(Credit: Warner Bros)

8 Oscar-worthy acting performances in terrible films

Every year at the Oscars the same handful of films will be nominated in each and every single category. Now, personally, I don’t know a thing about Sound Editing in film, but it has always struck me as a little suspect that the list of nominations always bears a striking resemblance to the collection of flicks up for Best Picture. That is not to say that the sound nominations are not selected with due diligence, more so that it highlights the very human trope of being unable to see the gold dust in the sludge pile. 

In fairness to the Oscars, the same can be said about great songs dismissed on bad albums, and every week in football, the man of the match goes to the player who’s just scored the winner rather than the losing left-back who had a very steady game. The fact of the matter is that light might get through the cracks, but it’s hard to deny that the whole thing is shattered. Thus, the baby is thrown out with the bathwater, and the good amongst the bad ends up on the ash heap regardless. 

That is why this year at any of the top awards shows; you are unlikely to see any names amidst the best actors lists attached to otherwise dog-todd movies. It is simply beyond comprehension that a terrifically skilled portrayal of Santa Claus could ever hold a candle to a poignant performance that tugs on the heartstrings or that a frighteningly gifted dispensation of hilarity could be seated at the same table as a black-tie role of great reverence. 

However, for the list below we have sifted through the mire of cinema’s less than stellar movies and produced a collection of the most gleaming redeeming features that actors have imbued on the trainwrecks that their performances didn’t deserve to be part of. 

The greatest acting performances in terrible movies:

Gary Oldman in Tiptoes

In Tiptoes the 174cm tall Oscar-winner Gary Oldman plays a dwarf. This effect was crudely achieved by having the star shuffle around on his knees. Incredibly nobody involved with the movie seemingly saw either the offence or otherwise the utterly berserk nature of such a mindless casting decision. The film even comes with the tagline “It’s the little things in life that matter.”

Naturally, the film is insane, but sadly not in the ‘best worst thing you’ve ever seen’ sort of way. It is as mad as a one-inch hospital or a crab on the TV. The trailer alone (featured below) will have you wondering whether YouTube has finally turned your brain abstract like the concept of love. It reels off lines like “when the going gets tough it’s the size of your heart that counts,” and describes Gary Oldman’s vertically challenged casting as “the role of a lifetime”. Which in a berserk sort of way it is!

If you ever make it past the reality-bending, apology-imploring trailer and sit through the whole relentlessly maddening thing, your melon will be twisted once more by the fact that the most incredulous thing about it is that Gary Oldman still somehow manages to be good. Remarkably, the always excellent Oldman manages to turn your attention away from the madness and imparts some artistic order over the car crash occurring around him. If that isn’t the calling card of a master craftsman, I don’t know what is! Playing Winston Churchill is bread and butter stuff compared to the alchemic demands of standing your own (no pun intended) in this unending cacophony of hellfire.

Zac Efron in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Zac Efron’s bold move to star as the serial killer Ted Bundy paid off on a personal level. The star plays Bundy with a frightening level of fidelity and imbues the role with artistic touches that remain judicious and relevant. 

The film itself, however, is disappointingly dull. It is not necessarily a bad movie, it’s just when you make a serial killer flick and the lead actor turns in a scintillating performance the last adjective you’d expect to apply to it is ‘dull’, but sadly in the thrills department, the film is left wanting. There’s a good movie in amongst it all somewhere but unfortunately, it evaded the grasp of its creator. 

Bryan Cranston in Godzilla

I was unfortunate enough to catch this 2014 incarnation of the Godzilla franchise at the cinema, and *spoiler alert* when Bryan Cranston’s character died, there was an audible sigh that reverberated around the screening. Not a gasp, I might add, but a sigh, as everybody knowingly succumbed to the sad truth that the film had lost its redeeming feature. 

The movie is very nicely shot, and there are some other decent performances from Ken Watanabe and a handful of others, but aside from that, it’s a maudlin, plot-hole riddled piece of cinema that everyone in my particular screening was happy to see the back of, following the tragedy of a great performance departing too soon. 

Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves

Lars von Trier is a director who wears ‘not to everybody’s taste’ as a badge of honour, and for the most part, there is credit in that. Throughout his career, he has continually fought to put things on screen that test accepted notions of decency. Breaking the Waves came in at over two and a half hours, and sadly, it doesn’t really impart that much more than a constant insistence of bleak jejune morbidity. 

That being said, the movie’s overbearing grimness is spared the plunge of the standby button by a truly scintillating performance from Emily Watson. Watson adds some much-needed brushstrokes of light to the dark canvas surrounding her while staying true to the plot’s gritty realism. She might not abate the unrelenting suffering that the movie insists upon, but she adds some much-needed humanity.

Tim Curry in It  

Despite the rebirth of the It franchise, for many, Tim Curry will always be Pennywise. It is a defining performance of note that far outstrips the TV movie/miniseries that it was part of. 

In some weird way Curry’s performance sort of transcended the largely disjointed and clubbed together depiction of Stephen King’s novel that it was housed in and took on a life of its own. Whilst the film was forgettable, Curry’s performance was anything but. 

Despite the dated TV movie falling into obscurity, Curry’s portrayal inspired a slew of other make-up clad villains with its characterful creepiness.

Raul Julia in Street Fighter

It was under tragic circumstances that Raul Julia found himself in Street Fighter but when he got there he was determined to. give everything he had. The star, best known for playing Gomez Addams in The Addams Family, tragically received a terminal cancer diagnosis and wanted to leave his children, who loved the Street Fighter franchise, something to cherish.

The film may have been falling apart everywhere else as the leading star Jean-Claude Van Damme was engaging in cocaine binges measurable by the kilo, which led to him disappearing from the set for sometimes ten days at a time, but Raul Julia remained determined to give it his all. As co-star, Robert Mammone, told The Guardian, “It was a joy to be on the same set as him. He wasn’t a movie star, he wasn’t a celebrity – he was an actor in the true sense of the word. The focus and concentration he maintained are things that I’ve carried with me for the rest of my career. When he stepped on set, he was that character.”

Without sentimentalising the context of the role, this application and adherence to character embodiment really does shine through the melee of madness superbly. Raul Julia is clearly under no illusions regarding the sort of movie he is starring in but he is able to gleefully join the opulent ruckus with sequestering any class.

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker

Contrary to this piece’s introduction, sometimes great performances in less than great movies do get recognised. I make this digression because usually, the movie comes along with the actor for the ride. On this occasion, Joaquin Phoenix was a worthy winner, but the nomination for Best Picture seems to have an aura of bandwagon-jumping about it. 

In Joker there is no doubting that Phoenix pulled off a fantastic portrayal of the twisted clown, and the film itself is far from bad as far passing a few casual hours in the cinema goes. But aside from being a little bit of fun, the movie fails in most other ways. 

The film leans heavily on the far superior Martin Scorsese picture The King of Comedy and dilutes or otherwise misconstrues the philosophy down to the level of an unwittingly confused but self-righteous teenager.

Take for instance the pivotal subway scene whereby the ills of society are represented by the nefarious facelessness of jeering men in ties, who are then mindlessly killed, and this somehow is meant to serve as an allegory for the downward spiral of society? It all seems frighteningly on the nose and not at all thought-out. As legendry director David Fincher said, “I don’t think ­anyone would have looked at that material and thought, ‘Yeah, let’s take Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin and conflate them, then trap him in a betrayal of the mentally ill, and trot it out for a billion dollars.” 

The entire ensemble in Birdman

The cinematography in Birdman is spellbinding, the direction is a triumph, the set designs and soundtrack are both terrific, and the acting from each and every person who graces the screen is simply superb. The film itself turns out to be a display of talent and nothing more. 

For all the trope avoidance in the production, the script itself crams in every cliché in the book and spews them out with the pretentious flourish of faux originality. If the purpose of a film was to impress, then Birdman would be a consummate conquest, but if you want entertainment or some sort of meaningful depth, then sadly, when the dust settles, you’ll be left wanting.

The film lacks the story or sincerity to take the impressive displays to the next level. Michael Keaton and co may well be brilliant, but the lines and scenarios — such as grown adults playing a ‘hard-hitting’ prosaic game of truth or dare — are frustratingly shopworn and bromidic.