9 Awful Performances in Classic Films

christopher funderburg

The truth of the matter is that absolutely no film is without its failings. Despite a general consesus of their greatness amongst audiences and critics alike, the 9 films on this list feature performances that are as bad as any ever committed to celluloid - jagged flaws in otherwise finely polished pieces.

This list doesn't include performances that instantly damaged the critical reaction to films that otherwise could've been good (like Sophia Coppola in Godfather III) or performances from films once held in a certain regard that have seen their reputations plummet (Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman) or enjoyaby terrible turns that contribute to the popularity of cult classics (John Malkovich in Rounders). These are truly bad performances in films that nonetheless retain unimpeachable Classic credentials.


Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffanys

The Gold Standard by which all horrific, unjustifiable elements of Canonized films are measured,* Rooney's buck-toothed, risping portrayal of Audrey Hepburn's Japanese neighbor is an undeniably racist, undeniably unfunny black mark marring an otherwise undeniably charming romantic comedy. Rooney plays the role exactly as it was written and I'm sure exactly as the filmmakers intended: it's barn-door broad buffoonery based on sleazy, stupefying stereotypes. It's a terrible character and Rooney drags it as close to the bottom of barrel as is humanly possible, shamelessly milking his screen-time for everything its worth, pulling out every xenophobic cliché he can muster and adding in lame physical comedy with an unmistakable self-satisfied, idiotic glee. There's no way to excuse anything about the role and even a Japanese actor playing the part would have done little to ameliorate the fact the filmmakers clearly think the bug-eyed, sputtering, funny-little-foreign-man shtick is just priceless - a Japanese guy playing the part just would've been an Asian Stepin Fetchit. Rooney claims that no one ever complained to him about his yellowface antics, so I guess that settles it.

* It's actually part of a triptych with The Birth of a Nation's fried-chicken-loving, shoeless black Congressmen and The Jazz Singer's sickening blackface routines.


Jean Renoir in Rules of the Game

In a film beset by abortive casting attempts (Jean Gabin and Simone Signoret both famously turned down the leads), Jean Renoir's failure to secure his brother Pierre for the key role of Octave was the most damaging of all. Left with few other options, the director made the woeful decision to play the part himself: while Pierre was accomplished actor in his own right who had already starred in several films for Jean like La Marseillaise, Jean was an inveterate ham who had already stunk up the screen in small parts in several of his own films (his character from La Bete Humaine could've just as easily been on this list). The role of Octave required a charming screen presence who could fluidly mediate and play confidant in all of the various romantic and emotional goings-on at the chateau - he's a conductor in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Disastrously, in Renoir's goofy, smirking, utterly charmless turn he's a failed conductor in both a literal and metaphorical sense and critics and audiences at the time of the film's release singled out Renoir's acting for particular derision. Notoriously maligned upon that release, history has been exceptionally kind to the film - but it's hard not to watch Renoir's obnoxiously enthusiastic and smug performance and think that at least part of the initial audience contempt for Rules was justified.


Ryan O'Neal in Barry Lyndon

Kubrick apologists will immediately jump to the defense of O'Neal by saying, "But he's supposed to be terrible. In a picaresque, the main character is always a malleable man without qualities - his total vapidity and blankness are perfect!" But to suggest that Panurge or Don Quixote are men without personalities, vapid and blank, is ludicrous. This tale of Barry Lyndon's progression up the social ladder would be greatly helped by a malleable performer, one who could believably change his entire personality based on whatever social situation in which he finds himself. O'Neal would have trouble believably changing his personality to enough play a used car salesman, let alone transforming his leather-faced, sleazy Hollywood C-lister persona into something (anything) at home in the 19th century. The film's complete flatness (two great scenes aside) is a direct consequence of O'Neal's nothing of a performance: he doesn't fit into a variety social millieus, he stands out like a sore thumb in all of them.


Marcia Gay Harden in Mystic River

It remains to be seen just how long Clint Eastwood's tale of buried traumas exhumed by a shocking act of murder will continue to be held in the same high esteem that greeted its release: the twist ending feels gimmicky after even moderate reflection, the stuff with Kevin Bacon's ex-wife's lips is hilariously ridiculous and from the beginning Sean Penn's table-slapping histroinics were already considered by many to be completely over-the-top. But Marcia Gay Harden's cringe-inducing portrayal of a woman driven krazee by her husband's secrets stands apart from the rest of the film as truly, remarkably bad. She cowers and mumbles and shoots her eyes around randomly - she gazes off into the distance blankly one moment only to turn around with a wild, intense look on her face. It's almost as though she has a secret that's... too... much... to... bear.... It's too much to bear!!! Too much to bear!!!! Krazee, indeed. The real capper is that her antics exist mainly to set up the stupidly ironic twist ending.







Dennis Weaver in A Touch of Evil

Dennis Weaver's tremulous voice and indistinctly yokel-ish drawl are the very definition of "needlessly irritating." The role should be completely straight-forward: a cowardly motel owner too afraid to intervene on behalf of our heroes. But Weaver takes the role and runs with it, spinning it into an outrageous caricature built on a rickety foundation of tics and stutters and outright goofiness. The film grinds to a halt everytime Weaver pops up on screen to milk his lines for all they're worth, to jabber and flub as much as is humanly possible around each syllable - if the point was to make the character on unlikable idiot, mission accomplished. But that goal seems attainable without creating the massive tonal imbalance that results from Weaver's excessively silly performance being injecting into what is otherwise a downbeat, gritty film noir. It doesn't help that the subplot he's stuck in isn't much of a winner either: Janet Leigh terrorized at the remote hotel by a leering Mexican, lesbian biker gang.


Ruby Dee in Do the Right Thing

Ruby Dee and Ossies Davis' scenes seems to have floated in from a different movie: the gentle dialog and heightened tones of the cinematography deliberately suggest the past from which their characters have emerged– they belong to a different era, one of “whites only” lunch counters and water fountains for “coloreds.” Their world, their lives, their history is fundamentally separate in tone from the rest of Spike Lee's burning hot Bed-Stuy. And, in this instance, Lee's sprawling film demonstrates that while separate but equal works in theory, the practice is almost inevitably a failure: these are the worst scenes in the movie as Davis and Dee chew the scenery with an over-played world-weariness that's frequently as silly as it is incongruous. Because of the climatic scenes, Dee's performance takes the cake for ineptitude while Davis emerges essentially unscathed: her histrionic breakdown during the riot in wake of Radio Raheem's murder is a mess of over the top facial expressions, mannered hair-tugging and goofy exclamations. Her character fails to successfully transition from the stylized interludes in which it has mainly existed into the grimy, intense, politically-charged realism into which it is suddenly thrust. The riot represents a breakdown of all for which Dee's generation has strived, but all the metaphors, social significance and insightful critique in Brooklyn can't make her preposterous mugging more respectable or resonant.       


Julia Sweeney in Pulp Fiction

One of Quentin Tarantino's strengths has always been his ability to draw memorable characters in shorthand. Part of this comes from eagerness to utilize cinematic clichés like outlaw criminal couples, forgetful stoners and blaxploitation-infused bad motherfuckers - it's always fairly easy to locate a Tarantino character along type whether it be undercover agent trying to play it cool, unpredictable psychopath or bubble-headed actress. What makes Julia Sweeney in Pulp Fiction stand out like a vegan at a BBQ is that you can't even figure out what kind of person she's supposed to be. Some sort of junkyard owner and lady-friend to "cleaner" Winston Wolfe, Sweeney shows up in dowdy flannel and proceeds to trip all over her scant few lines. She can barely handle dialog which has heretofore in the film been delivered in precise cadences with machine-gun rapidity – she's got verbal dexterity fit for the Special Olympics. The movie confusingly presents her as some kind of hot babe leaving on the arm of the suave, unflappable Wolfe, but Sweeney is puzzlingly charmless and plain. She lacks the blue collar grit to realistically run a junkyard and she's too guileless and staid to conceivably be a part of the criminal underground. It's the worst you can say of performance: what was that even supposed to be?


Ben Stiller in The Royal Tenenbaums

A clenched-up zilch of a performance, Stiller seems to be unable to think of anything to do with his character other than tighten his shoulders and carry his stress in the jaw. The most cartoon-ish role in a film of cartoon-ishly conceived caricatures, Stiller's Chas is given essentially nothing to do but stand around in preciously color-coated, matching jumpsuits with his two sons (who are improbably even more thinly-drawn wastes of cinematic space in an already cluttered film). My goodness, a family unit in matching outfits! It's the type of twee, shallow conceit that overpowers and sinks films like The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, but in The Royal Tenebaums, it's particularly pathetic placed next to the genuinely interesting and affecting characters played by Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson and Gene Hackman. Stiller is utterly unable to turn Chas into anything other than a one-note gag – a definitive failure with a part that can't afford to be a secondary, throwaway character. The worst moment comes in a burst of unearned sentimentality at the end of the film when Chas finally breaks out of his clenched-up malaise: in these moments Stiller's smile, a supposed expression of newfound happiness, is as artificial and phony as the plastic, peripheral bit of animate production design onto whose face it is plastered.


Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo

At the height of his popularity, baby-faced teen idol and erstwhile Ozzy and Harriet star Ricky Nelson was shoe-horned into what is an otherwise typically no nonsense Howard Hawks/John Wayne knuckle-duster. Intended by Wayne as corrective to the callow, liberal High Noon, Rio Bravo follows a small town as it bands together behind a sheriff who intends to prevent a powerful rancher from breaking a murderer out of jail. The Duke is dynamite as always, Dean Martin is eminently believable as a pathetic drunk, Walter Brennan reprises his traditional role of Gummy Joe the cripple and Angie Dickinson is perfectly cast as a hot woman. Only the ridiculous Nelson is out of place as a hot-shot gunslinger who plays by his own rules. Nelson's performance mistakes dreamy, feathery and well-coifed for inexperienced but cocky. His (and, to be fair, Martin's) presence is an excuse to jam in an embarrassing musical number – a Nelson/Brennan/Martin sing-along that unfortunately comes just before the climatic showdown. It's a shameful interlude even before Hawks throws in a shot of the Duke chuckling like a proud parent. The Duke chuckling!? To a sing-along?! God damn you, Ricky Nelson!



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