenheimer’s name that appeared on film posters, rather than Moreau‘s original director, Richard Stanley.
To be fair to Brando, appearing in an adaptation of one of HG Wells’ finest stories, with a fairly healthy budget and a potentially great upcoming director in Richard Stanley, probably didn’t seem like a risky move. As it turned out, the production of The Island of Dr. Moreau was even more nightmarish than Wells’ book. Val Kilmer, who originally signed up to play the lead role of Prendick, later asked for his part to be reduced by almost a half.
The script was then subjected to numerous rewrites, studio New Line replaced Stanley with Frankenheimer, who had a very public falling out with Kilmer. Another lead actor, Rob Morrow, left the production, and was hurriedly replaced by David Thewlis.
Unsurprisingly, the resulting film was a critically panned mess. For some reason, Brando spends pretty much the entire film wearing head scarves and an assortment of Hawaiian shirts, gowns and tents. As David Thewlis’ character later puts it, “Well. This is the most outrageous spectacle I have ever witnessed.”