Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled Unbreakable: 18 film stars impervious to box-office flops

1. Bruce Willis
All hail the Teflon don of cinematic failure. Over the course of his perhaps regrettably hyper-prolific career, Willis has appeared in some of the biggest, most notorious flops of the past few decades, golden turkeys like Sunset, Hudson Hawk, The Bonfire Of The Vanities, North, Breakfast Of Champions, The Story Of Us, and Perfect Stranger. Yet he remains one of Hollywood's biggest stars and most bankable names. It helps that Willis winks and smirks his way through many of his performances as a way of letting the audience know that he doesn't believe in the foolishness he's appearing in any more than they do.

2. George Clooney
Clooney became famous relatively late in life, on the strength of his smoldering, sensitive performance on the TV show ER, and by the time his face started getting splashed across the covers of Us and People, he'd developed a keen interest in not wanting to be embarrassed. After the well-paying debacle of Batman & Robin, Clooney made an overt retreat from blockbusters, cozying up to sympathetic auteurs like Steven Soderbergh and the Coen brothers (and some not-so-sympathetic ones, like Three Kings director David O. Russell), while cultivating a reputation as Hollywood's Gentleman Superstar. Television news pundits who oppose Clooney politically make a point of noting that his name rarely top-lines smash hits anymore, but that kind of windfall has rarely been the motivation for films like Solaris or Syriana, or Clooney's directorial efforts Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind and Good Night, And Good Luck. Clooney's picture still shows up in magazines and on entertainment shows—Fox News included—but he's now a movie star who enjoys being well-known while not much caring whether his movies are.

3. Brad Pitt
Like pal George Clooney, Pitt favors challenging roles in off-kilter fare. Also as with Clooney, those quirky projects tend to flop miserably, as have pretty much all his films from the past decade that didn't have "Ocean" or "Mr. & Mrs." in their titles. The critically revered, audience-resistant The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is the latest and most dramatic example of Pitt's propensity for high-minded flops, though it's hard to understand how a film with a title like that could fail to draw in the masses. Even Fight Club, Pitt's defining triumph, was a sizable commercial failure upon its theatrical release, as were the less-beloved Meet Joe Black, Spy Game, The Mexican, Seven Years In Tibet, The Devil's Own, Cool World, and Kalifornia. Yet Pitt retains his superstar status in no small part because he looks the part; he's still considered big even as the grosses for his pictures shrink.

4. Nicole Kidman
Few actresses have had as catastrophic a year at the box office as Kidman in 2007, when two expensive would-be blockbusters—The Invasion and The Golden Compass—suffered mediocre reviews and piddling receipts. (Buried between the flops? Kidman's career-best performance in Margot At The Wedding, an arthouse effort with similarly modest returns.) In the years since Kidman made a movie-star impact in The Others and delivered an Oscar-winning turn in The Hours, her successes have mainly been in the minds of the critics who praised the likes of Dogville and Cold Mountain. The list of mainstream movies Kidman has appeared in since 2003 (The Stepford Wives, The Interpreter, Bewitched) is a roll call of fiscal misery, and her prestige-film fare (Birth, Fur, The Human Stain) hasn't gotten much more traction. Lately, Margot aside, Kidman's artistic and business instincts have been flawed. If Baz Luhrmann's upcoming historical epic Australia doesn't hit, she may soon be reduced to living off Keith Urban's money.

5. John Travolta
Travolta's career has risen from the grave more times than a slasher-movie villain. By all rights, Travolta's post-Pulp Fiction comeback should have died following the historic disaster of Battlefield Earth, but after a punishing, flop-laden decade, this preternaturally resilient man-animal rebounded big time with big, flashy, embarrassing roles in two of last year's biggest sleeper hits: Hairspray (which really isn't so bad, once you take Travolta's bizarre stunt turn out of the equation) and Wild Hogs. No mere mortal should be capable of withstanding so many flops, yet Travolta's career is never quite down for the count. Let's face it: If you can survive Moment By Moment, Two Of A Kind, The Experts, Perfect, Mad City, Lucky Numbers, Battlefield Earth, A Love Song For Bobby Long, and Lonely Hearts, you can survive just about anything, up to and including a thermonuclear war and several zombie/robot resurrections.

6. Matthew McConaughey
The entertainment media is slow to admit a mistake, so the magazines that declared drawling Texan McConaughey the "star of the future" back in 1996 are partly to blame for a decade's worth of distractingly one-note performances, often in direct conflict with the tone and style of what's going on around them. To be fair, the public has also had a hand in McConaughey's stardom, by goosing flabby romantic comedies like The Wedding Planner and Failure To Launch to unexpected box-office success. But those same audiences haven't followed McConaughey to rugged action fare like Sahara or Reign Of Fire, even though his physical build and laconic personality is better suited to rakish-adventurer roles than emotionally complex love-interest parts. So McConaughey seems doomed to a career full of impossible choices: keep on doing what he's bad at, or risk disappointing the people who pony up the dough.

7. Angelina Jolie
A little tabloid sizzle was good enough to make a hit out of Jolie's 2005 action-comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith, but that was Jolie's first "big" movie to really pay off since the first Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movie in 2001. Otherwise, her '00s have been spent heading down the road toward becoming famous for being famous. In spite of high-profile appearances in Alexander and Beowulf, and well-meaning prestige efforts like Beyond Borders and A Mighty Heart, Jolie is less a movie star now than a daytime-TV celebrity. Her main problem may be overexposure: Why would anyone pay to see her on the big screen when her romantic travails, mothering adventures, and political perspectives constantly clutter up the small one?

8. Nicolas Cage
Cage's current showing at the box office in National Treasure 2 not only stands as proof that he hasn't been dragged down into unemployment by his many flops, it's an object lesson in why. While a large percentage of his films over the past dozen years or so have been moderate-to-catastrophic financial failures—for instance,Next, The Weather Man, The Wicker Man, Lord Of War, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Windtalkers, Bringing Out The Dead, and Snake Eyes—he still manages to pull off a National Treasure or a (gulp) Ghost Rider every now and then, reminding Hollywood of the massive payoffs of his back-to-back '90s hits, Leaving Las Vegas, Con Air, The Rock, and Face/Off. Still, he's established a pretty clear track record at this point. He makes money in big, dumb action films, and loses it everywhere else. Looking at the bottom line, it's hard to understand why Hollywood keeps trying to plug him into quirky, personality-driven fare, especially since as an actor, he generally just has the one personality to offer.

9. Keanu Reeves
And speaking of one-note acting, Reeves had the great fortune to start out his career with a handful of films that made his limited range, from blank affability to blank rigidity, look like carefully crafted acting: His roles in River's Edge, Dangerous Liaisons, the Bill & Ted movies, Parenthood, and My Own Private Idaho all pinpointed appropriate aspects of his little-changing affect so cleverly that it looked like he had range. By the time films like Dracula, Much Ado About Nothing, Johnny Mnemonic, and A Walk In The Clouds proved otherwise, it was too late—he already had a juggernaut career. And the success of The Matrix sealed the deal. Not even theatrical flops like The Watcher, Sweet November, Thumbsucker, Constantine, A Scanner Darkly, and even The Matrix Revolutions have been able to stop him from getting work, even though the closest thing he's had to a hit lately was the so-so 2006 love story The Lake House. Coming later this year: Reeves as Klaatu in a remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still. No, seriously, we aren't kidding even a little bit.

10. Hilary Swank
Having two Oscars in the can will buy anyone's floundering career a stay of execution, but apart from committed, powerful performances in Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby, Swank has a résumé spottier than a leopard with severe acne. Remember The Affair Of The Necklace, a period piece from the co-director of the Father Of The Bride remakes? No? How about The Core, a sub-Armageddon knock-off about the burbling apocalypse under our feet? Speaking of apocalypse, there's also Swank's blinkered turn in The Reaping, a horror film about 10 biblical plagues that's the most hilariously batshit movie of its kind since Demi Moore in The Seventh Sign. Swank also looked conspicuously out of place as a mysterious sex kitten in The Black Dahlia, and she hooked up twice with writer-director Richard LaGravenese, first with the well-meaning treacle Freedom Writers, and recently with P.S. I Love You, which found her character getting romantically stalked from beyond the grave.

11. Jessica Alba
If star status were based only on "world's hottest chicks!" lists, Jessica Alba would be bigger than Jesus. But her cinematic résumé isn't nearly as sexy. Supporting roles in decent-sized hits like Sin City and the Fantastic Four movies keep her from being a total box-office washout, but the bulk of her oeuvre is made up of non-starter romantic comedies and horror movies like 2007's toxic tandem Good Luck Chuck and Awake. And upcoming projects like The Eye (yet another forgettable-looking remake of a Hong Kong horror flick) and the Mike Myers vehicle The Love Guru indicate Alba is in no hurry to pursue a prestige project showing she can, you know, act. But since youth and beauty last forever, Alba obviously has nothing to worry about.

12. Sandra Bullock
Bullock won filmgoers' hearts with Speed, While You Were Sleeping, and the Miss Congeniality movies, then tested their patience with flops like Two If By Sea, Gun Shy, Speed 2, Forces Of Nature, and Murder By Numbers. Yet she remains a big box-office attraction, commanding huge salaries ($15 million for Murder By Numbers) and regularly headlining big studio movies. Bullock wisely segued into character-actor roles as her box-office power steadily waned, with supporting parts in movies like Crash and Infamous, but it'll be interesting to see if she can hold onto her superstar status once she hits the far side of her 40s and ages out of romantic-comedy leads. If nothing else, there's always Speed 3.

13. Samuel L. Jackson
On the other hand, Samuel L. Jackson's career didn't take off until he was well into his 40s. He seems intent on making up for lost time by ascribing to the Christopher Walken school of accepting any role offered him, no matter how ridiculous or undignified. Since his Jungle Fever breakthrough, Jackson has appeared in a punishing gauntlet of flops like The Long Kiss Goodnight, 187, Sphere, Rules Of Engagement, Formula 51, Twisted, In My Country (a.k.a. Country Of My Skull), The Man, Snakes On A Plane, and Home Of The Brave. Then again, Jackson's cult fan base seldom holds him responsible for his bad/failed movies, and a Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, or Negotiator every couple of years goes an awfully long way toward winning back fans' hearts.

14. Jennifer Aniston
Romantic comedies are the grist fueling the Hollywood machine, so Jennifer Aniston's star status is hardly a mystery. But while the public adored Aniston playing the "will they or won't they?" game with Ross on Friends—as well as the real-life romantic comedy that was her love triangle with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie—hearts didn't exactly swoon over the likes of Friends With Money, Along Came Polly, and Rumor Has It… Her 2006 effort The Break-Up grossed $118 million, but that was largely due to publicity over her behind-the-scenes affair with Vince Vaughn, showing once again that Aniston might be a bigger hit playing romantic leads in the tabloids than on screen.

15. Halle Berry
Halle Berry's place in movie history is secure as the first African-American to win a Best Actress Oscar. But she's aggressively attempted to wipe away any of her lingering star power since her overrated award-baiting performance in 2001's Monster's Ball. Still, even after undistinguished failures like Gothika, Catwoman, and last year's perfectly crappy thriller Perfect Stranger, Berry's status as a bankable female star remains strangely, stubbornly intact. A lead role in an upcoming John Singleton drama about a Texas attorney working to exonerate a group of wrongly convicted drug dealers looks promising, but at this point, it hardly seems necessary for Berry to do quality (or even commercially successful) work to sustain her career.

16. Scarlett Johansson
Perhaps no single film has done more for an actor's career in recent years than what Lost In Translation did for Scarlett Johansson. Blessed with sensual beauty and (at least the appearance of) wisdom and depth beyond her years, Johansson looked, walked, and talked like a natural-born movie star in Sofia Coppola's critically-adored second directorial effort. Five years later, Johansson still reaps the benefits of her star-making turn, even though she rarely performs like a movie star at the box office. She's made some good movies—most notably Match Point and The Prestige—but they're outnumbered by out-and-out disasters like The Island, The Black Dahlia, and A Love Song For Bobby Long. Last year's The Nanny Diaries was another disappointment.

17. Mandy Moore
It should be said upfront that Moore is an appealing screen presence, with more commitment to the craft than most of her would-be pop-star crossover contemporaries. And yet that appeal has never quite translated into a film anyone would want to watch. Save for A Walk To Remember, a gooey Christian-themed redux of the already-gooey-enough Love Story, Moore hasn't appeared in a single successful movie, yet her star seems perpetually on the rise. In some cases, she acquits herself in unworthy films, usually by making her natural buoyancy seem diabolical: as a fanatical Christian in the strident indie comedy Saved! or as an opportunistic reality-show contestant in the dismal satire American Dreamz. But Moore seems intent on becoming the next Meg Ryan, and her efforts on this front have met with ignominious failure, from her 'tween turn as the President's daughter in Chasing Liberty to the back-to-back 2007 rom-com flops Because I Said So and License To Wed. And with her blink-or-you'll-miss-it turn in Richard Kelly's already-infamous science-fiction comedy Southland Tales, she pulled off a 2007 stinkeroo trifecta.

18. Josh Hartnett
As the lithe-framed object of desire in 1999's The Virgin Suicides, Hartnett must have looked like a certain up-and-coming star, with a face destined to fill young girls' journals with heart-shaped stickers. Though there turned out to be perilously little beyond those hooded eyes, Harnett has never been in want of major roles in major bombs. After stopping by for a bit part in the notorious $90 million comedy Town & Country, Hartnett moved on to play one corner of Pearl Harbor's anemic love triangle, opposite Ben Affleck (who finally lost his flop imperviousness with the career-killing Gigli) and Kate Beckinsale. The long-delayed O, an updated Othello for teenagers, finally used Hartnett's enigmatic woodenness to decent effect, but he's proven himself incapable of carrying an entire movie—or, in the case, of the cop comedy Hollywood Homicide, half a movie—on his limited charisma. Remarkably, 40 Days And 40 Nights kept the Hartnett dream alive even though nobody liked it, but subsequent star vehicles like Wicker Park and the unfortunately titled Lucky Number Slevin haven't succeeded. And then there's The Black Dahlia, which co-starred fellow listmakers Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank, thus making it the Bermuda Triangle of flops its actors will survive.

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