The Best Performances in the Worst Oscar Bait

Many of this year’s Oscar acting nominees are notable for the giant chasm that yawns between the brilliance of their performances and the failures of the movies they’re in. Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn, Max Von Sydow in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: The reaction seems to be, “You have got to see this performance — and if you can do it without seeing the movie itself, even better!” This kind of disconnect is historically common in Oscar bait, and there’s a special kind of pathos to seeing a truly great performance undone not just by a bad movie, but by a bad movie that is so exhaustingly striving — and spectacularly failing — to hit that awards-yielding sweet spot. The phenomenon has become an awards season tradition unto itself, so, in its honor, we’ve decided to take a look back at some of our favorite performances from bad Oscar bait films of the past.

Before anyone saw it, Cry Freedom, about martyred anti-Apartheid activist Stephen Biko, briefly looked like it would be the film to beat in 1987: Apartheid was the issue du jour, and director Richard Attenborough had scored gold a few years earlier with Gandhi. But then the film came out and was revealed to be a sanctimonious, patronizing slog, one more interested in the tale of a white journalist who befriended Biko (Kevin Kline) than of the black freedom fighter the film was ostensibly about. But it did show the big-screen potential of Denzel Washington, who at that time was primarily known from his role on TV’s St. Elsewhere. As Biko, he immediately drew the audience’s interest – maybe even seduced us a little bit – with an Oscar-nominated performance that was knowing, laid back, and effortlessly charismatic.
Nicholson and Streep were the twin juggernauts of the 1980s awards scene (they had fourteen Oscar nominations and four wins between them at the time), and their appearance in this adaptation of William Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning, Depression-era tale of hard luck and love among the desperately poor was heavily anticipated; indeed, it resulted in the actors getting their ninth and seventh Oscar nominations, respectively. The final film, however, was glum, dry, and seemed strangely pointless. But the two leads somehow managed to make it worthwhile – especially Nicholson, who shed his Wild Man Jack persona from films likeThe Witches of Eastwick in favor of something much more subdued and nuanced. Both their desperation and affection shone through the actors’ performances, and only when the film was content to just sit back and let them do the hard work did it work.
Brian De Palma’s epic adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s iconic bestseller is one of the legendary Hollywood flops – it actually looked at the time like it was going to destroy both Tom Hanks’ and Bruce Willis’ careers – but it does have one terrific turn in it. While most of the cast was trying (and failing) to maintain their dignity in this over-the-top wreck, Melanie Griffith just went with the flow as Hanks’ mistress, overdoing it with genuine gusto and playing up the vampishness. If you paid attention, you could kind of see how his character might have thrown away his life for this silly sexpot.
Nolte is one of our finest actors, and this was one of his most tormented roles ever: the troubled former football coach who unearths his horrific childhood memories while becoming infatuated with his suicidal sister’s shrink, who was played by director Barbra Streisand. (Got all that?) As a director, Streisand has difficulty controlling the wild tonal shifts of her overstuffed film, which is at times a submerged character study, at times pure melodrama, and at times (and most problematically) a romance. Nolte, however, rides those very shifts bravely, putting his awesome physicality to work as much as he can. It’s one of the actor’s best performances (he was indeed nominated, and even tipped to win), in an otherwise somewhat ridiculous film, with a real doozy of a final line.
Man, Billy Crystal really, really wanted an Oscar for his directorial debut. He even tackily reminded the Academy of their snub of the film – which wasn’t even all that acclaimed – on Oscar night. The film, starring Crystal as a has-been Borscht Belt comic who always put his career first and basically destroyed his family, is wan, glacially paced, almost unpleasant. But as Crystal’s long-suffering brother and manager, David Paymer gave a quietly moving performance that showed how a lifetime of devotion to one person could waste away a soul. And he got the film’s sole nomination.
Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it seemed like every period romance based on an acclaimed novel was guaranteed a bunch of Oscar nominations (A Room with A View, Howards End, Sense and Sensibility, etc.), a lesson probably not lost on the makers of this weirdly stodgy adaptation of Edith Wharton’s slim, affecting tale of a brief, shattering affair. (The film got nothing, alas. Director John Madden would have better luck when he later helmed Shakespeare in Love.) But in the title role, Neeson is the last word in overwhelmed, plangent melancholy. He should have starred in more romances.
This drama about an aspiring musician who takes a job teaching high school and winds up watching his life pass by while inspiring generations of students was the ultimate in cloying, tear-jerking shamelessness. But Dreyfuss’s enormously affecting performance was surprisingly understated, hitting all the right notes in admirably subtle ways – an ideal way to portray a quiet soul who changes others’ lives without even realizing it. In recognition, the actor was nominated for an Oscar – his first since his 1978 win for The Goodbye Girl.
In retrospect, perhaps Clint Eastwood wasn’t the ideal choice to direct this languorous, Southern Gothic comedy-drama-mystery about a flamboyant, rich, gay antiques dealer accused of murder. Forget Oscars; the film, based on John Berendts’s ubiquitous best-seller, flopped mightily. But somewhere in that mess was Spacey’s engaging, pitch-perfect turn as the aforementioned suspect. With his well-calibrated Southern drawl, smooth mannerisms, and genteel demeanor, Spacey exuded charm, mystery, and menace – qualities the film otherwise lacked.
Director Wes Craven had always wanted to branch out from the horror genre, and he did with this wannabe inspirational drama featuring Streep as a divorced mom who starts teaching violin in a Harlem elementary school. Streep brought her usual intelligence to the role, and her sassy yet vulnerable performance works. (She got her 12th nomination for the part; BTW, she’s had five more nominations since then.) But alas, Craven did away with everything that made him such a unique director, scrubbing his movie clean of his usual playfulness and visual inventiveness. So we wound up with another saggy, sappy melodrama with a sterling performance at its center.
Rob Marshall’s lavish, perhaps even garish, follow-up to Chicago – produced by Steven Spielberg and based on the acclaimed book by Arthur Golden and full of elaborate period recreations – was expected to be a major Oscar contender, but its nominations wound up being mostly technical ones. Its great cast disappeared behind opulence and clunky storytelling, but one actor made an impression: The great Ken Watanabe, who had just recently made waves (and gotten nominated) in Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai. He was both mysterious and touching as The Chairman, the older benefactor and eventual lover of the film’s protagonist, played by Zhang Ziyi. Photo: David James/?2005 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Venus seemed like a project whose entire raison d’etre was to net the then-74-year-old O’Toole an Oscar; he’d been nominated seven times without a victory, and this would indeed result in his eighth. So in that sense, this otherwise underwhelming tale of an aging actor’s infatuation with a somewhat immature, aspiring model almost succeeded. O’Toole was certainly up to the task: He lent this physically fragile master thespian both an old-world elegance and a surprising carnality. Maybe if the film had been sharper, he might have actually won that statuette. Photo: NICOLA DOVE / EYEBOX
Over-baked, over-solemn, and overlong, this troubled 2006 adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s novel about a larger-than-life populist Southern politician (modeled after Louisiana’s Huey Long) was a disaster on many levels (financially, critically, and certainly awards-wise – it got bupkis), but Penn’s fully committed lead performance wasn’t the problem. Going big with a vengeance, the actor brings a true mythic force to his role that the ham-handed film just can’t match. Photo: Kerry Hayes/?2005 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved
All Vanessa Redgrave (left, with co-star Meryl Streep) basically has to do in Evening is lie in bed and die, and it’s a measure of her achievement that she is able to move us so profoundly while doing so. The movie, to be fair, isn’t terrible – it’s made up mostly of flashbacks that Redgrave’s character has to a very brief and tragic youthful love affair back when she was Claire Danes and the object of her affection was Patrick Wilson. Wilson and Danes have relatively little chemistry, which cripples the film quite a bit. But in Redgrave’s foggy yet magical remembrances, the film comes alive. Extra tear-jerker quotient: One of Redgrave’s daughters in the film is played by her real-life daughter, the late Natasha Richardson. Photo: ? 2006 Focus Feaures. All Rights Reserved.
As Adam Stein, a German circus performer who survives the Holocaust only to land in an Israeli asylum with other disturbed survivors, Goldblum gets to do very un-Jeff-Goldblum-y things, like affect a German accent and run through a wild range of emotions. And he succeeds on almost every level. The problem is that the film can’t match him – it jumps around between emotional states, time periods, and tones, but with none of the assurance of the actor. In the end, we’re impressed with the performance, but left dizzy and confused by the film, for which nobody got any awards love.
The red, raw disappointment of Peter Jackson’s much-anticipated adaptation of Alice Sebold’s best-seller is still fresh in our minds. But we should have known that a film about a girl who is murdered by a serial killer and who then watches over her world from the afterlife was going to be a tough sell. Still, there was no denying the greatness of Tucci’s performance as said serial killer – a nervous, quietly pathetic, and creepily mustachioed menace. The film was irredeemably overblown, but by underplaying his part, Tucci showed everybody a more effective way to make this sort of material furiously compelling. For his efforts, the actor was rewarded with his first and so far only Oscar nomination (also the film’s sole nod).
The Best Performances in the Worst Oscar Bait