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When good actors choose bad roles

By J. Scott Wilson, Staff writer
Published On: Jun 15 2011 09:43:59 AM CDT
Updated On: Jul 07 2014 09:40:37 AM CDT
Nicolas Cage in Ghost Rider

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Just about everyone has a favorite actor or actress, someone we'll watch in just about any film, no matter the genre. We like their style, their delivery and the indefinable qualities they bring to any role.

But sometimes our patience is tested. Sometimes, friends, our idols take roles for which they are so incredibly unsuited in films so wretchedly bad that we feel almost like we should stage an intervention.

Hopefully such roles are one-time aberrations, a single gross error in judgment that is soon shaken off and followed by a return to thespian glory. Many's the time an actor has followed a wretched role with an Oscar-worthy turn.

Then, of course ... we have Nicolas Cage. But the less said about him the better.

In the spirit of fairness, we have to start this set of five actors in unfortunate roles with one of our personal favorites who should have known her limitations ...

Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in Sweeney Todd

No. 5: Helena Bonham Carter - "Sweeney Todd"

"Sweeney Todd" is one of the great works of musical theater, combining a ripping yarn, a bloodthirsty protagonist and a healthy dose of political satire along with an outstanding score.

However, when Tim Burton took a swing at "Sweeney," he cast his darling Helena Bonham Carter as the meat pie-slinging Mrs. Lovett. She brings a daffy sort of menace to the role ... but also a tin ear on a par with the worst karaoke you've ever heard. She mangles notes, brutalizes scales and tries to do with volume what talent can't handle.

Carter, who imbues "Harry Potter's" Bellatrix Lestrange with a maniacal hatred that's musical in its intensity and perfection, quite honestly can't sing her way out of a paper bag.

Were her own Red Queen to stumble upon her warbling, Carter might find herself soon parted from her head.

Our next (dis)honoree just did his film for the title ...

Ben Affleck in Paycheck

No. 4: Ben Affleck - "Paycheck"

Ever since "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" was adapted into every sci-fi geek's favorite "Blade Runner," which at last count is available in at least 47 different versions, the works of Philip K. Dick have been rich fodder for moviemakers.

And no wonder: Dick specializes in the sort of dystopian, angst-ridden, depressing future visions that keep psychiatrists pushing out happy pills.

Ben Affleck took his turn at Dick with "Paycheck," an execrable piece of sci-fi fluff that also managed to suck in Aaron Eckhart, Uma Thurman and Paul Giamatti, all of whom should have known better.

Affleck plays a computer genius whose mind gets wiped clean occasionally to keep him from selling secrets he's learned -- and apparently to prevent any meaningful character development as well.

Our next character could have been a little LESS developed ...

Catwoman, Halle Berry

No. 3: Halle Berry - "Catwoman"

Halle Berry is a great actress. Really. Even in superhero schlock like the "X-Men" films, where she gets to play weather witch Storm, she brings an undeniable grace and talent to her roles.

Then we come to "Catwoman." The only reason we can come up with for this movie to exist is to give to the male populace the everlasting vision of Halle in the catsuit she wears as the superhero.

In the movie, Berry's character, Patience, is done in by an evil corporation and then brought back to life by a mystical cat. Patience becomes Catwoman, then wreaks vengeance on evildoers by hacking up gigantic hairballs and spitting them at supersonic speed.

That last part's not true, but trust us when we say it would have made for a more interesting movie.

Next up, a great actor's weakest try ...

Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day

No. 2: Jeff Goldblum - "Independence Day"

No one's ever going to accuse Roland Emmerich of being an artistic, sensitive or poetic filmmaker. The man behind "2012" and "The Day After Tomorrow" would clearly rather rip up the planet and kill millions than spend time on such pesky things as character development.

Most actors in his movies find themselves reduced to cookie-cutter characters or, worse, comic-book figures (Woody Harrelson in "2012").

Jeff Goldblum, a smart guy who's done some great work, meets the cookie-cutter fate in "Independence Day," playing the sort of science geek who you know from the moment he appears in the film is going to save the day. His every line is predictable, his every grimace forced and his characteristic wry humor muffled.

At times, he almost seems embarrassed to be in the film, which he should be, just like our final entry ...

John Wayne in The Conqueror

No. 1: John Wayne - "The Conqueror"

There may have never been a more identifiable actor in Hollywood history than John Wayne.

In any western or military flick, you could count on The Duke to provide the sort of standup guy whose moral fiber is exceeded only by his ability to put the hurt on bad guys.

He had the kind of talent that Hollywood wanted to use everywhere, and this attitude gave use Wayne as Genghis Khan in 1956's "The Conqueror." With an accent that was Wayne's usual drawl mashed up with what sounds like three or four "How to Sound Asian" dialect coach lessons and a makeup job that borders on self-parody, Wayne struts and fumbles through the production.

In today's more politically correct filmmaking environment, this is the sort of casting that will never happen again ... and that's a good thing.

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