10 Great Performances in Truly Terrible Movies

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There was little reason to expect that a jukebox musical filled with so-bad-they’re-good ‘80s pop songs was going to be any good whatsoever, and true to prediction, Rock of Ages was one of the summer’s biggest dogs. It’s out tomorrow on DVD and Blu-ray, though, which exponentially increases the chances that one of your friends (the one who’s always wanting to go karaoke-ing, probably) is going to buy it and insist on having it on at some point in your friendship. Fear not: though Rock of Ages is an execrable film, it has (contrary to any and all expectations) a genuinely enjoyable and unexpectedly witty Tom Cruise performance buried underneath all the hairspray and Journey covers. Playing Stacee Jaxx, a rock star long removed from anything resembling reality, Cruise is totally credible and genuinely funny; there’s a good 20-minute stretch in the middle where they just turn the movie over to him, and it’s the only point in the entire running time where Rock of Ages actually works. As a thank-you to Mr. Cruise and all of those who make the unbearable ever-so-briefly watchable, we put together a list of a few of our favorite great performances in terrible movies; see if you agree with our picks after the jump.

Alan Rickman, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

This 1991 take on the venerable legend is best remembered (if at all) for Kevin Costner’s notoriously absent English accent, which is kind of a good thing to have when you’re playing Robin Hood. But that’s far from RH:PoT’s only problem: it’s also got an embarrassingly half-assed Christian Slater performance, a romance with Maid Marion (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) that’s entirely chemistry-free, and sluggish direction by Kevin Reynolds (Waterworld) that somehow makes the movie feel even longer than its flabby 138 minutes. But it’s also got Alan Rickman, chomping scenery by the handful as the evil (but totally entertaining) Sheriff of Nottingham. Wrote Roger Ebert, in his 1991 review: “Rickman’s performance has nothing to do with anything else in the movie, and indeed seems to proceed from a uniquely personal set of assumptions about what century, universe, etc., the story is set in, but at least when Rickman appears on the screen we perk up, because we know we’ll be entertained, at whatever cost to the story.” And thank God for that.

Tim Roth, Planet of the Apes

The 2000s were a time of stupid movie decisions, but handing over a remake of the brainy Planet of the Apes franchise to Tim Burton — who is, let’s face it, a production designer who’s made a very good living convincing people he’s a director — was one of the dopier calls of the decade. Burton’s “reimagining” of the franchise was, unsurprisingly, a muddled mess, filled with dull set pieces and lifeless acting and a SHOCKING TWIST ENDING that left an entire country scratching its collective head. But he made one very smart move: he cast the great Tim Roth as chief villain, the chimpanzee military commander General Thade. Though buried under a mountain of prosthetic make-up (par for the course for the series, of course), Roth gives the character a chilling edge and lends tension to a movie sorely lacking in it otherwise. And if you didn’t already think he was a saint, chew on this: In order to play Thade, Roth reportedly turned down the role of Snape in the first (and, thus, all) of the Harry Potter movies, which was then offered to Mr. Rickman. Then again, maybe that was his long-awaited karmic payoff for Robin Hood.

Charlize Theron, The Devil’s Advocate

There are some out there who claim that The Devil’s Advocate is some kind of secretly brilliant intentionally camp classic or something, but c’mon, who’re we kidding. It’s got Al Pacino at his overripe, “shouty Al” worst; it’s got Keanu Reeves doing his usual sedated bedpost variety of “acting,” this time with the added bonus of mouthing one of the worst Southern accents ever put on film; and it’s got an ending that’s such a cheat, they might as well have just closed with Keanu waking up screaming and sweaty. But, in the middle of all that nonsense, here’s Charlize Theron — who was at that time, remember, only known as the eye candy in 2 Days in the Valley. But she took the role of Mary Ann Lomax, wife of hot young attorney Keanu, driven slowly insane by his flirtation with the supernatural underworld, and made it into something real and vulnerable and thus far more genuinely terrifying than anything in its goofy climax.

James Woods, The Specialist

Frankly, we could populate this whole list with James Woods performances: from The General’s Daughter to Vampires to Ghosts of Mississippi to The Getaway to The Hard Way, he has brought his A-game to C-movies time and time again. But nowhere was this more evident than in the 1994 film The Specialist, an utterly lifeless tribute to the body-sculpting of stars Sharon Stone and Sylvester Stallone. Neither of them can be bothered to work up a performance (or even much enthusiasm for each other), and co-stars Rod Steiger and Eric Roberts seem to go in the opposite direction with their laughable overacting. But Woods, as a morally flexible CIA agent turned mob underling, somehow brings his ridiculous character to life. It’s a dead stupid movie, and Woods knows it, and knows that you know it, which is part of the kick of his batshit crazy, live wire of a performance.

Morgan Freeman, Street Smart

Morgan Freeman got his first Oscar nomination, and the role that propelled him out of obscurity, playing a terrifying pimp and street hustler named Fast Black in the 1987 film Street Smart. Every single review was astonished by the skill of Freeman’s work; all were also singularly unimpressed with the film surrounding it. Pauline Kael famously began her review by asking, “Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?” and made the case for answering in the affirmative. But she also noted that Street Smart was thin and unconvincing, pointing out that Freeman sustaining Fast Black’s authenticity was “like sustaining King Lear inside Gidget Goes Hawaiian.”

Idris Elba, Daddy’s Little Girls

Welcome, friends, to the Tyler Perry portion of the article, where we lament the great performances that have been wasted on one of the most flagrantly inept (yet inexplicably prolific) auteurs of our time. Because you have to give Mr. Perry this: though he may write terrible films, they are at least terrible films filled with roles for underused actors of color who so rarely get the chance to play the lead in a feature film, they’ll even play the lead in a Tyler Perry feature film. Idris Elba starred in Daddy’s Little Girls — excuse me, let us refer to it by its proper (yet grammatically challenged) title, Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls — after completing his run on The Wire, and the transition from the dialogue of David Simon to that of Mr. Perry must have been a jarring one indeed. But Elba fills the role with grace and heart, lending it a quiet dignity that lifts the picture above Perry’s high school-level theatrics.

Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates, The Family That Preys

Both Woodard and Bates are actors that Hollywood hasn’t ever really made proper use of — though both have shined in their occasional leading roles (Woodard in Passion Fish, Bates in Misery), they’ve mainly been relegated to character actor status, which usually means coming in for a few scenes and stealing the movie. But if Perry’s hilariously soapy Family That Preys gave us nothing else (and it probably didn’t), it did give us Woodard and Bates in full-on leading roles, as matriarchs of two intermingling families. As Claudia Puig noted in USA Today, “The best thing about Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys is the opportunity it affords to watch a pair of veteran actresses still at the top of their game… the moments each are on-screen are undeniably the movie’s best. One senses a rapport and chemistry between the women that transcends the formulaic plot.”

Andre Braugher and Paul Giamatti, Duets

Braugher was still trying to parlay his masterful work on TV’s Homicide into a film career, and Giamatti hadn’t yet made the transition from “that guy!” to above-the-title star, when they co-starred in Duets — a thin-as-a-cracker ensemble comedy/drama from director Bruce Paltrow, who seemed to have made the film primarily so his daughter Gwyneth could show off her singing chops. Her character’s attempt to reunite with her dad (played by Huey Lewis — yep, that Huey Lewis) takes up about one-third of the film, a strained romance between Maria Bello and Scott Speedman another. But the movie only comes to life with the story of Braugher and Giamatti, who play a pair of burn-outs who find new meaning and direction by singing karaoke. This is the plot, folks, and it’s just as much of a stretch as it sounds like. But you have two actors here seemingly incapable of falseness, and damned if they don’t play these guys with the emotional weight and heft of Shakespearean heroes. If Duets had just been their story, it might’ve been worth seeing.

Those are some of our favorite performances in otherwise forgettable films — what are yours?