10 Great Performances by Terrible Actors

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Forgive the perhaps unwarranted level of enthusiasm, but Joy Ride is out on Blu-ray today, and YIPEE. It’s a crackerjack little thriller from eternally underrated director John Dahl (The Last Seduction, Rounders, Red Rock West), co-written by a young J.J. Abrams (for my money, the best movie he’s been involved in), starring Steve Zahn, Leelee Sobieski, and, yes, Paul Walker. Though second-billed behind Zahn (ah, for the more innocent year of 2001), this is indisputably a vehicle for the handsome and unaccountably dull future star of the Fast and Furious franchise — and believe it or not, he’s not distractingly terrible in it. Make whatever stopped-clock, blind-squirrel analogies you’d like, but occasionally even the worst of actors stumbles into a decent performance. Here’s a few examples.

The Gift (Keanu Reeves)

It’s easy to laugh at Keanu Reeves. His “British accented” performances in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Much Ado About Nothing are utterly preposterous; even his enjoyable action vehicles (like Speed and The Matrix) have to overcome the considerable handicap of his wooden line readings and middle-school theatrics. And while he’s enjoyable in Bill & Ted and Parenthood, it’s awfully easy to think he’s playing himself. But he turns in an honest-to-goodness performance in Sam Raimi’s 2000 paranormal thriller The Gift, playing Donnie Barksdale, a wife-beating, Southern-drawling, trucker-hat-wearing piece of pond scum who may or may not be a murderer. It’s a complicated character, and Reeves proves surprisingly equal to the task — making Barksdale a loathsome bastard, but never quite showing all of his cards.

Adventureland (Kristen Stewart)

Like Reeves, Stewart has become a pretty easy mark over the past few years, thanks to the scripted sleepwalking (it doesn’t seem fair to other actors to call it “acting”) in the terrible Twilight films. After five of those duds, it seems impossible to believe this, but Stewart is not without talent. She’s sort of heartbreaking in the fumbling Welcome to the Rileys, she’s earthy and sensuous in On the Road, and she’s straight-up perfect in Adventureland, writer/director Greg Mottola’s humble remembrance of late-‘80s wheel-spinning. As Em, the object of our hero’s desire, Stewart manages to be both standoffish and irresistible, confident and wounded, whip-smart and capable of some very stupid decisions. It’s a complex, fascinating character — the direct opposite of what she’s known for.

Cop Land (Sylvester Stallone)

Believe it or not, when Rocky made Sly a star back in 1976, he wasn’t just considered a box office attraction; Roger Ebert compared him to Marlon Brando, and the film netted Stallone an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. But there wasn’t much more serious acting in his future — he became an action movie staple and sequel machine, turning out an increasingly silly series of bullet-ridden vehicles. Eventually, however, that all dried up, and by the mid-‘90s, Stallone was looking for a fresh shot of stardom. The prototype for his comeback was Pulp Fiction, in which Stallone’s contemporary (and star of his Staying Alive) John Travolta took a salary cut and fronted an indie ensemble piece. In 1996, Stallone did the same, working for scale (along with Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Cathy Moriarty, and a few other actors who hadn’t been in Scorsese movies) in James Mangold’s Cop Land. He ended up turning in his finest performance since Rocky, his action-star build hidden behind 40 pounds of extra weight which he carries like a burden, beautifully personifying a punching bag of a guy who decides he’s got a little bit of fight left in him after all.

Gridlock’d (Thandie Newton)

From Crash to The Pursuit of Happyness to Norbit, the shrieking, one-note performances of Thandie Newton have wrecked films good, bad, and indifferent. (And don’t even get me started on that sub-SNL level Condi Rice impression in W.) But it wasn’t always so; she’s quite charming in the Australian indie Flirting (which also features early turns by Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts), and she’s downright haunting in Gridlock’d, an under-seen and underrated buddy drug drama featuring the unlikely team of Tim Roth and Tupac Shakur, from writer/director Vondie Curtis-Hall (the unfortunate soul who went on to direct Glitter). Newton, Roth, and Shakur play a trio of heroin dealers, and Newton’s overdose early on sets off the story’s chain of events. It’s a raw, convincing piece of work — and no, it’s not on this list just because her character disappears so quickly.

Heathers (Christian Slater)

Though there are a few good pictures on his resume (True Romance, Pump Up the Volume, The Contender), Mr. Slater’s filmography these days is a whole lotta straight-to-DVD dreck, and for good reason: his “young Jack Nicholson” schtick wore pretty thin after those first few years. But if your range is limited, half the battle is finding the right role, and J.D. in Heathers was that role for Slater — a barely contained psychopath oozing oily charm. In other words, the kind of role young Jack Nicholson would’ve played.

Out of Sight (Jennifer Lopez)

Like Newton and Slater, Lopez is an actor whose early work would seem to indicate better things down the line. When she co-starred with George Clooney in Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight, she’d already fronted Selena and Anaconda, among others, and done so capably enough. But there’s an electricity to her performance as Karen Sisco, the federal agent who’s skilled with a shotgun but has a bit of a soft spot for charismatic convict Jack Foley (Clooney). Yet the promise of that performance was seldom delivered on in the forgettable star vehicles that followed, and here’s why: in Out of Sight, she played a spiky character with an edge, a hard case whose morals were a little shaky. But in the vehicles that followed, your Wedding Planners and Maid in Manhattans and Monster-In-Laws, she tried to transform herself into a dull, vanilla rom-com queen. We didn’t believe her (especially coupling those roles with the rumors of her scandalous diva behavior off-screen). But when Lopez was willing to play bad, we were all in.

sex, lies, and videotape (Andie MacDowell)

Lopez wasn’t the only actor who produced a fine piece of work in the hands of Soderbergh (if no one else); in his 1989 debut feature sex, lies, and videotape, he handed the leading role to Andie MacDowell, a model-turned-actress best known for the indignity of having her dialogue replaced by Glenn Close in 1984’s Greystoke. In films like Michael, Four Weddings and Funeral, and The Muse, MacDowell seldom manages to convince audiences that she’s more than an actor spouting lines before she forgets them (she’s so unconvincing in Michael, even her own Southern accent sounds phony), but in sex, lies, her repressed Louisiana housewife is utterly believable and entirely sympathetic. How’d you do it, Soderbergh? What kinda voodoo you got?

JCVD (Jean-Claude Van Damme)

Mabrouk El Mechri’s JCVD is a cleverly stylish and scrappily well-done slice of meta-moviemaking that caused us to rethink Jean Claude Van Damme, a screen presence who most hadn’t considered in any terms at all for a good long while. The Timecop star plays himself, but it’s no vanity project — this Van Damme is a washed-up, past-his-prime action star who can’t get a decent job anymore. Whether it’s the rare opportunity to work with good material or the comfort of speaking in his native tongue, Van Damme is terrific. His finest acting moment is a brutally honest monologue, straight into camera, that serves as a forceful poke in the eye to an industry that may have been underestimating the big lug all along.

The Joneses (Demi Moore)

Aside from some interesting work early on (Mortal Thoughts, for example, or About Last Night…), Demi Moore has spend more of her career as a commodity than a genuinely engaged performer. But in some strange way, that makes her casting in this smart, knowing satire of conspicuous consumption and consumerist culture just about perfect. Her seemingly perfect housewife and mother is herself playing a part — a presentational one, as part of a job bringing new products into upscale communities. And Moore is astonishingly assured and capable in both roles; this tough-as-nails taskmaster mom/exec is an easy fit for her whiskey-soaked voice and well-preserved good looks.

Shattered Glass (Hayden Christensen)

Look, Olivier himself couldn’t do anything with the dialogue in those Star Wars prequels, which with every film reconfirmed Harrison Ford’s early critique: “George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it.” But unlike castmates Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, and Samuel L. Jackson, Christensen has rarely acquitted himself elsewhere, turning in equally sluggish performances in films like Jumper, Takers, and Vanishing on 7th Street (with Thandie Newton!). But between episodes II and III, Christensen turned in a riveting performance as Stephen Glass, notoriously fabricating journalist, in Billy Ray’s excellent dramatization Shattered Glass. Or maybe it’s just a matter of verisimilitude; through much of the film, Christensen’s Glass is the object of derision and distrust, constantly being asked to explain himself and offering up weak excuses. He does so quite convincingly!