Eddie Murphy in Norbit

An Oscar can be an actor’s portal to fame, fortune, and eternal credibility. But it can also be a prelude to embarrassment, especially if said actor has already filmed some sketchy projects that hit theaters—not coincidentally—right around Oscar season. It’s a recurring Hollywood phenomenon that juxtaposes actors’ best work against some of their worst.

1. Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls and Norbit

Regardless of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s oft-quoted line about there being no second acts in American lives—which comes from a novel about Hollywood, no less—the film industry loves a good comeback story. For every Matthew McConaughey or mid-’90s John Travolta, though, there are a dozen has-beens who seem poised to reinvent themselves but fail to complete the turnaround. Arguably, no star has appeared more ripe for a comeback than Eddie Murphy. The gifted, energetic actor and stand-up—one of the most magnetic performers to come out of the ’80s—has spent what’s now the bulk of his career making sloppy big-budget, high-concept comedies and voicing a donkey in assorted Shrek sequels and spin-offs. His Best Supporting Oscar nomination for Dreamgirls was one of the big, forgotten media stories of early 2007—the first possible sign of a creative and critical resurgence. Then Norbit—in which Murphy played a henpecked nerd, his morbidly obese wife, and, um, a Chinese orphanage proprietor—hit theaters a couple of weeks before the Oscars. (Believe it or not, Norbit received an Oscar nomination, too—for Best Makeup.) Murphy then made another Shrek sequel and spin-off short, plus two more movies with Norbit director Brian Robbins (Meet Dave and Imagine That). And now, years later, the idea that Murphy would want to do anything with his talent other than squander it seems like a pipe dream. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

2. Bill Murray, Lost In Translation and Garfield

Beginning with his role in 1998’s Rushmore, Bill Murray reinvented himself as a sad-eyed, tragicomic character actor—a career revival that led to his 2004 Best Actor nomination for Lost In Translation. But though the last decade has seen him mostly working with large ensemble casts, often with Rushmore director Wes Anderson, there has been one glaring outlier—the kind of movie that ought to have been beneath the purview of modern-day Bill Murray. That movie was the part-live-action Garfield, a thoroughly crappy adaptation of the long-running comic strip, with Murray as the voice of the lasagna-loving cat (and a theme song by the Baha Men of “Who Let The Dogs Out?” fame). The movie—released four months after 2004’s Oscars—has become a key part of its star’s folk-hero-sized personal mythos, with Murray claiming that the only reason he signed on was because he thought that it was co-written by Joel Coen. (It was actually co-written by Joel Cohen, with an “h”—screenwriter of Cheaper By The Dozen, Daddy Day Camp, and, once upon a time, Toy Story.) As showbiz anecdotes goes, it’s a good one, though it doesn’t explain why Murray went on to star in a sequel, Garfield: A Tale Of Two Kitties, two years later. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Advertisement

3. Eddie Redmayne, The Theory Of Everything and Jupiter Ascending

Eddie Redmayne is getting his due props for his nuanced portrayal of Stephen Hawking in James Marsh’s The Theory Of Everything, and he has been an Oscar frontrunner since the movie was released at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. While receiving the most attention and some of the highest accolades of his career, Redmayne is also enduring some of his worst reviews for his performance as villain Balem Abrasax in the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending. Throughout the film, viewers find Redmayne either indulging in a throaty whisper or spasming in rage-filled screams that are too giggle-inducing to credibly burst forth from Abrasax—a guy whose mission in life is to rape and pillage planetary resources to keep himself young and fresh. [Molly Eichel]

Advertisement

4. Julianne Moore, Still Alice and Seventh Son

The best thing that can be said about five-time Oscar nominee Julianne Moore’s role in Seventh Son: At least she doesn’t do an English accent. (No one in the movie does—not even the many English members of the cast—which is odd, considering that it’s an adaptation of an English novel set in a fantastic version of medieval England.) Unlike star Jeff Bridges—who fully, bizarrely commits to his role as an aging witch-hunter—Moore doesn’t put much effort into her performance, opting instead to evoke generic sinister sultriness while wearing what looks to be the most expensive Sexy Witch costume at the local Halloween store. After two years of delays, the movie finally hit American theaters this February, not long after Moore’s Oscar nomination for Still Alice, a modest drama that’s as driven by Moore’s presence as Seventh Son is indifferent to it. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Advertisement

5. J.K. Simmons, Whiplash and The Rewrite

J.K. Simmons, the veteran character actor and J. Jonah Jameson of everyone’s hearts, is the favorite to win this year’s Best Supporting Actor award for his exceptional work in Whiplash. It’s his first Oscar nomination after decades in movies and television—and getting high-profile awards recognition while working as a character actor virtually guarantees that the prestige film will be chased by something less impressive. For Simmons, who appeared in half a dozen 2014 movies (and has nearly that many on deck for 2015), that chaser is The Rewrite. This Hugh Grant/Marisa Tomei semi-romantic comedy casts Simmons in a supporting role as Grant’s English department head at Binghamton University. Simmons, a formidable comic actor in the right setting, is reduced to doing lame shtick about how he’s the only man in a family full of women. Then another layer of shtick emerges when it turns out he’s a secret softie who loves his girls. The Rewrite’s wan college shenanigans are a far cry from the uncompromising educational intensity of Whiplash—but the mainstream-friendly Grant film appears to be receiving an even smaller release than Whiplash. [Jesse Hassenger]

Advertisement

6. Dustin Hoffman, Wag The Dog and Sphere

It took just under a decade for Dustin Hoffman to follow his Best Actor win for Rain Man with another nomination, this time in Wag The Dog, a political satire that reteamed him with director Barry Levinson. As Wag The Dog rolled into wide release in January 1998, Levinson and Hoffman already had another project on deck: Sphere, a big-budget adaptation of a Michael Crichton novel. The latter film came out three days after Oscar nominations were announced, and despite a stacked cast that featured Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson, and Sharon Stone, Sphere was an inert exercise in sci-fi hokum. Wag The Dog showed that a ’70s movie star could still do playful, energized work; Sphere showed that sloppy big-studio filmmaking could still make veteran actors look strangely unqualified. As terrible as Sphere is, Hoffman had the film to thank, in a way, for his nomination: Wag The Dog was shot during a pre-production delay on Sphere that ensued after Warner Brothers required the filmmakers to cut $20 million from its budget. To Warner’s credit, the studio also financed Wag The Dog—which wound up outgrossing Sphere, too. Everybody wins? [Jesse Hassenger]

Advertisement

7. Viola Davis, Doubt and Madea Goes To Jail

Two-time Oscar nominee Viola Davis has such an authoritative screen presence that it’s easy to forget she was largely unknown until she was well into her 40s. Davis was a Tony winner whose screen resumé consisted of cop and lawyer shows and bottom-of-the-credits roles in big-budget movies. Then came her Oscar-nominated role in 2008’s Doubt, a movie in which she has all of two scenes, one of them non-speaking. Doubt helped establish Davis an as in-demand (and always welcome) film actor, but not before a reminder of her jobbing past popped into theaters. Madea Goes To Jail—one of the more palatable entries in Tyler Perry’s cycle of vaudevillian drag family melodramas—came out two days before the Oscars. Davis is billed ninth, playing a prison counselor. She’s good in it, because she’s Viola Davis. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Advertisement

8. Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables and Movie 43

Admittedly, Hugh Jackman has never given the impression that he takes himself seriously. The singing, dancing, game star of a superhero franchise has a self-deprecating streak, and he appears to get a kick out of doing skits and jokey cameos. Still, that doesn’t explain his (or anyone else’s) participation in Movie 43, a godawful collection of lame one-joke sketches featuring a mind-boggling cast of great actors—many of them Oscar nominees, some of them winners—that hit theaters soon after Jackman’s Best Actor nomination for Les Miserables was announced in 2013. Jackman stars in the opening segment as a man with a pair of testicles growing out of his neck, and Best Actress winner Kate Winslet plays his date. The film somehow gets worse from there, with Richard Gere as the head of a company that produces penis-mangling MP3 player/sex dolls, Gerard Butler as a leprechaun, and Chris Pratt as a man whose girlfriend (Anna Faris) won’t accept his marriage proposal until he shits on her chest. Anyone who makes it to the final segment—starring then-four-time nominee Julianne Moore and directed by Bob Odenkirk—deserves a statuette of their own. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Advertisement

9. Anthony Hopkins, The Silence Of The Lambs and Freejack

Before starring in 1991’s The Silence Of The Lambs, Anthony Hopkins had a career like many other respected, hard-working, classically trained British actors of his generation—bouncing between the stage, arthouse films, high-toned TV movies, and character parts in Hollywood genre pictures. Post-Silence, Hopkins spent the ’90s mostly starring in prestige projects and blockbusters. But before he leveled up, Hopkins made the mid-budget time-travel adventure Freejack, which came out in January 1992, in the thick of awards season. Set in the dystopian future of 2009, Freejack stars Emilio Estevez as a race-car driver yanked from the 1990s to the 2000s so that his body can provide a vessel for the consciousness of a rich, recently deceased gentleman, played by Hopkins. The bad reviews and weak box office didn’t keep the Academy from nominating Hopkins for Best Actor one month later, and giving him the award a month after that. But then Hopkins barely appears in Freejack anyway, only showing up periodically as a flickering hologram or a face on a video screen—almost literally phoning in his performance. [Noel Murray]

Advertisement

10-11. James Franco and Natalie Portman, 127 Hours, Black Swan, and Your Highness

James Franco has always liked to balance his more artistic projects with dopey comedies, while Natalie Portman has done well over the years by undercutting her “serious actress” reputation, as she did with her raunchy rap on Saturday Night Live. Still, if they had it to do over again, both of them would probably rethink starring in the 2011 Danny McBride/David Gordon Green medieval stoner fantasy Your Highness, which came out two months after an Oscar ceremony in which Portman won Best Actress for Black Swan and Franco just missed winning Best Actor for 127 Hours. (Franco also hosted that year’s Oscar ceremony, which is something else he might reconsider now.) Portman actually acquits herself well in Your Highness, playing a foul-mouthed warrior, but Franco looks lost playing the handsome straight man to McBride’s lazy oaf. The movie as a whole is so slack that it would stall anyone’s career momentum—even a couple of Academy darlings. [Noel Murray]

Advertisement

12. Louis Gossett Jr., An Officer And A Gentleman and Jaws 3-D

To be fair to Louis Gossett Jr., Hollywood hasn’t always been a great place for black actors to find meaningful work—not even for Broadway veterans with an Emmy (Roots) and an Oscar (An Officer And A Gentleman) on their resumés. A few months after Officer became one of the biggest movies of 1982, Gossett was playing the guardian to a teenage superhero on the execrable NBC TV series The Powers Of Matthew Star. And after becoming the first African-American Best Supporting Actor winner in April 1983, Gossett next appeared on the big screen as a greedy SeaWorld manager in Jaws 3-D. Gossett’s character in the third Jaws eventually shows flashes of heroism, but not enough to remind anyone of the multifaceted drill sergeant he’d played one year earlier. [Noel Murray]

Advertisement