Sometimes the best recipe for success at the box office has come from the successful dynamic of celebrity star-power and a controversial movie role. Indeed, for celebrities, staying relevant can prove a considerable challenge. Aside from an actor being deemed simply a “bad fit” for a particular part are endless other reasons for upheaval about their character choices. Let’s face it, while movie studios are all about their bottom lines, the actors that play in their films take the most heat, good or bad.
No matter how popular the celebrity, just one ill-fated movie role can be all it takes to destroy them. However, taking on controversial roles has long been a trademark of some of Hollywood’s most successful stars. Even still, some of the world’s most formidable celebrities have become virtual case studies in what not to do when leveraging star power in a taboo way.
Whether the source of debate is baked into a movie that depicts a real-life controversial figure, or stems from a case of a non-racially diverse casting, Hollywood does everything it can to ensure that gossip-worthy controversy translates into ticket sales. This can be a major undertaking, especially when it hinges on celebrities holding it together.
In many cases, the reason a celebrity finds themselves in hot-water with relation to a movie role they’ve chosen is more of the studios fault for underestimating social backlash. However, when an actor’s antics turn up in tabloids for all the wrong reasons during the critical period of time during a film’s debut, it can spell disaster for their career. The following 15 movie roles have put the celebs who play them in some serious hot water.
15. Mariah Carey In Glitter
Not only was Glitter star Mariah Carey‘s portrayal of lead character Billie Frank not received positively by critics, but the famous diva became the center of a firestorm of tabloid scrutiny upon her sudden hospitalization just before the epic flop’s theatrical release.
By taking on her first acting role in the 2001 musical drama, what might have seemed like a sure bet for her crossover into movies unfortunately became a highly buzzed about disaster. Despite a 23 million dollar budget as well as a superstar musician in its lead role, the musical drama film was simply mired in controversy and bad luck all the way to the end.
In a stunning turn of events, Carey was hospitalized during the crucial lead-up to the film’s premiere due to mental duress resulting from pressure from the films intense marketing. As a result, 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures were forced to push back the release of the movie three weeks from its original Labor Day weekend slot to September 21st, 2001, and its soundtrack three weeks past its original date to none other than September 11, 2001!
14. Matt Damon In The Talented Mr. Ripley
Before Brokeback Mountain became the most well-known movie with gay undertones to date, Matt Damon and co-star Jude Law took on the lead roles in the movie adaptation of the book The Talented Mr. Ripley. The fact that the films’ lead character, Tom Ripley (played by Damon) was a serial killer, didn’t dampen things for the success of the film or its leading man. In fact, the LGBTQ community embraced the film.
Still, the taboo 1999 film generated plenty of anxiety from stakeholders, none the least of whom included Matt Damon himself. It’s no secret that fans like it when their stars put themselves out there, proving that their coveted celebs aren’t just talented, but brave enough to earn their keep in the entertainment world.
By taking such a dark and controversial role, Damon assumed quite a bit of risk. Having already cemented his place on the A-list, Damon no doubt knew he’d enrage some of his harshest critics by stepping into the sadistic shoes of the complicated homosexual serial killer.
13. Bette Midler In Isn’t She Great
Sometimes the controversy created by the acceptance of a role in a film by any actor can come from the oddest of directions. It’s not always about race, gender, or other hot button issues, but sometimes about legacy and the box office results that are all too often expected to follow in biopic screenplays such as Isn’t She Great.
When Bette Midler took on the role of best-selling 1960s author Jacqueline Susann, it seemed like a match made in heaven to producers with 20th Century Fox. Yet despite an all-star cast and an equally formidable band of vocalists for the film’s soundtrack, the film was largely panned by audiences.
While the world has the infamous author of Valley of The Dolls to thank for modern soap operas and cut-throat honesty about showbiz, Jacqueline Susann’s remarkable journey to the top is still largely unknown to the public, despite Midler’s Isn’t She Great. It didn’t help that the movie bombed at the box-office and drew a less than flattering appraisal from critics. Perhaps controversial casting and controversial biopics don’t mix.
12. Sigourney Weaver In Avatar 2 (She’s Back?)
Fans of the highest grossing film of all-time were shocked to discover that any tears spilled over the death of Dr. Grace Augustine played by Sigourney Weaver were in vain. When it comes to the surprise factor, fewer examples of late can compare to Weaver’s return to the popular Avatar franchise. Indeed, when iconic film director, screenwriter, and producer James Cameron revealed that Weaver would appear in the next several Avatar installments, many were left without a clue as just how to make sense of it all.
Since this tantalizing announcement, the blogosphere has never quite simmered down about Dr. Grace Augustine’s return. Speculation has been flying about how Weaver’s return will fit within the overall plot of the upcoming Avatar installments, and this firestorm of controversy has led Weaver to addressing the press – and on more than one occasion since her return was announced in 2014.
11. Charlize Theron In Monster
For a celebrity to take on a movie role that depicts a real-life person who is scheduled to die on death row just months prior to the debut of the film in question takes nothing short of balls. Yet, when it was announced that Charlize Theron, who had already established herself as one of Hollywood’s brightest and most attractive female stars, would be playing the role of a brutal female serial killer named Aileen Wuornos, the resulting shock waves were palpable.
The movie Monster took the world by storm and from very humble beginnings. It was an independent film with a small budget, but what major studio could bear the potential backlash? Adding to the controversy was the love story within the film, which was anchored between Theron and co-star Christina Ricci, both of whom helped evoke the gruesome real-life events of the movie’s real-life parallel.
10. Tom Cruise In The Mummy
The Mummy is a film that has gotten its fair share of attention, but if you’re thinking about the 1999 hit starring Brendan Fraser, then discovering that this The Mummy features an even bigger star at the helm might come as a surprise. Can we say controversy?
It’s not very often that a film of the same title is remade within a 20 year period. Critics haven’t traditionally gone easy on Tom Cruise, nor, as is in this case, his die-hard dedication to the rebooting of the Universal Pictures Egyptian themed franchise. When it became clear that the film wouldn’t do nearly as well in the United States as it would internationally, some distinctions between the 1999 and 2017 versions of the film became more clear.
For starters, with the lead role being played this time around by an actor in his 50s as opposed to his 30s, one might say that an anti-ageist message can be arguably one aspect of the Universal Studios and Cruise merger.
9. The Rock In Baywatch
When The Rock becomes the star of a Baywatch remake, you know that there’s likely bleeding to follow. Following the first news of the former WWE star joining the cast of the upcoming movie adaptation of the 1990s television series, the twitter-sphere went wild with anticipation.
Since the movie fell short of expectations after its premiere in May of 2017, The Rock, whose real name is Dwayne Johnson, did his part to defend the film and his controversial casting. However, the reception of Baywatch, which also starred Zac Efron and Kelly Rohrbach, was so poor that executives at Paramount Pictures were no doubt wondering if they made the right choice in signing on a completely non-original Baywatch cast.
In the end, while The Rock’s lighthearted and cool take to Twitter to defend the film might have helped a bit, the controversial adaptation and casting choice might prove to be too risky for Hollywood to emulate again anytime soon.
8. Eddie Murphy In Holy Man
When Eddie Murphy followed up his groundbreaking comedic performance in The Nutty Professor by portraying the title character in the reboot of the 1967 classic Doctor Dolittle, the result was yet another box office hit. However many fans and critics alike found his next role choice a bit strange. Who’d have thought he’d choose to go from playing doctors to playing a Holy Man in a feature film by the same name in 1998.
Sometimes the most in-demand and seasoned celebrities take on roles that force audiences to decipher just “what were they thinking?” – especially when all seemed so promising with the star.
Just as both new and old fans of Murphy had thought it safe to see him fulfilling the demands of virtually any comedic leading role, the stand-up comedy veteran and action hero chose a part that made many onlookers wonder whether he wanted to be funny at all anymore.
Appearing completely bald in the film, he was ultimately given a fair bit of praise by some critics for his portrayal of the films lead character “G” – however the lackluster performance of the film at the box office didn’t make producer happy.
7. Jack Black In Gulliver’s Travels
When it comes to classic epics, few tales compare to the out-of-this-world universe of Gulliver’s Travels. In the last few decades, the world has received not just one retelling of this giant tale, but two on-screen and downloadable versions of the 1726 fantasy by author Jonathan Swift.
The role of Gulliver was most notably played, perhaps to this day, by Ted Danson in the 1996 television miniseries. News of a feature film version of Gulliver’s Travels caught many by surprise in 2010, and plenty of fans of the classic story were happy to reserve tickets to the movie no matter who the cast.
As one of the most highly-praised comedic actors in Hollywood, Jack Black taking a stab at a role like Gulliver was a bit unexpected to fans, and perhaps the most controversial undertaking in Black’s career to date. Sadly, the film and all the hopes that surrounded it were crushed at the box-office.
6. Elizabeth Taylor In Cleopatra
Elizabeth Taylor isn’t just considered the timeless embodiment of beauty and class for nothing. Since attaining her super-stardom after taking on the controversial role of one of the most significant historical figures in human history, Taylor’s legacy has lent itself to many good causes after her death.
Still, the price of her name’s infinite recognition didn’t come without a cost. History teachers have been sharing the story of Cleopatra in classrooms around the world for generations, so needless to say there was much debate behind-the-scenes when it came to selecting the right actress for the role of the formidable queen. Any casting choice was bound to bring with it a heavy cost for the actor who ultimately won the lead part in what was then the most expensive movie ever made.
Not only did the hot water of being cast as Cleopatra culminate with racial and gender related political controversy (especially since the Egyptian queen was being portrayed by a white woman), but it also entailed plenty of jealously throughout the competitive movie industry of the time.
5. John Travolta In Look Who’s Talking
Having attained massive fame from his starring role in Grease and subsequent other titles, John Travolta took fans on an unexpected journey in his claiming of a controversial role in a postmodern film series that centered on nothing more than sperm traveling towards an egg in its opening sequence.
It’s so seldom discussed how much upset the Look Who’s Talking dad character represented compared to the other father roles of the cinema of the day. Bolstered by the brazen and colorful performance of the film’s leading lady, Kirstie Alley, the film made audiences, albeit somewhat cautiously, return for not just one but two sequels: Look Who’s Talking Too and Look Who’s Talking Now, respectively.
Travolta redefining himself as a father of two newborns in the successful 90’s Look Who’s Talking franchise was a controversial, since many of his loyalist fans had gotten used to him as a rustic and wild type, the handsome song-and-dance man.
4. Oprah Winfrey In The Color Purple
Before she was the most well known celebrity in the world, Oprah Winfrey was an ambitious upwardly mobile professional living in Baltimore, Maryland. When her morning ritual of reading the New York Times book review section materialized with her discovery of a new book by Alice Walker called The Color Purple in 1983, she immediately put her coat on over her pajamas and headed to her local bookstore to pick up a copy of the book she had just read about.
Reading the new book from cover to cover in just one day, the still relatively unknown Winfrey became obsessed with the novel. Due to the popularity of the book starting to draw movie buzz, Winfrey began to pray that she, despite having no knowledge of the movie industry, would get cast in the film adaptation of her beloved book.
3. Mel Gibson In Conspiracy Theory
Mel Gibson had already defined himself as among the elite movers and shakers in Hollywood by the time he took on a controversial role in a movie that revolved around the concept of conspiracy theories titled, aptly, Conspiracy Theory. This case of a controversial movie role is particularly poignant due in-part to the sheer number of hot-button issues the screenplay addresses.
Gibson’s character was obsessed with seriously scary real world issues, including but not limited to: the assassination of John F. Kennedy, fluoride in drinking water, George H. W. Bush, the “New World Order,” black helicopters capable of silent travel, and more.
With his most recently completed film before Conspiracy Theory being a minor role in a kid-centered comedy starring Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, taking on the part of a mentally disturbed taxi driving conspiracy theorist was nothing short of a 180 degree turn in his otherwise mainstream and leading man film career at the time.
Yet the risk of placating to the conspiracy theory crowd didn’t damage Gibson’s reputation enough to cause any significant damage, and his performance was applauded by critics as well as fans. He ruined his own reputation when he went on an anti-semitic rant, but that’s another story.
2. Macaulay Culkin In Party Monster
For one of the world’s most beloved celebrities, deciding to take a role depicting a real life murderer currently serving a prison sentence doesn’t go unnoticed by the public.
There was much buzz about the former child star of Home Alone fame taking on the lead role in the edgy independent film Party Monster prior to its 2003 release. Not only was taking on such an adult role a big departure for the mega-celeb, but Macaulay Culkin also risked the potential backlash from those opposed to homosexual relationships on the big screen – whether from pro or anti-gay rights groups, in this case.
Despite a firestorm of weary-eyed speculation and criticism, Culkin joined forces with co-star Seth Green to bring the underground New York City club kid scene to life in the most visible way to date through his portrayal of the infamous NYC club promoter turned murderer, Michael Alig. The result? The movie has become a cult classic and continues to draw attention, most recently with the release of the real Alig from prison in 2014.
1. Michael Jackson In The Wiz
When a mega-celebrity whose entire career had been rooted in the music industry decides to take his first and only real stab at the big screen, there are sure to be hordes of critics and plenty of rumors about the legitimacy of the move and its possible ramifications. Yet when Michael Jackson became a part of the all-star cast of The Wiz, there was much to be desired in the realm of controversy, which in and of itself, was the controversy.
There seemed to be an almost eerie air about the casting of Jackson in The Wiz, whether it was because he co-starred in the film with his virtual second mother, Diana Ross, or because of his luke-warm performance as the Scarecrow. Not to mention the film’s corny set designs and overall low-quality appearance which begged for a screening of the original, the role Jackson chose for his big screen debut has largely gone unnoticed over the years. Let’s just hope the next celebrity crossover failure victim has enough staying power, as did Jackson in his original arena, to survive the boiling hot ire off Hollywood without falling off the entertainment world radar completely.
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