It’s looking down the glittering line-up at a well-planned dinner and finding a particularly drunken tramp toasting you with meths at the head of the table; a fresh club sandwich with that unmistakeable cockroach crunch; a subscription offer to Big Jugs that falls out of a copy of The Times; it’s the actor…that shouldn’t be there.
There are plenty of films where all the performances are bad, and these aren’t admissible here. Much as I love Johnny Mnemonic, I must admit that Keanu Reeves’ wince-making ‘speech’ at the junkyard is not far below the general level of thespian disinterest surrounding him; therefore only his turn in Dracula makes the cut here.
Sometimes a reliable and exceptionally talented actor will turn in a stinker – who really knows why? Ewan MacGregor needs lots of supervision; Michael Caine will glaze over into autopilot when doing ‘one for the money’ like The Swarm, The Holcroft Covenant, Water or the remake of Sleuth; even Sir Ben Kingsley can intersperse acting masterclasses like Gandhi and Sexy Beast’s legendary Don Logan with a lemon like Bloodrayne.
It’s no surprise that musicians are over-represented in this list; a lot of them seem to figure that it’s all entertainment anyway, right? Successful cross-overs like Chris Isaak, Harry Connick Jr., Dolly Parton, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli and Kris Kristofferson are in the minority; most ‘pass’; the rest? They’re about as good as we’d be with no experience of any kind…
10: Stephen Lack – Scanners (1981) You may not recognise Stephen Lack as the specialist surgical tool-maker in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988), because it’s a cameo role and he’s pretty good in it. Lack’s leading role in Cronenberg’s psychic shocker proves him a sprinter rather than a marathon runner. His limited range and ham acting combined with his surname to earn some rather stinging criticism at the film’s release, and solid performances by Michael Ironside and Jennifer O’Neal don’t help his cause. Luckily the film has enough atmosphere and enough Patrick McGoohan to weather the scenery chewing from its leading man (now apparently a vehicle co-ordinator in movies).
9: Amy Lalonde – Diary Of The Dead (2007) It takes a truly abysmal acting turn to blow the grade curve in a film this bad, but LaLonde has what it takes to stand out. Her performance as a student actress in a $20 B-movie only convinces when she’s actually filming the bad B-movie inside Diary Of The Dead. Once the fictional cameras stop rolling, the acting ought to improve, but it doesn’t, and what little reality the once-great master of horror is able to build up with his cookie-cutter, zombie-fodder youngsters is severely undermined by this refugee from the Dolly Parton school of tough-mindedness.
8: Robert De Niro – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)You can take the actor out of the Bronx but…In Kenneth Branagh’s only patchily faithful adaptation of the Mary Shelley shocker, there is one particular scene that killed what suspension of disbelief the film was able to build up with an actor as insipid as Branagh in the title role: invited into the shack of the blind old man (Richard Briers) whose family he has been spying upon in secret, De Niro’s monster pulls a move straight out of Goodfellas – standing in the doorway, not sure whether to enter, he looks around for the cops. We’ve seen De Niro do it a million times, and it was great – but this New York mob energy wasn’t right for the part, and neither was the retread of the ‘divine vengeance’ shtick from CapeFear. De Niro has made a career out of playing psychos, borderline sociopaths or – at best – blue-collar guys who find it hard to communicate. He’ll never play The Dane, and that isn’t what you hire him for, but he totally missed the vulnerability of the new-born ‘monster’ and went straight for the Brooklyn hard line.
7: Hugh Marlowe – The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) If you want to hear some really harsh invective about Marlowe’s turn as Patricia Neal’s jealous love interest in this cold-war sci-fi classic, check out the commentary Star Trek’s Nick Meyer does with director Robert Wise on the region 1 DVD release – the words ‘phoney’ and ‘fake’ abound. Marlowe’s two dimensionality is thrown into unfortunate relief by masterful performances from principals Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal. Even back when the saucers looked real, this performance didn’t.
6: Simon Oakland – Psycho (1960) There’s actually nothing wrong with Oakland’s portrayal of the expositional psychiatrist who explains Norman Bates’ bizarre double-life at the end of Hitchcock’s classic. It’s a good performance – for a film made in the 1930s. But after the subtle and ruminous work put in by Anthony Perkins, backed up with solid performances from Janet Leigh, Vera Miles and the others, Oakland’s arch mannerisms jar. You kind of expect him to sum the whole film up with “Ahhh, the guy’s screwy as a loon!”.
5: Keanu Reeves – Dracula (1991) I remember watching risible UK youth show The Word a few weeks before principal photography began on Francis Ford Coppola’s take on The Count; there was a video-report that followed the jocular Mr Reeves as he went round London and the Home Counties trying to work up an English accent. When he found he couldn’t do it and wasn’t getting any better, he ended up mucking about and disrupting classes at a private school for loaded rich kids. I remember thinking, even then, ‘Man, you need to try harder than that’. Fucking A. If I weren’t a Keanu Reeves fan, I would have no idea what football supporters go through as their new striker misses a penalty by a mile. Reeves loses interest in Jonathan Harker’s English accent within 15 minutes (Coppola: “Keanu…hey man…let’s just…y’know…not worry about the accent, okay?”), and goes on to be mercilessly pummelled in the acting stakes even by the set decorator. A painful knockout in the early seconds of round 1.
4: Shane McGowan – Straight To Hell (1987) What dare I say about a man who lives above a pub less than three hundred yards from me? Fuck it, I think even I can probably outrun him. The former front-man of The Pogues, the dentally challenged and hard-living Mr McGowan, has only one notable line to say in Alex Cox’s yarn of bank robbers on the run: “Strangers, Frank”. I have never heard three syllables murdered so thoroughly in the course of acting out a role. Presumably McGowan was always ‘third tree’ in the nativity play. Though the company he’s in here is not necessarily of RSC standard, even the likes of Courtney Love need more than two words for the cracks to start showing.
3: Saffron Burrows – DeepBlueSea (1999) I’ve already admitted that I love Renny Harlin’s shark-filled sci-fi howler; some pretty good actors do their careers no favours with their performances here, and only Stellan Skarsgård is mercifully rescued in time, as has his arm fatally gnawed off by a shark and is then used as a meat-torpedo (hey. It was preferable to continuing in the film). But however low the bar, we’ll still need a diving bell to plumb the depths of Saffron Burrows’ performance in Deep Blue Sea. It’s unfair: in a film full of bad dialogue, she has some of the very worst. From her toe-curling exposition about genetically engineering shark-monsters cos her dear old dad had Alzheimer’s, to the rather 1930s “Your dime, I guess”, she was dead in the water. Apparently hired solely so she could strip down to her undies in an unlikely attempt at shark-repelling, Burrows also lacked the gravity and age befitting her role as world-leading medical researcher – and that’s just cynical casting. So while it is all admittedly very unfair, sometimes it’s the messenger that has to take the full brunt of the harpoon.
2: Sofia Coppola – The Godfather Part III (1990) The one you knew was going to be in here. The one you may well think should be in first place. It was hard. Francis Ford’s daughter has so much in common with the winner in this case, what with being so camera conscious that you can almost catch her checking her make-up in the Panaflex filters; what with her deathly and rote delivery; what with being utterly outshone by actors – such as Andy Garcia – who could turn in a better performance in the deepest throes of coma…there’s nothing necessarily wrong with casting beautiful – as with Saffron Burrowes- or with casting via nepotism, as in this case. But you have to be reasonable; the face has to fit, the potential be present. Was La Coppola a knockout in rehearsals and an ice-cube of nerves with all the gaffers watching? Mrs Spike Jonze has redeemed her cinematic career behind the camera with the likes of Lost In Translation and the slightly more controversial Marie Antoinette, but her turn as Mary Corleone is the acting equivalent of a rash, early Playboy spread that will prove hard to live down.
1: John Lydon – Copkiller (1983) Even with five listed AKAs, including Order Of Death and Corrupt Lieutenant (a nineties release attempting to lo-jack some cachet from co-star Keitel’s acclaimed The Bad Lieutenant), there’s nowhere for this truly abysmal performance to hide. An otherwise pedestrian tale of a rich-kid confessing to a string of cop-killings is an object lesson to the untried actor-hobbyist – don’t make your first role a two-header with Harvey Keitel. But even Steven Seagal would have acted the former punk under the table. In one shot, Lydon is required only to let some escalators carry him up to the top and then walk past the camera. He fucks it up. And that must have been take 44. And it’s in the movie. This is the most camera-conscious performance ever committed to screen; the same sense of self-awareness and brooding antipathy towards observers that made Lydon magnetic in The Sex Pistols kills him stone dead here with a glancing blow. The trademark withering wit that still has bite is here robbed of all the spontaneity that makes it work. As someone who has always appreciated Lydon’s day job, I’m very glad he returned to it thereafter.
Now for the good stuff…