20 Great Performances in Rotten Movies

The best actors commit 100% to every role they take on, and sometimes, they're the only thing worth remembering in an otherwise forgettable film.

by | July 24, 2020 | Comments

As a lot of folks in Hollywood will tell you, nobody signs on to a movie thinking it’s going to be bad. Sometimes, though, due to any number of reasons, things just don’t line up the way everyone thought they would, and you end up with a stinker. That said, actors who are consummate professionals will always put forth maximum effort into any role they accept, and every once in a while, it results in a memorable performance in an otherwise forgettable film. We’re here to celebrate those performances and make sure these talented actors’ efforts don’t go unrecognized, even if the movies surrounding them were mostly dismissed.

Jasmine Guy in Harlem Nights (1989) 21%

Jasmine Guy in Harlem Nights
(Photo by Paramount Pictures)

In 1987, five years after the success of Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle, studios were looking to capitalize on Black content, and fresh off the success of Beverly Hills Cop, Paramount gave Eddie Murphy a few million dollars to make his passion project. Casting his comedy idols in a minority-led Cotton Club-style crime-comedy, Murphy made a film that was hilarious and stylish. Still, critics savaged the effort as a vanity project with no plot and little substance. The film did boast dazzling costumes, the best of which were worn by Jasmine Guy as she played the femme fatale Dominique La Rue. Primarily known for her comedic role as the southern daddy’s girl Whitley Gilbert on the Cosby Show spinoff A Different World, Guy showed she could bring the goods as the seductive and deadly mistress of the local mob boss. In between the laughs that Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, and Della Reece provided, La Rue was a welcome, well-acted change of pace; it’s a shame that Murphy’s script rarely rose to the level of her performance.

Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn in Death Becomes Her (1992) 54%

Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn in Death Becomes Her
(Photo by Universal Pictures)

Look, we can barely believe Robert Zemeckis’ dark and hilarious 103-minute catfight is Rotten on the Tomatometer, either. But at the time of release, critics were underwhelmed by what they saw as pretty ineffective satire, even as they praised the movie’s innovative special effects – “There’s a hole in my stomach!” – and the two women to whom they were generously applied. As long-time rivals and youth-obsessed divas Madeline Ashton and Helen Sharp, Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn are fabulous monstrosities, all daytime-soap stares and Disney-witch snarls. Their work is big – huge, really – but always grounded in a deep sadness that flavors this showcase for pre-Jurassic Park Industrial Light and Magic with a compelling dose of tragedy.

Bette Midler in Hocus Pocus (1993) 38%

Bette Midler in Hocus Pocus
(Photo by Buena Vista courtesy Everett Collection)

All three Sanderson sisters in Hocus Pocus probably deserve to be on this list: Sarah Jessica Parker brings great sensuality to what could have been a throwaway role and Kathy Najimy is an incomparable doof. But we’re singling out Midler because, in a film where no corner of scenery goes un-munched-upon, it’s Midler as lead witch Winifred who goes home with the fullest belly. Flaming red hair high and front teeth comically bucked, she delivers a huge performance, hilarious and nasty all at once, her expressions destined to be enshrined forever by nostalgic millennials in the galleries if giphy. Everyone is good in this movie, true, but we don’t know whether fans would still be clamoring for a sequel without Midler’s iconic performance of “I Put A Spell On You.”

Raul Julia in Street Fighter (1994) 10%

Raul Julia in Street Fighter
(Photo by Universal Pictures)

Nothing ever goes exactly as planned on a movie shoot, but Street Fighter’s journey to infamy was besotted with one catastrophe after another. The lead star was a coked-up, unreliable diva. A military coup in Thailand shut down road access. None of the actors were getting martial arts training, and were losing weight in the Southeast Asia humidity. And Raul Julia, who played the psychotic M. Bison, showed up withered and frail, besieged by stomach cancer treatment. Yet, the latter proved to be Street Fighter’s most enduring asset, as Julia laid it all on the line for his final role. Julia’s performance is big, unguarded, and wild, but with the good taste to stop short of chewing the scenery. You don’t laugh at what he’s created here, you actually cheer on this kind of menace, as Julia scissor kicks the movie up a notch with goofy, infectious energy.

Angelina Jolie in Hackers (1995) 33%

Angelina Jolie in Hackers
(Photo by Everett Collection)

Angelina Jolie is no stranger to being the very-good-thing in a not-very-good movie: Think Gone In 60 Seconds, the Tomb Raider movies, or even the flick that won her an Oscar, Girl, Interrupted, which is – surprisingly for some – Rotten at 54% on the Tomatometer. In Hackers, the ahead-of-its-time 1995 techno thriller released the same year as The Net and Johnny Mnemonic, Jolie showed exactly why she would become a mega star. Her high school hacker Kate commands the screen, thanks to Jolie’s committed performance and the signature screen charisma that has kept people ponying up to see her in movies, good, bad, and Rotten as hell. Interestingly, Jolie beat out the likes of Hilary Swank and Liv Tyler for the Hackers role – only her second big-screen job.

Gina Gershon in Showgirls (1995) 21%

Gina Gershon in Showgirls
(Photo by United Artists courtesy Everett Collection)

Showgirls’ reputation may be on an upswing with its newfound status as a cult-classic queer favorite, and the documentary You Don’t Nomi detailing how the movie came to this point, but one thing the world has always agreed on – even as the film collected six Razzies following its release and became a global punchline – is that Gina Gershon is brilliant as coke-sniffing meanie Cristal Connors. If you’ve got a favorite Showgirls line – from “I like nice t–s” to “I used to love doggy chow” – chances are Cristal snarled it.

Jim Carrey in Batman Forever (1995) 39%

Jim Carrey in Batman Forever
(Photo by Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection)

Actors can come to set, nail their lines, and, if they have a little something extra, help pull better performances from the cast around them. As the Riddler in Batman Forever, Jim Carrey achieved this with Tommy Lee Jones, who offered an uncharacteristically unhinged take on Two-Face. Jones also reportedly detested Carrey. This alleged animosity actually underscored the tenuous alliance formed by the two villains, as Jones worked to keep up with Carrey’s manic hopping and shrill flights into delusional grandeur. Ironically, it was the latter who gave the dual performance in Forever; Two-Face is Two-Face the entire movie, but Carrey had to first build the pathetic, sympathetic Edward Nygma, a sad wretch whose tragic end would give rise to the question-baiting, green-spandexed loon. It was another showcase for Carrey’s knack for merging comedy and drama, first glimpsed in Dumb & Dumber and The Mask, and soon to bloom in full with The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Phil Hartman in Jingle All the Way (1996) 15%

Phil Hartman in Jingle All the Way
(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

Jingle All the Way is both worse than you think and better than your remember. The first two acts achieve moments of genuine charm and amusement from its gag-based physical comedy, as Arnold Schwarzenegger embarks on his increasingly absurd trek to find an action figure for his son on Christmas Eve. Then it hits the breaking point in a forced action finale with poor effects. But who’s rock-solid throughout the movie? Phil Hartman, who plays Schwarzenegger’s neighbor and a local soccer mom-seducer, a skeevy suburban Lothario who’s got the hots for Arnie’s wife. Jingle’s most famous line (“Put the cookie down, now!”) wouldn’t have become a meme if it wasn’t cut against Hartman’s inappropriately orgasmic consumption of said cookie. And Hartman’s delivery of the line “You can’t bench-press your way out of this one!” is so underrated; he was the only one who could cut through the farce of putting Schwarzenegger in a family comedy where everyone pretends everything’s totally normal.

Robin Williams in Patch Adams (1998) 22%

Robin Williams in Patch Adams
(Photo by Everett Collection)

Director Tom Shadyac followed up the Certified Fresh Jim Carrey vehicle Liar, Liar by partnering with another comic genius for Patch Adams, the true story of an unconventional medical student dedicated to treating the whole patient, not just the disease. Usually with clown routines. The movie has rightly been slapped around for its manipulative sentimentality – Shadyac does everything but squeeze lemons into the audience’s eyes to “earn” the movie’s many tears  – but at its heart is a frenzied, moving, and wholly committed performance from Robin Williams, near the beginning of a streak of sentimental ’90s roles that included What Dreams May Come and Bicentennial Man. His work was called out for being a bit “much” at the time, but for those missing the late Williams’ energy and that rare ability to have us chortling through our tears, it’s frankly a feast.

Ewan McGregor in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999) 52%

Ewan McGregor in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
(Photo by Everett Collection)

The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy has undergone something of a reappraisal in recent years, at least by fans who remember Episodes III, and III fondly, but the fact remains that The Phantom Menace is one of the worst-received entries in the saga, due to a plodding story, stiff acting, and at least one character who rubbed audiences in every wrong way. For his part, Liam Neeson brought the requisite gravitas to play Jedi mentor Qui-Gon Jinn, but it was his padawan, a young Obi-Wan Kenobi played by Ewan McGregor, who stole the show and became an instant fan-favorite. Although McGregor would truly blossom in the role over the next two films, this is where he established himself as one of the saga’s most reliable anchors, giving fans a reason to stay with the franchise despite The Phantom Menace’s shortcomings. Hell, one look at our recent Star Wars showdown bracket is all you need to see how influential his work was.

Parker Posey in Scream 3 (2000) 39%

Parker Posey in Scream 3
(Photo by Dimension Films)

Scream 3 has gotten some later-in-life appreciation in the #MeToo era: As well as a wink-wink, nudge-nudge horror satire, it’s a pretty bold attack on systemic sexual abuse in Hollywood – featuring a Harvey Weinstein-style producer character… in a movie produced by the Weinsteins. It might be the most meta movie ever made, and years ahead of its time. Still, it remains the bottom of the slasher series’ offerings, with critics lashing it for leaning too hard into laughs over scares, and its 39% Tomatometer score makes it the only Rotten Scream movie to date. The highlight of the film is 1990s indie darling Parker Posey as actress Jennifer Jolie, who is cast to play Courteney Cox’s reporter, Gale Weathers, in the movie-within-the-movie, Stab 3. (We said it was meta.) Parker is nervy and hilarious as she shadows the “real” Weathers across the studio backlot, imitating her moves and line delivery, and a total scream when she gets into full breakdown mode, jittery cigarette rarely out of shot, as the bodies start piling up. You rarely believe she’s genuinely terrified at any point – when cornered by Ghostface she begins shrieking, “You can’t kill me! I’m the killer in Stab 3!” – but in this high-camp low-point for the series, she’s a treat.

Denzel Washington in Man on Fire (2004) 38%

Denzel Washington in Man on Fire
(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

Let’s be real, here: When is Denzel Washington ever not good? This wasn’t the first time he and director Tony Scott had collaborated (they did Crimson Tide in 1995), nor was it the last (they would go on to work together three more times, including Scott’s final film, Unstoppable), but it was the relentless violent streak and punishing run time that made Man on Fire the least of their collaborations. That said, Scott and Washington clearly had an understanding, and even when the final product as a whole failed to deliver, Denzel was always reliably irresistible. As a vigilante out for revenge, he’s all bile and gritted teeth, and he seems to pull a shocking sadistic streak from somewhere deep within. He’s so compelling that you can’t help but root for him, even when he’s doing the absolute dirtiest of dirty work.

Tobin Bell in the Saw Franchise

Tobin Bell in Saw VI
(Photo by Steve Wilkie/©Lions Gate courtesy Everett Collection)

Jigsaw is a rare breed in the horror villain world: He was human. Nobody seemed able to stop him, yet there was nothing supernatural about the monster — he couldn’t take an axe to the head or survive a house fire. What Jigsaw did have was a wonderfully warped sense of justice, drawers full of blueprints for death-dealing traps, a lot of time apparently, and Tobin Bell’s chilled-over performances to bring the guy to cinematic life. The simple, menacing purr of Jigsaw’s “I want to play a game…” by Bell was enough to send shivers down our spines, and let us know we weren’t about to break out the Parcheesi board. If anything, Bell was too good and reliable, as the Saw franchise hung on to the character well beyond his shelf life, until he became the only good thing about the later sequels.

Sung Kang in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) 36%

Sung Kang in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
(Photo by ©Universal Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

Tokyo Drift is sort of the neglected stepchild of the Fast and Furious series, a somewhat franchise-adjacent detour that takes viewers all the way to Japan and introduces a completely new cast with pretty much no connection to either of the two films that preceded it. It didn’t help that the star of the film was Lucas Black, whose middle name might as well be “Flat” and whose lack of presence on screen essentially doomed the project from the get-go. But if there was one bright spot in the film, it was the calm, collected, perpetually peckish Han, as played by Sung Kang. Immensely likable with a hint of mystery behind his sly smirk, Han came to represent the heart and soul of the franchise and one of its most compelling characters, so much so that fans actively campaigned (#JusticeForHan) to bring him back. Guess who shows up at the end of the trailer for F9?

Charlize Theron in Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) 49%

Charlize Theron in Snow White and the Huntsman
(Photo by Alex Bailey/©Universal Pictures)

Snow White and the Huntsman was an entirely unnecessary and borderline nonsensical retelling of the Snow White fairy tale that earned mixed reviews from critics and fans. Star Kristen Stewart, who was miscast as Snow White, gave us a heroine no one wanted to root for, and her onset affair with director Rupert Sanders overshadowed any good points the film had to offer. This was supremely unfortunate as one of the best parts of the film was Charlize Theron as the Evil Queen Ravenna, by way of Ursula from The Little Mermaid meets 101 Dalmatians’ Cruella de Vil in all the best ways. Literally dripping in gold, courtesy of her magical mirror, and wearing medieval goth couture, Theron’s Ravenna was captivating and deliciously entertaining despite acting opposite a CGI effect. It’s a testiment to Theron’s talent that she delivered such a flawless performance while playing off tennis balls on set.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Frank Miller's Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) 43%

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
(Photo by Dimension Films)

If you ever need to make a case for not waiting too long for a sequel, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For should be Exhibit A. In 2005, Sin City was a surprise hit, earning $160 million at the box office, and the popularity only grew from there. However, for a host of reasons, it took over nine years to commission a sequel, and by that time, tastes had changed; even the most ardent fans had moved on. In addition to A Dame to Kill For’s woeful timing, the new script lacked the originality and crispness of the first installment, save for one standout performance. Joseph Gordon-Levitt proved in Rian Johnson’s Brick that he was an actor tailor-made for noir, and his work here only furthers that legacy. Playing Johnny, the brash cardman, he drips bravado and determination as he risks his last dollar for revenge. Slick and stylized, he and Eva Green are the only things that hook the audience; it’s only a shame everything else pales (pun intended) in comparison.

Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending (2015) 27%

Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending
(Photo by ©Warner Bros. Pictures)

The Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending is only slightly less ambitious than Cloud Atlas, but it’s also arguably a lot goofier, with inane dialogue, baffling turns of plot, and gaudy special effects. But oh, did Eddie Redmayne ever come to play. If he was looking for a change of pace after his Oscar-winning portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, he certainly found it in the role of Balem Abrasax, the effete eldest sibling of a ruling family who speaks in sighs and whispers one moment and erupts like a banshee the next. This is scenery-chewing with style, and Redmayne digs into every line with gusto. It’s absolutely glorious to behold, and it’s quite possibly the only memorable thing about the film.

Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in Passengers (2016) 30%

Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt in Passengers
(Photo by Jaimie Trueblood/Columbia Pictures)

Passengers failed mostly due to its unfortunate and problematic premise. A mechanic in cryogenic sleep is awakened early on an 80-year trip to a colony in space. Facing the prospect of dying alone, he sabotages a fellow passenger’s pod because he thinks she’s his soulmate. By essentially dooming his lady love to a life of isolation and assuming she would fall in love with him — which she does — the film was so distasteful that critics found little to enjoy despite stellar visuals and impressively futuristic production design. Obvious problems aside, Passengers also features two standout performances from Jennifer Lawrence and Christ Pratt. Lawrence showcases the chops that won her the Oscar just four years prior, Pratt is surprisingly good in a dramatic role, and the pair have undeniable chemistry. If not for the queasy feeling you get thinking about why they are together, this could have been an adventurous sci-fi romance.

Viola Davis in Suicide Squad (2016) 27%

Viola Davis in Suicide Squad

There are a lot of things wrong with Suicide Squad, from tonal issues to paper-thin characters, dull action sequences to atrocious dialogue, and whatever Jared Leto was trying to do as the Joker. Regarding the latter, not all of the acting is bad, thankfully. Margot Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn is fun and exciting, and it earned her a solo joint (sort of) that opened earlier this year to solid reviews. But one of the unsung bright spots of the film is Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller, who initially behaves just shady enough to make you suspect her of ulterior motives and then succeeds in delivering one of the few genuine surprises in the film. She does the best she can with what she’s given and grounds the story as arguably the most interesting character, which says a lot about the antiheroic ensemble that surrounds her. There’s a reason she’s one of the very few people who are returning for James Gunn’s hopefully much better follow-up next year.

Octavia Spencer in Ma (2019) 55%

Octavia Spencer in Ma
(Photo by Anna Kooris/Universal Pictures)

Critics were fairly split on Ma, Tate Taylor’s schlocky thriller about a loner who exacts revenge on her high school tormenters by befriending – and then targeting – their own teenage children. But all agreed that whatever you thought of the gory, campy flick, Octavia Spencer delivered big time as title character. Whether tearing up the dance floor to “Kung Fu Fighting,” staring down her prey across a crowded room, or transfusing dog’s blood into a naked former high school crush – really – Spencer is hilarious, sympathetic, and completely menacing.

What are some of your favorite performances in Rotten movies? Let us know in the comments.

 Thumbnail image by Universal Pictures

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