As a movie critic, I get called a lot of names. 'Nice try, fatso,' someone once scribbled on a piece of paper and mailed to me after one of my reviews appeared. I guess we hadn't seen eye to eye on the movie, which is fine, but how did he know I'd put on a few? And why didn't he include a return address so I could share my thoughts regarding his own struggles with cream puffs? The thing is, of all the words that have been hurled at me over the years, the one that bothers me the most is 'negative.' I'm sorry, but I just don't see myself as a negative person. I see myself as ' I'm just going to go ahead and put it out there ' a positive person, a glass-half-full kind of guy. And to bring that point home, I've assembled a list of movies that everybody, critics and audiences alike, hated, everybody except me.
These are legendarily bad movies, movies that derailed careers and sank studios. That means, of course, that they were made with a certain amount of ambition. You don't sink a studio without taking on a lot of water. And for every Titanic, which had all the hallmarks of a legendarily bad movie (visionary director, runaway budget, a theme song sung by Celine Dion) but was instead embraced as one of the greatest love stories of all time, there's a Cleopatra, which left Twentieth-Century Fox gasping for air. What did I think of Titanic? Thanks for asking! I thought it was...okay. But I'd much rather watch Cleopatra, which for all its many flaws, knows how to put on a show. As far as I'm concerned, the costumes alone ' 'Project Runway' does Egypt by way of Rodeo Drive ' are worth the rental fee.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not responding to Cleopatra as camp. You'll find no Battlefield Earth in my list, despite its having been legendarily bad and having provided me with two of the most blissful hours of my life. These aren't movies that are so bad they're good. They're movies that, in my opinion, are good, even great, even (in a couple of cases) masterpieces. They're made by masters, anyway, most of them ' Altman, Scorsese, Coppola, Branagh. That's right, Branagh. I think Kenneth Branagh's promising career as a maestro of high and low art was dealt a tragic blow by the reception to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which I regard as one of the neglected masterpieces of the '90s, a flesh-tingling, blood-gurgling, heart-wrenching piece of Grand Guignol that ranks right up there with...well, we'll get to that.
First, I'd like to remind you that this is my own list of legendarily bad movies that are actually quite good. If you don't like my choices, make your own damn list. And don't send me a hand-scribbled note calling me a fatso and pointing out that there's no accounting for some people's taste. Accounting for my taste is exactly what I intend to do. That's the kind of glass-half-full guy I am.
Oh for Heaven's Sake
Critics carved it a new one: 'an unqualified disaster,' wrote Vincent Canby in The New York Times; 'a numbing shambles,' wrote Pauline Kael in The New Yorker; 'truly awful,' wrote David Denby in New York magazine. And audiences, as Sam Goldwyn used to say, stayed away in droves. Having run up a tab of $44 million ' and this was back when $44 million actually meant something ' writer-director Michael Cimino needed to clean up at the box office just to break even. Instead, United Artists went for a swim with the fishes. Yes, folks, it's Heaven's Gate, long considered the epitome of that other kind of disaster film.
Having won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for 1978's The Deer Hunter, Cimino was shooting for the stars ' an epic Western to end all epic Westerns, which it nearly did. And he was undoubtedly impossible to work with, as meticulously detailed by studio exec Steven Bach in his fascinating book Final Cut. For instance, after six days of shooting, Cimino was five days behind schedule ' 'takes and retakes and retakes of the retakes,' Bach wrote. 'And retakes of those.' So maybe the guy was a bit of a perfectionist, perhaps even slightly megalomaniacal ' okay, he rivaled Hitler ' but all that matters, in the end, is what he put on the screen.
And what he put on the screen is often stunning, always gorgeous and never boring. Starring the Lincolnesque Kris Kristofferson as a U.S. marshal in 1892 Wyoming with a range war on his hands, Heaven's Gate is about what happened when all those masses huddled around the Statue of Liberty made their way west. (They were slaughtered like cattle.) But what impresses me most about the movie is the way it captured the look and feel of the West as it was turning into the Old West. Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography is a revelation ' realistic, yet transcendent. And the movie itself is like a postcard from another time, full of tidbits that suggest a whole way of life.
A word of caution: The soundtrack is pure mush, the dialogue often drowned out by whatever team of horses happens to be passing by. Luckily, the DVD has a closed-captions option. I'd use it.
Technically speaking, 1963's Cleopatra wasn't a critical and commercial disaster. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it 'stunning and entertaining.' And although it cost $42 million to produce ($300 million in today's currency), it made $26 million of that back the first year and eventually squeezed out a modest profit. It was also nominated for nine Oscars and won four. But the ones it won were the ones that always go to that year's studio behemoth ' the technical versus the artistic categories. And because the studio system was already teetering on the brink of collapse, Cleopatra's underperformance sent shock waves through Hollywood's corridors of power. Finally, Judith Crist of The New York Herald-Tribune more adequately represented the views of the critical community when she referred to the film as 'at best a major disappointment, at worst an extravagant exercise in tedium.'
Extravagant, yes. Tedious, no ' well, not all the time, anyway. Like so many legendarily bad movies, Cleopatra was dead in the water before it ever pulled into the harbor. Journalists were gunning for it, and l'affaire de Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who both left their spouses so that they might torture each other instead, may not have helped. But the movie itself ' too long, silly at times ' is indeed spectacular, and we're talking analog spectacle, not digital. Those are real extras sweating in the sun while Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra steers her floating barge into Rome. (The woman knew how to make an entrance.) The movie is also what its director, Joseph Mankiewicz, called 'a literate spectacle' ' not Shakespeare, exactly, but not Troy or Alexander either. It's surprisingly talky for a sword-and-sandal epic, but the male leads ' Gregory Harrison as Julius Caesar, Burton as Marc Antony ' put their English accents to good use.
As for the Queen of the Nile, Miss Taylor was nearly as famous in her time as Cleopatra had been in hers, and for the same reason ' a willingness to use her feminine wiles to get what she wanted. Instead of gunboat diplomacy, dreamboat diplomacy, and when Taylor's Cleo flashes her royal cleavage, you understand why men build pyramids. Today, the movie itself seems like ancient history. They don't make 'em like this anymore.
Lost in the Desert
Everybody remembers when Elaine May, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, three of the most temperamental artists in the history of Hollywood, went looking for comedy in the Muslim world. The result was 1987's Ishtar, a $50 million Hope-and-Crosby road movie that's become synonymous with high-priced talent run amok. It probably didn't help that Beatty and Hoffman split $11.5 million between them, nor that writer-director May was nearly as finicky as Michael Cimino. (She had an entire sand dune moved, then changed her mind and had it moved back.) But Ishtar's biggest mistake was coming out so soon after Heaven's Gate. People were on the lookout for Hollywood hubris. 'A complete disaster,' The New Republic's Stanley Kauffmann bellowed. 'A truly dreadful film,' added Roger Ebert. But it was The Village Voice's Andrew Sarris who pulled out the big guns. 'Never before in the annals of cinematic endeavor,' Sarris wrote, 'has so much been spent on so few for so little.'
Yeah, well who cares how much they spent? Did it raise the ticket price? In my opinion, Ishtar works quite well as a Mutt and Jeff comedy about a pair of singer-songwriters who couldn't sing or songwrite their way out of a paper bag. (Think Bill Murray's lounge lizard, only without the talent.) Yes, Beatty and Hoffman are slumming ' well, Beatty's slumming, Hoffman is applying his considerable intelligence to playing dumb. Besides, it's fun to watch stars slum; you can see where their talent ends and their charisma begins. Watching the movie recently, I kept being reminded of Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, who would've killed in this thing, because there's just enough of May's sly wit to give the movie some weight. (My favorite line: 'You'd rather have nothing than settle for less.') Alas, Ishtar was her Waterloo; she never signed her name to another feature film. And Columbia Pictures, having lost over $25 million on the deal, soon got dumped by its parent company, Coca-Cola.
Apparently, some things don't go better with Coke.
Rhymes With 'Really'
I'm starting to detect a theme here: Legendarily bad movies are legendarily bad before anyone's actually seen them. They acquire a stink before being allowed to apply their perfume. In the case of Gigli, a frisky little Mafia comedy from the director of Beverly Hills Cop and Scent of a Woman (Martin Brest), that whole Bennifer thing had the media licking its chops, smelling blood. But the movie itself is pleasantly vulgar. (If you want to hear Jennifer Lopez discuss her nether regions with GPS accuracy, here's your opportunity.) And the stars, though perhaps not quite up to the script's challenges, sparkle like stars are supposed to, Lopez more than Ben Affleck, who may have broken off the engagement for that very reason.
What I like about Gigli is that it sticks to its knitting, rarely leaving the apartment where Lopez and Affleck, a pair of Mob enforcers, are holed up with a hostage they're looking after. Other movies would cut to the chase. Gigli would rather explore Lopez's nether regions.
Groucho, Meet Ingmar
Woody Allen doesn't talk about Ingmar Bergman very much anymore. Nobody talks about Ingmar Bergman very much anymore. But there was a time when it was all anybody would talk about. And Woody, with his Mozartean genius for a gag, aspired to leave the comic realm behind for the cosmic realm. Not just any cosmic realm ' he was after the suicidally depressed atmosphere that Bergman had polished to a dark, ebony sheen. Hence, 1978's Interiors, which came on the heels of Annie Hall and is, in some ways, Annie Hall without the la-di-das. Instead of a break-up, a breakdown. Instead of laughs, cries and whispers.
Geraldine Page, in one of her least mannered performances, plays an interior decorator who's turned her three grown daughters ' Mary Beth Hurt, Diane Keaton and Kristin Griffith ' into glorified knickknacks, placing them exactly where she wants them and dusting them regularly. Then, when her husband leaves her for a woman who actually has blood flowing through her veins, she kills herself.
Bummer. But I don't think Woody has gotten enough credit for how thoroughly he drained his movie of blood. There's no music on the soundtrack, just the ocean's insinuative murmur. And the performances, I believe, are spot-on, especially Maureen Stapleton's as the life force. 'It's deep on the surface,' Pauline Kael snapped, but the movie's all about surfaces ' dÃcor and decorum. It has the mother's exquisite taste, a series of still lifes that add up to death.
Apocalypse Now and Then
Back before Sofia Coppola, there was Francis Ford Coppola, one of movie history's more maniacal megalomaniacs. To get the shots he wanted for Apocalypse Now, Coppola dragged the entire cast and crew through the Philippine jungle, driving Martin Sheen to a heart attack and managing to make the movie even crazier than the war it was trying to represent. What to do for an encore? Coppola decided to make 1982's One From the Heart, a candy-coated valentine shot entirely on the stages of Zoetrope Studios, Coppola's very own dream factory.
Frederic Forrest and Teri Garr play a couple who break up, then make up, on the Fourth of July in that other City of Light, Las Vegas. But they aren't the reason to see One From the Heart. Vittorio Storaro (cinematography) and Dean Tavoularis (set design) are. Together, these two created an electronic canvas painted in the colors of pure emotion ' jealous greens, passionate reds. Add to that the battered love songs of Tom Waits, sung by Waits and Crystal Gayle, and you have one of cinema's great little oddities, a Gene Kelly ballet without the ballet, just the glistening sweat.
'Coppola seems more fascinated by reflections of the actors than by the actors themselves,' Pauline Kael wrote. TouchÃ, but is it always such a bad thing when we leave humming the scenery? Coppola put the 'art' back in 'artifice' and, for whatever reasons, has never made another one strictly from the heart.
Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance
We don't really associate The Departed's Martin Scorsese and the dearly departed Robert Altman with musicals, but maybe we should. For back in the late '70s and early '80s, when they were given the chance, they both came up with musicals that are far more entertaining than that thing that tried to pass itself off as Chicago. Scorsese's New York, New York, which starred Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli as a pair of jazz musicians who couldn't live with or without each other, may have been too dark for people accustomed to Singin' in the Rain. Scorsese himself called it 'a film noir musical.' But I'd call it an old-style musical with new-style dramatics ' improv, for instance. De Niro pretty much mops the floor with Minnelli in their scenes together. Then she opens her mouth and blows everybody away with those trumpet blasts of Broadway-baby sound. The movie's about the decline of the big-band era, but it's also about the decline of the old MGM musicals, the ones directed by Vincent Minnelli and starring Judy Garland. No wonder Liza seems right at home.
As for Altman's Popeye, which critics railed against (what do they know?), I think it's nothing short of brilliant, the old E.C. Segar comic strip sprung to life. Robin Williams is, if anything, too convincing as Popeye the Sailor Man; he veritably disappears into the role. And Shelley Duvall, as Olive Oyl, gives Alfalfa a run for his money when she breaks into one of Harry Nilsson's faux-naÃve songs. The movie has a Brechtian feel ' Threepenny Opera with Bluto substituting for Mack the Knife. And the village of Sweethaven, which clings to the side of a cliff with a real-live ocean lapping at its toes, is a triumph of set design. Today, every movie aspires to be a comic book, a live-action cartoon. Altman pulled it off 26 years ago without a single pixel of CGI.
Don't let the title fool you. It's very much Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein, just as Bram Stoker's Dracula was very much Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula. But Branagh actually returned his creature feature to its roots in one of the world's very first dark-and-stormy-night novels while also displaying a mad scientist's glee with the cinematic tools at his disposal. They don't call them moving pictures for nothing, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein rarely slows down to ask whether Branagh's Victor Frankenstein is making the right decisions. Yes, the movie seems a little hastily stitched together, but doesn't that make sense given a monster that was also hastily stitched together? This was Branagh's one and only foray into big-budget, big-studio moviemaking, and he's never fully recovered from the blow.
I Want My Mommie
Yes, we all know that Mommie Dearest is a camp classic ' 'No wire hangers!' But have you seen it lately? It's actually quite horrifying, a child-abuse case turned into a Grimm's Fairy Tale and made all the more disturbing by the fact that the evil stepmother was a screen legend. Faye Dunaway didn't just impersonate Joan Crawford, she dug her up, plugged a pair of electrodes into her skull and then jumped into her skin. And the performance is simply mesmerizing; you can't take your eyes off her Kabuki face. Crawford may have been driven insane by the old studio system, its demand for immaculate beauty. And Dunaway herself, having conquered Hollywood with Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown and Network, was more or less laughed out of town.
'The trashiest kind of trash,' David Sterritt called Mommie Dearest in The Christian Science Monitor. To which I can only reply....
Nice try, fatso.