Acting makes or breaks a film. Seasoned direction and a beautifully written script can be completely negated by an actor who’s unable to effectively read their lines or inhabit a character. Powerful moments, like a deathbed confession or a lover’s first meeting, can see all their gravitas dashed in an instant if a star puts emphasis on the wrong word. Now imagine that spread across an entire movie. It’s not surprising that the Golden Raspberries Awards—known as the Razzies—“commend” bad performances.
In a similar fashion, a few bad performances can completely undo—or at least obscure—genuinely great work that some actors have done in their careers. We’re not saying that the following individuals are the Oliviers of their time; only that under circumstances these supposedly bad apples are remarkably palatable.
4 David Caruso, Session 9
Before he perfected the art of making puns and putting on sunglasses during the cold openings of numerous CSI: Miami episodes, David Caruso seemed to have the beginnings of a promising career. In 1993, he starred as a major character in the first season of NYPD Blue. After a salary dispute, however, he left the show and embarked on a stint as a Hollywood leading man. Neither of his two major attempts, Kiss of Death and Jade, were successful, though, and he eventually returned to TV as the sly, groan-inducing Horatio Caine, a character who has been a source of much unintentional laughter and parody since the series’ debut in 2002.
But while our idea of David Caruso is his gritty voice attached to bad puns and the opening scream of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” he’s actually a fine actor when he just plays a normal human being. Case in point: Brad Anderson’s independent psychological horror film, Session 9. Caruso plays one of five hazardous materials technicians assigned to strip an abandoned mental hospital of its potentially dangerous asbestos lining. As the week progresses, tensions between the men intensify, and it becomes clear that a lingering presence in the old asylum is amplifying each man’s worst impulses. Caruso’s character in particular lost his girlfriend to one of his fellow coworkers and spends his nights alternately burying his sorrows in alcohol and marijuana. When said coworker goes missing, suspicions turn toward him. It should be noted, however, that there is a roughly five second sequence wherein Caruso’s normal human being façade falls away to reveal, well, some weird dude. The somewhat not safe for work video is viewable here.
3 Hayden Christensen, Shattered Glass
Cast in the role of the Star Wars saga’s most pivotal character, Hayden Christensen should have been an A-list star following his debut as Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. One would hope so, as he was chosen for the part over Ryan Phillippe, Colin Hanks and the late Paul Walker. Those hopes were torpedoed, however, by the movie’s largely negative reception, with a great deal of criticism targeting Christensen’s flat performance as the future Dark Lord of the Sith. Audience appraisal of his acting didn’t greatly improve when the final prequel, Revenge of the Sith, and it seemed like Christensen’s career was a wash.
But while Christensen may not have been cut out for the Star Wars saga (which may not have been entirely his fault, given criticisms of George Lucas’ writing and direction), he is capable of putting in a solid performance. Between the two prequels, he starred in Shattered Glass, a biopic depicting the rise and fall of The New Republic reporter Stephen Glass. While writing for the influential news and affairs magazine, Glass partially or completely made up 27 pieces, going to such lengths as forging voicemails and creating websites for fake companies. When exposed, he was fired and The New Republic was forced to apologize for his fabricated work. Shattered Glass was critically acclaimed, currently holding a 91% aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes, and Christensen, along with co-star Peter Sarsgaard, was praised for his work on the film.
2 Keanu Reeves, A Scanner Darkly
Canada’s own stoic, frequently monotone pride and joy first gained prominence playing a stoned, time travelling high schooler in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Naturally, the Wachowski’s thought he’d be a perfect fit for the nuanced lead in their groundbreaking action sci-fi film The Matrix. While ostensibly the main character, Reeves’ role of Neo spent most of the movie gawking at the impossible feats his comrades were able to perform in the Matrix and occasionally responding with “Why?” It wasn’t until the film’s final act that he was—literally—able to break out the big guns and kick some digital butt. His performances in the blockbusters less-than-stellar sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions required even less of him.
But Reeves’ career doesn’t merely consist of mumbled, one-word interrogatives. Admittedly, he’ll always have a bit of Ted from Bill & Ted in him, but the actor has used that to his advantage, particularly in Richard Linklater’s 2006 adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel A Scanner Darkly. The independent film gained some traction for its use of rotoscoping, wherein the movie was shot in live-action and digitally “painted over” to give it a stylized, cartoony look. Besides its innovative look, A Scanner Darkly also contains Reeves’ best work to date as Bob Arctor, a police officer so deep undercover that he is assigned to spy on himself. As Arctor consumes more drugs and covertly monitors his own activity, his psyche starts to fracture, essentially turning him into two people. Between his character’s dissociations, Reeves convincingly portrays a man marvelling at the wreck he’s made of his life, as well as his believable confusion brought on by Arctor’s drug use. Basically, he’s Ted Logan all grown up.
1 Nicolas Cage, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Ahhhhhh, Nic Cage. One of the most lampooned actors of his generation, Cage’s intense, very often over-the-top performances have resulted in more than a few snappily cut YouTube montages of the craziest and weirdest moments of his career. Some of the best show him running around New York City and yelling “I’m a vampire!” in Vampire’s Kiss, disguising himself as a bear and knocking out female cultists in Neil LaBute’s universally panned remake of The Wicker Man, and just being his ol’ crazy self in Face/Off.
Amidst all this, it’s easy to forget that Cage won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Leaving Las Vegas, or that his work in Lord of War, Kick-Ass and Joe has been similarly praised, if not recognized with a gold statuette. Cracked columnist Dan O’Brien has theorized that Cage spends his money so poorly that he’ll accept any role, even if it isn’t remotely suited for him. But in the right part, he shines. One of his best in recent years is the lead role of Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. As corrupt, drug-addled detective Terence McDonagh, Cage slurs, twitches and snarls his way through the film, slipping between Jimmy Stewart and the Joker on the dime. Despite the seeming grandstanding of the role, Cage is just as easily able to communicate the detective’s remorse, inner turmoil, and even project a—granted very twisted—sense of morality.