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The 10 Most Miserable Performances in Film History

In Annie Hall, Woody Allen famously distinguished between the ‘horrible’ and the ‘miserable,’ but in the case of this top ten countdown, forget about the ‘horrible’ as we concentrate on the ‘miserable’ defined as ‘wretchedly unhappy or uncomfortable; habitually morose; and contemptible.’ Throughout film history, miserable performances have abounded, film actors making sure that their checks were secure in their pockets before acting their frustrations and neuroses before the unblinking camera eye, conveying complete contempt for the film’s audience, the film’s creators, and themselves.

Behold, the worst, most miserable performances ever:

10. Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction
Tarantino manages to tarnish his own breakthrough film with such dreary line readings that, if Pulp Fiction had turned out to be a flop, Tarantino would have been sent packing back to the counter at Video Archives. The bulk of the cast members of Pulp Fiction are the gourmet, expensive stuff that you can taste. Tarantino, however, is like Bonnie’s shit coffee.

9. Elizabeth Taylor in Boom!
Joseph Losey’s twisted adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore features a bloated and over-ripe Elizabeth Taylor as rich dowager Sissy Goforth, awaiting death on her palatial estate on a Mediterranean Island, spending her remaining time staggering around in flowing black or white gowns (depending on her mood) and raging and bellowing at the hired help. Richard Burton shows up as a roustabout poet known affectionately as The Angel of Death, but in the case of Taylor’s performance, rigor mortis has already set in.

8. John Wayne in The Conqueror
Where can an actor go after playing the greatest role of his career, as Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s The Searchers? Where else but Mongolia to channel Genghis Khan. Talk about a bad career move. Wayne is so dead wrong as Genghis Khan that a viewer new to The Conqueror Experience will discover his jaw dropping to the floor like a character out of a Tex Avery cartoon. Wayne doesn’t even attempt any verisimilitude as the Mongolian tyrant, swapping japes with co-star Susan Hayward along the lines of ‘You’re beautiful in your wrath’ like an outtake from McClintock! More shocking than Wayne’s walking death performance was producer Howard Hughes’ insistence that the film be shot in Utah’s Escalante Desert, an area that had recently been used as an above-ground atomic test site resulting in cast members Wayne, Hayward, Pedro Armendariz, Agnes Moorehead, and director Dick Powell all ending their lives in the cancer ward. What a waste of lives for such a clunky production.

7. Adam Sandler in 50 First Dates
Adam Sandler as a lothario Hawaiian veterinarian who seduces cute women tourists? Here we have Joseph Goebbels’ The Big Lie in action. Sandler as male chick bait is about as desirable as a colonoscopy. Yet this is the premise we are asked to swallow during the first half hour of 50 First Dates. Sandler doesn’t even try to become Brad Pitt Jr. He whines and kvetches and still the gals fall for him like nuts in May. When Drew Barrymore arrives on the scene falling head over heels in love with Sandler’s Henry Roth character, Barrymore’s Lucy comes across like the dim-bulb idiot to Henry Roth’s monotone psychotic. I don’t know how Sandler himself would classify his performance as Henry Roth but as for me, I’d call it sleep.

6. Dennis Hopper in Super Mario Bros.
Hopper bounds around in a lizard skullcap in this video game scrapheap of a movie with a desperately glum look on his face that screams, ‘I gave up all the booze and drugs for this?’ Hopper’s King Koopa, in the polar opposite of a good film performance, compels the viewer not to keep his eyes on him. It all looks like a sad way to earn a living, even when Hopper belts out, ‘Bring in the Goombas!’

5. Ryan O’Neal in Tough Guys Don’t Dance
It’s hard to believe that Norman Mailer, the director of the film version of his overheated potboiler noir novel, cast Ryan O’Neal as Tim Madden, an ex-con who may or may not be killing off all of his friends and acquaintances, ‘deep-sixing’ the severed heads into the drink off Provincetown (after all, Mailer was notoriously famous for duking it out with Rip Torn on the set of another of his directorial efforts, Maidstone). It’s even harder to fathom O’Neal in the part when film noir icon Lawrence Tierney plays his father (perhaps O’Neal was adopted). Still, when O’Neal opens up a basketful of skulls on the Provincetown beach and Mailer twirls his camera in a circle jerk around O’Neal’s own head and O’Neal barely emotes ‘Oh man, oh God, oh man, oh God’ it almost makes O’Neal’s pathetic performance worthwhile.

4. Jerry Lewis in Slapstick (Of Another Kind)
In this thoroughly debased version of Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical sci-fi opus, Jerry Lewis plays two characters, each one more unwatchable than the other. Lewis is Caleb Swain, a billionaire, whose wife, Madeline Kahn, gives birth monstrous twins — also played by Lewis and Kahn — that turn out to be alien geniuses. And it would take at least one alien genius to sit through this filmic mutilation. Lewis oozes oily distaste as Caleb, but as Madeline Kahn’s twin, Lewis overplays his spastic mannerisms — so much so that the key scene in the film features Lewis as Caleb, getting an eyeful of little Lewis and then throwing up. Besides, how good can a film be when the finest performance in the picture is offered by Samuel Fuller?

3. Mike Myers in The Cat In the Hat
Dr. Seuss’ The Cat In the Hat is a beloved children’s book about a cat that befriends two lonely homebound kids, becoming their best pal and teaching them the value of joy and imagination. In this bloated film version, Mike Meyers plays The Cat as an overactive, crackpot bore. This is a cat you do not want to take to your heart but to capture and drown in a lake.

2. Frank Sinatra in Cannonball Run II
What do you do when you want Frank Sinatra in your film but Sinatra doesn’t want to act with anyone in it? Well, you hire a film crew for 20 minutes, shoot some reaction shots of The Chairman of the Board and then insert it into mismatched footage of an emaciated Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Burt Reynolds later on down the road and then construct a scene. This thoroughly cynical sequel to the debauched original film treats the audience like fat-headed numbskulls. The genius of Sinatra’s presence (his final film appearance) is that he takes this level of cynicism a step further by also treating the filmmakers and actors as even more fat-headed than the dolts in the audience.

1. Stephen Boyd, Milton Berle, Joseph Cotton, and Tony Bennett in The Oscar
Here is the mother lode of miserable performances, a veritable gold mine of self-loathing actors eager to displease. Boyd, Berle, Cotton, and Bennett have never been worse, the film cutting a wide swath, ruining film careers left and right and taking no prisoners. Never before have film performances in a single movie been so revealingly sour, bitter, and sad; you know things
are ready to explode when the opening credits read, ‘…And introducing Tony Bennett as Hymie Kelly.’ The Oscar is like a Robert Altman ensemble piece in reverse, actors intent on not creating any chemistry with each other. Boyd plays Frankie Fane, an actor up for an Oscar, who walks, crawls, and stabs in the back anybody who gets in his way in pursuit of a Best Actor nomination. Given our #2 selection above, it is only fitting that at the end of the film, the Oscar for Best Actor is awarded to Frankie… Sinatra!

Honorable Mentions: Richard Burton in Candy; Liberace in Sincerely Yours; Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity; Timothy Carey in Head; Dean Martin in the Matt Helm films; George Segal in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Lifetime Achievement awards go to Sandra Bullock and Tim Allen.

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