Can Actors Tell When They Are In A Bad Movie?

I have a very vivid memory of the first time I saw a Really Famous Actor promoting a movie in person. No, not the first time I ever saw an actor promote something in the usual way -- Jay Leno or David Letterman in careful soundbites, an Entertainment Weekly cover article -– but seeing them sitting in front of me trying to convince me their movie was awesome. It was 2006, that person was Hilary Swank, and I was a starstruck fan in Hall H at San Diego ComicCon.

Hilary SwankI don't know why this memory sticks with me, except that I was only a few rows away from her (these were the days you could still get into Hall H) and she was so bubbly and enthusiastic about The Reaping. She made the movie sound scary and fascinating, and I was very impressed with her research process. I was practically looking her in the eye, and I was utterly convinced The Reaping would be a solid horror film.

Then I saw it, and I wondered what Swank was smoking. Somehow, the idea that she'd won two Best Actress Oscars and was thus able to pretend to be really into the film didn't occur to me. It still doesn't. Sure, Swank was shockingly good as Brandon Teena but that can't possibly translate to the uncomfortable art of self-promotion? Can it? Years later, I still don't have the precise answer, but it has to be "yes." Yes, unless you are so utterly self-deluded that you're convinced that you are making high art.

Call me crazy, but I don't think that many actors and actresses are that self-deluded, or that caught up in the process. Consider the charming and heartbreaking documentary Best Worst Movie about the innocent people who were caught up in Troll 2. Amateur actors all, arguably even easier to fool, and they knew with the instinct born purely of common sense that they were caught up in something terrible.

Dig around in actor biographies, and you will find numerous quotes that sheepishly admit to taking something awful purely for the money. There's Michael Caine's charmingly self-deprecating review of Jaws IV: ""I have never seen the film, but by all accounts it was terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific." There's Sir Laurence Olivier himself waving off any idea that he's making good work in his dotage: "People ask me why I'm playing in this picture [Inchon]. The answer is simple: Money, dear boy. I'm like a vintage wine. You have to drink me quickly before I turn sour. I'm almost used up now and I can feel the end coming. That's why I'm taking money now. I've got nothing to leave my family but the money I can make from films. Nothing is beneath me if it pays well. I've earned the right to damn well grab whatever I can in the time I've got left." Fair enough, esteemed British actors of stage and screen. Fair enough. Everyone has to eat.

Jonah HexBut are consciously bad jobs always about the paycheck? What if you've gone on the record about how much of a control freak you are, and how you brought on a new director and rewrote the script and ... well, made Jonah Hex. Josh Brolin, was it a good movie? "Now that I don't have to promote it? No," said Brolin confessed to MTV. "We had an original intention and that got away from us a little bit ... I told the marketing people at Warner Bros. I said, 'I can't lie about this, so I have to look for a truism that I can go with." Truisms that included how deep Megan Fox's performance was, or that "it's not a horrible movie, and it was never a horrible movie. It was just something that I wasn't used to. It was a genre I'd never done." I'm not sure my definition of "true" and Brolin's is the same, but he's an actor, and truth is probably in the performance of good marketing as much as it was in Llewellyn Moss.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal SkullPerhaps Shia LaBeouf learned the act of unflinching honesty from Fox and Brolin, because he willingly offered himself up as a sacrifice for the horror that was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. "You get to monkey-swinging and things like that and you can blame it on the writer and you can blame it on Steven. But the actor's job is to make it come alive and make it work, and I couldn't do it. So that's my fault." To be fair, Mr. LaBeouf, I don't think it was your fault. But "things like that" sums up the iffy qualities of the film nicely. Thank you for your testimony.

And then there are the actors and actresses who seem to be bashing their film just because everyone else is. Who can forget Halle Berry gleefully accepting her Razzie award for Catwoman, and thanking Warner Bros for "putting me in a piece of sh*t"? It's one thing to acknowledge you made a bad movie, but it's another thing to put the blame on someone else. CatwomanYou read the script and stepped into the cat-shredded leather, Ms. Berry ... and who put you in Gothika or Perfect Stranger except your own darn self? And didn't you knock your part in the relatively good X-Men movies? I'm not sure you're being entirely honest with us here.

The young Mr. LaBeouf has a more canny sense of audience awareness. "I think the audience is pretty intelligent. I think they know when you've made [crap] ... And I think if you don't acknowledge it, then why do they trust you the next time you're promoting a movie?"

So yes, the actors know. They just admit it too rarely. I think we -– the hardworking and ordinary stiffs in the audience -– love to imagine that we're in on some joke the self-deluded, overpaid, dim and pretty faces aren't. They're too silly to see what we can understand so plainly: Their film is absolute crap, and they've fooled themselves into thinking its art. That's what you get when you live in Hollywood, kids. Delusion!

But come on. Actors are people, too. They need to keep their jobs. They need to eat and pay the bills. What job allows you to openly and publicly criticize it before thousands of people? Even the President of the United States has to play nice to keep his gig, and he has access to nukes. You can laugh at Brolin, brag that you knew Jonah Hex would be awful, and mock him for trying to put a happy face on it. But the next time you have to encourage someone to buy a product, agree with your boss' lousy idea, or smile through criticism, remember that everyone has to engage in damage control. Even a doctor has to occasionally lie to a patient to keep their spirits up.

And if LaBeouf, Berry, Brolin, or Caine came right out and said "The movie is awful, don't bother!", what would we think of them? We'd probably belittle them for not staying quiet, looking pretty, and doing their job. We imagine their words hurt the little people on set -– and in some way, it does, as more box office bombs mean fewer movies being made, leading to a trickle-down effect that means set decorators go hungry -– and wonder how they could be so selfish.

They know. We know. But we all have to go along with the illusion, and figure it's a small injustice in the grand scheme of things. So Gerard Butler told you The Bounty Hunter was funny. He cost you $9. He didn't kill a man. If you twist his arm, he'll probably even admit it wasn't It Happened One Night. He may even shrug, as John Malkovich shrugged 20 years after turning down GoodFellas: "It's hard to explain why you end up in Eragon and not GoodFellas." See? Malkovich knows. You think he doesn't –- that he's just too weird and intense –- but he knows the difference between Eragon and GoodFellas even on paper.

But then there's Gary Oldman's frantic insistence that Lost in Space was a brilliant and intelligent script in an interview where he openly talks crap about his profession in general. Maybe the answer is too far down the rabbit hole to even know. Perhaps Brolin, LaBeouf, and Berry were only engaging in another performance. Deep down, they still think those films are wonderful. They still buy into the smoke and mirrors of their own magic tricks ... and would movies be any fun if they didn't believe every word of the script?