It’s hard enough for women to find meaty parts in movies with all that male patriarchy lying around, but it can’t help if the movie in question is legitimately stinky. But, in most cases on this list, the actresses themselves provided a reliable level of effort and skill, it was just the movie that failed to piece enough interesting things together. So, as I know from film school experience, the blame often lies on those dumb male directors and screenwriters who create these mediocre frameworks. Hopefully a gender barrier that will continue to broken down in the future. Anyway, here are ten films that provide an interesting map of genres that actresses managed to get through alive.
10. Sandra Bullock, Lisa Picard Is Famous (2000)
You Know Her Better For: Speed (1994), While You Were Sleeping (1995), Miss Congeniality (2000), Crash (2004), The Proposal (2009), The Blind Side (2009), The Heat (2013), Gravity (2013), bringing exuberant neurotic energy to your rom-com/buddy action movie, and occasionally even to an Oscar winning film.
Why This Film Is No Good: This movie makes the snooze fest action piece Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997) look motivated and exciting by comparison. This is a mockumentary about the vapid shallowness of Hollywood that ironically uses director Griffin Dunne’s celebrity connections as its main selling point, with a bunch of celebrities playing themselves in cameos. Too bad the novelty of Spike Lee, Charlie Sheen and others playing themselves is wasted through wooden line readings and cliched and often gross out comic set-ups.
Sandra Bullock’s cameo (playing “Sandra Bullock”, naturally) really tells the whole movie’s story. Lisa Picard, an actress expecting her big break from a bit part on a TV show, and her gay best friend (who literally does an unpopular one man show in New York about how gay he is, because that’s original and not forced), encounter Sandra at a UPS store. And they tell her how nice she looks in person, and she awkwardly accepts the compliment.
It’s slow and unfunny, and the film’s short runtime is its only saving grace.
9. Michelle Pfeiffer, Hairspray (2007)
You Know Her Better For: Scarface (1983), Dangerous Liaisons (1988), The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Love Field (1992), Stardust (2007), bringing strength and complexity to seemingly one dimensional characters (like but not limited to Catwoman).
Why This Film Is No Good: Pfeiffer is underutilized here as a villainous figure at a 1950’s TV station. She doesn’t want Tracy Turnblad or black people to dance on the Corny Collins Show – because the script gave her lines that say that. But despite the conflict, there’s no real tension between her and anyone else, and it’s something that really is endemic to the whole movie.
With Hairspray (1988), director John Waters made a relatively conventional story about desegregating a 50’s dancing show. It was already a pretty specific story with some mild/low stakes in the elements. So naturally, with the 2007 musical, the quirks that Waters gives his characters were all but removed by director Adam Shankman (or in the case of John Travolta trying to reprise the mother role of the cross dressing Divine with a fat suit and an impenetrably weird accent, just make stuff up), and the already simplified action of the original movie now had to take breaks with some pretty uninspired songs (“Good Morning, Baltimore”, because it is morning, and we are in Baltimore).
I’m being a little harsh, since there are basic rules built in to a musical that allow for some length with the musical numbers, but I fail to see any improvements on the original Hairspray and the acting is stilted at best from all involved.
8. Natalie Portman, Your Highness (2011)
You Know Her Better For: Anywhere But Here (1999), Closer (2004), Black Swan (2010), being a well rounded actress, a strong lead in any movie nowadays but with the subtle insights of a character actress, being just kind of great.
Why This Film Is No Good: You don’t expect a self-proclaiming low brow, stoner medieval adventure movie to be of Academy level caliber, but did it have to be so forgettable? McBride does have some promising rambling one liners about his gross habits and such, but even those seem to consequently run out. And James Franco’s character seems to disappear from screen a lot, not sure what he was doing. The villains are not inherently funny, not even distinctive, which speaks to the movie as a whole. The big “oh no it’s a monster” moment is often literally indistinguishable blobs that maybe resemble Lord Of The Rings characters.
From what I recall, Portman actually is a pretty competent actress/character here, adventuring as a woman in a man’s world and forming a bond with McBride’s character. The problem is the script seems to relish its rebellious “this is a comedy” thing by eschewing the hero’s journey, but not by making anything funny or creating any satisfactory story arc. So as interesting as Portman’s character may be, it seems more like an academic defense of the character than anything exercised on screen.
7. Kathy Bates, Primary Colors (1998)
You Know Her Better For: Misery (1990), Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), About Schmidt (2002), Midnight In Paris (2011), for among other things being the best actor (male or female) at organically pulling off that “folksy wisdom” thing in movies and TV.
Why This Film Is No Good: Liberal politics and Hollywood go hand-in-hand, but liberal politics as Hollywood, eh…And even that makes this at least sound like ideological fare, indoctrination through metaphors and symbolism.
But this is basically “Bill Clinton as superhero, and not even hiding it.”
Events of Clinton’s life on the campaign trail in 1992, and unlike nuanced reality, Clinton (oh, I’m sorry, “Jack Stanton”) is totally innocent and vindicated. A phone tape that makes Stanton look bad? Oh, it was faked. Stanton’s opponent dies, and the opponent’s replacement is looking to beat Stanton? Oh, this new guy used to do drugs, but Stanton doesn’t rat him out, because HE’S SUCH A NICE GUY.
This is the Bill Clinton story, written by Kim Jong Il’s press agent. And John Travolta (man, actresses should make sure he’s not on their movies), plays Stanton as a straight Clinton impersonation, down to the accent and the white hair. What a joke, except it’s not very funny…
6. Scarlett Johansson, Hitchcock (2012)
You Know Her Better For: The Horse Whisperer (1998), Ghost World (2001), Lost In Translation (2003), Iron Man 2 and all subsequent Black Widow appearances/cameos (2010-forever), broad appeal in action movies, and some solid art house things (like all those mixed-to-good Woody Allen movies).
Why This Film Is No Good: A walking contradiction of a movie. On the hand, its main selling point is that it provides a behind-the-scenes reality to the life of Alfred Hitchcock and his making of Psycho (1960). But while I did not know before seeing the movie that the Robert Bloch book “Psycho” was inspired by the real life serial killer Ed Gein, and that Hitchcock identified with parts of Gein’s story, it didn’t really land as information that was heartfelt or gave true insight into Alfred.
Maybe that’s because of the other part of the movie, maybe the strangest “on the other hand” in movie review history: all those dumb impressions. That’s right, apparently Rich Little and Darrell Hammond were already booked, but they went ahead with the story anyway. Anthony Hopkins, well into his cashing the paycheck era, does that sort of bouncy British accent that Hitch did back in the day. For a whole movie. Shockingly, I did not connect with that goofy impression.
And the movie seems to hope the mild humor of seeing real people impersonated is a good idea that only gets better the more they do it.
Anthony Perkins is not exactly the easiest impersonation to recognize, so they got James D’Arcy. He’s kind of tall, in a grey suit, to act a little effeminate. Yes, that is what Anthony Perkins looks like…polite applause? And Scarlett Johansson is totally put to waste here impersonating Janet Leigh. You know, if you think about it, Janet Leigh has a deeper voice than some women. So let’s have Scarlett make it cartoonishly deep, like a girl pretending to a boy in an ‘80s teen comedy?
The mildly ok part of the movie was Helen Mirren (more on her later) as Hitchcock’s wife, struggling with his behavior and contemplating an affair with another man. What prevents this from becoming high drama is the other man is Danny Huston, chewing scenery in his bombastic way, taking you out of a movie that really didn’t want you in to begin with.
5. (A tie, kind of) Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, The Big Wedding (2013)
You Know Ms. Keaton Better For: Annie Hall (1977), Reds (1981), Marvin’s Room (1996), Something’s Gotta Give (2003), a lot of great characters with surface level accessibility and deep underlying tensions.
You Know Ms. Sarandon Better For: Atlantic City (1980), Thelma & Louise (1991), Lorenzo’s Oil (1992), The Client (1994), Dead Man Walking (1995), Igby Goes Down (2002), her fearless approach to choosing roles and for giving herself fully to them.
Why This Film Is No Good: There must have been some awfully good paychecks for this also rom-com, as this dreckfest drew the “not in their prime-time all-star players” of Keaton, Sarandon, Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. All those award nominations for a boring story with some boring execution on top. The plot is plausibly avoidable and circumvents intensity and memorable humor at all costs. A young couple is about to be married, but the groom to be’s mom is coming, and she’s catholic. So she wouldn’t condone that the bride’s parents (Keaton, De Niro) are divorced.
So you can have a polite conversation with the Catholic mama, or make two people who divorced pretend to be sleeping together…well, if you were worried about any hijinks (who would want that in a comedy?), the jokes are of the broad “someone falling in a lake while wearing clothes” variety that seem stolen from similar genre fare, and the inevitable sentimental “we’re a family” stuff seems a little forced. None of this is helped by squeezing screen time across the large ensemble (“Katherine Heigl needs a big dramatic realization, surely everyone will buy that authenticity, and her boyfriend can’t even show up until the last scene, and she gets five minutes”). Sarandon is set up for a great comedic part as De Niro’s new girlfriend who’s kind of ditzy, but the light tone of the story gives her a boring and grounded type of hilarity, not a funny ha ha one.
4. Ellen Page, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
You Know Her Better For: Some earlier indie stuff like Hard Candy (2005), but also Juno (2007) and Inception (2010), that dry mix of quirky humor.
Why This Film Is No Good: Ellen Page did not do a terribly bad job here as “walk through walls mutant” Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat. In fact, I would go so far as to say that all the acting in this movie is reasonably competent, which usually means a pretty good movie.
No the problem is that director Brett Ratner, like a kid who’s trying to maximize the last day of summer before school starts, decides to cram a lot of X-Men storylines, characters, and irreversible deaths into one movie. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) gets enhanced superpowers and starts killing people (like Cyclops (James Marsden), who’s the field leader of the X-Men. Not only was that a major blow to the cast list, but the event itself is haphazardly presented as a passing incident). And Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the X-Men founder, blows up. It gives a mainstream comic book movie a strangely dark and sadistic vibe that it doesn’t seem to want to directly address. Never mind killing off established characters in a sequel to successful movies they starred in. And lots of little tangents are thrown in, like we’re fulfilling some character quota. The Morlocks, who are a group of mutants who hide in the sewers to avoid their persecution, they show up, as a side story with little to no hope of being fully fleshed out. Beast (Kelsey Grammer) sorta joins the X-Men, we get to see a cinematic version of the flying mutant Angel (Ben Foster), but all these memory trips forget to structure the X-Men vs. Jean Grey storyline. The eventual showdown with Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) gives a rushed conclusion that can never feel whole with that whole rambling 2 hours that came prior.
3. Meryl Streep, August: Osage County (2013)
You Know Her Better For: Among others, The Deer Hunter (1978), Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979), Sophie’s Choice (1982), Out Of Africa (1985), Postcards From The Edge (1990), The Bridges Of Madison County (1995), Music Of The Heart (1999), Adaptation. (2002), Julie & Julia (2009), The Iron Lady (2011), almost being a punchline as one of the most acclaimed actresses ever, but also for almost effortlessly bringing a deeply felt sensitivity to anything.
Why This Film Is No Good: There’s the premise of a good movie here. Based on an award winning play (and Streep was even nominated for an Oscar for her involvement here), it’s a very Tennessee Williams-type story of a Southern family, full of issues with each other, coming back to the homestead when their father dies. But the execution makes what should be Oscar bait strong acting into a goofy mess. Streep’s characterization as the matriarch is bizarre and disappointing. Namely, she does this deep warble that’s sort of like a Southern accent (and a Judd family member), and rambles where memorable dialogue should be. And she’s not the only one. The big character defining scenes often involve characters being brow beaten for reasons that, at first, don’t make a lot of sense before seeming a little uncomfortably theatrical and loud.
The story never bothers to use these things to make any cohesive through line, and is content in resembling other homecoming ensemble dramas without establishing its own identity.
2. Angelina Jolie, The Tourist (2010)
You Know Her Better For: Gia (1998), Girl, Interrupted (2000), Changeling (2008), being some kind of hybrid superstar liberal minded actor/director, and having moderate success at all three.
Why This Film Is No Good: Netflix needs to add the genre “let’s go to Europe and sort of make a mildly complete movie, and then go on press junkets and self-servingly talk about how much fun and wine we had”. It works for a lot of Woody Allen movies, and now it works for spy intrigue movies?
I guess to call this movie a spy intrigue would imply that it was particularly intriguing, either for me or the characters. Johnny Depp stars as an American tourist who is accused of being a master criminal. But he’s too drunk/cool to take it too hard, even as he avoids some lazily put together threats to his life. His characterization is as disheveled as that ugly, poorly maintained beard thing on his face.
And Jolie shows up, as a woman who is convinced that he is the master criminal and is here to help him. For her role, character background means she has an accent and some alluring charm or some such. These feel like side characters to a bigger story somewhere else. I’m sure they had a lot of fun making this movie, but you would not have a fun time trying to remember it after seeing it.
1. Helen Mirren, Caligula (1979)
You Know Her Better For: The Madness Of King George (1994), Gosford Park (2001), The Queen (2006), The Last Station (2009), among other things for exploring the psychological depths of stateliness.
Why This Film Is No Good: There’s a reason there aren’t more “erotic historical dramas”. Here, there are parts trying not too subtly to be erotic, and there are historical drama scenes, but they sort of sit side by side, distracting from each other but not really working together.
The historical drama part sounds pretty generic, maybe even great, with a bevy of critically and Oscar acclaimed stars. Peter O’Toole is the aging Roman emperor, Sir (probably not because of this) John Gielgud is the loyal servant to the throne, Malcolm McDowell is the scheming Caligula, Mirren is his bride. A great cast, a typical epic Roman story of deception, what could go wrong? Naturally, it turns into a porno.
That doesn’t make a lot of sense, and don’t expect any clear reconciliation. It’s really unnerving, all this scheming about assassination and Caligula’s trials as ruler, mixed with sex scenes and uncensored close-ups of genitals and anything else bodily that came to the cameraman’s mind. It’s a weird mix of demonstrations of butt stuff and dramatic tension/evil people doing mean things. It’s enough to give a Roman a complex.
I suppose it’s hard to say the movie is “bad”, and it may be the worst ever because it’s a porno. I mean, if the viewer likes it somehow, then it gets high marks, right? First of all, “shame shame that’s gross ewww!” But also, as a porno, it’s middling at best. It’s very ‘70s, with poorly lit oddly colored lighting. A lot of the sex scenes are based in some pseudo-historical vibe of Caligula being into S & M (and it often times being non-consensual), so the harshness is off putting. And somehow the movie’s really long, two and a half hours in the restored edit, so if you’re just in for the “excitement”, take a lot of breaks? (or don’t do it, ewwwwwwww…..)
It’s the rare film where the director and just about every major actor involved disowned the final product because the producer (here Penthouse Magazine’s Bob Guccione, maybe the worst choice as producer/editor/second “unit” director of all times) shot and added a lot of uncensored pornography in during the editing process. And you thought Orson Welles had studio problems…