Say it ain't so

Recently, finding myself with the rare unspoken-for patch of time and no immediately evident avenues by which to spend it, I turned my attentions to the oft-neglected, sprawling digital buffet that is my On-Demand cable subscription — determined, by hook or crook, to get at least part of my hundred bucks’-worth for the month. There, reposing, waiting coyly for me, figurative PBR in hand, was the turn-of-the-(previous)-decade, Top-Gun-in-neon-stock-cars bag of silly Days of Thunder — which I had either never seen before, or had caught in portions as a kid but completely forgotten (I’m still not entirely sure).

Now, I can hold down a guilty-pleasure flick as well as or better than most folks; I came away from the experience genuinely appalled. Seriously, pissed. Not at Tom Cruise, as one might readily predict. Not at Tony Scott, or whoever signed off on the scene wherein Cruise’s Cole Trickle (giggle) and Michael Rooker’s Rowdy Burns (snort), consumed by their on-track rivalry despite a post-crash hospitalization, stage an emotional — not to mention stone-faced serious — impromptu wheelchair drag race. No, I was set off mere seconds in, as the opening credits revealed that (and I’m better now, but I still get a mild psychic shudder thinking about it) Robert Duvall is in Days of Thunder.


Why would Robert Duvall do such a thing … to me? Why do very, very good actors agree to very, very bad films? So I set to thinking. Result? Herewith, a brief study of that persistent and gnawing mystery: A dossier of uniformly towering talents (six men, with 21 Academy Award nominations and two knighthoods among them) who pop up all too frequently in schlock so maddeningly feckless it makes you want to pitch your Chuck Taylors screenward.

First, parameters: Each subject has at least been nominated for one Academy Award. Certain sorts of films, however, get a pass, a “Unique Opportunity” exemption. Sam Jackson doesn’t get docked for doing Episodes I through III of Star Wars, for instance, regardless of how very prodigiously they may suck, because the chance to be part of such a culturally significant series is one you can hardly blame an actor for taking. Ditto for comic franchises like Superman, Batman, X-Men, and the like. In essence, we’re looking for films that the subjects likely knew were not going to be good, but took them anyway. With no further ado, then … Let slip the skeletons from their cinematic closets.

Oscar Nominations: The Godfather (1973), Apocalypse Now (1980), The Great Santini (1981), Tender Mercies (1984) (won), The Apostle (1998), A Civil Action (1999)
Questionable Role Choices: Days of Thunder (1990), Gone in Sixty Seconds (2000), The 6th Day (2000), Kicking and Screaming (2005)

OscarNominations: Ghandi (1982) (won), Bugsy (1991), Sexy Beast (2000), House of Sand and Fog (2003)
Questionable Role Choices: Species (2005), What Planet Are You From? (2000), Thunderbirds (2004), A Sound of Thunder (2005), BloodRayne (2005)

OscarNomination: Pulp Fiction (1994)
Questionable Role Choices: Deep Blue Sea (1999), Formula 51 (2001), xXx (2002), S.W.A.T. (2005), xXx: State of the Union (2005), The Man (2005), Snakes on a Plane (2006)

OscarNominations: Alfie (1966), Sleuth (1972), Educating Rita (1983), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) (won), The Cider House Rules (1999) (won), The Quiet American (2002)
Questionable Role Choices: Jaws: The Revenge (1987), Mr. Destiny (1990), Miss Congeniality (2000)

OscarNominations: Platoon (1986), Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Questionable Role Choices: Body of Evidence (1993), Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997), xXx: State of the Union, (2005)

OscarNominations: The Deer Hunter (1973) (won), Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Questionable Role Choices: The Prophecy I, II, and III, (1995-2000), Joe Dirt (2001), The Country Bears (2002), Kangaroo Jack (2003), Gigli (2003), The Rundown (2003)

Duvall’s and Caine’s lapses into mediocrity will seem perhaps the least egregious, if thanks only to the fact that they claim close to a century of experience and some of the most memorable films (Duvall’s tally also boasts Network, M*A*S*H, and the 1962 classic To Kill a Mockingbird — his debut — with Gregory Peck) and characters of all time between them, facts that help to counterbalance the handfuls of crap that mildly taint their filmographies. Not sure anything can erase Jaws: The Revenge, though.

Two funny-looking dudes, two funny-looking résumés. Kingsley alternates sweeping, epic fare (Schindler’s List, Polanski’s recent Oliver Twist) with crap; Dafoe amuses himself with smaller, interesting bits (Auto Focus, Manderlay, his Dick Cheney clone in American Dreamz) and tries to fight the Weird-Guy-You-Get-When-You-Can’t-Get-Walken tag. (Sort of like Tom Berenger = Old-Sports-Guy-If-Quaid-and-Costner-Aren’t-Available.)

And finally, the two guys who seem to have satisfied themselves with having gotten their Oscar cred and settled nicey into a reasonably endearing “I don’t turn anything down” niche. How else to explain the frenetic and varied careers of two of the most chronically employed men in the industry? The last year on record that Jackson didn’t show up in anything is 1985; it’s ’84 for Walken. Walken has expressed in interviews that he would rather be doing a movie, at any given moment, than anything else. Jackson, in turn, has been quoted as saying that a movie is just a movie to him, and that “everyone who says they don’t like watching themselves in movies should just stop lying.”

And really, can there be a more satisfying explanation than that? Q.: Why make occasionally terrible films? A.: Because making films is fun. Sorta makes you wanna relax and enjoy watching Cruise trickle (or is it Trickle cruise) across the finish line, the erstwhile Lt. Col. Kilgore cheering him on.

And then, there’s always the Michael Caine approach, who reportedly said of Jaws: The Revenge: “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”


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