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6 Movies That Killed Careers
By Matt Hoffman
July 12, 2010
6 Movies That Killed Careers
© Bob Trate
An old Hollywood adage states that you’re only as good as your last picture. Even if you’re a seasoned film industry veteran with multiple beloved classics under your belt, you can become persona non grata if your latest project flops as badly as did the films on this list.
6. Showgirls (1995)- Elizabeth Berkley
If you were a young actress who had gained fame through an innocuous sitcom role that you started out in as a teenager, how would you go about getting audiences to view you as a more mature performer? One option would be to take a starring role in a film for “mature” audiences, as Elizabeth Berkley did after a stint as Jessie Spano on Saved by the Bell. In Showgirls Berkley plays a Las Vegas stripper who tries to claw her way to the top of the exotic dancing circuit. The film had a good pedigree; it was written by superstar screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and directed by Paul Verhoeven of Robocop and Basic Instinct fame. However, it also featured enough graphic sex, nudity and violence to earn an NC-17 rating, which killed its chances at theatrical success (although it later became popular on video). Critics generally hated the movie, and although they didn’t necessarily blame Berkley for its failure—Roger Ebert said her performance “has a fierce energy that’s always interesting”—her career suffered anyway. She continues to act both in movies and on television shows like The L Word and CSI: Miami, but, since Showgirls, has been seen in few high-profile roles.
5. Sorcerer (1977) – William Friedkin
Sorcerer, based on a 1950 French novel, concerns a group of social outcasts tasked with transporting nitroglycerin through South American jungles in order to put out an oil fire. If its title gave you the impression that it might have something to do with magic or the supernatural, then you can imagine how confused some of its potential audience members were, especially those who knew of director William Friedkin mainly from his previous feature, 1973’s The Exorcist. Besides a misleading title, Sorcerer also had the misfortune of hitting theaters around the same time as Star Wars, which proved to be a pretty tough competitor. Friedkin’s film, which cost around $21 million to make, ended up earning about $9 million.
Critics reacted somewhat more affectionately than the general public; Roger Ebert even called the film the ninth best of the year (just above Star Wars). Nevertheless, Friedkin (who was also responsible for the 1971 hit The French Connection) has worked on relatively minor projects ever since.
4. Gigli (2003) – Ben Affleck
After acting in a variety of supporting roles, starring in Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy (1997), and winning a screenwriting Oscar for 1997’s Good Will Hunting, Ben Affleck graduated to action hero status. He headlined big-budget films like Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, and his relationship with pop star Jennifer Lopez was a source of national gossip. Then came Gigli, an off-beat gangster comedy in which Affleck starred opposite Lopez. Unfortunately, the movie tried to be more than just a framing device for Bennifer’s cuteness; it also strung together a variety of bizarre and disorganized scenes, including a memorable one in which Affleck and Lopez debate the relative merits of penises and vaginas. Gigli currently holds a 6% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and made back only $7 million of its $54 million budget. Affleck hasn’t been given a significant lead role since, and Lopez’s career, while perhaps not as damaged, certainly didn’t benefit.
However, Affleck has put in a few acclaimed supporting performances over the past few years, and in 2007 took a seat in the director’s chair for the well-received Gone Baby Gone. Depending on how things go, the loss of his superstar credentials may end up being the best thing that ever happened to him.
3. Waterworld (1995) & The Postman (1997) – Kevin Costner
It would be difficult to find a contemporary review of the post-apocalyptic sci-fi action vehicle Waterworld that doesn’t mention the behind-the-scenes issues that dogged the production, including a budget that grew to around $175 million and reported conflicts between star Kevin Costner and director Kevin Reynolds. These horror stories ended up overshadowing the fact that the film itself did not fare too poorly; critics at least praised its action sequences, and although it performed weakly at the US box office, it ended up making a profit off of foreign ticket sales.
Unfortunately, Waterworld was followed two years later by The Postman, another post-apocalyptic epic which was directed by Costner himself and was even less well-received, both critically and commercially. Costner has still been working consistently since then (and is currently slated to reunite with Reynolds on a film called Learning Italian), but no longer appears in the kind of star showcases that were his forte in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
2. His Glorious Night (1929) – John Gilbert
By the mid-1920s John Gilbert had become one of American cinema’s biggest stars. He worked under famed directors like King Vidor, appeared opposite actresses like Greta Garbo, and was as popular as “Latin Lover” Rudolph Valentino. His career, however, could not survive the transition from the silent era to the age of “talkies.” When audiences first heard Gilbert’s voice in the melodramatic romance His Glorious Night, they responded not with passionate swoons but with derisive laughter.
In fact, this was not entirely Gilbert’s fault. Some critics praised his voice and blamed the screenplay’s overwrought dialogue for the film’s failure, and there is even a conspiracy theory stating that MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, who had a grudge against Gilbert, intentionally manipulated the movie’s audio track in order to make the actor’s voice sound high-pitched and silly. Regardless, Gilbert’s reputation never recovered. He fell into alcoholism and died in 1936. The fiasco of His Glorious Night was later used as inspiration for 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain.
1. Heaven’s Gate (1980) – Michael Cimino
In 1979 director Michael Cimino’s highly acclaimed film The Deer Hunter won five Academy Awards, including best picture. That movie’s massive critical success left Cimino with so much industry clout that his studio patron, United Artists, allowed him to do pretty much whatever he wanted with his next project. That project turned out to be Heaven’s Gate, an anti-Western about a land war in 19th-century Wyoming.
The production was plagued with problems. The shoot ran behind schedule and ballooned way over its original budget. Cimino’s original edit ran over five hours long and had to be extensively cut down. The American Humane Association also accused the filmmakers of various acts of animal cruelty, including staging actual cockfights and blowing up a horse during a battle scene. None of this would have mattered, of course, if the final product had been a critical or commercial success. It wasn’t. “New York Times” reviewer Vincent Canby called Heaven’s Gate “an unqualified disaster,” and it made back only about $3.5 million off of its $36 million budget.
From that point on Cimino was given little creative control over the few films he ended up directing, but his personal career was not the only thing affected—United Artists nearly went bankrupt and ended up being acquired by MGM. In fact, Heaven’s Gate’s big flop is sometimes identified as the moment when Hollywood studios turned against auteur filmmakers and began allowing them less control over their projects, proving that failure can influence the course of history just as surely as success.